Russian author Leo Tolstoy published his novel, War and Peace, in 1869. The novel depicts the lives of several Russian nobles during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in the early 1800s. The title, War and Peace, symbolizes the war and peace among nations, among individuals within one society, and among different desires within an individual.
Tolstoy’s characterization of Napoleon as a vainglorious and insignificant man is wrong. Napoleon might have desired glory and fame, but he also desired the establishment of the three demands of the French Revolution – Freedom, Equality, and Brotherhood – and he greatly contributed to the attainment of these conditions of life.
Tolstoy unfairly criticizes Napoleon because Napoleon does not adhere to the Christian moral code of Tolstoy. Tolstoy believes that it is wrong to commit murder, even in war. Tolstoy cannot appreciate that men are neither wholly good, nor wholly evil. While Napoleon certainly caused the deaths of thousands of people, he also brought about beneficial changes to the lives of millions of Europeans.
Tolstoy’s theory that military strategy is less important than troop morale is also misguided. First, troops who know that their commander is a brilliant military strategist will have better morale than troops who know that their commander is merely a figurehead. Second, history has shown that small armies have defeated larger armies because of superior military strategies. While morale certainly can affect the outcome of a battle, superior military strategy alone can achieve victory.
Tolstoy, however, is excellent at contriving scenes in which ecstatic joy is contrasted with crushing sadness. For example, Prince Andrei is overjoyed when he hears his baby boy cry for the first time, but he is immediately cast into a state of shock, guilt, and depression when he discovers that his wife died in childbirth. Also, during certain battles, characters move from feelings of intense fear at the sight of the enemy to feelings of profound tranquility and acceptance at the sight of the clear sky above the battle. This juxtaposition of extreme emotions suits the theme of the novel, and suits the title of the novel itself – War and Peace. Tolstoy seems to imply that life is filled with these moments of contrasting feelings, and that one must embrace both the plunges and the ascents.
“Can one be well while suffering morally?”
“He is going to get himself killed. Tell me what this wretched war is for?”
“There is a war now against Napoleon. If it were a war for freedom I could understand it and should be the first to enter the army; but to help England and Austria against the greatest man in the world is not right.”
“I don’t in the least understand why men can’t live without wars. How is it that we women don’t want anything of the kind, don’t need it?”
“Never marry till you can say to yourself that you have done all you are capable of, and until you have ceased to love the woman of your choice and have seen her plainly as she is, or else you will make a cruel and irrevocable mistake. Marry when you are old and good for nothing—or all that is good and noble in you will be lost. It will all be wasted on trifles. Bonaparte when he worked went step by step toward his goal. He was free, he had nothing but his aim to consider, and he reached it. But tie yourself up with a woman and, like a chained convict, you lose all freedom! And all you have of hope and strength merely weighs you down and torments you with regret. Drawing rooms, gossip, balls, vanity, and triviality—these are the enchanted circle I cannot escape from. If you only knew what those society women are, and women in general! My father is right. Selfish, vain, stupid, trivial in everything—that’s what women are when you see them in their true colors! When you meet them in society it seems as if there were something in them, but there’s nothing, nothing, nothing! No, don’t marry, my dear fellow; don’t marry!”
“The one young, gentle voice of the emperor Alexander was distinctly heard. He uttered a greeting, and the first regiment bawled out such a deafening, prolonged, and joyful “Hurrah!” that the men themselves were awestruck at the multitude and strength of the huge bulk they made up. Rostov, standing in the front ranks of Kutuzov’s army, which the sovereign rode up to first, had the same feeling that was experienced by every man in that army—a feeling of self forgetfulness, a proud awareness of strength, and a passionate attraction to him who was the cause of this solemnity. He felt that it would take only one word from this man for that whole mass (and he himself bound up with it—an insignificant speck) to go through fire and water, to crime, to death, or to the greatest heroism, and therefore he could not but tremble and thrill at the sight of that at approaching word.”