War and Peace

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Novels

Title War and Peace
Cover to the English first edition
Author Leo Tolstoy
Original title Война и мир (Voyna i mir)
Country Russian Empire
Language Russian
Genre(s) Historical, Romance, War novel
Publisher Russki Vestnik (series)
Released 1865 to 1869 (series)
Media type Print ( Hardback & Paperback) & Audio book

War and Peace (Russian: Война и мир, Voyna i mir; in original orthography: Война и миръ, Voyna i mir") is an epic novel by Leo Tolstoy, first published from 1865 to 1869 in Russki Vestnik, which tells the story of Russian society during the Napoleonic Era. It is usually described as one of Tolstoy's two major masterpieces (the other being Anna Karenina) as well as one of the world's greatest novels.

War and Peace offered a new kind of fiction, with a great many characters caught up in a plot that covered nothing less than the grand subjects indicated by the title, combined with the equally large topics of youth, age and marriage. While today it is considered a novel, it broke so many novelistic conventions of its day that many critics of Tolstoy's time did not consider it as such. Tolstoy himself considered Anna Karenina ( 1878) to be his first attempt at a novel in the European sense.


The Russian words for "peace" (pre-1918: "миръ" ) and " world" (pre-1918: "міръ", including "world" in the sense of "secular society"; see mir (social)) are homonyms and since the 1918 reforms have been spelled identically, which led to an urban legend in the Soviet Union saying that the original manuscript was called "Война и міръ" (so the novel's title would be correctly translated as "War and the World" or "War and Society"). However, Tolstoy himself translated the title into French as "La guerre et la paix" ("War and Peace"). The confusion has been promoted by the popular Soviet TV quiz show Chto? Gde? Kogda? (Что? Где? Когда? - What? Where? When?), which in 1982 presented as a correct answer the "society" variant, based on a 1913 edition of "War and Peace" with a misprint in a single page. This episode was repeated in 2000, which refuelled the legend.

In contrast, there is also a (unrelated) poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky called "Война и міръ" (i.e. "міръ" as "society"), written in 1916.


Tolstoy initially intended to write a novel about the Decembrist revolt. His investigation of the causes of this revolt led him all the way back to Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812, and ultimately the history of that war. All that remains of that intention is a foreshadowing in the first epilogue that Prince Bezukhov and Prince Andrei Bolkonski's son are going to be members of the Decembrists.


Although Tolstoy wrote the bulk of the book, including all the narration, in Russian, significant pockets of dialogue throughout the book (including its opening sentence) are written in French. This merely reflected reality, as the Russian aristocracy in the nineteenth century all knew French and tended to speak French among themselves, as the lingua franca of the European upper classes, rather than Russian, and indeed Tolstoy makes one reference to an adult Russian aristocrat who has to take Russian lessons to try and master the national language. Less realistically, the Frenchmen portrayed in the novel, including Napoleon himself, sometimes speak in French, sometimes in Russian.

Plot introduction

The novel tells the story of a number of aristocratic families (particularly the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskis, and the Rostovs) and the entanglements of their personal lives with the history of 1805– 1813, specifically Napoleon's invasion of Russia. As events proceed, Tolstoy systematically denies his subjects any significant free choice: the onward roll of history determines happiness and tragedy alike.

The standard Russian text is divided into four books (fifteen parts) and two epilogues. While roughly the first two-thirds of the novel concern themselves strictly with the fictional characters, the later parts of the novel, as well as one of the work's two epilogues, increasingly contain highly controversial, nonfictional essays about the nature of war, political power, history, and historiography. Tolstoy interspersed these essays into the story in a way which defies conventional fiction. Certain abridged versions removed these essays entirely, while others (published even during Tolstoy's life) simply moved these essays into an appendix.

