I finally finished War & Peace after 2 years of reading! The wonders of Kindle and being able to keep your place across multiple devices.
I slowly consumed this grand novel like one would eat a small elephant. A little bite here and a little bite there; on the train, on my tablet or at my son’s hockey practice on my phone.
One chapter at a time across many days not unlike the book itself. This seems to be what every person who reviews this book says at first.
The problem with reading such a famous book by such a famous author for the first time is that you don’t know if you think the book is great because it is great or it is great because you think it is great.
With that in mind, what struck me first in this chronicle of life was that it could be set in any time with any characters and it would evoke the same essence. In that way, it is timeless and still applicable.
Take anyone you know (or even yourself) and boil down the most dramatic parts of all of their relationships, thoughts, beliefs and actions along with 20 people in their sphere of influence across their whole life and you will arrive somewhere near this novel.
Many times I found myself saying, ‘Hey that is exactly what I think’ or, ‘I know someone that is exactly like that’ and then highlighting it on my Kindle.
You can only write like that if you are one thing – very honest. Honest about yourself and those around you. How else could Tolstoy write this unless he observed it and lived it?
Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy’s genius let’s us into his character’s heads and hearts where the reader is able to pick and choose from a smorgasbord of personalities, tastes and beliefs that they personally find appealing. They may not like where they end up but if they are wise they will take heed.
So many novels (especially modern novels) fail to capture this simplistic honesty and paint a picture not of how people should or could be but rather how they really are. Ironically, in seeing how we really are we learn how we should be.
Sadly, no publisher would publish this book now a days (it breaks all the rules, way too many darlings) but even more sad is that no one could write it now a days.
The novel is a narrative about the Napoleon Wars on Russia starting in 1805 and climaxing in the war of 1812 which serves as the stage on which three leading and very different families are the main actors.
These three families are representative of all families and can roughly be broken down as:
Conservative – Patriarchal, male dominated, totalitarian
Liberal – Matriarchal, female dominated, progressive
Broken – Complete lack of parental influence or family structure, chaotic
Now there are a ton of supporting characters with their own families and personality profiles but the entanglements of the members of these three families derive the bulk of the novel and the main characters. They start the novel and they end the novel.
Conservative – The Bolkonsky’s
Marie and Andrew Bolkonsky’s father Nikolai is at the far end of the conservative spectrum. Super conscientious and extremely demanding. Almost no agreeableness or openness but oddly high in neuroticism. Like him or hate him, he is very successful and his children are ruled by his relentless personality and they must fight its absolute power to develop themselves. This is a patriarchal family ruled by a unbending, unaffectionate task master.
Prince Andrew is handsome, brave and conscientious like his dad and only slightly more agreeable. A say slightly because he can’t stand his little agreeable, open, ‘chit of a wife’ who tragically dies giving birth to his only son. His poor, pure sweet agreeable wife pretty much gets chewed up and spit out but this uncompassionate family (Take heed – A warning for all you super agreeable people).
This also a very good example of a family that has zero trait agreeableness and how the naturally occurring agreeableness and openness found in the female sex is completely disregarded as useless and even dangerous. It is mocked, scorned and abused being seen as a weakness. This is the type of family that produces a certain type of feminist, I think (a good type in my opinion). It is no accident that Tolstoy gives the miserable Maria the name of Christ’s own mother because only one as pious and saintly as her could withstand this onslaught of the more ‘feminine’ personality traits. One could argue that she suffers the most in this story and oddly she is the most religious.
After Prince Andrew gets horribly wounded by a cannonball and nearly dies in the first dust up between the Russians and the French and his poor ‘angel’ of a wife dies giving birth to their son he has a bit of an existential crisis which he desperately needs to keep him from completely turning into his father. It is his ‘death’ and the question is whether the seed planted in this death will bring new life? Will he change? Will he ‘progress’?
