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Literature / War and Peace

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“‘Nothing has been found out, nothing discovered,’ Pierre again said to himself. ‘All we can know is that we know nothing. And that’s the height of human wisdom.’”

War and Peace is a novel by Leo Tolstoy, about the affairs of a number of interconnected Russian nobles during and after The Napoleonic Wars.

It is the year 1805. Napoleon Bonaparte has installed himself as Emperor of France, and he makes war on Austria and Russia in his bid to establish France as the supreme nation on Earth. In Petersburg, Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of Count Kirill Vladimirovich Bezukhov, attends a soirée at Anna Pavlovna's, a lady in waiting to the Russian empress. On St. Natalya's Day, guests gather at the Rostov mansion at Otradnoe to pay their respects to Countess Rostova and her daughter Natasha. Some days later, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky declares to his father that he is going to join the Russian military and achieve glory, just as Napoleon did...

Meanwhile, Princess Drubetskaya approaches Prince Vassily Kuragin at Anna's soirée to ask a favor in getting her son, Boris, into a high, safe position in the military. The children at Otradnoe play after-hours, and Childhood Marriage Promises arise. Andrei leaves behind his pregnant wife with his father and sister while he goes out looking for glory in battle. Also, three drunk ruffians tie a policeman to a bear and throw both of them off a bridge into the river.

And those are just the introductory chapters.

Famous for its massive size, alleged unreadability and being considered one of the greatest novels ever written. Also considered to be brilliant as a paperweight. Or for whacking someone across the head if you need to...

Note: Due to a version of Inconsistent Spelling, translations over the years have listed the character names with minor differences in spelling, and this is reflected in some examples on the wiki. For example, Maria=Marya or Mary, Nikolai=Nicholas, Andrei=Andrew, and so on.

For the various adaptations, see here.

This book provides examples of (Unmarked spoilers ahead):