Plot summary

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

War and Peace depicts a huge cast of characters, both historical and fictional, the majority of whom are introduced in the first book. At a soirée given by Anna Pavlovna Scherer in July 1805, the main players and families of the novel are made known. Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of a wealthy count who is dying of a stroke, and becomes unexpectedly embroiled in a tussle for his inheritance. The intelligent and sardonic Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, husband of a charming wife Lise, finds little comfort in married life, instead choosing to be aide-de-camp of Prince Mikhail Kutuzov in their coming war against Napoleon. We learn too of the Moscow Rostov family, with four adolescent children, of whom the vivacious younger daughter Natalya Rostova ("Natasha") and impetuous older Nikolai Rostov are the most memorable. At Bald Hills, Prince Andrei leaves his pregnant wife to his eccentric father and religiously devout sister Maria Bolkonskaya and leaves for war.

The first page of War and Peace in an early edition
The first page of War and Peace in an early edition

If there is a central character to War and Peace it is Pierre Bezukhov who, upon receiving an unexpected inheritance, is suddenly burdened with the responsibilities and conflicts of a Russian nobleman. His former carefree behaviour vanishes and he enters upon a philosophical quest particular to Tolstoy: how should one live a moral life in an imperfect world? He attempts to free his peasants, but ultimately achieves nothing. He enters into marriage with Prince Kuragin's beautiful and immoral daughter Elena, against his own better judgement.

Elena and her brother Anatoly then conspire together for Anatoly to seduce and dishonor the young and beautiful Natasha Rostova. This plan fails, yet, for Pierre, it is the cause of an important meeting with Natasha. When Napoleon invades Russia, Pierre observes the Battle of Borodino up close by standing near a Russian artillery crew and he learns how bloody and horrific war really is. When Napoleon's Grand Army occupies an abandoned and burning Moscow, Pierre takes off on a quixotic mission to assassinate Napoleon and is captured as a prisoner of war. After witnessing French soldiers sacking Moscow and shooting Russian civilians, Pierre is forced to march with the Grand Army during its disastrous retreat from Moscow. He is later freed by a Russian raiding party. His wife Elena dies sometime during the last throes of Napoleon's invasion and Pierre is reunited with Natasha while the victorious Russians rebuild Moscow. Pierre finds love at last and marries Natasha, while Nikolai marries Maria Bolkonskaya. Andrei, who was also in love with Natasha, is wounded during Napoleon's invasion and eventually dies after being reunited with Natasha before the end of the war.

Tolstoy vividly depicts the contrast between Napoleon and the Russian general Kutuzov, both in terms of personality and in the clash of armies. Napoleon believed that he could control the course of a battle by giving orders, sent by courier, which inevitably got delayed, garbled, or made irrelevant by unforeseen development; Kutuzov believed that all he could do was plan the initial disposition of his troops, then let subordinates closer to the action actually direct the fighting. He would sit in his tent until the battle was over, and he sometimes fell asleep in the middle of an important battle. Napoleon chose wrongly, opting to march on to Moscow and occupy it for five fatal weeks, when he would have been better off destroying the Russian army in a decisive battle. Kutuzov refused to destroy his army to save Moscow: instead he retreated and allowed the French to occupy the city. Once in Moscow, the tightly-organized Grande Armée dispersed, occupying houses more or less at random; the chain of command broke down, and (in Tolstoy's opinion inevitably) burned Moscow to the ground. Tolstoy thinks that it was inevitable because when a wooden city is left in the hands of strangers, who naturally cook meals, smoke pipes, and try to keep warm, fires will inevitably start. In the absence of an organized Fire Department, such fires would burn large parts of the city. After the fires, the disorganized French army headed for home, where they were destroyed by the Russian winter and harried by partisan raids. Napoleon took his carriage and a team of fast horses and left ahead of the army, most of whom never saw France again. General Kutuzov believes time to be his best ally, and refrains from engaging the French, who ultimately destroy themselves as they limp back toward the French border. They are all but destroyed by a final Cossack attack as they straggle back toward Paris.

Spoilers end here.

