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War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace (1868)

by Leo Tolstoy

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
20,411330108 (4.26)26 / 2281
  1. 140
    Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (chrisharpe)
  2. 80
    Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (chrisharpe, longway)
  3. 50
    Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (roby72)
  4. 20
    History by Elsa Morante (roby72)
  5. 10
    August 1914 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (ukh)
  6. 10
    The Dynasts by Thomas Hardy (CurrerBell)
    CurrerBell: Hardy's "Immanent Will" has much in common with Tolstoy's historical determinism. Personally, I'm in that probably quite small minority that prefers The Dynasts over Tolstoy's novel – partly because I find in Hardy's "The Road to Waterloo" scene (3.VI.vii) one of the greatest of antiwar poems.… (more)
  7. 10
    The Kreutzer Sonata (Odin's Library Classics) by Leo Tolstoy (BINDINGSTHATLAST)
  8. 10
    La Lumière des justes by Henri Troyat (Eustrabirbeonne)
    Eustrabirbeonne: Well, Henri Troyat is no Tolstoy of course, and he did not pretend he was : he described himself as a mere "storyteller". Yet some of his fiction is real good, and this "cycle" is certainly his best. And of course, Russian-born Lev Aslanovich Tarasov had in mind the never-written sequel to "War and Peace" about the Decembrist uprising, which Tolstoy initiates in the final chapters of "War and Peace" with his hints at Pierre's active participation in a "society". Would Natasha, already a mother of four in 1820, have left her children behind to follow Pierre in Siberia, as other convicts' wives did?… (more)
  9. 11
    The Years by Virginia Woolf (roby72)
  10. 11
    Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman (rrmmff2000)
  11. 11
    Los mas bellos cuentos rusos. Prologo con resena critica de la obra, vida y obra del autor, y marco historico. (Spanish Edition) by Alexander Pushkin (carajava)
    carajava: Es muy recomendable despues o, en todo caso antes de leer guerra y paz, puesto que, mejorarà tu forma de ver el mundo donde viviàn los rusos, comprenderlo y razonar sus precarias situaciònes.
  12. 00
    They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy (WirSindAlive)
    WirSindAlive: Both works share the thrilling stories in a the historical setting of the hight aristocracy, mixed with some political backgroungd.
  13. 14
    Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (chrisharpe)
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75 Books Challenge for 2017 : Group read: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 33 unread / 33Storeetllr, February 2017
2016 Category Challenge : Group Read: War and Peace 189 unread / 189mathgirl40, April 2016
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Intro thread (no spoilers) 42 unread / 42jnwelch, December 2015
Fans of Russian authors : New edition of War and Peace? 3 unread / 3DanMat, July 2012
History at 30,000 feet: The Big Picture : WWII, from the inside 10 unread / 10cbellia, February 2012
Fans of Russian authors : Who Translated the 1911 Everyman's Library War and Peace? 6 unread / 6DanMat, September 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 3, Part III 10 unread / 10Rebeki, July 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 3, Part II 10 unread / 10Rebeki, July 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 2, Part V 12 unread / 12Rebeki, July 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 2, Part IV 7 unread / 7Rebeki, July 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Epilogue II 9 unread / 9cushlareads, June 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 1, Part 3 spoiler thread 13 unread / 13Rebeki, June 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Epilogue I 8 unread / 8JanetinLondon, June 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 4, Part IV 7 unread / 7JanetinLondon, June 2011
Book talk : War And Peace 8 unread / 8Sandydog1, May 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 1, Part 2 spoiler thread 13 unread / 13Deern, May 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - "Wrap Up" (spoiler) Thread 6 unread / 6JanetinLondon, May 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 4, Part III 3 unread / 3JanetinLondon, May 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 4, Part II 6 unread / 6JanetinLondon, May 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 1, Part 1 spoiler thread 16 unread / 16JanetinLondon, May 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 4, Part I 7 unread / 7JanetinLondon, May 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 3, Part I 8 unread / 8cushlareads, May 2011
75 Books Challenge for 2011 : War and Peace Group Read 2011 - Vol 2, Part III 5 unread / 5Deern, March 2011
Fans of Russian authors : War and Peace 4 unread / 4erinn, April 2009
Fans of Russian authors : Tolstoy's War and Peace: more on the Volokhonsky/Pevear translation 1 unread / 1chrisharpe, May 2008
Fans of Russian authors : Tolstoy's War and Peace: comments on the Volokhonsky,/Pevear translation by Simon Schama, BBC R3 1 unread / 1chrisharpe, November 2007
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I was standing at an airport lounge as a teenager many years ago, and suddenly realised I had no books to read for my family holiday. I was a SF geek at the time (still am, but I’m reading other stuff now), but had read everything that W.H. Smiths airport bookshelf could show me. In desperation and dread I turned to the classics... I'd read Frankenstein and other English literary classics by that point, and had found all of them tedious and obsessed with melancholy and/or an absurd idealistic idea of romance. Plots were contrived and you could see them coming a mile away. Of them all, only Dickens could make me smile and identify with his caricatures, but even he stopped short of fulfilling at times. If Victorian England had truly been like all of that that, then no wonder we were so repressed and messed up today. So in desperation and partly in arrogance I picked up this weighty book. None of my peers had read it, and it's size seemed to daunt many. I thought of the smugness I'd feel in saying I'd read it, even if it had been as dry and full of itself like so many others... The next two weeks were the best holiday read of my life thus far. From a stumbling start in the opening chapter and trying to work out who the hell everyone was, I slowly and surely found my way into one of the most beautiful and compelling novels I'd ever read... Tolstoy has a way of showing the inner spirit of everyone. From the bullying cavalry-man, to Napoleon himself and above all our principle characters. How I loved that bumbling, foolish and ungainly Pierre as he grew and flowered, and the impish Natasha who could melt your heart in the first paragraph you met her. Even thinking of it now, I am touched by tender thoughts and memories, interspersed with the grief of conflict and war and the nobleness of the human spirit.

