Hayden White War and Peace: Against Historical Realism

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Hayden White

War and Peace: Against Historical Realism

“We Russians in general do not know

how to write novels in the sense in

which this genre is understood in Europe.”


Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1865-69) is a massive and infinitely complex work, of which no brief summary can possibly do justice. It is essentially two big books, one historical, the other fictional, combined to provide an account of the effect on Russian society of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Since it mixes a number of genres—history, novel, epic--critics have disagreed on how to classify it. Here I will consider it as an example of what it most manifestly is, namely, a historical novel. But War and Peace is a historical novel of a particular kind: it seeks to show that while we cannot escape using “history” as a context for the representation of great events, “historical” accounts of such events can not in any way explain them. Indeed, War and Peace is a work which at once consummates the historical novel and effectively dismantles it. In the process, it undermines Western European literary realism by questioning the ideology of history on which it was based.

Tolstoy himself denied that his account of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 fell under the rubric of any specific genre. A later critic, Boris Eikhenbaum,2 said that Tolstoy had begun the work—originally entitled 1805—as a combination of two well-established Russian genres, the “family novel” and the “military-historical novel.” But from the beginning of Book VII, Eikhenbaum claimed, the book developed into a new genre, the historico-philosophical epic. Thus, we can identify at least three generic strands braided together to make War and Peace: a historical strand (the story of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia), a novelistic strand (the stories of the impact of this war on four fictional Russian noble families), and a philosophical strand (discursive digressions on certain abstract ideas suggested by the events, historical and fictional, recounted in the book). It is this combination of the strands of historical narrative, fictional family themes, and philosophical discourse that makes of War and Peace a consummation of the genre of the historical novel. Tolstoy not only composes a historical novel, he submits the genre to analysis in the light of his own philosophy of history. This critical-philosophical dimension was utterly lacking in the great historical novelists preceding Tolstoy: Scott, Manzoni, and Dumas.


Although War and Peace is very long, the action it describes extends over a relatively short period of time, the seven years between the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 and Napoleon’s exit from Russia on December 5, 1812. The action is roughly divided between a story of the military campaigns, battles, and maneuvering of the war and an account of life in Russian high society as it was affected by the war. The one tells of efforts to win land, power, and glory by military means and the other of efforts to win love, power, and wealth by the means provided by “society.” The two stories do not quite ever converge, but then there is no reason for them to do so, since they are about the same thing: the similarities between “war” and “peace.”

Issued originally as a serial publication between 1865 and 1869, most editions of War and Peace divide it into a sequence of books with sub-sections or chapters. There is very little continuity from book to book (although they are chronologically organized) or from one subsection to another. The segments constitute rather a series of vignettes, anecdotes, small histories (here are three in a row from Book VIII: “The Rostovs at the Opera, Helene in the Next Box,” “The Opera Described,” “Anatole and Dolokhov in Moscow,” etc.). These vignettes sometimes resemble the faits divers of contemporary newspapers. Characters do not develop from one episode to the next but rather simply appear with a whole new set of attributes from time to time. But then again, the whole action of the book covers only a scant seven years. There are some moments of revelation: Bolkonsky has one, Pierre has a number; and one character, Natasha Rostova, actually grows up—but there are no significant, lasting character changes amongst any of them. Rather than development, most of the characters undergo a kind of refiguration, with new traits being added and old traits being rearranged, as they suffer one disappointment or frustration after another in “war and peace.” War and Peace is not a happy novel, even though Tolstoy originally planned it was a kind of comedy in which all would be well that ended well.

I mentioned earlier that the sections that make up War and Peace constitute a series but not a sequence. Sequentiality distributes meaning across a narrative space hypotactically: a fancy way of saying that it gradually distnguishes between what is important and what is unimportant among all the data in the text and points everything to a denounment or point of completion in which the dominant significance of the events related can finally be grasped or understood. Typically, a historical treatment of events consists of the attempt to reveal sequence (narrative emplotment) in place of what appears to be mere seriality (the chronicle). But Tolstoy resists sequentiality because he is dealing with history: he does not believe that history has a plot. In order to resist the lure of emplotment, then, he reverts to chronology as the gross organizing principle of his account of life in Russia, 1805-1812.

Thus, Books I – VI relate events of the years 1805-1810 and consist of a rather straightforward account of military and diplomatic relations between France and Russia, descriptions of some early battles between Napoleon’s Grand Army and a Russo-Austrian alliance, and the introduction of the principal fictional characters representing the Russian nobility. The book begins without an introduction, just as it will terminate some 1400 pages later without an ending, as if we were watching a movie without a beginning or an ending . We are plunged immediately into a social scene in St. Petersburg, a soirée at which the career of the upstart Napoleon Bonaparte is being discussed. We are introduced to Pierre Bezhukov (who will turn out to be the principal fictional figure of the book), but given virtually no background about him (he is illegitimate but his mother is never mentioned and we are told nothing about his childhood or upbringing). He is anything but impressive—and remains so until the end. He does very little, but much happens to him.

As a hero, Pierre leaves much to be desired; he is rather more the type of the country bumpkin come to the city than the incarnation of aristocratic virtus. Pierre’s friend, Andrei Bolkonsky, is a more promising candidate for the role of hero. The first six books follow intermittently the story of Prince Andrei’s loveless marriage and death of his wife in childbirth, his melancholic disenchantment with life, his love for the beautiful young Countess Natasha Rostova, and their engagement. But he fails as a hero too. He botches his engagement with Natasha and dies before he can make things right with her.

