Critical Essays Themes in War and Peace


Tolstoy's heroes have a single aim: they search for a way to live life without its transience and want of purpose. Andrey despairs of finding such a purpose when, in Book IX, he says life is a series"of senseless phenomena following one another without any connection." Pierre, on the other hand, discovers that most human beings live life like soldiers under fire, diverting themselves with cards, women, horses, parties, to avoid thinking about the ultimate problem in life, which is death.

Death, therefore, provides the individual with a definition of life, just as suffering provides an understanding of what man's basic needs are, as Pierre discovers in Book XIII. Understanding the existential opposites of life and death are essential to the growth of a human being. Stated in many ways throughout the novel, these opposite values provide the illumination that defines the main characters. Thus Pierre learns freedom through imprisonment, and Andrey achieves love through hate and a knowledge of life as he lies dying.

Tolstoy exposes these polar values during the moments of crisis his characters face, and each crisis carries with it a measure of personal growth for the protagonist. The crisis provides the"necessity" — that is, the outer structure — within which the individual must grow and extend himself in order to adjust to the new situation. The crisis is the moment at which the individual must retrench his values through self-reflection, or"consciousness," in order to overcome the forces that threaten him. The rest of Tolstoy's themes, including his interest in history, derive from these ultimate unities of life and death.

War and Peace is in itself an invocation to the forces of life, and in the novel we see the dramatic development of children becoming adults. Tolstoy clearly shows the moments when this maturation takes place. Natasha's love affair with Anatole, Nikolay's guilt when he almost kills a Frenchman, Andrey's disillusion with the politicians at Brunn, Pierre's liberation during imprisonment, and, finally, Nikolinka's dream provide a few examples,

At the same time that Tolstoy depicts with such palpable details the childhood, youth, and adulthood of his heroes, he endows his depictions with such universality that they correspond, roughly, to the same three stages of the evolution of civilization. The Rostov family, for instance, radiates a spirit of joyful paganism as the children unconsciously express the life-forces within them. In their youth they become aware of the social and environmental limitations they are victims of and follow blindly the social conventions. This is that stage where Nikolay, adoring his tsar, becomes a good soldier. Finally, when Tolstoy develops his heroes into adults, they become self-conscious enough to participate in the making of their own destiny. This is the point when Andrey expresses his nihilism, when Pierre and Natasha marry, and when Pierre discovers the strength of his inner life. Through these characters, Tolstoy arrives at the Christian stage of civilization where individuals must come to terms with their own lives in order to prepare for death.