But is it a perfect book? No book is perfect. War and Peace is a brilliant book that should be read and enjoyed at whatever age a person is. It truly is a book for every age and every person. Let yourself into a world that will enrapt you. And a little request: can we in 2000 stop using the phrase "is not perfect ..." when describing something. Nothing in life is perfect. No book, no movie, no age, no accomplishment, and so on. Consciously refuse to compare anything to perfection and instead just enjoy something for what it is. Comparing something to the unobtainable 'perfect' merely diminishes that something and our experience. Don't be put off by folk complaining about the philosophical bits. There isn't too much of that anyway.I reread “War and Peace” recently, in no rush and over three weeks and was amazed by its richness and the development of character. Make no mistake, this is a Russian epic and you will find few books in a lifetime of reading which are as memorable.

Take Pierre for example who goes from being a young buffoon worshiping Napoleon to become someone with a much more critical view, hoping at one point for the chance of assassinating him. This development does not happen overnight! He learns from his experiences in prison and through his relationship with Platon Karateyev. At the end you are left thinking that the story is not yet over. Pierre and young Nikolai Bolkonsky, patriots both - are thinking critically about society. Exile to Siberia is definitely a possibility if they get involved in anything too radical. Pierre is just one major character in this glorious book. Start when you can but don't rush it. Literature of this quality needs time.

