By Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Most English translations of War and Peace are easy to read and understand. However, the novel contains so many characters–nearly 600 of them–that the reader may find it difficult to keep track of them. The following plot summary attempts to sketch out the main characters of the novel while distilling the essence of its plot. Readers should
keep in mind that the events in the novel, both fictional and historical, take place between 1805 and 1814. The summary–as well as information on this page about themes and other aspects of War and Peace–is designed to help orient students reading the 15 books and 2 epilogues that make up the novel.
.......Pierre Bezuhov, the novel's protagonist, is a tall, stout young man looked down upon in drawing rooms because of his awkward manner and his birth: He is the illegitimate son of a Russian count in Moscow. But unlike so many other St. Petersburg partygoers, he speaks his mind directly and honestly. One of his opinions–certainly not a popular one–is that Napoleon is a great man. Others, like Anna Pavlovna, disdainfully refer to the French emperor by his original Italian name–Buonaparte (spelled with a u after the b), to underscore his origin as the son of Corsicans of Italian heritage–rather than by his august French title. One reason Pierre admires Napoleon, apparently, is that the great military leader is so sure of himself; he knows who he is and what his destiny is, and he acts decisively to fulfill that destiny. Pierre, on the other hand, is not at all sure of himself, for his illegitimacy has provided him no identity and no clear destiny. Even his own father has treated him like an outsider. Consequently, Pierre is a man in search of himself, a man who thirsts to learn all he can about life and, in so doing, discover himself. He roves for meaning in the same way that Napoleon roves for the spoils of war.
Prince Andrey Bolkonsky
.......Prince Andrey is a cultured, intelligent, patriotic, and at times arrogant man who has just received a commission in the army from authorities in St. Petersburg. Although he is Pierre Bezuhov’s best friend, he is in some ways his opposite, his foil. For example, Andrey has family identity as the legitimate son of
an old-school aristocrat, Prince Nikolay Andreivitch Bolkonsky (mentioned above as the father of Princess Marya Bolkonsky). Prince Nikolay is a retired military man who lives at an estate called Bald Hills, about 100 miles from Moscow. Andrey resides at Bogucharovo, about 26 miles from Bald Hills, in a home he built on an estate his father had given him. The old prince values honor and duty and
expects his son to uphold these values even if doing so means he must sacrifice himself on the battlefield. He would rather have his son die honorably than live dishonorably. Prince Andrey is also different from his friend, Pierre, in what really counts in Russian high society: looks, elegant demeanor, charisma. Andrey is in every way the handsome, dashing nobleman.
Other Important Russian Characters
.......Pierre and Andrey are well known to the other families in the St. Petersburg and Moscow social circles, and the lives of both men become intertwined with the lives of the members of these families–in particular, the Rostov and Kuragin families.
The Story Continued: Pierre's Inheritance
.......When Pierre’s father dies, he makes Pierre–to Pierre’s surprise–the principal heir of his wealth. Now Pierre appears to have an identity, that of a nobleman who wields power and oversees an estate. Suddenly, he is popular with the proud aristocrats. They lead him to believe that his personal qualities, rather than
his riches, have endeared him to his former detractors. Chief among the deceivers is Prince Vassily, who dangles his beautiful daughter, Hélène, before him in a décolleté dress that hints at the pleasures awaiting him if he marries her. Even though Pierre admires–perhaps even loves–one of the Rostovs, the very appealing Natasha, he takes Hélène as his wife to live with him at his home in St.
Petersburg. But Pierre finds that he is still not happy. His wife cares only for fashions, jewels, and the social limelight. She loves Pierre’s money, not Pierre. So Pierre continues his search for meaning and peace of mind in various other ways: He joins the Masons. He frees the peasants bound to his estate.
Andrey and Natasha Fall in Love
.......One day when Pierre visits the Rostovs–old friends of his who are always read to welcome him–Prince Andrey tags along. When Andrey sees Natasha for the first time, he is immediately smitten with her, and she is absolutely awed by him. In a short time, they make wedding plans. But when Andrey broaches the topic of
marriage while visiting his tyrannical father, the old man frowns upon a union of the Bolkonskys and Rostovs. The Rostovs haven’t enough money or prestige to suit him. However, if Andrey still wants to marry Natasha after delaying the wedding for one year, the old prince says, he will withdraw his opposition to their marriage. Andrey agrees to the terms and later returns to military
.......In Moscow, Pierre rescues a child from a burning building and helps an Armenian woman escape the clutches of a soldier. The French arrest and imprison him, making it impossible for him to carry out his assassination plan. During his confinement, he befriends a peasant, Platon Karataev, who gives Pierre food and
helps teach him the importance of compassion. Pierre also witnesses executions of Russian citizens and, most important, realizes that the meaning of life lies in love for all of humankind–nobles, peasants, everyone.
Protagonist: Pierre Bezuhov
Antagonists: Bezuhov’s Insecurities, His Insincere Acquaintances, and the War
Pierre Bezuhov Illegitimate son of a Russian count, Cyril Bezuhov, who bequeaths Pierre a fortune. Pierre comes in contact with all the other main characters in the novel during his quest to find meaning in life.
