TOLSTOY: War and Peace [Book I-VIII]

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.”

5 thoughts on “TOLSTOY: War and Peace [Book I-VIII]”

  1. I’m not sure if Napoleon did not betray the ideals of the French Revolution. It’s a bit complicated, but didn’t he declare himself Emperor and become really arrogant as a result of his military triumphs etc.? Otherwise a very interesting review.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      He sure did, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t establish a society in which the people enjoyed greater liberties than those enjoyed under the previous regime.

  2. I am not sure that Tolstoy characterises Napoleon as ‘Vainglorious and insignificant’ so much as he is seeking to address the ‘great man of history’ thesis. Tolstoy seems more interested in the relationship between the Russian General who responds and the French general who reacts and indeed the second Russian general brought in to relace the first, as there is a sense that the first was failing to act. In broad terms Tolstoy was not so much critical of Napoleon’s moral code but rather critical of the concept that an individual has much power over their circumstances in reality. War and Peace seems to be a book about just how little control the individual has as greater circumstances move around them and indeed when they perceive that their individual actions have brought a change the reality is that they are not necessarily causal. This comes out more strongly in the essay sections but it is certainly present in the narrative too. Indeed the ‘juxtaposition of extreme emotion suits the theme of the novel’ but to the extent that it represents the extremes of our perceived control and the reality of our limited control.

    1. Nice thoughts! Thanks for sharing.

      “I am not sure that Tolstoy characterises Napoleon as ‘Vainglorious and insignificant’ so much as he is seeking to address the ‘great man of history’ thesis.” I have read this interpretation before. I disagree. Although the ‘great man of history’ is a main theme in the novel, I believe that Tolstoy’s attack on Napoleon’s morality was the primary purpose of the novel.

      “War and Peace seems to be a book about just how little control the individual has as greater circumstances move around them and indeed when they perceive that their individual actions have brought a change the reality is that they are not necessarily causal.” Yes, I agree with this. Also, part of Napoleon’s morality is the belief that one is in charge of one’s fate. Hence, Tolstoy’s discussion of the forces of history indirectly attacks Napoleon’s morality.

      1. For my reading ‘the great man of history’ take down by Tolstoy is a significant feature of W&P and a major aspect of exploring the questions
        Do we have control or is it simply an illusion? Can we bring about change by simply coming up with the right inspirational approach? Do we bring about change, or do we engage with change even in the process of attempting to affect it?

        These thoughts of Tolstoy connect with a theme in the 1999 movie “Instinct” with Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr. an anthropologist, that after living with great apes seems to have become more animal than human, and requires rehabilitation following an incident.
        In the movie Hopkins character makes the comments during a violent altercation,

        “You never had control, you only thought you had it! An illusion, tabibu juhu! And what do you control – for sure, huh?” and later “You’re a student, after all. And you’re lost nothing but your illusions… and a little bit of skin.”

        W&P is essentially an exploration of this point both in the narrative, the story of the characters progressions, and in the philosophic theological chapters where Tolstoy demonstrates his framework. Tolstoy’s book rejects the great man of history theory not just Napoleon but Alexander too, and substitutes fatalism or a sovereignty of deity argument.

        Tolstoy’s book was published less than 60 years from the events that it describes. From this close, but not too close history we get an interesting perspective. There may be some disregard for Napoleon by Tolstoy but I would have thought him more offended by Napoleon taking the emperor’s crown in his own hand and placing it on his own head at his coronation than other aspects of his morality.

        “In historical events (where the actions of men are the subject of observation) the first and most primitive approximation to present itself was the will of the gods and, after that, the will of those who stood in the most prominent position—the heroes of history. But we need only penetrate to the essence of any historic event—which lies in the activity of the general mass of men who take part in it—to be convinced that the will of the historic hero does not control the actions of the mass but is itself continually controlled.”
        (Tolstoy, 1869. Book thirteen:1812 Chapter 1 Retrieved from

        Tolstoy (1869) argues for a form of broadly distributed leadership that receives its direction or purpose through fatalism. This view of distributed leadership certainly seems to better fit a complex interrelated view in regard to managing change. However peak leaders do seem to act as catalysing or retarding agents.To my mind the executive leader acts as the observer in a physics experiment as understood in the “Copenhagen Interpretation”, developed from the work of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg who argued the mere act of observing changes the nature of the object being observed.

        My personal perspective is that Tolstoy (1869), and others from my field like Fullan (1997), in their attempts to balance out the great man of history tendency risk reducing the very real influence that the individual actor, be they great or small as catalyst. Fate may be directing the process but who is to say which actor is not part of Fate’s plan.

        Fullan, M (ed.) (1997) The challenge of school change. Cheltenham, Vic: Hawker Brownlow Education.
        Tolstoy, L. (1869). War and Peace. Retrieved from

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