War and Peace

War and Peace Themes

Alternative religion and the occult

Alternative religious practices make appearances throughout the novel, often as responses to social turmoil. Marya Bolkonsky hosts the itinerant people of God and even contemplates joining them. Pierre joins the Freemasons; while they are not a religious group, they incorporate religious teachings into their philosophy, and many of their stranger rituals have a religious sensibility. Finally, Julie Karagin sends Princess Marya a mystical book that was popular in Moscow at the time. In each of these cases, the characters quickly quash the threat to the established order. Marya cannot give up her family; Pierre eventually finds fulfillment outside the Masons; Marya sternly rebuffs Julie for sending the book. Nevertheless, alternative religion always lurks in the background of the novel, offering a radical escape from a frightening world. They also indicate at times (especially in Pierre's case) the desperation to find fulfillment in the world, a world where established Christianity does not always seem to produce positive results. The novel's final lesson - that a simple faith in God is the path to fulfillment - is itself an individual response to the world, and can be discussed as an alternative to the more ritualized church.


Forgiveness is essential to each of the major characters' moral development. Prince Andrei forgives Natasha for her indiscretions; Pierre forgives Dolokhov and refrains from killing him in their duel; Natasha forgives Anatole Kuragin when she prays in church; Marya forgives her father for his senile cruelty. In fact, many of the minor characters stay minor and static precisely because of their inability to forgive. Countess Rostov is destroyed by her grief and resentment following Pyotr's death, and Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky never forgives his daughter for a whole litany of slights, real and imagined.


War provides Tolstoy with an opportunity to explore the good and the bad sides of patriotism. In a moving scene near the end of the novel, Tsar Alexander is willing to die to preserve any shred of dignity and safety for his people. However the tsar is also responsible for ordering the Russians to pursue the fleeing French, a patriotic decision that is tactically unsound and costs his people more lives. Additionally, Nikolai Rostov's attitude towards war illustrates the more problematic aspects of patriotism. He is too overcome with emotion during political debates with Pierre, he tends to glorify violence, and when he sees the tsar, he is unable to think critically. Tolstoy seems to believe that patriotism in the spirit of self-sacrifice is noble, but patriotism for the sake of romance and glory only leads to violence and death.

Marriage for love versus marriage for money

Most of the home-front action in War and Peace revolves around marriage. Characters in difficult financial situations, like the Rostovs, Hélène Kuragin, and Boris Drubetskoy, try to marry for money, but this never seems to work out well for them. Although we do not see Boris's marriage, Nikolai and Hélène are unhappy to various degrees in their marriages. In contrast, Pierre and Natasha finally find happiness together when they stop trying to marry for money or status, and instead marry for love. Even the abstract concept of marrying for money affects how Tolstoy's characters conduct their relationships. For example, Nikolai Rostov is reluctant to marry Sonya even before he meets Princess Marya because he feels obliged to save the family finances by courting a wealthy woman.


One of the strongest implicit messages in War and Peace is its searing indictment of war's violence and carnage. Tolstoy argues that war is caused by uncontrollable historical forces and is therefore inevitable. However, he still creates a horrifying depiction of the misery of battle and the effect that dislocation and death have on average Russians. Although no character advocates strongly for peace – with the exception of Pierre, whose sentimental arguments are written by Tolstoy with a degree of skepticism – it is one of the most notable undercurrents in a book that is otherwise very explicit about its political messages.

Cults of personality

In both the Russian and the French armies, Tolstoy demonstrates how the presence of a leader can inspire the men – but also drive them to unnecessary violence. This ties into his theory of history, in which great men have a limited impact on events. Napoleon and Tsar Alexander are only great insofar as they have an effect on their men. However, that effect is significant; one need look no further than Nikolai Rostov to recognize the profound effect that the cult of personality surrounding the tsar has on his psyche. A similar cult of personality develops around General Kutuzov, a polarizing figure who inspires love and loyalty in supporters like Prince Vassily and Prince Andrei, but hatred in his critics.


Much of the novel's action is driven by rumors and gossip; indeed, this is the primary way that information is spread in Petersburg and Moscow. Gossip's failures are just as notable as its successes – Pierre hears wrongly that Prince Andrei and Anatole Kuragin have died at Borodino, and he does not learn of his wife's death (or her intention to remarry) until weeks after the fact. This failure of gossip to reach him in time means that he pursues his silly plan to assassinate Napoleon when he otherwise might not have. That choice leads to his imprisonment and spiritual renewal. However, gossip also facilitates the romances between many characters, including Nikolai and Marya and Pierre and Natasha. Both of the novel's final couples gain confidence from gossip early in their relationships, which suggests that rumors are not always destructive, even if they are an aspect of civilized society that must be navigated with tactical strategy akin to that of the military.


History is an implicit theme of the novel from the beginning. The novel intertwines real and fictional characters, and is clearly concerned with how large historical events affect the lives of individual people. However, Tolstoy later makes his philosophical intentions clear when he begins to describe his theories through authorial interjections. He denies the fallacy that history is created by 'great' men, instead suggesting it is the result of an infinity of minute moments and decisions made by a multitude of men and women. In this way, it is akin to fate, since no one person can stop it from happening the way it will happen. Tolstoy's thoughts on history call into questions about the value and power of individual free will, a question he continues to grapple with throughout the novel, both explicitly and implicitly.