Jacqueline Oud - Culture

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy - Book review

Russian Bourgeoisie and their everyday life

An ordinary reception, as probably very commun among the Russian Bourgeoisie of the 19th century, opens the worldwide known novel «War and Peace». An illusion to Napoleon Bonaparte is made on the first page, but Leo Tolstoy wants to depict us the Russian aristocracy first of all. And that is how it happens. The stories of various families and relations are being unfolded in front of us and we see how all are busy with their parties, status and properties. Some of their sons or friends are of age to join the army and some are even having yet their highly appreciated military career.

The four seasons

Very carefully planned, Leo Tolstoy shows us the life of before the war, when all was quiet and peacefull. However, gradually the rumours about the situation with Napoleon, Alexander and an upcoming war filtrates into their lives. The story moves from everyday life to the preparation of war, but everyday life is still on the first place. As like seasons come and go, so makes Tolstoy fade the happiness of summer into the tensions of automn. And thus, the prelude of war is more and more obvious until it can no longer be avoided.

An underlying depth of the story

With the change of seasons comes also the change of narration. Tolstoy interferes in the story as an external voice. An analyser of the situation with his opinion. Dear reader, beware, this story is not merely about artistocracy in Russia! It depicts the European political situation in the beginning of the 19th century.

Tolstoy starts his underlying analysis of the situation as from here. He includes the theoretical digressions on war and the philosophy of history. It suprises, but enlights the story and gradually takes it to another level. Book 3 and 4 seem to have one chapter in six with this type of digressions. It is this mix of everyday life, war and analysis cq. philosophy that makes War and Peace a novel unlike others.

In the end

After the wars and when the stom is over, winter shows the moments of pain, of cold and rest. The various characters of the novel are coming to peace and grow up mentally. The wars have left many scars. Nevertheless, history shows us that scars fade and that memories become less vivid. Lessons are learned but life continues and good intentions may disappear. Mankind is only an element of history and, after all, prefers finally his everyday life above the many complicated issues that are not always easy to understand [1].

Understanding War and Peace

The novel War and Peace shows us that it is impossible to see the war between France and Russia as an individual event, or as an event that either Napoleon choose himself or on which Alexandre I decided the end. History shows us that all the seperate elements of this war are linked to eachother and fade in other elements. It also shows us that it was a decision of none alone.

Therewith Tolstoy conludes - and specifies very clearly in the second epilogue - that man is not free, freewill such as cannot exist and it is part of an non-comprehensive totality. Thus he reckons that non-comprehension is preferable to absurdity and according to him we need laws as to understand. As he states: "It is true that we are not conscious of our dependence, but by admitting our freewill we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time and on cause, we arrive at law [2]".

War and Peace is not easy to read, but it is valuable for its depiction of the Universe and the psychology and relations that it shows us. Take your time to read it, but stick to it until the end. Advise: it is very usefull to have an edition that is enriched with comments and explanatory notes.

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[1Pierre is one of those that struggle in their life between the life of status on one side and the spiritual richness on the other side. In the end he seems to prefer being less herioc. He no longer gets annoyed with people not willing to understand his metaphysical ideas.

[2last paragraph

[29 March 2004]


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