Books VII and VIII provide a kind of transition between the years 1807-1812 and a preparation for the new philosophy of history that will be used to deconstruct official accounts of the War of1812. Book VII deals with “peace,” life in the country, and the happy Rostov family at home, while Book VIII depicts life in the city, Moscow, the seduction of Natasha Rostova by Anatole Kuragin, the brother-in-law of Pierre, Pierre’s foiling of Anatole’s plan to abduct Natasha, Andrei’s rejection of Natasha, Natasha’s failed attempt at suicide, and Pierre’s realization that he loves Natasha rather than his errant wife, Helene Kuragina, whom he had shamefully married out of lust alone. As this poor summary suggests, much begins to happen in the fictional sections of the book as Tolstoy prepares us for the complications arising because of the onset of “history.”

Books IX to XV, the largest “portion” of the book, deal with the seven months of “war,” from May to December, of the year 1812. They relate how Napoleon invades Russia and is opposed by Russian troops under the command of the ancient, exhausted, crippled and nearly blind Field Marshal Kutuzov, how Napoleon’s army makes its way to Moscow, occupies it, and sacks it; how Napoleon loses control of his army as it turns into a rabble of looters and drunkards, how Napoleon decides to pull out of Moscow and make his way home to France, how what remains of his army is destroyed in retreat, and, how, finally, Napoleon abandons the remnants of the half a million men he had originally led into Russia and returns to France and his Waterloo.

This portion of the text is where the substance of War and Peace is to be found. Here is where “history” ceases to be an account of the past and emerges as a force in itself and reveals itself as the hidden manipulator of the destinies of both individual men and nations.

The change between the notion of history as the sum total of events in the past to that of “history” as a force that makes events happen and gives human society a specific though unknowable direction, emerges explicitly in Book IX, where the narrator reflects on the irony of the belief of great men that they are the causes of historical change rather than the consequents thereof. The historians, Tolstoy argues, feed the vanity of the kings and generals by writing history as if its occurrences were due to their wills, their wishes, and their commands. In reality, he insists, every historical event is the consequence of “myriads of causes,” so many as to make history “unreasonable and incomprehensible.” The movements of men and peoples requires the acquiescence of every man involved in them, so that anything that actually happened might well not have happened, but having happened, now appears necessary and inevitable. (W&P, 537) We are left therefore in a paradoxical situation in which we must affirm at one and the same time our determination by history and our freedom from it. On this point, Tolstoy seems to believe in a “coincidence of opposites.” For although he spends a great deal of time showing that everything in history “had to occur because it had to,” (Ibid.) he also shows that it is ultimately unimportant whether we regard ourselves as determined or free in any given situation. Thus Tolstoy writes:

There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life, which is the more free the more abstract his interests, and his elemental hive life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him.

Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. (W&P, 537)

Men are split—Tolstoy holds--between their conscious lives, which they experience as if they were free, and their animal, bodily, or “hive” lives, which are not “experienced” at all but are simply lived as if “natural.” These two dimensions of human life are, Tolstoy maintains, inversely related to the degree of social power which the individual enjoys: “The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he is connected with and the more power he has over others, the more evident is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.” (Ibid.) Thus, for Tolstoy, “A king is history’s slave”—and it follows, or so it would seem, that the lowliest serf is in some sense the most “free” of men. (Ibid.)

By this kind of reasoning, personal fulfillment consists in the recognition that what one consciously wants or desires or aspires to, is in reality a result of social conditioning, while what one should want and what one should seek is immersion in the life of the “hive” where generation and death serve the ends of “life” rather than of society. Though Napoleon thought that he was the architect of the wars he would fight to conquer Russia, “he had never been so much in the grip of inevitable laws, which compelled him, while thinking that he was acting on his own volition, to perform for the hive life—that is to say, for history—whatever had to be performed.” (Ibid., 537-380) This is less paradoxical than it may at first seem. For Tolstoy believes that since every event is a result of all of the causal forces at work in the whole of history, the human sense of freedom of will has to be regarded as predestined also; so that, whether men are free or not, their sense of being free has to be factored into the causes contributing to the occurrence of all events caused by human beings. The more important point to be made by Tolstoy is that the more power enjoyed by any given individual or group, the greater the delusion about the nature and extent of that power and the greater the suffering caused in pursuit of it. Fulfillment will consist then in the abandonment of any effort to gain power or exercise it and the return to the “hive” life represented by family, caste, and race. Passivity is the condition to be aspired to. The capacity to act, the characteristic of heroes, is a problem, the source of all that is terrible in socially organized existence.

Thus, the apparent difference between agency and patiency, or action and passion, the difference on which is made the distinction between a heroic life, on the one side, and an ordinary, humble, or inconsequential life, on the other, turns out to be a false dichotomy. Napoleon, the man of action par excellence, will be shown to have been the product of forces over which he had no control at all; while Kutusov, the somnolent, near-blind, aged, and distracted non-general, will turn out to be the victor over Napoleon and the savior of Russia. Kutusov is the incarnation of active passivity, while Napoleon is nothing other than a passive activist. Kutusov’s strength of will is manifested in his resistance to every effort to force him into battle with Napoleon, while Napoleon’s is shown in his insistence on doing battle whenever and wherever he can. Thus the one wills his victory through passivity, the other his defeat through action. In War and Peace, war is an absurd activity, in the end a farce.

