Updated: Jul 12, 2021
I recently finished Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It is a huge book and I dived into it after being attracted by its mythos and its supposed depth. I was promised a book that examines the human experience of life, love, and death. In short, War and Peace, I was told was a book that had much to say. What I got was somewhat less than what had been promised. This book does offer a glimpse into some of the constants of human society and the types of people that are extant everywhere and in every age. However, Tolstoy is determined to tell us that the world is deterministic in nature and that free will is an illusion.
We are told multiple times that our every move is the only move we could make at that time and that all is decided by and pre-ordained by God to achieve his plans. Yet Tolstoy fails to demonstrate this even in the bounds of his story. His characters float about in intricately described vistas of nineteenth-century Russia, doing very little of anything and just kind of hoping that things work out. Of course, things do work out for the heroes, but not so much for anyone else in their lives. The French invade and retreat but no meaning as to why is presented except some vague analogies to the tide of history, God’s will, or human freedom, yet Tolstoy maintains that everything happens for a reason.
We are told that life is God and life is happiness. That poverty, want, sacrifice, and suffering are happiness. Yet Tolstoy’s heroes experience these things only for a few weeks before returning to prosperity. In all, it’s a confused and meandering tale, which aims to be a reaffirmation of faith in a post-Darwinian and Schopenhauerian world, yet to me at least, it falls flat. As a tale of the power of faith separate from the Church, it says little and offers nothing. This is especially so if it is compared to Les Miserables, in which Hugo’s Jean Valjean, Gavroche, and others do right easily and happily even at great cost.
As a philosophical treatise (which Tolstoy obviously intends it to be), it fails to convince or even drive the reader to rumination. Again, even in the field of offering an example to the reader of how to act or to live, it fails again. Each and every character (except perhaps Sonya) is shallow, banal, and selfish. They learn nothing from their trials and yet imagine themselves to be good and superior to everyone else. I can’t help but compare this book to Les Miserables, which is filled with characters who are flawed yet human. Who, while inhabiting a much harder world, suffer, love, and hate honestly as it were. Even the criminals in Les Miserables have human feeling for each other, which tempers their conceit and viciousness. In War and Peace (perhaps as Tolstoy wants to paint a picture of the compulsion of man), no one is evidenced to show real human feeling to anyone else. They fall in love, fight, and dispute but not as people in a world of people but rather as isolated beings in a world of things.
In short, it is not the person in War and Peace that the characters love, hate, or argue with, but rather the other person is the excuse. As is described near the end of the tome with the old countess, she felt the need to be angry, so she abuses her friend, she felt the need to talk so she talks to people of the same things. She felt like crying, so she looked at a picture of her dead husband. Perhaps this is unavoidable in Tolstoy’s deterministic world, yet it makes for a world of self-absorbed a-holes.
What value there is in this work is primarily one of comparison. Tolstoy shows us in painful progression the whys in which happiness cannot be found. Power, fame, honours, and wealth are pursued by the heroes, in turn, and are showed to be unessential to happiness. Lasting happiness can be recognized in Tolstoy’s world only in the family. Of course, I am biased but the one thing that I took from this work is an affirmation that mans’ purpose and the goods we seek are found only when we stop looking for them and instead focus on the welfare of our families and those around us. But you don’t need to read an almost 600,000-word book to discover that.
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