Tolstoy’s People

Many great works of literature are built on a central paradox. Like the Penrose steps, they appear to lead one way or another, depending on our perspective. Is Dante’s great poem an allegory or a realistic narrative? Milton intended his depiction of Satan to explore the deceptive nature of evil, but he created in him the most interesting character in Paradise Lost. In a similar way, throughout War and Peace, Tolstoy sought to demonstrate that the individual counts for little in movements of history, and yet it is the individual characters that draw us back to this novel again and again.

The sheer size of the book is often daunting to readers. It mirrors the grand scope of the story, which takes us from the salons of Petersburg to the battlefields of Austerlitz and from the first Austrian campaign to Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia. The word epic has been greatly abused in recent years, but few works have so richly deserved this adjective. And not only are the tectonic movements of the age considered, but we are treated to hunting parties and society balls, duels and intrigues, religious conversions, and love affairs. It is a novel that takes its time while we wait and watch the snowfall during Lise Bolkonsky’s confinement or eavesdrop as Pierre and Andre share their views of life. Above all, it is a book that allows one to sink into it and simply live in it for a time.

The story centers on the fortunes of three families during the Napoleonic wars. At the outset, the spendthrift Count Rostov sends his eldest son Nicolai off to fight against Bonaparte as a hussar. The Rostov’s have three other children, including the effervescent Natasha, whose mercurial energy drives many turns of the story’s plot. Prince Andre Bolkonsky joins the army as a staff officer. He must leave his pregnant wife, Lise, with his eccentric father and devout sister at the family estate at Bald Hills. His fellow intellectual, the absent-minded Pierre Bezhuhoff, begins the novel as a cast-off illegitimate son. Very soon, he inherits great wealth and a high position in society. As the tale progresses, we watch their fortunes wax and wane as the great tides of history unfold and break around them.

Interlaced with the events of Tolstoy’s tale are digressions that explore the writer’s view of history. These didactic passages make the case that historical figures such as Napoleon or Alexander are as much acted upon by historical forces as they are the makers of history. Throughout, Tolstoy continually asks himself and us, “what is the power that moves people?” 1 Most often, he answers by contending against the idea that any one person has the power to drive a nation to war or peace. He writes, “So long as histories are written of separate individuals, whether Caesars, Alexanders, Luthers or Voltaires and not of the histories of all those who take part in an event, it is quite impossible to describe the movement of humanity. ” 2

Tolstoy’s views are intriguing and often seem to approach a nineteenth-century vision of chaos theory and the butterfly effect. I suspect, though, what draws the reader through these sections and causes them to return to this novel are the vivid individual characters the writer has created.

What is remarkable about Tolstoy’s characterization is that it seems so effortless. With a few deft strokes of the pen, he sets before us people that seem as real as any we meet in daily life. There is a freshness and an artless to this aspect of Tolstoy’s art that few writers ever achieve.

For example, when the French capture Pierre, he shares his misfortunes with a fellow prisoner of war. Tolstoy writes of him, “When Pierre remembered them afterward they all seemed like misty figures to him except Platon Karataev, who always remained in his mind a most precious and vivid memory of everything Russian, kindly, and round…[He] must have been fifty judging by his stories of campaigns he had been in, told as by an old soldier. He did not himself know his age and was quite unable to determine it. But his brilliantly white, strong teeth, which showed in two unbroken semicircles when he laughed-as he often did-were all sound and good. There was not a grey hair in his beard or on his head. His whole body gave an impression of suppleness and especially of firmness or endurance. His face, despite its fine rounded wrinkles, had an expression of innocence and youth. His voice was pleasant and musical. But the chief peculiarity of his speech was its directness and appositeness. It was evident that he never considered what he had said or was going to say, and consequently, the rapidity and justice of his intonation had an irresistible persuasiveness.” 3

Nor does Tolstoy merely describe his people. He shows us their character in action. Prince Andre is cold and arrogant in the presence of society people but grows warm and animated when speaking with his close friends. His comrade Pierre is full of noble resolutions but continually changes his mind, taking up one thing and then another.

Tolstoy may have written his novel to share with the world his views on history. But ultimately, we read War and Peace not because we care about his philosophical insights. We read him because we care about the people in his story. We care whether Natasha will marry Andrei or whether Dolokhoff will kill Pierre in their duel. We cringe at the elder Bolkonsky’s controlling behavior and agonize with Nicolai over his moral and romantic dilemmas. Like Platon Karataev, they remain in our minds long after the lessons Tolstoy wishes to teach us have become misty and dim. Individuals may be mere motes in the river of history, but as we watch from this particular bridge, it is the motes that attract our eye.


  1. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, Louise and Aylmer Maude Tr. Amy Mandelker Ed. Oxford University Press, Oxford World Classics, 2010. p. 1273
  2. Tolstoy, p.1277
  3. Tolstoy, p. 1045

Tolstoy’s People: copyright 2021 by Jonathan Golding. All rights reserved.

Cover Art: Detail from The Battle of Moscow by Louis Francois Lejeune. Public Domain

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