In Book X, for example, Tolstoy interrupts his account of Pierre Bezukhov’s visit to the battlefield of Borodinó to remark on the senselessness of this battle’s ever having been fought at all.

On the twenty-fourth of August the battle of Shevárdino Redoubt was fought, on the twenty-fifth not a shot was fired by either side, and on the twenty-sixth the battle of Borodinó itself took place.

Why and how were the battles of Shevardino and Borodinó given and accepted? Why was the battle of Borodinó fought? There was not the least sense in it for either the French or the Russians. Its immediate result for the Russians was, and was bound to be, that we were brought nearer to the destruction of Moscow—which we feared more than anything in the world; and for the French its immediate result was that they were brought nearer to the destruction of their whole army—which they feared more than anything in the world. What the result must be was quite obvious, and yet Napoleon offered and Kutuzov accepted that battle. (Gibian ed., War and Peace, p. 671-72)

Tolstoy’s explanation—as against that of the official historians’ false ideas—was that, “Kutuzov acted involuntarily and irrationally. But later on, to fit what had occurred, the historians provided cunningly devised evidence of the foresight and genius of the generals, who of all the blind tools of history were the most enslaved and involuntary.” (Ibid., 672)

Tolstoy makes fun of military strategists and tacticians, with their charts, maps, diagrams, who try to make of modern, mass warfare a matter of precise planning. The sheer numbers of the armies engaged in the invasion of Russia make of the campaigns fought by both sides a matter more of inertial drift than of choice and decision. Tolstoy depicts Napoleon as making arbitrary decisions for which no reason is given, wasting his army like a child consuming sweets, and pouting when his will thwarted. Kutuzov, on the other hand, knows only one thing, to keep his army or the remnants of it intact, to fight only when he is forced to, and to retreat, retreat, retreat—even to the point of forfeiting Moscow to the enemy. It is a battle of false brilliance and egotism against true dullness, patience, and resignation to fate. Ultimately, Napoleon finds himself occupying an uninhabited city, his army lacking winter gear, and his supply lines cut.

Yet Napoleon, that greatest of all geniuses, who the historians declare had control of the army, . . . . used his power to select the most foolish and ruinous of all the courses open to him. . . . [H]e quitted Moscow [p. 886] . . . .During the whole of that period Napoleon, who seems to have been the leader of all these movements—as the figurehead of a ship may seem to a savage to guide the vessel—acted like child who, holding a couple of strings inside a carriage, thinks he is driving it. [Ibid., 892]

This is why the war story in War and Peace, although depicting a lot of exertion, strife, battle, and destruction, ultimately will have nothing heroic about it. What first appears heroic and noble, even tragic to the historians of the period, is unmasked by Tolstoy as a senseless, murderous, and profitless adventure by a charlatan from the West who had little idea of what he was doing. The “heroism” of the Russians, in response to Napoleon’s attack, is of the Stoic and passive kind. The Russians simply endure. That is their genius as a race.

Thus, after an interview with General Kutuzov, Prince Andrei goes back to his regiment,

reassured as to the general course of affairs and as to the man to whom they had been entrusted. The more that he realized the absence of all personal motive in that old man—in whom there seemed to remain only the habit of passions, and in place of an intellect (grouping events and drawing conclusions) only the capacity calmly to contemplate the course of events—the more reassured he was that everything would be as it should

. . . . “And above all,” thought Prince Andrei, “one believes in him because he’s Russian . . . .”(Ibid., 664)

Of course, this is Andrei speaking, not Tolstoy; and we cannot be sure that Tolstoy does not wish his readers to take Andrei’s ideas with a grain of salt—especially since Andrei is one of those “intelligent” men who always sees reality through the lens of his reason rather than by means of his feelings. “Russianness” plays a part in Tolstoy’s epic, however, as an explanation of Russia’s victory over the tyrant from the West.

Indeed, it could be argued that, in the military-historical parts of the novel, Tolstoy pits “Frenchness” against “Russianness,” the one all consciousness, glitter, raison, style, and action, the other all feeling, solidity, patience, earthiness, and passion. This is why, in spite of all the movement, sound and fury of the war story, nothing quite happens. Although there are many occurrences in War and Peace, it is very difficult to identify specific events and the chains of effects that any given event might have had on subsequent events. Battles begin more by chance than design and they end without decisive outcomes. Monarchs, generals, and other officers issue orders but invariably these become lost or misdirected or ignored by subordinates. Moscow is occupied by the French but never quite subdued. As Moscow is abandoned by the Russian army, Napoleon appears to have won the war against Russia, but the Russians refuse to recognize his victory, to treat with him, or to fight him openly. In the end, Napoleon is forced to abandon Moscow because the Russians simply act as if he had never been there. The Russian General Kutuzov wins—if he can be said to have “won” at all—by doing as little as possible, by retreating in the face of Napoleon’s army, by abandoning Moscow, and by allowing Napoleon to exhaust himself in fruitlessly waiting to be greeted as a conqueror. Thus, as an account of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, War and Peace is a history without events or the kinds of actions that might add up to a plot. In this eventlessness and plotlessness, it therefore can be said to approximate to, if not anticipate the modernist novel—or that aspect of modernism already immanent in a realist like the Flaubert of The Sentimental Education.