Liberal – The Rostov’s
Natasha and Nicholas Rostov’s dad Ilya is the complete opposite of Nikolai Bolkonsky. Super high in agreeableness but severely lacking in conscientiousness. Not really neurotic at first but he eventually becomes high in it in the end from his lack of conscientiousness (I think there is a lesson there for me). He is servant to the whims of his wife and children and provides them a life that they can’t afford and that he is too afraid to reign in. They are a matriarchal family. Family life is dominated by the female members wants and needs and Natasha is the shining star of the family, bursting in life, loveliness and creativity. Trait openness, agreeableness and neurotisicm reign and it produces creative but undisciplined children. They are obsessed with the latest fashions, arts and social standings. They are the Kardashians of their day (At least the Kardashian’s from 5 years ago).
It is by all accounts a good family, though, and it sticks together through tough times and all the neurotic ups and downs which eventually kill the poor father. Who, if he would have been a little more conscientious, might not have squandered the family fortune and if he would not have been so agreeable he might have reigned in the spending of his wife and daughter and for goodness sake at least got a little upset at his son when he came home and told him he just lost a ton of money in a poker game gone horribly wrong and needs him to bail him out. The whole situation does have one positive affect on the Rostov boy Nicholas; he decides that he is going to dedicate himself to the discipline of the army. This is the best decision he can make and stabilizes his lack of conscientious upbringing. It will serve him well later in life.
For all of the Rostov’s faults there is love in this family mixed with passion and fun. Almost all the characters in the novel are drawn to it like moths to a light and frequent the Rostov home throughout the novel.
Broken – The Bezukhov’s
Then there is Pierre’s dad, Kirill Vladimirovich, a wealthy profligate who has a slew of kids out of wedlock and decides to leave his fortune to the one son he likes the best but doesn’t really know because he sent him off to party in Europe. (Related to Fydor Karamozov maybe?)
Pierre’s family is not really a family at all and the reality is that his family has been his ‘friends’ who prove to be not very good choices for friends. He can’t think for himself. He is a lost soul. Because of this. he makes a horrible decision in marriage choosing an immoral person who had an affair with her brother (yep, that should have been a red flag), won’t have sex with him but cheats on him with any one she can find. If there is an antagonist in the story it is her (and her incestuous brother). He is in chaos and subsequently in hell and now he is married to the devil.
It is a testament of what happens when someone has no culture or tradition in their life to safeguard them from the evils of this world and their subsequent suffering (yes, there are evils in life). He is ‘blown about like a rudderless ship on the sea.’ He is a man without an identity and so he is susceptible to ideologies. He becomes a Freemason, he likes Napoleon, he disastrously tries to implement too liberal policies on the peasants in his care.
There is one very redeeming quality about Pierre, though, which seems to make up for everything he lacks and that is that he knows his state in life. He is honest and humble. He is trying as well as he knows how to make sense out of the chaos of his life and he desperately wants to change and find stability, acceptance and love. He is the tax collector, “standing far off, not even lifting up his eyes to heaven, but beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
His only good friend is Prince Andrew. They make an odd couple and he is just the person the conflicted Prince needs. Unapologetic of his state of constant repentance and searching, Pierre is not a competitive threat as he spouts off his theories on how Russia and himself should change. His honesty is disarming and welcome in a private setting but alarming and alienating in the public setting.
Pierre loves the Rostov family and its shining star Natasha. He observes and craves the love in that family like a kid looking through the window of a candy store. He doesn’t believe he is worthy of it, though, no matter how rich he is.
So, take these three family types (somewhat like every one of ours) and then watch how the kids turn out when Tolstoy pushes the play button. Watch as the opposites attract and collide and how once the storms settle where all the pieces have fallen. Add a war to create stress and watch as that stress transforms the individuals and how they show their true personalities and character because nothing shows someones character like stressful times.
The brilliance of Tolstoy is that he tells the same story twice at the same time. Once in the micro (the families) and once again in the macro (the countries at war)
The two stories are parallel and timeless.
This idea of progress versus staying the same. Liberal versus Conservative.