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder:
    • Natasha is seduced by Anatole during her separation from Andrei.
    • Nikolai falls in love with Marya while away from Sonya.
  • Abusive Parents: Old Prince Bolkonsky is emotionally abusive to his daughter Marya; he frequently rags on her for her looks and she has to bear the brunt of his mood swings. He's slightly less abusive to Lise, his daughter-in-law, but doesn't really bother hiding his disdain for her.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: Quite common for Princess Marya Bolkonskaya, who is described as "ugly" (but with beautiful eyes) in the novel. In the 2007 adaptation, she's played by the stunning Italian actress Valentina Cervi, while the Irish Jessie Buckley in the 2016 adaptation is equally lovely, if not as classically beautiful. In neither of these adaptations could Marya ever be accurately described as ugly.
  • An Aesop: You know the "great man" theory? It’s a lie.
  • The Antichrist: Invoked; Bonaparte is seen as this by a number of characters in line due to his aptitude for warfare.
    Anna Pavlovna Scherer: "If you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist—I really believe he is Antichrist—I will have nothing more to do with you and you are no longer my friend, no longer my 'faithful slave,' as you call yourself!"
  • Armchair Military: Napoleon himself. Tolstoy went to great lengths to attempt disprove the Emperor's renowned military talent, giving an entire chapter to the analysis of the Battle of Borodino to demonstrate how Napoleon's orders were out of touch with reality and how he watched the battle only from a safe distance.
  • Arranged Marriage:
    • The Rostovs attempt to get Nikolai hitched with plenty of other girls, that meddlesome Childhood Marriage Promise to Sonya notwithstanding.
    • Pierre's marriage to Elena (Hélène) Kuragina also counts after a fashion, considering he was strongarmed into it and neither of them are particularly fond of each other.
  • At the Opera Tonight: Natasha goes to an opera where Anatole seduces her.
  • Author Avatar: Pierre and Prince Andrei are both avatars of Leo Tolstoy, or are in part based on him.
  • Author Filibuster: The book becomes less fiction as it goes on and more philosophy of history essay.
  • Author Tract: HISTORY, HISTORY, HISTORY! There's an entire second epilogue devoted to tearing down the Great Man of History theory that was in vogue in the 19th century.
  • Babies Ever After: The First Epilogue in a nutshell. As a bonus, said babies are named after dead characters.
  • Badass Bookworm: Pierre, a shy, clumsy, overweight, myopic intellectual, happens to be remarkably strong and also very brave.
  • Bastard Angst: Pierre Bezukhov is the bastard of one of the wealthiest, most powerful counts of Russia, who, upon his death, legitimizes him. He was educated in Paris, and came back with very liberal ideas that make him a big outsider in the Russian aristocratic circles.
  • Best Friends-in-Law: Natasha and Marya play with this trope. While Natasha's engaged to marry Marya's brother Andrei and calls on the Bolkonsky family to better their relations, she and Marya decidedly don't hit it off. Later, the engagement ends. They actually only become close as Andrei is wounded at Borodino. They become very close after he dies, and become true examples of this trope when Marya marries Natasha's brother Nikolai.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Pierre. For all his shy and gentle character, he is not above turning into a roaring monster when angered. Both of the Kuragin siblings sorely regret infuriating him; Hélène when she insults him in the aftermath of the duel with Dolokhov (he tries to hit her with a marble table) and Anatole when he leads Natasha on and tried to elope with her (threatened with having his head smashed in with a paper weight).
  • Bilingual Dialogue: The Russian aristocracy spoke primarily in French, and this is dutifully replicated. There are also snippets of German.
  • Break the Cutie: Anatole likes the women, and Natasha's missing Andrei greatly. This directly leads to Natasha's fall from grace and into the depths of despair.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Hinted between Hélène and Anatole, as much as Tolstoy possibly could in the nineteenth century.
  • The Caretaker: Princess Marya Bolkonskaya is a dutiful daughter who stays by her father's side despite his increasing senility.
  • The Casanova: Anatole Kuragin does love his women. To wit: he seduces an engaged woman while being married himself.
  • Cast Full of Rich People: The novel is about the loves and relationships of interconnected noble families. Being rich allows them to pontificate about finding their purpose in life and be mostly unconcerned with Napoleon marching on Russia until the invasion is at their doorsteps.
  • Cavalry Officer: Several characters, notably Nikolay Rostov, Denisov, and Dolokhov.
  • The Chessmaster: Prince Vassily Kuragin is a sort of social Chessmaster who engineers plots to further or consolidate his station in life. Also, every single general in Kutuzov's staff after the Battle of Borodino fancies himself a Chessmaster.
  • Childhood Marriage Promise: Nikolai and Sonya. Natasha teases Boris with this trope, but nothing comes of it.
  • Christmas Episode: There is, in fact, a part or several chapters entirely devoted to the Rostovs at Christmastime after Nikolai returns from a tour of duty.
  • Colonel Badass: Count Dokhturov exemplifies the trope, but any competent field general in the book has traits of Colonel Badass.
  • Comet of Doom: The Great Comet of 1811. Pierre takes it as a sign of "the blossoming of new life", but others view it more ominously, and sure enough, Napoleon's army invades Russia soon after.
  • Compressed Adaptation: By necessity, the film adaptations all greatly streamline and simplify the story as much as possible to make it remotely filmable, and some of them still have exceedingly long runtimes.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Probably expected, considering one of the central themes of the novel is the role of fate in one's life.