All of the principal Russian fictional characters in War and Peace belong to the class of the nobility. An exception is Platon Karataev, an illiterate old soldier who piously believes in the harmony of the universe, who befriends Pierre in captivity, is shot like a dog when he falls along the roadside in exhaustion, and whom Pierre thinks of as “the personification of everything Russian . . . of spirit and truth.” (859, 861) Unlike all the aristocrats in the book, Karataev possesses a wisdom born of the Russian soil and its genius, but it is a wisdom more lived than thought. “Every word and action of his was the manifestation of an activity unknown to him, which was his life. But his life, as he regarded it, had no meaning as a separate thing. It had meaning only as part of a whole of which he was always conscious.” (861)

Karataev stands as the paradigm of a human being who has been liberated from society. He aspires to nothing, he wants nothing, he takes what comes to him, he feels no disjunction between himself and his milieu, he has no “self.” For Pierre, Karataev was “an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personfication of the spirit of simplicity and truth.” (Ibid.) He is the anti-hero par excellence, which is to say, a saint. All of the other characters in War and Peace are, finally, measured against him—and found wanting. And at the very end of the novel, in the epilogue that shows us the Bezukhov and Rostov families in 1820, Karataev is invoked as a test for Pierre’s desire to return to the world of society and take part in a political movement. Natasha asks Pierre whether Karataev would have approved of him and his plans to enter the political fight.

“No, he would not have approved,” said Pierre after reflection. “What he would have approved of is our family life. He was always so anxious to find seemliness, happiness, and peace in everything, and I should have been proud to let him see us.” (W&P, 1040)

This is the last scene in the novel. It is not an ending, but we have no idea what the future holds for Pierre and Natasha. We only know that Pierre and Natasha have found in their love for one another and in their family life a model for what Pierre at least thinks society might become.
“I only wished to say,” Pierre says, “that ideas that have great results are always simple ones. My whole idea is that if vicious people are united, and constitute a power, then honest folk must do the same. Now that’s simple enough.” (Ibid., 1041)

In one sense, Tolstoy wishes us to believe that the Russian nobility of the time had lost their “Russianness” the more they had become “socialized.” As they have become civilized, they have become frenchified. Tolstoy indicates this by having his Russian aristocrats speak in French more easily than in Russian; they revert to Russian when they are in the country and have to communicate with their serfs and servants. We meet Pierre at the beginning of the book just after he has returned from study in Paris, become an admirer of Napoleon and of French enlightenment, and taken on French ways in vivid contrast to his rustic Russian nature as reflected in his loutish appearance, his near-sightedness, and his gracelessness.

Physiologically, Pierre is the very antithesis of the beautiful cavaliers of the Russian court: Andrei, Anatole, Dolokhov, Boris, etc. Like Kutusov, Pierre is too fat to sit a horse comfortably, too near-sighted to observe what is going on around him, and too inarticulate to win fair women and persuade bright men. My own suspicion—but I can find no textual evidence to support it—is that Pierre’s mother was a serf woman and that his physical features are meant to signal his origins in the soil of Mother Russia. In any event, Pierre’s Bildung or “sentimental education” in the ways of the world is the reverse of that of his Western counterparts. His experiences of “war and peace” drive him further and further from “society,” deeper and deeper into a search for the kind of community he had found with other men when he had been taken prisoner by the French, threatened with death, deprived of every worldly possession, and left only with the brotherhood of Karataev—and his parables of the healing power of love. After Karataev has been killed by a French guard, Pierre one night falls down in exhaustion and dreams once more a dream he had dreamt at Mozhaysk after the battle of Borodino:

Again real events mingled with dreams and again someone, he or another gave expression to his thoughts, and even to the same that had been expressed in his dream at Mozhaysk.

“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything changes and moves and that movement is God. And while there is life there is joy in consciousness of the divine. To love life is to love God. Harder and more blessed than all else is to live this life in one’s sufferings, in innocent sufferings.”

“Karataev!” came to Pierre’s mind. (W&P, 941)

The change undergone by Pierre as a result of his experience of captivity and degradation is radical:

The very question that had formerly tormented him, the thing he had continually sought to find—the aim of life—no longer existed for him now. That search for the aim of life had not merely disappeared temporarily—he felt that it no longer existed for him and could not present itself again. And this very absence of an aim gave him the complete, joyous sense of freedom which constituted his happiness at this time. He now had faith—not faith in any kind of rule, or words, or ideas, but faith in an ever-living, very manifest God. (W&P, 977)

This new faith in God, however, gives Pierre a new relationship to other men and women.

The legitimate peculiarity of each individual which used to excite and irritate Pierre now became a basis of the sympathy he felt for, and the interest he took in other people. The difference, and sometimes complete contradiction, between men’s opinions and their lives, and between one man and another, pleased him and drew from him an amused and gentle smile. (Ibid., 980)

Pierre will not abide by these new insights: “the whole meaning of life” will become centered upon the delicious Natasha, now herself humbled by her experience of Prince Andrei’s death. (Ibid., 994)

Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, the nearest thing to a romantic hero in the book, loses the love of his life, Natasha Rostova, and dies of wounds received in a chance artillery barrage. He is melancholy, intelligent, and brave, a devoted son, a good friend, but an indifferent husband, bored father of his son, a formal lover of Natasha. In an early draft of his book, Tolstoy had meant him to live, marry, and flourish. But subsequently he decided to kill off Andrei in a scene which seems to suggest that the death of a noble spirit tested by adversity and loss can be fulfilling.