Prince Andrey Bolkonsky Handsome, intelligent, cultured, and at times arrogant nobleman who is Pierre’s best friend. He detests the shallow lifestyle he inherits as a member of the Russian upper class. He also despises his wife, who is charming and attractive, because she values the upper-class lifestyle. Like Bezuhov, Bolkonsky searches for meaning in life. Prince Andrey is high-ranking military officer who serves as a valued adjutant to General Kutuzov.
Countess Natasha Rostov Pretty, vivacious, loving young woman who falls in love with Prince Andrey, then becomes infatuated with Anatole Kuragin. She later realizes she has loved Andrey all along. Natasha is the central female character in the novel.
Count Cyril Bezuhov Father of Pierre. The count dies early in the novel, leaving his estate to Pierre..
Prince Nicholas Andreivitch Bolkonsky Father of Prince Andrey. A retired general, he is a stern, eccentric, old-school member of the upper class.
Princess Marya Bolkonsky Daughter of Prince Nicholas. She marries Nicholas Rostov late in the novel.
Princess Lise Bolkonsky Wife of Prince Andrey. She dies in childbirth.
Prince Nicholas (Nicholushka) Son of Andrey and Lise.
Count Ilya Rostov Generous and loving father of the Rostov children. His lavish spending eventually plunges him in debt.
Countess Nataly Rostov Ilya's wife.
Count Petya Rostov Younger son of Ilya and Nataly Rostov.
Countess Vera Rostov Older daughter of Ilya and Nataly Rostov.
Sonya Poor teenage relative of the Rostovs, who have been rearing her as their ward. She loves Nicholas but circumstances prevent their union.
Prince Vassily Kuragin High society wheeler-dealer who manipulates Pierre Bezuhov into marrying his daughter, Hélène, after Pierre inherits his fortune.
Princess Hélène Kuragin Vassily’s self-seeking daughter. She becomes Pierre’s wife but continues to seek the attentions of other men.
Prince Anatole Kuragin Vassily’s dissolute son. He attempts to elope with Natasha Rostov even though he is already married.
Prince Hippolyte Kuragin Vassily's quiet, weak-minded son.
Platon Karataev Peasant who is a cellmate of Pierre after the French arrest Pierre in Moscow. Karataev gives Pierre food and helps him realize what really matters in life.
Anna Pavlovna Scherer St. Petersburg spinster who gives lavish soirees for the high and mighty.
Princess Anna Drubetskoy Impoverished woman who persuades Vassily Kuragin to use his influence to obtain her son an appointment as a military officer.
Prince Boris Drubetskoy Anna Drubetskoy's son.
Dolohov Russian soldier and gambler who has an affair with Pierre’s wife, Hélène. Pierre wounds him in a duel.
Napoleon Bonaparte Emperor of France and general of attacking French armies.
Prince Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov Russian general under whom Prince Andrey serves. Kutuzov is appointed field marshal of all the Russian forces before the Battle of Borodino.
Czar Alexander I Ruler of Russia.
Military officers, foot soldiers, nobles, peasants, serfs, servants
(1) Saint Petersburg, capital of Russia from 1712 to 1918. It is a port on the Gulf of Finland and the Neva River, about 400 miles northwest of Moscow, that contains many architectural masterpieces, including Cathedrals and palaces. (2) Moscow, the capital of Russia until 1712, when Czar Peter the Great moved the capital to Saint Petersburg. But Moscow remained and important cultural and industrial center. Napoleon and his Grand Army occupied Moscow for 39 days in 1812. (3) European battlefield sites, including Austerlitz. (4) Russian country estates and villages.
Theme 1..Love and compassion are the keys to a successful and fulfilling life. Pierre Bezuhov spends all of his days searching for the meaning of life. Gradually, he discovers that it lies in bestowing and receiving love and compassion. It matters not who the bestower or recipient is–whether peasant or nobleman, Frenchman or Russian. Pierre realizes the fulness of this truth when he saves the life of a Frenchman from a crazed Russian and when he receives food from a humble peasant in prison.
Theme 2..Human beings are defined by what they do, not by what they have or what they inherit. Most of the Russian upper classes in St. Petersburg and Moscow place a premium on their noble heritage, their estates, their jewels and fashions, their popularity in drawing rooms and ballrooms. They look down upon Pierre Bezuhov because of his illegitimate birth and lack of social graces, then hypocritically treat him like royalty when he inherits a fortune. Pierre, of course, comes to realize that material things and social status mean little; what really counts is the good that a man or a woman does (or, in the case of the dissolute or self-seeking characters in the novel, the evil).
Theme 3..Rather than attempting to control the course of history, human beings must move with its currents. This is Tolstoy’s idea. He believes that history is like a river. Men like Napoleon attempt to divert the river from its true course; men like Kutuzov merely attempt to control the boat they are traveling in, not the river itself. Napoleon fails, Tolstoy says, because no man can manage or manipulate history–that is, fate, destiny. Que sera sera–whatever will be will be. Kutuzov succeeds, Tolstoy maintains, because he understands this great truth.