    • Who else should turn up at the Bolkonskys' property to help them evacuate and put down a small peasant revolt but Nikolai Rostov and his regiment?
    • The Rostovs open their estate to none other the soldiers from Borodino who just happen to have Andrei's wounded body.
    • The Russian squadron that ambushes the French soldiers holding Pierre prisoner turn out to be none other than Dolokhov's.
  • Cultural Cringe: After Austerlitz, Prince Andrei is convinced the organization of the Russian military is very poor and has to be improved by copying the laws and regulations of the Napoleonic French Empire. He gets furiously rebuked for this by the Minister of War.
  • Dead Guy Junior: In the First Epilogue, Marya and Nikolai name their son Andrei, and Natasha and Pierre name their son Petya.
  • Death of the Hypotenuse: Pierre has a Love Epiphany about Natasha, but at that point he's married to Hélène and she's just lost both her lovers as a result of a botched elopement. Near the end of the novel, Hélène and Andrey both die, leaving Pierre and Natasha free to marry.
  • Delusions of Eloquence: Julie Karagina cannot speak her own language, and Anatole's French is lacking.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Pierre and Prince Andrei are both extremely disillusioned with St. Petersburg society and wish to change this.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Prince Bagration at Schongraben, despite his army being massacred, has this odd calm to him. Captain Tushin is more Psychopathic Manchild and doesn't seem to realize he should have retreated hours ago.
  • Distant Finale: There's an epilogue that takes place about eight years after the final events of the main novel, showing what some of the characters have been up to.
  • Doorstopper: This is a big book. It clocks in at over 1,200 pages. The versions you'll see in the store have smaller fonts so it can cram more in per page and still be bound in a single volume. While it has since been surpassed in length by many other works (War and Peace no longer breaks even the top 10), it was one of the earliest examples, such that "War and Peace" became a by-word in English for "Really Long Book" and remains so to this day. This actually became its chief claim to fame among English-speakers, many of whom probably couldn't even tell you what the book is about. They just know that it's really long.
  • Duel to the Death: Defied. Young Nikolai Rostov, upon being called a liar by his colonel, challenges him to a duel, feeling that, as a noble, he's entitled to it. His comrades dissuade him of it. See Treachery Cover Up.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: The Russian troops pay a lot of attention to a couple of young women among a refugee family crossing their bridge.
  • Eloquent in My Native Tongue: Subversion. The majority of the schooled classes of the Russian society, from the highest nobles to the least clerks, were not eloquent in either native Russian or imported French, they spoke a Russo-French jargon which only they fully understood among them. Truth in Television, but exaggerated by Tolstoy for purposes of Irony.
  • The Epic: A Genre Deconstruction of the typical epic. It's a long, sweeping story about war and the fate of nations, but emphasizes that the traditional genre idea of great heroes whose individual actions change the world dramatically isn't how things happen in real life, with those who think they are such heroes, rather than tools of a complex and unknowable fate and sweep up history, being ultimately pathetic people who pride themselves on their cruelty.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Dolokhov, for all his near-psychopathy, cares greatly for his mother, to the point that he thinks of her after he gets shot in a duel.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Rostov children have an "Uncle." We're never told what side of the family or even if the guy has a name.
  • Fallen Princess: The Rostovs' social standing and property disappears with their finances. Nikolai's gambling debts and Natasha's reputation don't help matters.
  • Foregone Conclusion: We know Napoleon's invasion of Russia fails. And if we didn't, Tolstoy tells us it fails before it happens.
  • Funetik Aksent: Vaska Denisov has a stghrange tic of pghronunciation, though it may just be an attempt at imitating French pronunciation when speaking Russian (very fashionable at the time). Many Russian nobles had a similar accent throughout the XIX century. In the Alan Munro audiobook version, his accent is rendered in English as Elmuh Fudd Syndwome.
  • Gentlemen Rankers: Private Dolokhov is a former Hussar officer now serving in the ranks. Officers who once served under him now refuse to speak to him.
  • Girls with Moustaches:
    • Princess Lisa Bolkonskaya has a small moustache. Tolstoy keeps going on and on about how beautiful it is and how charming it makes her this small fault. Princess Lisa has been described as a very nice and cute woman and put into contrast with haughty and wicked aristocratic ladies around.
    • In another instance, Sonya and Natasha both wear false moustaches. Sonya is so dashing and charming that everyone takes notice of her, and Nicholas' love for her is rekindled.
  • Goth: Julie Karagina, sort of. While Goth subculture as we know it didn't exist back then, Gothic literature certainly did.
  • Heroic Bastard: Pierre, although his father, on his death bed, reveals that he's managed to have him legitimized. While he isn't "heroic" through any great achievements or feats of strength, he's one of the more prominent characters, and his Character Development from a lazy hedonist to a respectable gentleman is one of the overarching story arcs in the book.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Pierre and Andrei. Even after not having seen each other in years, their friendship remains just as strong.