This discourse comes immediately after the account of Prince Andrei’s acceptance of death:

“Yes, death is an awakening!” And all at once it grew light in his soul and the veil that had till then concealed the unknown was lifted from his spiritual vision. He felt as if powers till then confined within him had been liberated, and that strange lightness did not again leave him. [p.873]

The bathos of this scene is embarrassing, however, and could be cited in support of a motion to exclude Tolstoy from any list of realists in the Western mode.

Natasha, the splendid, slender, dark-eyed beauty and nearest thing to a romantic heroine in the book, falls in love with one suiter after another, betrays Andrei for the fickle Anatole, indeed, shows herself to be “in love with love,” before finally repenting after she nurses Andrei to death, but is transformed by her relationship with Pierre, undergoing an improbable transformation into a fanatical housewife and obsessive mother at the end of the book. It might appear that Natasha (played by Audrey Hepburn in Visconti’s film version of the book) had finally grown up during the seven years that pass between her penultimate appearance at age twenty in 1813 and her last appearance at age twenty-seven in 1820. She has turned from a social butterfly into a mother of four children, a domineering if devoted wife, and domestic drudge. But as we shall soon see, the causes of her transformation are unclear. It is true that she has suffered much, but there is nothing tragic about her suffering, because it is not borne for any noble cause.

Nicholas Rostov, a simple-minded squire-type, soldier, hunter, dutiful son and honorable though indifferent lover, given to very little self-reflection, yet industrious and solemn, finally marries Andrei’s sister, Princess Marya Bolkonska, and saves thereby (she is a wealthy heiress) his spendthrift father’s estate. Nicholas prefers hunting, horses, drinking, soldiering, and the camaraderie of barracks to politics and society. But he foregoes a career in the army to become the rebuilder of the family estate ruined by Napoleon’s army, a punctilious farmer and administrator of his esates, and, finally, benign host to the families that came every year to visit-- “sometimes with sixteen horses and dozens of servants and stayed for months.” At the end of the book, he has embarked on a program of reading to improve his mind

The Kuragins, presided over by Prince Vasili, an influential political figure and court intriguer, are the one “bad” family among the four that matter. Pierre marries the voluptuously beautiful but cold daughter, Helene (Anita Ekberg in the Hollywood version), who soon rejects him as a dolt and failed lover, takes the greater part of his fortune, and leaves him to ponder his guilt over having married her out of lust in the first place. She becomes the center of the social scene in St. Petersburg and wields considerable social power until one of her intrigues goes awry. She dies under mysterious circumstances —possibly of suicide—after her lust for power and wealth leads her to contract marriage with two men at the same time. Helene’s brother, the charming rake, Anatole, seduces Natasha, ruins her engagement to Andrei, is run out of town by Pierre (his brother-in-law), and loses a leg at the battle of Borodinó.

As I have summarized the story, it would require only a change of names and scene to allow the action to pass for a Harlequin romance or a costume film epic in the United States in the 1950s. But there is a crucial difference: Tolstoy is dealing with a caste of aristocrats with which he had completely identified, which he admired and whose ideals he shared. By the time Tolstoy conceived War and Peace, this caste had lost its original social function but not its privileges. War and Peace, however, depicts the Russian nobility as still serving a vital military function, though its wealth, based on a massive serf population toiling in ignorance and slave-like conditions, with antiquated equipment and pre-industrial techniques of farming and manufacturing, was rapidly dissipating and its traditional privileges becoming difficult to justify. The rise of social and technological forces barely discernible in Russia at the time of the Napoleonic wars were fully recognizable by the time Tolstoy had served in the Crimean War (1854-56). The Russian aristocracy depicted by him is not yet quite degenerate, but it is coming apart at the seams and Tolstoy makes this abundantly clear.

But the reasons for this decline are not indicated.

Of course, Tolstoy was anything but an advocate of modernization. He later became a kind of social radical dedicated to pacifism, vegetarianism, and various versions of Christian pietism. In War and Peace, as in Anna Karenina, he idealizes the redemptive effects of work on the land, and in his idyllic depictions of family life at the end of the book, contrasts the peacefulness of this environment with the warlike nature of “society.” His description of the Rostov estate after Nicholas rebuilds it paints an idealized picture of what a well-run farm on which serfs are treated like human beings rather than cattle could promise in the way of a new life for Russia. This idea was absurd, to be sure, not because the abolition of serfdom was not necessary but because peasant agrarianism could not possibly serve as the basis for a modern society.

Tolstoy’s dream of a community based on a peasant economy rendered more efficient by respect for the land provides the utopian dimension of War and Peace but it is also an index of the distance between Tolstoy and the Western realistic writers of mid-century. The sign of their realism is their suppression of any utopian fantasies as an alternative to the class-divided societies for which they write.