The micro climax of the novel is the clash of the two opposite family cultures (personalities) in Natasha and Prince Andrew. There definitely is love there in a Romeo and Juliet sort of way. But alas, Prince Andrew is too cautious, too conservative, too unwilling to take a risk and do something for the sake of emotion, to break free from his father and change his culture (you need to be at least a little liberal to do that). All law and no grace is a road to hell and Natasha, poor Natasha is led down it. It breaks her and only proves to her that she is unlovable and not worthy of being cherished. It is her turn to die, spiritually, emotionally and almost physically. She attempts to commit suicide. She is at the bottom. Will she be reborn like the seed of wheat that falls in the ground?
The two extremes when brought together are like a hot and cold front meeting each other creating a massive thunderstorm. There is a lot of electricity but also a lot of violence. The damage done by this storm is irreparable. The resultant chaos surrounds Natasha and she, like Pierre, makes a deal with the devil to escape it (At least her and Pierre had that in common). Lucky for her, her culture and family work against her to rescue her from the arms of the devil.
Eventually, Prince Andrew has his epiphany and ultimate new life change of heart but it comes like it came for his father, on his deathbed. Some people are so low in openness and so stubborn that it takes the inevitability of their death staring them in the face before they realize that they are a miserable creature that needs to see they are wrong and finally open themselves to what really matters – love and affection.
The macro climax is the battle of Borodino. Liberal, progressive French versus conservative, serfdom, Russia. Arrogant, flamboyant Napoleon versus patient, boring Kutuzov. Like Natasha, the French are defeated in this battle but like Prince Andrew the conservative Russia is dead. The heart of what was old Russia has died, Moscow is lost. She is broken. She is Pierre.
After Prince Andrew dies closing the door on that possible train wreck of a marriage, Pierre awkwardly makes his move. Natasha, her ideals dead along with her Prince, submits to his undying, safe but real love on one condition – she must rule him, never again will she not be in control. She continues in the matriarchal manner she grew up with. Pierre, sick of chaos, readily agrees to the terms and submits fully to her slavery. There is matriarchal tyranny too! But even that is better than chaos for him. Natasha, in my opinion, embodies the negative type of feminism or as some call it – Marxism or as it later became known, communism, the nanny state. A prophetic warning from Tolstoy perhaps?
I think Tolstoy hinted at the direction he thought Russia should go when you examine Maria and Nicholas relationship.
They are the antithesis of Pierre and Natasha. Nicholas, with the assertiveness and discipline he gained from being in the Cavalry and fighting battles becomes what his dad never was – conscientious. Maria, used to strong patriarchal men, admires him from a far with a certain amount of fear (respect) but he is not like her father or her brother. She finds that he is not immune to her feminine traits like her dad was and her suggestions and requests do not fall on deaf ears. When she is upset at his violence against the peasants it deeply affects him and he changes his behavior. He loves her and it grieves him that she is upset with him. He also turns out to be a great dad, I imagine he recalls his own agreeable and open childhood as he plays and loves on his own children. To me if there is a protagonist it is Nicholas because he is the only one who truly changes and balances his personality traits. I also think that Nicholas most closely resembles Levin in Tolstoy’s novel ‘Anna Karenina’ and pretty much embodies Tolstoy’s own thoughts on how the peasant’s should be treated and how a husband should act.
They are the perfect balance between Conservatives and Liberal. The State and the Church. The Secular and the Spiritual. War and Peace. The Old Testament and the New Testament. God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Maria’s feminism is a liberal, guiding force to the conservative, structured masculinity of Nicholas.
For society to work, religion needs to be a liberal guiding force and the state a conservative force.
Tolstoy has given us a mirror and it is up to us if we will ‘forgot what we look like’ after we walk away from it.