Reasonable defenders of “War and Peace” at (one of) its current length(s) might absolutely agree with being anti-literary-flab, and simply argue that this book isn't actually flabby. For example, the "side-track stories" are not "padding" or "excess", but rather constitute the "pacing" intrinsically needed by the "content" itself- so goes a point of view which I think is more care-filled than that of a "fanboy". Take a look at vol. II, pt. 5, ch. VI (it's only a couple of pages). Natasha has accepted Prince Andrei's proposal, and has returned to Moscow to meet the prince's father and get ready to get married. She meets Marya Dmitrievna, a society dowager, who intrusively 're-assures' Natasha about "old Prince Nikolai" and his resistance to his son's getting married. A tiny moment, particularly in that nothing in the plot changes as a result of this vignette, but we are shown: the social realities that Natasha is growing to recognize and understand; and the ego-centrism, diminishing, that's still the dominant tone in her character (she really sees this man whom she loves, but she thinks she can marry and 'have' him without marrying his family and being his socially positioned and positioning wife). You see my point? The story of the story doesn't change because of this little chapter, but our alertness to what Tolstoy is showing us is colored, or deepened, or enriched, or nourished (or whatever old-fashioned metaphor you like!) by this small facet.

Not sure what, in "War and Peace", some people mean by "cliff-hangers" and "many-a-time abrupt endings" as I’ve read elsewhere. I don't think "serialization" works as either a fault-generator or a mitigation; the book in your hands either holds together as you read it or it's de-coherently "over-long". Think of cricket. If you savor the pace of the game as it is, a five-day Test, or seven-game series, isn't 'too long'-- it unfolds at just the length it needs to. If you can't stand the sport, each batter's innings or team's at-bat is already an eternity of boring nonsense; forget about a match or game. Either way, it isn't the length itself that's guilty of generating one's antipathy. I can't see which 'thousand lines' of War and Peace one would 'blot'...

I have always been vehemently anti-literary-flab. The lack of an author's ability to distinguish what is essential and what isn't and to pare away the flab has always seemed in my eyes a weakness and not a virtue. It does not mean that I do not like long novels in and of themselves, I just find long swathes of them to be gratuitous flab (well written and brilliant though they might be). The Russian masterpieces act as a great case in point. “Anna Karenina”, “War and Peace” and “The Brothers Karamazov” (the three classic doorstops) were all written serially for the magazine The Russian Messenger. They were written in weekly installments by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky with word count and longevity of project strictly in mind (not that Tolstoy needed the money...). Now, the two authors knew that they were padding things out with side-track stories and story-telling devices, but we the modern readers know the books as they are and can't imagine any paragraph being cut (or in fact added to the end to smooth out the many-a-time abrupt endings, which are also legacies of the serialization). We like those novels for what they are and not for what they could theoretically be, but that doesn't mean that the modern author doesn't have the burden to perfect the pacing and content of his or her novel by removing the excess. There seems to exist nowadays a fanboy-like reaction to works even in cultured matters. People zealously defend endless novels, for some reason equating critique of length with critique of the total merit of the book. One can love a book and still critique its faults - we're not football ultras, we're readers.

Basically I say that a modern-day author has no excuses for writing over-long. It's a shame that some Modern (and some not so Modern) Fantasy writers can't manage to edit down their magnum opus.

Bottom-line: If you haven't read it, please do persevere past the first chapter and the strange names. It will reward you over and over in a way so few books do. ( )
1 vote antao | Aug 27, 2018 |
After reading Pat Conroy's My Reading Life, I feel like I need to read all the great Russian novels.
  ioplibrarian | Aug 26, 2018 |
[From Books and You, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940, pp. 56-57:]