I have indicated how Tolstoy both invokes history as a subject and at the same time reconceptualizes it in such a way as to deprive it of all explanatory force. I should now say that he does much the same sort of thing with his fictions. He invokes the archetypal characters of romance and the historical novel and at the same time places them within a context in which neither war nor peace is bearable for them. Thus, what starts out as realistic social analysis in the fictions of War and Peace ends up as pastoral. The principal characters all begin as representatives of their social class and status and end up either destroyed by their thoughtless acceptance of the social code or converted to the joys of family life in the country.

In fact, the ending of the fictional story is jerry-built, simply tacked on as a part of an “epilogue” which begins with a longish discourse on “on the forces operating in history” and abruptly segues into an account of the conditions of the Rostov and Bezukhov families in the year 1820. It is as if Tolstoy had grown bored with his topic and even a bit irritated with his characters. In the end, he sells them down the river as vapid representatives of his growing archaism.

For example, the Natasha who appears in 1820 (fifteen years after she is introduced into society at the beginning of the book) has undergone a transformation of both body and spirit that is utterly unmotivated. After a thousand pages of singing praises of her beauty and vitality—metonymized in her slender hands and feet , large dark eyes, and darting spirit—he describes her thus as she appears in 1820:

Natasha had married in the early spring of 1813, and in 1820 already had three daughters besides a son for whom she had longed and who she was now nursing. She had grown stouter and broader, so that it was difficult to recognize in this robust, motherly woman the slim, lively Natasha of former days. Her features were more defined and had a calm, soft, and serene expression. In her face there was none of the ever-glowing animation that had formerly burned there and constituted its charm. Now her face and body were often all that one saw, and her soul was not visible at all. All that struck the eye was a strong, handsome, fertile woman. The old fire was rarely kindled in her face now. That happened only when, as was the case that day, her husband returned home, or a sick child was convalescent, . . . or on the rare occasions when something happened to induce her to sing, a practice she had quite abandoned since her marriage. At the rare moments when the old fire did kindle in her handsome, fully developed body she was even more attractive than in former days. . . . She took no pains with her manners or with delicacy of speech, of with her toilet, or to show herself to her husband in her most becoming attitudes, or to avoid inconveniencing him by being too exacting. . . . The subject which totally engrossed Natasha was her family, . . . .

(W&P, p.p. 1020-1021.)

Was Natasha inauthentic, false and artificial fifteen years before when she was the belle of Moscovite society? Why is it that now, “she had demands on her time which could be satisfied only by renouncing society?” (Ibid.,1020) What did she find in Pierre that has made her into his acolyte and her family’s slave? The motivation for her metamorphosis remains unclear. We are told only that: “From the very first days of their married life Natasha had announced her demands. Pierre was greatly surprised by his wife’s view, to him a perfectly novel one, that every moment of his life belonged to her and to the family. His wife’s demands astonished him, but they also flattered him, and he submitted to them.” (Ibid., 1022) Did she put on this new spirit with the weight she had gained after her marriage? Tolstoy is content to explain Natasha’s change by appeal to the general principle that “man has the faculty of becoming completely absorbed in a subject however trivial it may be, and that there is no subject so trivial that it will not grow to infinite proportions if one’s entire attention is devoted to it.” Natasha happens to have hit upon her family as her principal object of attention and “the deeper she penetrated, . . . into the subject that absorbed her, the larger did that subject grow and the weaker and more inadequate did her own powers appear, so that she concentrated them wholly upon that one thing and yet was unable to accomplish all that she considered necessary.” (W&P, p. 1021)

It is as if Tolstoy took a perverse delight in destroying all of those aspects of Natasha’s personality that had made her, not only the belle of society, but also an ideal love object of so many men and women. In the passage I have just quoted, Tolstoy takes the time to take a swipe at contemporary “discussions about women’s rights, the relations of husband and wife and their freedom and rights,” which Natasha finds incomprehensible. Such discussions, Tolstoy observes, are important “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.” (Ibid.) Natasha needs nothing but husband and family. “A husband was given her and he gave her a family. And she not only saw no need of any other or better husband, but as all the powers of her soul were intent on serving that husband and family, she could not imagine and saw no interest in imagining how it would be if things were different.” (Ibid., 1022)

Tolstoy’s characters are riven by contradictory and paradoxical desires, feelings, attitudes, convictions, and aspirations. This is even true of the two most important “historical” figures, Napoleon and General Kutuzov, his Russian opponent and conqueror. The former appears as a brilliant but greedy child, the latter as a weary but dogged old man. But it is especially true of the principal fictional characters in War and Peace: Pierre Bezukhov, Nickolai and Natasha Rostov, and Andrei Bolkonsky. The character of these figures is built up by the aggregation of a mass of details about how they feel, what they want, their sufferings, the moments of joy or exaltation, and above all what they do. For all of these characters, being aristocrats, possess the materials means by which to give vent to their desires. But they are never satisfied, and they are always in motion; and as they move, they change. It is difficult to believe, however, that in changing, these characters develop. Tolstoy does not seem to envision the possibility of a kind of heroic realization of a potential given at birth, after the manner of the hero of the Western Bildungsroman. The best that his heroes can hope for is the kind of stability and peace enjoyed by Pierre and Natasha and Nicholas and his wife Marya at the end of the book.


Not that War and Peace really ends. It simply stumbles to a termination.