Characters in "War and Peace"

  • Pierre Bezukhov — A freethinking Freemason, though weak and at times reckless, is capable of decisive action and great displays of willpower when circumstances demand it.
  • Natasha Rostova — the chief female character, charming due to her exuberant and enthusiastic personality
  • Andrei Bolkonski — A cynic, who is the foil to Pierre.
  • Maria Bolkonskaya — A woman who struggles between the obligations of her religion and the desires of her heart.
  • Nikolai Rostov
  • Napoleon
  • Kutuzov
  • Elena Kuragina - Pierre's wife, who earns social power in circles in high society
  • Anatoly Kuragin
  • Petya Rostov
  • The Freemason

Many of Tolstoy's characters in War and Peace were based on real-life people known to Tolstoy himself. Nikolai Rostov and Maria Bolkonskaya were based on Tolstoy's own memories of his father and mother, while Natasha was modeled after Tolstoy's wife and sister-in-law. Pierre and Prince Andrei bear much resemblance to Tolstoy himself, and many commentators have treated them as alter egos of the author.

Film, TV, theatrical and other adaptations

  • The first Russian film adaptation of War and Peace was the 1915 Vladimir Gardin directed film Voyna i mir, starring Gardin and Russian ballerina Vera Karalli.
  • Initiated by a proposal of German director Erwin Piscator in 1938, Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev composed an opera based on this epic novel during the 1940s. The complete musical work premiered in Leningrad in 1955.
  • First successful stage adaptations of War and Peace were produced by Alfred Neumann and Erwin Piscator (1942, revised 1955, published by Macgibbon & Kee in London 1963, and staged in 16 countries since) and R. Lucas (1943). A second film adaptation was produced by F. Kamei in Japan (1947).
  • War and Peace (1956): American director King Vidor made a 208-minute long film starring Audrey Hepburn (Natasha), Henry Fonda (Pierre) and Mel Ferrer (Andrei). The casting of Henry Fonda as the youthful Pierre has been questioned, but many critics consider Audrey Hepburn perfect as Natasha,
  • War and Peace (1968): Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk made a critically acclaimed four-part film version (Vojna i mir) of the novel, released individually in 1965-1967, and as a re-edited whole in 1968, starring Lyudmila Savelyeva (as Natasha Rostova) and Vyacheslav Tikhonov (as Andrei Bolkonsky). Bondarchuk himself played the character of Pierre Bezukhov. By the time Bondarchuk made this film, the flawless image of Natasha as created by Audrey Hepburn had achieved an almost iconic status among Western audiences, and it was therefore a challenge for the director to select an actress for this role. The actress he chose, Lyudmila Savelyeva, looked very similar to Hepburn. The film was almost seven hours long; it involved thousands of actors and extras and it took seven years to finish the shooting, as a result of which the actors age dramatically from scene to scene. It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film for its authenticity and massive scale.
  • In December 1970, Pacifica Radio station WBAI broadcast a reading of the entire novel (the 1968 Dunnigan translation) read by over 140 celebrities and ordinary people.
  • War and Peace (1972): The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) made a television miniseries based on the novel , broadcast between in 1972-73. Anthony Hopkins played the lead role of Pierre. Other lead characters were played by Rupert Davies, Faith Brook, Morag Hood, Alan Dobie, Angela Down and Sylvester Morand.
  • Love and Death (1975): Woody Allen wrote and directed a satirical take on War and Peace and other Russian Epic Novels.
  • A stage adaptation by Helen Edmundson was published in 1996 by Nick Hern Books, London. The play was first produced in 1996 at the Royal National Theatre.


  • The title War and Peace or La Guerre et la Paix was also the title of an earlier political work by French anarchist Pierre Proudhon, published in 1864. As Tolstoy had met Proudhon personally, and was held to be an admirer of his work and politics, it is likely that the title War and Peace was inspired by Proudhon's La Guerre et la Paix.

English translations

  • Clara Bell (from a French version) 1885-86
  • W. H. Dole 1889
  • Leo Wiener 1904
  • Constance Garnett (1904)
  • Louise and Aylmer Maude (1922-3)
  • Rosemary Edmonds (1957, revised 1978)
  • Princess Alexandra Kropotkin (1960)
  • Ann Dunnigan (1968)
  • Anthony Briggs (2005)
  • Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (expected Fall 2007)

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