Why is War and Peace the greatest novel ever written? In my heart I know it is, but to actually explain why, even after four consecutive annual readings, feels as elusive to me as understanding what lies beyond death. For every other novel I’ve read I have sat here on my computer and have been able to summarize my thoughts and ideas, even for difficult novels such as Nostromo and The Brothers Karamazov and even Tolstoy’s other masterpiece, Anna Karenina. Yet War and Peace challenges me to throw a rope around it, drag it to the ground, and wrestle one or even two “meanings” from it. Perhaps the novel is, in some way, a literary manifestation of Tolstoy himself: brilliant, and difficult.
On this most recent reading I kept a journal for each chapter, a total of a little over 360 single paragraph summaries, ideas, and observations. I had hoped this would help me grapple with my inability to explain what it is I love so much about the novel and what it is that draws me back every year to it. I had hoped I could read through my notes and discover, “Yes, here is the reason why this novel is the masterpiece.” But not only have I been unsuccessful here, I can’t really tell you what the novel is even about.
Now don’t mark me an idiot, I know what the novel is about, but to actually summarize War and peace into a few sentences is not only impossible, but it would be unfair to the novel to even attempt it. I mean, why do you think Tolstoy (and his poor wife) spent all those years and over 1200 pages if we could boil his masterpiece down to a blurb? Had he been able to make his point in a paragraph he would have.
Some people have said the novel is about life itself, and while that is quite true, it doesn’t really explain what’s going on between the pages. Another novel, Ulysses, has also been described as being about life itself, however, you can also say it’s the story of a man, Bloom, and one day in Ireland. And while that doesn’t do Joyce’s work any justice, it does at least give you a description you can tell your friends when they ask you what it’s about. Yet we can’t do this with War and Peace. We could say it’s about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, but since most of the book deals with the effects of the war, not the war itself, it would be disingenuous to describe it this way.
However, we can start by saying the novel is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 to give us something of a starting point.
When Tolstoy began work on the novel he had envisioned writing about the Decembrist uprising in 1825, but every time he started on the subject he had to keep going back in time to find a place to even begin the telling of that story. War and Peace is the result of Tolstoy wanting to tell the story of the men who rebelled against Nicholas I and what happened to them (they were all either killed or exiled to Siberia), but to know why they rebelled against Nicholas I he realized he had to tell us about how Alexander I defeated Napoleon and what happened to Russia in the opening years of the 19th century.
We can begin to see the problem in pinning down War and Peace when even the author couldn’t figure out how to tell the story – and even wound up writing a whole other book!
And things get even more complicated because to understand the men (and women) of the Decembrist uprising, why they rebelled and why some even stayed in exile in Siberia decades after those events, we have to know about Russia herself, how Russians felt about their country, how they felt about each other, about Europe, and about life itself. To fight the Tsar knowing you could be killed or exiled, knowing if you did live you would give up everything you and your family owned, facing possible poverty, and absolutely a loss of your social standing. To understand all that we have to know about what is in the heart of men and women, and in this search for meaning is what War and Peace attempts.
For me the most interesting, and important character in the novel is Fedor Ivanovich Dolokhov. Dolokhov is a cold, calculating, tough, independent, street-smart, brave, vindictive, and passionate man. He will milk his friend out of a fortune at cards because he was spurned by love, but is the most caring and loving son and brother a mother could ask for. He will fight with the most passionate bravery for his country, but will also get drunk and tie a policeman to a bear causing Dolokhov to be reduced to Private in the army. Dolokhov is a man of extremes and he is almost impossible to understand.
Dolokhov reminds me a lot of Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov. Smerdyakov is described by Father Zossima (in a prediction early on) that suicides deserves the greatest pity. How is this related? Smerdyakov is shown as being a very bad person, yet we never get the novel from his point of view, we only ever see him through another character’s eyes. In the end when he does kill himself, we are left to ask why? Was he consumed by grief, remorse, or what? We never learn, though an empathetic person can assume.
And so the same is true of Dolokhov. We never get his point of view, we only see him through another character. We could say Dolokhov is a “bad man”, and he certainly does some bad things, but is he really a bad person? We know almost nothing about the man except for how his actions impacted those around him. We never learn why he really bilks Nicholas of all that money, or what he really thought of Petya, or Pierre – we only see what he does.
This, like Smerdyakov, is Tolstoy’s test to us to see if we’ve learned anything about human beings in the novel. Just as we understand why Natasha nearly threw away her life for Anatole Kuragin and why Pierre married Hélène Kuragina, we get no explanation for what was in Dolokhov’s mind, but we have to be empathetic towards him and perhaps even forgive him the way Andrei finally forgave Anatole.
And why is this important? Why should we care at all about Dolokhov, a character who only pops up every few pages here and there in a novel over a thousand pages long? Well I believe it is because Tolstoy wants us to spend our energy on being emphatic towards our fellow man while not worshipping any man. Tolstoy spends many pages (many, many pages) telling us how we should never worship any man.
He holds up Napoleon as the horrible example of hero worship – entire nations fell under his sorcery – because we learn how men like Napoleon are not great, in fact they have hardly any influence at all. “Great” men are at the mercy of everyone and everything around them, more than simple men like Dolokhov. Napoleon’s march towards Russia (and flee from Russia) was not because Napoleon was great, but because a billion circumstances and chances led to those events taking place, not because Napoleon desired it and made it happen. Napoleon made nothing happen, he was merely the face of responsibility. He was no more or less important than a cloud, “how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky!”.
We never say Dolokhov caused anything to happen as we do Napoleon, we only see how people reacted to Dolokhov, usually for the worse. Dolokhov controlled nothing but only took advantage of whatever situation he was in. Had Nicholas chose not to play cards Dolokhov would never had won all that money. Had Anatole listened to Dolokhov Natasha never would have threw away Andrei, and had Dolokhov not been so “cool” Petya never would have been so inspired to run into battle and get himself killed.
And so why does Napoleon get all the credit for the actions leading up to 1812 but Dolokhov gets no credit for being the center of War and Peace? Because neither statement is true, Tolstoy only uses these two men as an example to prove his points: no person should be worshiped, no person can ever know what is in another man’s heart, and all people should find empathy with everyone else exactly because we can’t know their heart.
And so just as the novel is not about Dolokhov, we understand why it is so difficult to discover what War and Peace is really about exactly because it is about Dolokhov. All people are connected via an infinite number of spider web connections, invisible threads all pulling and pushing on each other from all sides like so many vibrations in a piano string, making a music we call life and history. These threads are invisible and the reasons why someone may pluck a string at any given time may be impossible to understand (and even may anger us), but it is all part of a greater symphony, a piece of music we all write, but that no person is in charge of. This is what, I believe, Andrei actually saw on his deathbed, those ephemeral and tenuous threads just barely perceptible above his head as if a marionette had suddenly became aware it was being controlled by a conductor upon whose lap he sat.
The reason why War and Peace is a masterpiece isn’t because of the beautiful writing (though it is beautiful), the realism (though it is the ultimate example of realism), or even because of the riveting story (and it is a great tale). The reason why this is the masterpiece and why I keep returning to it year after year is because we actually experience the meaning of the universe, we actually see the infinite as if we were looking through a lens that starts off narrow but gradually opens up to infinity until the entire world beyond is visible to us until the entire frame is filled with that beautiful blue sky above:
“How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…”