It should be noted that many historical novels break off with a sudden announcement that the series of events being related has finished and it is time to depart the tale. This happens in Waverley but it also happens in histories by the arbitrary designation of one event in a long series as the point at which the narrative reaches its culmination. Tolstoy in fact notes that there are no beginnings and endings in history, only a stream of happenings that historians break up in different ways, and out of which they make stories, quite arbitrarily.

It is with history, Tolstoy says, as it is with astronomy and the problems raised by the discovery of the earth’s movement around the sun. “It is true that we do not feel the movement of the earth, but by admitting its immobility, we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting its motion (which we do not feel) we arrive at laws.” So too with “history”: “It is true that we are not conscious of our dependence, but by admitting our free will we arrive at absurdity, while by admitting our dependence on the external world, on time, and on cause, we arrive at laws.” [ W&P., p. 1074] This seems to suggest that we live in the crux between what we feel (or experience) and what we know. And the point seems to be that knowledge of the laws of nature does not help us in our effort to live meaningful lives, where feeling prevails over reason and will. We are most dependent when we feel ourselves to be free, and most free when we choose our dependence—on nature, the land, our mates, our families, and the universe, anything but society or the state. Thus we will find that “peace” referred to in the title of our text.

Peace is not the same thing as happiness or the satisfaction of desire. Indeed, it is the suppression of desire, the capacity to abandon all social projects, the kind of calm enjoyed by a married couple when, after dinner, when the children have been put to bed, they can take pleasure in the contemplation of their adequacy to one another.

If the war story in War and Peace is full of activity, movement, talk, intrigue, and a great deal of violence, but without much event, the same can be said about the fictional story of Russian high society during the war period. Although we are invited to view the social scene by following the fates of four prominent Russian families during the period 1805-1812, it cannot be said that very much of a specifically social nature occurs. For example, class conflict is not represented as endemic to social structure, but is represented as deriving from primordial “natural” differences between the caste of serfs, on the one side, and the great land-owning nobility, on the other. Although himself a great landowner, Tolstoy professed to have very little understanding of the serfs, mechanics, clerks and functionaries of Russia and virtually no hope for the amelioration of their condition.

Even the conflicts within the nobility—between the richer and the poorer, the ancient families and the nouveaux riches, the masters and their administrators—are presented as matters of a personal or familial nature and as having little to do with the kind of fundamental transformations of the social order that would one day topple Tsarist autocracy and lead to the Bolshevik Revolution. Tolstoy was himself socially enlightened (he freed his own serfs, established schools for their education, and agitated for political reforms for Russia), but the point of view informing War and Peace was still self-consciously aristocratic and at least mildly Slavophile.

There is always a tendency to “work up” important historical agents in order to give them the aura either of heroes or villains in the story that the historian has made out of his data. Napoleon has been treated as a dramatic character so often that it is difficult to think of him as anything other than a myth. Tolstoy was aware of this problem, and felt compelled to try to de-mythify Napoleon by treating him as an ordinary man at the mercy of forces of which he was unaware and could not control. He turns all of his historical characters into figures. And does the opposite—or tries to do so—with his fictional figures, i.e., turns them into characters. Pierre, Andrei, Nicholas, Natasha, Princess Marya, Helene Kuragina, all are represented as ordinary . . . aristocrats. There is nothing “heroic” about them. They have no “character” in the nineteenth century, Western European sense of the word. What they have are psyches—and peculiarly complex psyches at that.


The early nineteenth-century historical novel was a product of two developments hardly imaginable a century earlier: the transformation of history into a science and the development of the romance as a serious literary genre. From the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, historical writing was considered to be a branch of rhetoric and historical knowledge primarily an aid to pedagogy (a way to teach morality by examples). In the late eighteenth century, however, history was removed from the category of genteel letters and linked to philology, paleography, and diplomatics. Then, in the early nineteenth century, history was established as a science, given a place in the universities, and consigned the task of providing a genealogy of the new nation-states taking shape in the wake of the Napoleonic wars. This new science of history was officially committed to the objective study of individual real events and their description in a true (as against a fictional) narrative. It was to be separated from philosophy and theology and limit itself to the depiction of the way things really were rather than the way they might have been or the way one might wish them to have been. This latter task was consigned to “literature” and specifically to the romance, a genre originally written for the most part by and specifically for women, in which the imagination was licensed to take flight from the workaday world of ordinary experience and seek refuge in an idealized past of adventure, love, and magic. Aristotle had distinguished history from “poetry” as knowledge of the singular event to knowledge of the universal. In the nineteenth century, history was set over against literature as knowledge of the real world to fictions of possible worlds. Historical fact was henceforth defined as the very opposite of the kind of pseudo-events found in literary fiction. Any mixture of these two modes was regarded as being as unthinkable as a mixture of the sexes.

Thus, when Walter Scott, in 1814, published (anonymously) Waverley or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Hence, he apologized for having put together what god, man, and culture had insisted be kept asunder. In spite of the immediate and universal popularity of the new genre, Scott was apologetic, because he himself believed in the new kind of historiography emerging during his time. He felt that knowledge of the past had to be based on thorough research in the original sources. He himself based the historical part of his book on the work of scholars of Scottish history, literature, and folklore. He excused his use of fiction as a pedagogical device that might make assimilation of the historical matter easier for the fair sex. His story of the fictional Edward Waverley’s adventures during the Scottish rebellion of 1745 was intended, he said, to make the serious matters of history easier to imbibe. Scott hoped that his readers would not confuse fact with fiction, history with romance, and was careful to draw the line between them. But although his worldwide success established the legitimacy of the new genre, professional historians regarded his work as dangerous. The dignity of history depended upon its remaining uncontaminated by “fiction” of any kind—literary, scientific, or philosophical.