  • Historical Downgrade: This book loves to do this to every major historical figure in the war, particularly Napoleon, emphasizing how they don't really know what's going on and their commands are actually so out of touch with the actual reality of war that they don't matter much at all, as well as showing them to have more pathetic human motivations. This is to criticize the "Great Man" view of history that was popular at the time.
  • Historical Fiction: Set during the Napoleonic wars.
  • Honour Before Reason: Played With, the regiment's honour is more important than that of any of its members, and it's certainly more important than the truth.
  • Impoverished Patrician: The Rostov family slowly descends into this as it attempts to live beyond its means, coupled with Nikolai's enormous gambling debts.
  • Incest Standards Are Relative: Sonya is secretly delighted when Andrey and Natasha reunite because Nikolay can't possibly have an 'incestuous' relationship with Marya; this despite the fact that Sonya is his blood relation (first cousins), while Marya is only his brother-in-law's sister. Which, to clarify, made her his actual sister by the standards of the time, while a cousin is just extended family and therefore at least one step removed.
  • Interservice Rivalry:
    The infantry who had been stopped crowded near the bridge in the trampled mud and gazed with that particular feeling of ill-will, estrangement, and ridicule with which troops of different arms usually encounter one another at the clean, smart hussars who moved past them in regular order.
  • It's All About Me: The Kuragin siblings. Anatole never thinks of the effect his actions will have on other people, and refuses to consider the consequences of eloping with Natasha, especially when he's already married. Hélène is so self-absorbed and shallow that she deludes herself into believing that Pierre is so much in love with her, he'll willingly grant her a divorce so she can marry one of her lovers.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Subverted. Anatole doesn't quite get away with his shenanigans scot-free. He's forced to leave Moscow, and later is wounded and has to have his leg traumatically amputated at the Battle of Borodino.
    • Dolokhov, on the other hand, does, although admittedly he accepts fault for some of his actions and makes amends with Pierre.
  • Large and in Charge: Subverted with Kutuzov, an old fat man who inspires absolute zilch in his troops. Double subverted in that he's shown to be essentially the only person who actually knows what he's doing in the whole war, or at least who knows there are certain things he can't know and must thus plan accordingly.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Hélène Kuragin is constantly unfaithful to her husband. It's put about in polite society that she dies from a 'heart condition', but the narrative strongly implies that the cause of death was actually the botched abortion of an illegitimate child.
  • Last-Minute Hookup: Between Pierre and Natasha, who marry years after the invasion of Moscow.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Natasha is at the center of one involving both Author Avatar characters (Andrei and Pierre), who both love her. Pierre is stuck in a loveless marriage with Hélène, who cheats on him with several men, including Dolokhov and Boris. Dolokhov is also interested in Sonya, Natasha's cousin, who's got a Childhood Marriage Promise with Natasha's brother Nikolai. Boris is teased as a potential suitor for Natasha but nothing comes of it, eventually ending up with childhood playmate Julie. Also interested in Natasha is Anatole, Hélène's brother (and possibly also lover), to the detriment of everyone involved. Anatole and Boris have also tried for Andrei's sister Marya's hand, but she rejects them both, eventually ending up with Nikolai.
  • Love Epiphany: Pierre is hit hard with the realization that he loves Natasha when he's comforting her after the debacle with Anatole and her broken engagement. He declares that, if he were free from Hélène and the best man in the world, he'd propose to her without a thought.
  • Love Triangle: There's the Pierre/Hélène/Natasha, the Nikolai/Sonya/Marya, and the Natasha/Andrei/Anatole.
  • Meet the In-Laws: Natasha goes to meet the Bolkonskys to better their relations, as she's engaged to Andrei. It doesn't go well, and the insecurity that arises because of this makes her a ripe target for Anatole's seduction.
  • Melodrama: Stealing a bag of money from the regiment's coffers is treated by all involved with the sort of emotion you'd expect of a tumultuous breakup.
  • Mother Russia Makes You Strong: Averted. The traditional image of the Russian warrior as massive, macho, boorish, strong and heavy drinker simply does not exist, which is quite weird coming from an author who extolled the strength and bravery of the ordinary Russian people. In practice, the Russians are described repeatedly as inferior in numbers, training and military skill to the Frenchmen, but compensating by their sheer will to never give up, those in charge of military issues are usually idealistic and delicate men like Prince Andrei, the best artillery officer is Captain Tushin, a small guy of unassuming appearance, the Muzhiks are simple and illiterate militiamen used for digging trenches and earthworks, and those who perform traditional macho stunts (Dolokhov, Pierre himself in the opening chapter) are treated with contempt and disapproval.
  • New Child Left Behind: Andrei's wife is pregnant the first time he goes to fight in the war.
  • Nice to the Waiter: Natasha's capricious nature is revealed in the way she constantly asks the hired help to perform pointless menial tasks just because she can. One could say that this foreshadows the whole affair with Anatole...
  • Noodle Incident: Dolokhov at one point has "Persian adventures", but this also applies to the various historical events the characters continuously refer to, events no one who didn't live in the early 1800s or isn't a professor of European history with a specialization on the pre-Industrial Revolution era can remember now.note 