If I hesitated about War and Peace, it is because it seems to me sometimes tedious. There are to my mind too many battles narrated in too great detail, and the experiences of Pierre with Freemasonry are exceedingly dull. But all this can be skipped. It remains a great novel. It describes in epic proportions the growth and development of an entire generation. The scene of action is all Europe from the Volga to Austerlitz; a vast number of persons, wonderfully realized, march across the huge stage; and this immense amount of material is consummately handled, with the minute attention to detail of a Dutch picture when the occasion demands, and then, when a different treatment is needed, with the breathless sweep of Michael Angelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. You get an overwhelming impression of the confusion of life and of the pettiness of individuals in contrast with the dark forces that mould the fate of nations. War and Peace is a thrilling, tremendous novel. War and Peace is a work of genius. In it, by the way, Tolstoy did one of the most difficult things a novelist can do: he drew a perfectly natural, charming, lively portrait of a young girl; she is perhaps the most enchanting heroine of fiction; but then he did a thing that none but a great novelist would have thought of: in an epilogue he shows her to you as she has become when, happily married, she is the mother of a family. That exquisite creature has grown fussy, commonplace and a trifle too fat. You are shocked, but you have only for a moment to consider the matter to realize how likely this was to happen. It adds a last note of verisimilitude to this amazing novel.[1]

[From Ten Novels and Their Authors, Heinemann, 1954, pp. 261-88:]

The last three chapters have dealt with novels[2] which, in one way or another, stand apart. They are atypical. Now I come to one which, for all its complication, by its form and content takes its place in the main line of fiction, which, as I said on a previous page, began with the pastoral romance of Daphnis and Chloë. War and Peace is surely the greatest of all novels. It could only have been written by a man of high intelligence and of powerful imagination, a man with wide experience of the world and a penetrating insight into human nature. No novel with so grand a sweep, dealing with so momentous a period of history and with so vast an array of characters, was ever written before; nor, I surmise, will ever be written again. Novels as great will perhaps be written, but none quite like it. With the mechanisation of life, with the State assuming ever greater power over the lives of men, with the uniformity of education, the extinction of class distinctions and the diminution of individual wealth, with the equal opportunities which will be offered to all (if such is the world of the future), men will still be born unequal. Some will be born with the peculiar gift that makes them become novelists, but the world they will know, with men and manners so conditioned, is more likely to produce a Jane Austen to write Pride and Prejudice than a Tolstoy to write War and Peace. It has been justly called an epic. I can think of no other work of fiction in prose that can with truth be so described. Strakhov, a friend of Tolstoy’s and an able critic, put his opinion in a few energetic sentences: “A complete picture of human life. A complete picture of the Russia of that day. A complete picture of what may be called the history and struggle of people. A complete picture of everything in which people find their happiness and greatness, their grief and humiliation. That is War and Peace.”


He decided to make the experiment. After considering a number of eligible young women and discarding them for one reason or another, he married Sonya, a girl of eighteen and the second daughter of a Dr. Bers, who was a fashionable physician in Moscow and an old friend of his family’s. Tolstoy was thirty-four. The couple settled down at Yasnaya Polyana. During the first eleven years of their marriage the Countess had eight children, and during the next fifteen five more. Tolstoy liked horses and rode well, and he was passionately fond of shooting. He improved his property and bought new estates east of the Volga, so that in the end he owned some sixteen thousand acres. His life followed a familiar pattern. There were in Russia scores of noblemen who gambled, got drunk and wenched in their youth, who married and had a flock of children, who settled down on their estates, looked after their property, rode and shot; and there were not a few who shared Tolstoy’s liberal principles and, distressed at the ignorance of the peasants, sought to ameliorate their lot. The only thing that distinguished him from all of them was that during this time he wrote two of the world’s greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina.


It was a busy, useful and contented life, and there seemed no reason why it should not run in the pleasant groove for many years to come, with Sonya bearing children, looking after them and the house, helping her husband in his work, and with Tolstoy riding and shooting, superintending his estates and writing books. He was approaching his fiftieth year. That is a dangerous period for men. Youth is past and, looking back, they are apt to ask themselves what their life amounts to; looking forward, with old age looming ahead, they are apt to find the prospect chilling. And there was one fear that had haunted Tolstoy all his life – the fear of death. Death comes to all men, and most are sensible enough, except in moments of peril or grave illness, not to think of it. This is how in A Confession he describes his state of mind at that time: “Five years ago something very strange began to happen to me. At first I experienced moments of perplexity and arrest of life, as though I did not know how to live or what to do; and I felt lost and became dejected. But this passed and I went on living as before. Then these moments of perplexity recurred oftener and oftener and always in the same form. They were always expressed by the questions: What is it for? What does it lead to? I felt that what I had been standing on had broken down and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and I had nothing else to live on. My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink and sleep, and I could not help doing these things, but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfilment of which I could consider reasonable.