Now, Tolstoy shows none of the deference of Scott to professional historians’ conceptions of historical reality. On the contrary, he not only purported to understand Russian history better than the professional historians, he claimed to understand the nature of historical reality better than both the historians and the philosophers of history of his time. He wanted to bring the past to life, to convey what it felt like to fight in a battle, to be wounded, march beyond exhaustion, suffer imprisonment, and be exposed to death due to the incompetence of one’s leaders. And he thought art could do this better than history. There is no romance in Tolstoy’s rendering of the scenes, sounds, smells, and taste of war. He conveys the sense of camaraderie among men in battle and recognizes the appeal of experiencing extreme situations, such as mass battles, cavalry charges, and hand to hand combat. But he also shows how the exhilaration which men may feel on entering battle can soon be wiped out by a withering artillery barrage or massed infantry fire. Tolstoy gives us the “feel” of war rather than the logistics of campaigns and battles; he gives us the territory of the battlefield rather than the map which would render it transparent, rationalize it, and make it seem more orderly than it “in reality” was.

Tolstoy does the same thing in his depiction of society. Again, he gives us the feel of the territory, not the map. In these portions of the book, he wanted to convey what it felt like to be an aristocrat, to belong to “society,” to be Russian, to have to deal with serfs, sit all day in a hunting blind, ride to hounds, fight a duel, fall in love, marry badly or well, raise children, lose a mate to death, and suffer betrayal by a loved one. He depicts the life of the Russian aristocracy from the inside and sympathetically, though not uncritically. He shows the Russian old regime in its last grand moment, when the Tsar had succeeded in inspiring the Russian people to defend the sacred soil of the motherland, and the nobility rose to the occasion to lead the army against the invader. But from the vantage point of his own time, some “sixty years hence” of 1805, Tolstoy could see that the days of the Russian aristocracy were numbered. In his account of the Rostov family, he shows a typical noble family already beset by economic difficulties, its social function become problematical, and its social basis—depending as it did on serf labor—eroded. It is the same with all the other families. Presided over by aging tyrants of one ilk or another, their principal prospect for the future consists of the daughters they hope to marry off to some wealthy landowner. There is as little romance in Tolstoy’s depiction of Russian social life of the epoch as there is in his depiction of war.

In War and Peace, it is the Emperor Napoleon whom history visits with a kind of “historical” madness, first, by endowing him with a military success he does not really deserve; secondly, by raising him to the heights of political power as Emperor; and, then, third, by driving him to conceive a military campaign impossible to execute. It was history which did all this but not to any purpose of a moral or metaphysical kind. And this because “history” is simply the name men give to things as they really are, the things that have happened in the past, that are happening in the present, and will happen in the future. Since these happenings display no plan or purpose, whatever knowledge might be derived from the study of them is of a purely local, contingent, concrete, and limited kind.

Thus, for Tolstoy, discretion is the better part of knowledge as it is of valor. The admirable characters of War and Peace--General Kutuzov, Pierre Bezukhov, Nicholas Rostov, his sister Natasha, Princess Marya, the peasant mystic Platon Karatáev--are in the end rich by virtue of what of earthly knowing they have given up. In the end—at the end of the novel—after Napoleon has been sent back to Paris, deposed, and exiled, after his conqueror Kutuzov has died, after the Tsar Alexander has fallen under the influence of charlatans and mystics, after Moscow has been rebuilt, after Nicholas and Marya have been married, and Pierre and Natasha have been blessed with four children, there has been among them very little gain in human wisdom and even less gain in social savvy. Pierre—the chief protagonist of the novel—seems as confounded by social reality as he ever was; Natasha has grown up but hardly matured; Nicholas has solved his financial problems by marriage to a woman whom he likes well enough but does not love; the Czar Alexander has lapsed into the kind of reactionary incomprehension of Russian society that will foster one revolt after another throughout the century to follow; and so on. History is not something that one understands, it is something one endures—if one is lucky.

1 Tolstoy, “Drafts for an Introduction to War and Peace,” ed. Gibian, p. 1087.

2 In 1931 the great Russian critic Boris Eikhenbaum characterized the evolution of Tolstoy’s views on history in the following terms: “Tolstoy’s original antihistoricism dictated to him a rather modest idea of a war- and- family chronicle. Then, moved by preoccupations of the time, he began to change the chronicle into a historical poem, into an epic, and to introduce a whole series of historico-philosophical views. His antihistoricism became historical nihilism, and his novel-chronicle became a new genre that grew out of combining novel-like action and historical material with philosophical reasoning. The result was a negative genre, in as much as the elements composing it were in conflict.” Eikhenbaum goes on to say that, “Tolstoy’s novel was not a new genre” but a combination of two forms popular in the 1820’s and 1830’s, the family or “landlord’s life” novel, on the one hand, and the military-historical novel, on the other.” Boris Eikhenbaum, “The Genre of War and Peace in the Context of Russian Literary History,” in Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace :The Maude Translation: Background and Sources Criticism, 2nd edition (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996), p. 1126

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