  • Not Quite Dead: Prince Andrei is left for dead after Austerlitz, but makes quite the recovery after people assume he's dead.
  • The Noun and the Noun: War and Peace.
  • Number of the Beast:
    • Napoleon's name, calculated in a certain way, adds up to 666. This is brought up in the book.
    • Also parodied with Pierre Bezukhov. Pierre wants to believe that he is the Chosen One destined to defeat Napoleon, and tries to write his name in such a way as to get the 666 sum. After several attempts he succeeds...but he cheats by using the wrong French article and butchering the spelling of his own name
  • Obi-Wan Moment:
    • Osip Bazdeev goes out relatively quietly in his bed, Platon Karataev goes out shot by the French in an unusual moment of calm for him.
    • Prince Andrei seems to have one relatively early in the book, but it's then subverted by the fact that he doesn't actually die.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted - there are plenty of Nikolais and Timokhins to go around. Usually because the offspring of one set of characters seems to get the names of their still-living grandparents.
  • Peer Pressure Makes You Evil: Better to be called a liar than to shame the group with an inconvenient truth.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Count Feodor Rostopchin, military governor of Moscow, is portrayed as incompetent, delusional, tyrannical, cruel, stupid, biased, ass-kisser to the Tsar and coward before the enemy, and this is only the beginning.
  • Pretty in Mink: Hey, it's Russia, everyone hangs out in fur coats in the winter. Adaptations have a lot of fun with this trope.
  • Psychic Dreams for Everyone: Sonya's vision of Prince Andrei's death, young Nikolai's dream about the Decembrists. Pierre has his share of these, too.
  • Put on a Bus: Happens to everyone besides main characters at one point or another, with minor characters sometimes going books at a time without an appearance.
  • Roadside Wave: Mounted hussars do a horsey version to infantrymen they were passing by, mocking them all along.
  • Scenery Porn: The river Enns as the Russian troops crossed it, especially the left, alpine side. Not shied away from in the 2016 BBC adaptation; St Petersburg and Moscow are very pretty. Many of the interiors look as if they were shot in real Russian palaces. The 1967 version takes this one step further and shoots in *actual* Russian palaces
  • Sliding Scale of Gender Inequality: The characters are all realistically written and have depth, but the society the story takes place in makes this squarely level 3.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: There's a character for every point on the scale. The book falls into the middle because of this.
  • Social Climber:
    • The Kuragins. Patriarch Vassily resents missing out on Bezukhov's sweet, sweet inheritance, so he schemes to have Pierre marry his daughter Hélène to secure part of the fortune.
    • Anna Mikhailovna very blatantly schemes to get her son Boris a secure, high-ranking position and a wealthy wife. She winds up succeeding on both counts.
  • Stepford Smiler: Countess Rostov. Not at first, but increasingly so later on, as her family's finances sink into ever more dire straits.
  • Suffrage and Political Liberation: Natasha Rostov makes an exemplary wife and mother who focuses all her attention to her family at the end of the book. The narrator mentions that there are now conversations and discussions about women's rights, the relations of husband and wife and their freedom and rights, though these themes were not yet termed as questions or issues. These topics are uninteresting to Natasha and she positively does not understand them despite being an intelligent, spirited and educated lady. Tolstoy seems to be of this opinion:
    These questions existed only for those who see nothing in marriage but the pleasure married people get from one another, that is, only the beginnings of marriage and not its whole significance, which lies in the family.
  • Super-Strength: Pierre has a more mundane version of this. He's incredibly strong, as shown when - furious with Hélène - he picks up a marble table and threatens to hit her with it!
  • Ten Paces and Turn: At least two, the famous one being between Pierre and Dolokhov.
  • This Is My Name on Foreign: How many ways are there to introduce yourself? As many languages as you know, of course! Most notably, Pyotr Bezukhov is known almost exclusively as "Pierre", while Elena Kuragina is most commonly known as "Hélène".
  • Treachery Cover Up: When Rostov tries to take fellow officer Telyanin to task for stealing the regiment's money, he's called a liar by his colonel, much to his outrage. His fellow officers convince him to drop the matter because it wouldn't do if people said there were thieves among their regiment.
  • Twitchy Eye: A habit of the old Prince Bolkonsky. The other characters aren't sure if it's just him or some sort of mental disease.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: When Old Count Bezukhov dies, everything goes to his bastardnote  son Pierre—the house, the title, the money, everything. His three stepsisters are unpleasantly surprised, to say the least.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Ippolit Kuragin didn't get the good looks or manipulative minds of his siblings Anatole and Hélène. He makes up for it by being an idiot.
  • War Is Glorious: More like "War is a fun field trip". Some chapters describing the battles are very lighthearted and focus on the beautiful scenery and the fun of battle.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: Princess Marya's eyes are one of the few beautiful things about her.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Elena Kuragina, or Hélène, is the most beautiful woman on Earth. There's a reason War and Peace doesn't have pictures.

Alternative Title(s): War And Peace