Critical Essays Structure of War and Peace


War and Peace is of such epic proportions that its endless outpourings of martial history, personal saga, and social document carries the reader along as a helpless spectator caught up in the full tide of life. Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction (New York: The Viking Press, 1957) says it is a combination of two stories:"It is like an Iliad, the story of certain men, and an Aeneid, the story of a nation, compressed into one book."

The way Tolstoy combines the personal, Iliad-like novel with the historical, Aeneid-like novel forms the dualistic structure of War and Peace. Beyond this duality — in fact beyond the bounds of the novel itself — the unifying focus of the book lies within the mind of its author, in his endless lifetime search to extract a single truth out of the profusion of specific experiences. The unifying element of War and Peace, although somewhat disclosed in Tolstoy's philosophic epilogue on the nature of history, is not evident within the material of the novel.

The complexity and sweep of War and Peace, lacking the singularity of viewpoint achieved, for instance, in Anna Karenina, derives from the tension between two constant and interlocking orientations: the collective and the personal, the events of a nation and the experience of individuals.

Thus the protagonists of the novel have a dual significance. On one plane they reveal individuals in their quest for self-definition, on the other they are participants in a mass movement whose pattern is forever undisclosed to them. By the same duality, public events and public figures reveal basic truths about the nature of private experience, and the relationship between moment-by-moment experiences of individuals, and their long-term search for meaning, with the unfolding destiny of a nation generates the dramatic conflicts and the individual turning points of the novel.

A clear example of the way Tolstoy endows situations and characters with dual significance is our introduction to the Bolkonsky family in its country seat. The old prince, like the tsar himself, dominates and leaves his autocratic mark upon each member of his household. The situation we meet at Bleak Hills is a working model of old Russia.

By the same token, Andrey and Marya exemplify the special types of Russian personalities acculturated under the tsars. Marya's religious fervor enables her to accept and forgive the repression under which she lives, and Andrey's heightened understanding of the ravages this repression wreaks in the soul of the man in power — his father, in this case — causes him to develop his intellectual powers as a weapon to blunt the anguish of his observations. In a later situation, where Nikolay argues with Pierre about politics, Tolstoy again uses his personal characters for a similar sociological observation: Nikolay represents the obedient subject, while Pierre tries with reason and emotions to define individuality.

Natasha's career is also invested with dual significance. At the same time that she is a particular adolescent growing into womanhood, her emotional maturation is symbolic of the historic transformation, of Russia itself. Natasha's coming-of-age occurs when her personal values conflict with socially imposed values inimical to her nature, while, at the same time, Russia's great period of change occurs when the nation rises up against the foreign invaders. Both"wars" — the historical one involving the nation and the symbolic one Natasha fights — provide the necessities for self-definition.

In the same way individuals stand for more than themselves, events partake of the same dual quality. The evacuation of Moscow provides a good example of this twofold significance. On a private level, the citizens believe they leave the city for various vague and personal reasons, among these being the preference to appear as cowards rather than live under foreign occupation. On a historical level, this is the"deed that saves Russia," for the French arrive finding no one to conquer; thus Napoleon's dream of glory is robbed of all meaning and his conquest is a futile gesture.

Tolstoy's ultimate parallelism, however, is keynoted in his title, with the polar qualities of war and peace providing the physical and emotional settings of incidents that further investigate the duality between collective life and individual life. Events that occur in peacetime are often echoed during the war scenes, and the perspective Tolstoy achieves from these twice-told incidents deepens our understanding of the moral truths he wishes to underscore.

When we compare the"peacefulness" of the first campaigns depicted in the novel with the death duel of the battle of Borodino, we see how Tolstoy uses this duality to intensify our feelings for the event that forms the turning point of the war. The first cannon boom at Schöngraben coincides with a burst of sunlight that lifts the spirits of the bored, but gay, soldiers. The sunrise over Borodino, on the other hand, illuminates a scene of carnage and desperation while the grim survivors face death every moment.

Numerous minor incidents illustrate how Tolstoy uses the settings of war and of peace to reveal new aspects of particular situations. Pierre, for example, meets Osip Bazdyev during a peacetime journey that sets him on a new moral path. Osip's influence here foreshadows Pierre's ultimate conversion through Karataev, Bazdyev's spiritual counterpart, which occurs during Bezuhov's wartime experiences.

Natasha, to provide another example, has two major meetings and partings with Andrey: the first, during the tranquil days of her youth, the final one during the wartime exodus from Moscow. Prince Andrey's first awareness of death, occurring in peacetime when he sees Liza die, prefigures his own fatal moment on the Austerlitz battlefield.

Moreover, Dolohov, to cite a minor character, exercises his cruelty against Nikolay during a card game, then against the drummer boy whom he wants shot during the last campaigns. The first instance of vengeance is necessary to explain Dolohov's character, whereas the second is another expression of that cruelty which helps Dolohov win battles.

The structural integrity of War and Peace thus derives from Tolstoy's two-leveled handling of his material through the vehicles of characterization, narrative, and setting. Individual parts of the novel are integrated into the whole through this parallel plot technique which, moreover, allows the author to enrich the significance of particular incidents by repeating them in another context. This duality enables Tolstoy to compare the nature of private experience with historical events, the"inner" and"outer" states of the human condition, unconscious with conscious motives, and, finally, to illustrate the conflict between"free will" and"necessity."