“And all this befell me at a time when all around me I had what is considered complete good fortune. I was not yet fifty; I had a good wife who loved me and whom I loved; good children, and a large estate which without much effort on my part improved and increased… I was praised by people, and without much self-deception could consider that my name was famous… I enjoyed a strength of mind and body such as I have seldom met among men of my kind: physically I could keep pace with the peasants at mowing, and mentally I could work for eight to ten hours at a stretch without experiencing any ill results from such exertion.

“My mental condition presented itself to me in this way: My life is a stupid and spiteful joke that someone has played on me.”

The drunkenness of youth had left him with a bad hangover. When still a boy, he had ceased to believe in God, but his loss of faith left him unhappy and dissatisfied, for he had no theory that enabled him to solve the riddle of life. He asked himself: “Why do I live and how ought I to live?” He found no answer. Now he came once more to believe in God, but, strangely enough for a man of so emotional a temper, by a process of reasoning. “If I exist,” he wrote, “there must be some cause of it, and a cause of causes. And that first cause of all is what men call God.” For a while Tolstoy clung to the Russian Orthodox Church, but he was repelled by the fact that the lives of its learned men did not tally with their principles, and he found it impossible to believe all they required him to believe. He was prepared to accept only what was true in a plain and literal sense. He began to draw near to the believers among the poor and simple and unlettered; and the more he looked into their lives, the more convinced he became that, notwithstanding the darkness of their superstition, they had a real faith which was necessary to them and, alone, by giving their life a meaning, made it possible for them to live.


He came to believe that the truth was to be found only in the words of Jesus. He rejected as evident absurdities, and an insult to the human intelligence, the creeds in which the tenets of Christianity are set forth. He rejected the divinity of Christ, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. He rejected the sacraments, since they were based on nothing in Christ’s teaching and served only to obscure the truth. For a time he did not believe in life after death, but later, when he came to think that the Self was part of the Infinite, it seemed inconceivable to him that it should cease with the death of the body. In the end, shortly before his death, he declared that he did not believe in a God who created the world, but in One who lived in the consciousness of men. Such a god, one would have thought, is no less a figment of the imagination than the centaur or the unicorn. Tolstoy believed that the essence of Christ’s teaching lay in the precept “Resist not evil”; the commandment “Swear not at all”, he decided, applied not only to common expletives, but to oaths of any kind, those taken in the witness box or by soldiers being sworn in; while the charge “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you”, forbade men to fight their country’s enemies or to defend themselves when attacked. But to adopt opinions with Tolstoy was to act: if he had come to the conclusion that the substance of Christianity was love, humility, self-denial and the returning of good for evil, it was incumbent upon him, he felt, to renounce the pleasures of life, to humble himself, to suffer and be merciful.


For such a man as Tolstoy the next step was obvious: he decided to rid himself of everything he owned; but here he came into violent conflict with his wife, who had no wish to beggar herself or to leave her children penniless. She threatened to appeal to the courts to have him declared incompetent to manage his affairs, and after heaven only knows how much acrimonious argument he offered to turn his property over to her. This she refused, and in the end he divided it among her and the children. On more than one occasion during the year this dispute lasted he left home to live among the peasants, but before he had gone far was drawn back by the pain he was causing his wife. He continued to live at Yasnaya Polyana and, though mortified by the luxury, luxury on a very modest scale, that surrounded him, none the less profited by it. The friction continued. He disapproved of the conventional education the Countess was giving their children, and he could not forgive her for having prevented him from disposing of his property as he wished.