Theme 4..Acquisition of material possessions does not lead to success or happiness. Hélène Kuragin marries Pierre for his money, then spends it freely on fashions and jewels to enhance her image as the most beautiful and desirable woman in St. Petersburg. But she ends up lonely and unloved and takes her life. Napoleon acquires whole cities and ends up conquering an empty city, Moscow. He achieves nothing but death and destruction. Ultimately, he loses the war.
Theme 5..War is brutal and barbaric, not grand and glorious. Although many young men in St. Petersburg and Moscow regard war as a glorious adventure, it soon becomes apparent that it is nothing of the sort. When Pierre observes the Battle of Borodino, he sees it for what it is: a cruel, brutal destroyer.
The climax of War and Peace occurs at the Battle of Borodino and during its immediate aftermath, when the main Russian characters attain the knowledge and insight they have been seeking and Napoleon discovers he had made a colossal blunder.
Type of Work
War and Peace is a panoramic realistic novel that examines the social, familial, historical, and political activities of a society against the backdrop of war, as well as the psychological reactions of people to their lot in life at home and on the battlefield. It was written between 1862 and 1869 and published between 1865 and 1869 by M.N. Katov.
Structure and Style
The novel at first focuses on everyday life among the Russian nobility while Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grand Army march across Europe. The story later shifts to the battlefield after the Russians become involved in the war. From then on, the action alternates between scenes of peace and scenes of war. Occasionally, author Tolstoy interrupts his narration (omniscient, third-person point of view) to philosophize about war. The novel thus has three structural divisions: (1) the story centering on fictional characters, (2) the story centering on actual historical events, and (3) the philosophical ruminations of the author. The reader discovers early on that many of the principal characters in the novel are as much at war with themselves as they are with Napoleon. Tolstoy meticulously interweaves the stories of the characters–there are nearly 600 of them–so that they form a single fabric bearing one panoramic picture of life and death in early 19th Century Russia. The descriptions are detailed and realistic, and the story lines believable and engrossing. Characters respond naturally to the forces acting upon them, whether internal or external, with a minimum of author contrivance and manipulation. The reader sees not only flesh-and-blood characters and the environments in which they live but also the characters’ psyches and the conflicts enveloping them. The consensus of critics is that War and Peace is one of the world’s great novels in terms of character and thematic development. However, some of these critics have not read the novel in its original Russian, relying instead on an English (or French, German, or Spanish translation). Consequently, their evaluations lack the authority of Russian-speaking Tolstoy critics able to understand nuances in the original Russian version’s dialogue and imagery. .
Tolstoy's Theory of History
Tolstoy believed that a single man or woman is incapable of manipulating or changing the course of history. History, he says, is an inexorable force that will have its way. For additional information on this topic, see Theme 3 above.
Commentary: Virginia Woolf
There remains the greatest of all novelists—for what else can we call the author of War and Peace? Shall we find Tolstoi, too, alien, difficult, a foreigner? Is there some oddity in his angle of vision which, at any rate until we have become disciples and so lost our bearings, keeps us at arm’s length in suspicion and bewilderment? From his first words we can be sure of one thing at any rate—here is a man who sees what we see, who proceeds, too, as we are accustomed to proceed, not from the inside outwards, but from the outside inwards. Here is a world in which the postman’s knock is heard at eight o’clock, and people go to bed between ten and eleven. Here is a man, too, who is no savage, no child of nature; he is educated; he has had every sort of experience. He is one of those born aristocrats who have used their privileges to the full. He is metropolitan, not suburban. His senses, his intellect, are acute, powerful, and well nourished. There is something proud and superb in the attack of such a mind and such a body upon life. Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded. Nobody, therefore, can so convey the excitement of sport, the beauty of horses, and all the fierce desirability of the world to the senses of a strong young man. Every twig, every feather sticks to his magnet. He notices the blue or red of a child’s frock; the way a horse shifts its tail; the sound of a cough; the action of a man trying to put his hands into pockets that have been sewn up. And what his infallible eye reports of a cough or a trick of the hands his infallible brain refers to something hidden in the character, so that we know his people, not only by the way they love and their views on politics and the immortality of the soul, but also by the way they sneeze and choke. Even in a translation we feel that we have been set on a mountain-top and had a telescope put into our hands. Everything is astonishingly clear and absolutely sharp.Author Information
Leo Nikolayevitch Tolstoy was born on Sept. 9, 1828, in Yasnaya Polyana, Russia. His aristocratic parents died when he was very young, and relatives reared him. He attended a university but abandoned his studies before graduating, preferring to educate himself instead. After enlisting in the military, he served in the Crimean War (1853-1856). While in the army, he began writing and completed a short novel in 1852. After returning to Yasnaya Polyana, he worked on his estate, improved the life of his peasant workers, and continued to write. His masterpieces are War and Peace (published between 1865 and 1869) and Anna Karenina (published between 1875 and 1877.
War and Peace
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