A book that addresses conflict, life, love and death, War and Peace is an epic saga of modern history that does exactly what it says on the tin. If you haven’t read it you should, it’s one of the best books ever written, though weirdly the only real feature that people seem to remember about this masterpiece is its length.
Why out of all this book has to offer, should its size be the factor to characterise its legacy? While there are those happy to agree that the book’s depth is one of its downfalls, a lack of self-filtration on behalf of Tolstoy, after much consideration I have personally discovered that the density of this novel is a key component in its greatness.
My opinion, however, isn’t necessarily a general consensus among critics. Henry James called War and Peace a ‘loose, baggy monster’ and when it comes to explaining the novel’s plot it is difficult not to agree with him. Put simply for those unfamiliar with the novel, the work is split into two halves, which intersect each other as the story advances. The ‘war’ half follows the conflict between Russia and Emperor Napoleon as the latter attempts to gain power in Europe, finishing with his unsuccessful attempt at invading Russia. Meanwhile, the ‘peace’ half plots the story of three aristocratic families – the Rostovs, Kuragins and Bolkonskys – and their interactions with one another as they attempt to flourish and find purpose in Russian society. There is one outlier in the story who takes the form of Pierre Bezukhov; a rich, wandering young aristocrat whose search for meaning and fulfilment characterise a great part of the narrative.
This sounds complex and at times it is, though the real cause for such an elusive plotline is Tolstoy’s refusal to assign the traditionally necessary factor of a central character. Instead, Tolstoy has chosen to chronicle the journey of a society. This is a story of multiple personalities, their personal motives and characteristics, and how these traits influence those around them. Interestingly enough, within the novel Tolstoy expresses his own belief in the power of societies over the individual in human history, making it easy to believe that this story is an embodiment of its author’s own historiographical theory. If this is the case, a central character would only weaken the ideals that Tolstoy is trying to express.
To those who subscribe to this idea that the work is more history than story, it’s impossible to see the length of the books as a fault of any kind. While everyone can recognise a story from those three primary features of a beginning, a middle and an end, history is different – it goes on indefinitely and unfolds at its own pace, relying religiously on a society’s environment and other uncontrollable human circumstances. Events in the book may take their time to unfold, they might not turn out as expected. But as Pierre says when contemplating whether or not he would rather be who he was before his troubles or experience it all again: ‘For God’s sake let me again have captivity and horseflesh!’
It’s the novel’s slow and subtle development that allows the course of events to flow with undeniable truth, so we are left not concerned with what or would have happened, for they are not relevant concepts. Tolstoy lets the story play the only way it can, and in this way, his work is entirely refreshing.