I loved this book from the very start, right up to the second epilogue 1320 pages later, but at that point Tolstoy began repeating himself and I shamefully admit I gave up. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of this gigantic book I was completely captivated and so it will easily be in my top 10 books ever.
The book deals with all aspects of life; religion, love, death, war, philosophy, family life, marriage, class, probably many other things I can’t think of right now.
What I loved most about this book was Tolstoy’s ability to characterise people so clearly, right down to their movements, thoughts, feelings that it felt even clearer than a film.
At some points I felt like this book was late 19th century Russia’s version of a soap opera on TV.
I can’t believe I just compared War and Peace to East-Enders, let me just clarify. What I mean by that is because of its size, you are carried along the lives of various families in such lucidity and for quite a long time, that you keep dipping in and out of their world and completely taken away from your own.
Obviously that’s where the similarities end as War and Peace is also a remarkable piece of art in terms of its literature and philosophy. I unfortunately didn’t read it in Russian, but my mum who has read both versions was impressed by the translation so I’m trusting that it was as accurate as it can be.
Tolstoy is not just a beautifully talented writer, but also shows his genius elsewhere…
Tolstoy the artist -
As previously mentioned Tolstoy recreates scenes extremely vividly, in particular I felt completely with the characters during the war scenes. He surprises you with the richness of life by describing the minutest details about all the emotions that can be experienced during war, even unexpected ones such as joy and vitality.
Tolstoy the psychologist –
He covers psychological phenomenon that have only recently been ‘proven’ by scientists such as group-think - when individuals conform to actions of others around them, and attribution errors - when people look back at history and misattribute causes to things that were really just coincidences.
Tolstoy the historian –
The book starts in 1805 and ends in 1813 (the epilogues go a bit further to 1820 but in less detail). And that period of time is covered so comprehensively that you pretty much get a history lesson (albeit slightly biased from a Russian’s perspective) about Napoleon and his tragic attempt to conquer Russia. So if you’re studying that period of time, this book doubles as a perfect textbook!
Tolstoy also recognizes that history is continuous and the result of so many contributing factors, and is strongly against the opinion that a few powerful individuals influence the events of the world. He argues that events just happen, and people like Napoleon and Alexander I are instead consequences of their situation rather than acting agents.
Tolstoy the philosopher –
Throughout the book, especially while describing Pierre and Prince Andrew’s contemplation of life, as a reader you witness Tolstoy’s search for the meaning of life, of death, of love, of religion. And it’s fascinating to watch.
This book is a lesson on life, and so thoroughly takes you into another world as every great piece of fiction should, that your outlook on life will not be the same.
A small criticism I have is that sometimes it feels a bit repetitive, and in a book over 1000 pages long it just might not be necessary. It feels as if Tolstoy has made a point that he feels passionately about, and can’t quite let it go in fear that you haven’t understood exactly, so he keeps drilling it in. This happened at the end of the book, in the second Epilogue, which was why I couldn’t finish it.
One further criticism, as a feminist I was disappointed by his portrayal of women. All the women characters are somewhat weak, silly, and over-emotional. But saying this, women at those times probably were all those things as they were hidden away from the world until marriage and then expected to be both an interesting wife and a submissive one. Which is by definition impossible. So I’ll forgive him for that and this book remains one of my favourite of all time, and I look forward to reading it again in the future and see how my opinions change.