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War and Peace Reader’s Guide

By Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy


Questions and Topics for Discussion

Leo Tolstoy said, “It is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” Henry James ranked it among those “large loose baggy monsters” and added, “Tolstoy is a reflector as vast as a natural lake; a monster harnessed to his great subject—all human life!” But whatever we call it, War and Peace is an astonishing work—a book that incorporates historical characters, vivid battle scenes, several love stories, shrewd glimpses of everyday life, an examination of Western ideas and the Russian soul, and a disquisition on the nature of history itself, among other things. It is at once a book of ideas and an epic portrait of ordinary life amid extraordinary circumstances.

Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, are the book’s central characters, but their stories are just two of many threads. Pierre, big, clumsy, and big-hearted, is a naïve searcher after big truths—a French-educated liberal who unexpectedly inherits a title and great wealth, gets pushed into a disastrous marriage, dabbles in Freemasonry, becomes obsessed with assassinating Napoleon, and finally finds a measure of peace in the stoic, here-and-now outlook of a saintly peasant.

Andrey is Pierre’s friend, but almost his total opposite. Though strongly impelled to do good, Andrey possesses a cold, cynical intelligence that sees through the self-serving pretensions and illusions of the men he encounters at court and in the army—not to mention those of his tyrannical father and pious sister. He is incapable of playing politics or indulging in sentimental delusions; he would rather do his duty, fight—and die. It is only in his wrenching love affair with Natasha Rostov—sparked by her incandescent spirit, interrupted by a bitter scandal, and then rekindled as he lies dying—that Andrey finds hope and, ultimately, a kind of transcendence.

The Rostov family—Natasha, her brother Nikolay, and her parents—are the book’s other chief characters. They are a seemingly ordinary lot—the father is a sentimental spendthrift, Nikolay a gung-ho cavalryman, and Natasha a spirited naïf. Yet their open-hearted goodness, their innate patriotism, their love of simple pleasures—balls, parties, banquets, hunts, sleigh rides, folk dances—and their heartfelt delights and sorrows offer an ordinary Russian counterweight to the troubled ruminations and erratic peregrinations of Pierre and Andrey.

Napoleon’s invasion of Russia—the historical event at the heart of the novel—irrevocably transforms the lives of all of these characters. For some—Andrey and Natasha’s brother Petya, along with many thousands of others—the invasion puts an abrupt end to all dreams of the future. For others—Pierre and Natasha, Nikolay and Andrey’s sister Marya—the invasion brings much dislocation and sadness, but ultimately offers them a second chance at happiness. Like Napoleon, who falsely believes he is directing history, and like General Kutuzov, who wisely lets history direct him, they have all been caught up in a mysterious sweep of people and events—a historical tide that has pushed them inexorably toward a fate that is at once completely determined and utterly surprising.


Leo Tolstoy was born in central Russia in 1828. He studied oriental languages and law (though he failed to earn a degree in the latter) at the University of Kazan and, after a dissolute youth, eventually joined an artillery regiment in the Caucasus in 1851. He took part in the Crimean War, and the Sebastopol Sketchesthat emerged from it established his reputation. After living for some time in St. Petersburg and abroad, he married Sophie Behrs in 1862 and they had thirteen children. The happiness this brought him gave him the creative impulse for his two greatest novels, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). Later in life his views became increasingly radical as he gave up his possessions to live a simple peasant life. After a quarrel with his wife he fled home secretly one night to seek refuge in a monastery. He became ill and died during this dramatic flight, at the small railway station of Astapovo, in 1910.

  • What is Tolstoy’s attitude toward his female characters—the doomed, downy-lipped Lise; the beautiful, bewitching Hélène; the love-struck, long-suffering Sonya; the devout, dowdy Marya? And what of Natasha? How do you account for her transformation throughout the book, from her debut as a high-spirited pixie to her final incarnation as a matronly homebody?
  • Pierre’s passionate attachment to the world of ideas takes him from one enthusiasm to another—from free-thinking Francophile to philanthropic Freemason to would-be assassin of the Antichrist, Napoleon. What do you think Pierre is searching for? Why is he invariably ineffective when trying to translate his enthusiasms into practical results? And how has he changed by the end of the book?
  • Platon Karatayev, the peasant who befriends Pierre while both are captives of the French, is a catalyst for Pierre’s transformation into a happy man. What does the worldly sophisticate Pierre learn from this humble man? Is there something uniquely Russian about Karatayev? How does he compare with the other peasants described in the book, such as those at Bald Hills, the Bolkonsky estate?
  • Andrey Bolkonsky’s pride keeps him from stooping to the politicking and self-promotion of other staff officers and court officials—yet it also poisons his relationship with his wife, Lise, with his sister, Marya, and, for much of the book, with his one-time fiancée, Natasha. How does a terrible wound and a lingering illness change his attitude toward Marya, Natasha, and life in general?
  • Tolstoy advances his own theory of history throughout the book and devotes his entire second epilogue to elaborating and defending it. What do you think about his theory of history? How is it expressed through the lives of his book’s characters—both historical and fictional?
  • Napoleon and Kutuzov are a study in contrasts, and it’s clear who Tolstoy thinks is the better man—and the better general. How does Kutuzov achieve victory at Borodino and, ultimately, in Russia? Do you think his style of leadership is truly best in all circumstances?
  • What does Tolstoy have to say about the foibles, follies, and strengths of Russia’s ruling class during a period of supreme crisis? How do the intrigues, protestations, machinations, and proclamations of Kutuzov’s general staff and Alexander’s ministers and diplomats affect the course of the war?
  • Tolstoy’s book is overflowing with vivid scenes—the ball in which Andrey falls in love with Natasha, the hunt at the Rostov estate, and the battle of Borodino, to name a few. What are your favorite scenes from the book? What do they say about the characters involved? About the nature of Russian life at the time? Or about the nature of war and history in general?
  • The book is populated by an array of memorable rogues—the repugnant, grasping Kuragin brothers; the brave, blustering Dolokhov; the ambitious, fickle Boris; among others. Yet none is treated as a cartoon. How does history alter these characters and our perception of them?
  • What do you think Tolstoy would make of our present-day leaders and their attitudes toward history, war, and peace?
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