To be frank, I did not wake up one morning with a burning desire to read War and Peace. The book that sat thicker than my Bible on the bedside table radiated intimidation, not an invitation. With more than 1,300 pages, a cast of 500 characters, including 23 main characters and 44 other prominent characters, and a story spanning 15 years during a pivotal time in Russian history — the Napoleonic invasion — War and Peace frightens away many readers, including me. What a tragic loss that is, as I found out once I lifted the thick spine and begin perusing its pages.
After watching the 2016 BBC adaptation starring Lily James, I was hooked by the spellbinding story, intriguing characters, and glittering sets of Russian opulence. I decided to read the masterpiece and was pleasantly surprised with how easily I became engrossed in the story. The plot was surprisingly accessible, and I quickly devoured the pages. By watching the miniseries first, I had no difficulty in keeping track of the wide cast of characters as we had already been introduced. Indeed, if you lack a natural affinity for memorizing 500 characters and visualizing early 19th-century Russia, I highly recommend watching the series first.
Tolstoy simplifies a complicated narrative through the beautiful arch of his characters. He possessed a unique gift as a writer, capturing the complex nature of humanity so accurately — the frailties, contradictions, and search for happiness — that I found myself relating to aspects of each character in such a way that it seemed Tolstoy was privy to the inner workings of my mind.
This personal connection is what holds readers captive throughout the gargantuan novel and entices readers to read, and reread, the masterpiece. As Orlando Figes, a British historian who specializes in Russian and European history, so accurately writes in his introduction to the Penguin Classics deluxe edition, “[War and Peace] has the capacity, on each successive reading, to transform our understanding of the world.”
While Tolstoy often digresses on philosophical musings on the nature of humanity, the course of history, and, most importantly, the cause of the French invasion in 1812, he still writes an entertaining and powerful story. It follows an eclectic mix of Russians through the initial Napoleonic invasion in 1805, the shared peace between the French and Russians, the climactic War of 1812 and the catastrophic Battle of Borodino, and the final French retreat after a harrowing occupation in Moscow, which resulted in the infamous burning of Moscow.
In the novel’s first sentence, uttered at an aristocratic Russian soiree, Tolstoy draws the reader in with salacious gossip regarding none other than the “the Antichrist” himself — Napoleon. He then invites the reader into the elite world of the Russian nobility as the country defends itself against the invading French. Tolstoy immortalizes the long-forgotten Russian opulence experienced under the Tsar reign. Ballrooms, soirees, wolf hunts, banquets, battlegrounds, pistol duels, sleigh rides, operas, and the Russian countryside are the set of this enthralling narrative.
Tolstoy breathes life into history by telling these events through the eyes of his characters. The beautiful Natasha Rostov, an impulsive and bewitching young countess; the handsome war hero Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, a brooding and cynical intellectual; and the affable Pierre Bezukhov, a bumbling but inquisitive young count who desperately searches for fulfillment and the meaning of life, each experiences life’s pain and joy until, ultimately, they each taste life’s sweet redemption. Tolstoy captures the weaknesses and strengths of humanity as these characters chase love, war glory, political ambition, intellectual fulfillment, religion, family, and, above all, the freedom of their country.
Figes writes that “Tolstoy [has an] ability to lead us through disappointment, frustration and tragedy without bitterness or cynicism. He declares, against all odds, the goodness of living.” Through trials and tribulation, Tolstoy allows the reader to experience the joy of life found in times of both war and peace.