By Chet Yarbrough
War and Peace
By Leo Tolstoy
Translation by Anthony Briggs
A friend recently returned from Russia. I asked if he visited any of the Napoleonic war sites on his trip. He had not but it reminded me of a small part of one of the greatest novels ever written, “War and Peace”.
Borodino is a small town outside of Moscow. In Tolstoy’s book, it is a site of a spiritual triumph of the Russian army over Napoleon, interpreted by some as a Russian military victory. Napoleon’s army moves on to occupy Moscow but his army abandons Russia without victory and returns to France. Ironically, Tolstoy makes Borodino the battle that wounds a main character; leading to his death.
There are many characters and themes in “War and Peace”.
The three characters that stand out most memorably are Andrew Bolkonski, Natasha Rostova, and Pierre Bezukhov. Bolkonski is the elegant aristocrat with consummate personal honor, intelligence, and sophistication that fails to understand what is important in life until he is at death’s door. Rostova is a young ingénue, beautiful and ignorant of life that grows to understand meaning in life with Bolkonski’s death. Bezukhov is a bumbling naïf that inherits wealth, fumbles through a foolish marriage and divorce, and grows into a life of contentment and ease when he marries Rostova.
Among many themes in “War and Peace” is the denial of the “great man” theory of history. Tolstoy writes of human circumstance, conditions of an era and generalized human spirit that make individuals great. Tolstoy is not denying superiority of some over others but his story emphasizes man’s mortality, common fragility, and ephemeral existence. To Tolstoy, greatness dwells in all mankind with individual extraordinariness born of circumstance; not innate greatness.
There is a large element of preordination in Tolstoy’s characters, as though every person is destined to live their lives according to a Master’s plan. Innate human frailties, and man’s fall from grace are determinates of man’s path in life. Happiness comes from an acceptance of fate, exemplified by the marriage of Bezuhov and Rostova after many tragedies and triumphs in their lives.
At the end of “War and Peace”, one gets some sense of what it means to be Russian. The exuberance of living life, working through hardship, believing in something greater than your self are all evident traits in Tolstoy’s characters. These human qualities reflect Russian tolerance for inept leadership and endurance when faced with the unendurable. [contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]