The micro lessons? Work on your weakest traits. Not very conscientious? Work harder at disciplining yourself. Not very agreeable? Try to have compassion even when people doesn’t deserve it. Not extroverted? Try talking in public. Why? Why go to the trouble in this futile existence to endure the uncomfortableness and pain of changing? Because you either suffer now or you suffer later. And it is not just you who will suffer but everyone in your family and then every one in your country. Also, guess what? It resets for every person no matter what family they are born into. You have to make your own way and fight your own monsters. Don’t believe in original sin? Hang out with a 2 year old for a day. Countries are just a sum total of its families and yesterday’s successes as a country can be erased by the next generation or improved on.
“As the sun and each atom of ether is a sphere complete in itself, and yet at the same time only a part of a whole too immense for man to comprehend, so each individual has within himself his own aims and yet has them to serve a general purpose incomprehensible to man.”
The macro lesson? You are not always right. You need others. You have a huge log in your eye that blinds you from your own deficiencies.
Admit that you don’t have all the answers and all the perspectives if you deem yourself conservative or liberal. Admit that even a ‘genius’ like Napoleon cannot control history, only God can do that. Show some humility. You are but a small character in a massively complicated story and it isn’t about you. That definitely doesn’t mean that you don’t play an important part, though. You may be the ‘hair that breaks the camels back’ or you may not be but every part of that load is just as necessary as the hair.
Heed these words..
“C’est grand!” say the historians, and there no longer exists either good or evil but only “grand” and “not grand.” Grand is good, not grand is bad. Grand is the characteristic, in their conception, of some special animals called “heroes.” And Napoleon, escaping home in a warm fur coat and leaving to perish those who were not merely his comrades but were (in his opinion) men he had brought there, feels que c’est grand, and his soul is tranquil.
“Du sublime (he saw something sublime in himself) au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas,” said he. And the whole world for fifty years has been repeating: “Sublime! Grand! Napoleon le Grand!” Du sublime au ridicule il n’y a qu’un pas.
And it occurs to no one that to admit a greatness not commensurable with the standard of right and wrong is merely to admit one’s own nothingness and immeasurable meanness.
For us with the standard of good and evil given us by Christ, no human actions are incommensurable. And there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness, and truth are absent.”
Replace “grand” and “not grand” with “equal” and “not equal” or “diverse” or “not diverse” and you can arrive at the same sublime argument. Liberalism and social justice only work when they aim at the ‘greatest good’ to overcome conservative societies where “simplicity, goodness, and truth are absent.”
Tolstoy’s own views and philosophy on the ‘greatest good’ are decidedly religious as related in the story within a story told by the peasant Platon Karataev to Pierre about a man wrongly convicted of a crime. Tolstoy believed this to be the greatest story he ever wrote and he expanded it into the stand alone short story ‘God Sees the Truth, But Waits’
This story is so powerful that it is the basis of the highest ranked IMBD movie of modern times.
Why is it so powerful?
Because it is the story about the best, most good, most loving person that arguably the world’s best imagination could ever think up.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” An even greater love is a man who gives up his whole life for the salvation of a man that is his enemy. The only love greater than that is a man that gives up His life for everyone.
Many, many human imaginations can think up the most wicked, the most perverted, the most twisted person that could ever exist (just ask Steven King, or refer to the whole horror genre) but it takes a genius to do the opposite.
As far as Tolstoy was concerned, Christ is the answer to the paradox of Liberal and Conservative. The joining of the Father and the Holy Spirit. The eternal and the finite.
Or, as Chesterton put it:
“But the cross, though it has at its head a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because is has a paradox in its center it can grow without changing.”
Just like society.
My conclusion is that this book is epic. It is up there with ‘Paradise Lost.’ It has no equal in the 20th century and definitely not in the 21st. It may take 100 more years until we will get another like it.
Burn all the religious books of the world but leave this one and it will lead you back home.
It warns you of how you should be and what you will become, but most of all, it tells you to die to yourself to save yourself like that great city of Moscow and in so doing you will defeat the ‘Anti-Christ’ within. Your death is the only thing the devil in you cannot survive.