In this brief sketch of Tolstoy’s life I have been constrained to omit much that is of interest, and I must deal even more summarily with the thirty years that followed his conversion. He became a public figure, recognised as the greatest writer in Russia, and with an immense reputation throughout the world as a novelist, a teacher and a moralist. Colonies were founded by people who wished to lead their lives according to his views. They came to grief when they tried to put his principles into practice, and the story of their misadventures is both instructive and comic. Owing to Tolstoy’s suspicious nature, his harsh argumentativeness, his intolerance and his unconcealed conviction that if others disagreed with him it was from unworthy motives, he retained few friends; but, with his increasing fame, a host of students, pilgrims visiting the holy places of Russia, journalists, sightseers, admirers and disciples, rich and poor, nobles and commoners, came to Yasnaya Polyana.


Tolstoy began to write War and Peace when he was thirty-six. That is a very good age at which to set about writing a master-piece. By then an author has presumably acquired an adequate knowledge of the technique of his craft, he has gained a wide experience of life, he is still in full possession of his intellectual vigour and his creative power is at its height. The period Tolstoy chose to deal with was that of the Napoleonic wars, and the climax is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the burning of Moscow and the retreat and destruction of his armies. When he started upon his novel, it was with the notion of writing a tale of family life among the gentry, and the historical incidents were to serve merely as a background. The persons of the story were to undergo a number of experiences which would profoundly affect them spiritually, and in the end, after much suffering, they would enjoy a quiet and happy life. It was only in the course of writing that Tolstoy placed more and more emphasis on the titanic struggle between the opposing powers, and conceived what is somewhat grandly called a philosophy of history. Some time ago, Mr. Isaiah Berlin published a most interesting and instructive little book, called The Hedgehog and the Fox, in which he showed that Tolstoy’s ideas on the subject I must now briefly deal with were inspired by those of Joseph de Maistre, an eminent diplomatist, in a work entitled Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg. That is not to discredit Tolstoy. It is no more than novelist’s business to originate ideas than it is to invent the persons who serve as his models. Ideas are there, just as are human beings, their environment of town and country, the incidents of their lives, and in fact everything that concerns them, for him to make use of for his private purpose, which is to create a work of art. Having read Mr. Berlin’s book, I felt constrained to read Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg. The ideas which Tolstoy set forth with some elaboration in the second part of the epilogue to War and Peace, de Maistre expounded in three pages, and the gist of them is contained in a phrase: “C’est l’opinion qui perd les batailles, et c’est l’opinion qui les gagne.” Tolstoy had seen war in the Caucasus and at Sevastopol, and his own experience enabled him to give vivid descriptions of the various battles in which sundry characters in his novel were engaged. What he had observed concorded very well with the views of de Maistre. But the piece he wrote is long-winded and somewhat involved, and I think one gets a better notion of his opinions from scattered remarks in the course of the narrative and from Prince Andrew’s reflections. In passing, I may interject that this is the most suitable way in which a novelist can deliver his ideas.

Tolstoy’s idea was that owing to fortuitous circumstances, unknown forces, errors of judgment, unforeseen accidents, there could be no such thing as an exact science of war, and so there could be no such thing as military genius. It was not, as commonly supposed, great men who affected the course of history, but an obscure force that ran through the nations and drove them unconsciously to victory or defeat. The leader of an advance was in the position of a horse harnessed to a coach and started full-tilt downhill – at a certain point the horse ceases to know whether he is dragging the coach or the coach is forcing him on. It was not by his strategy or his big battalions that Napoleon won his battles, for his orders were not obeyed, since either the situation had changed or they were not delivered in time; but because the enemy was seized with a conviction that the battle was lost and so abandoned the field. The result depended on a thousand incalculable chances, any one of which might prove decisive in an instant. “So far as their own free will was concerned, Napoleon and Alexander contributed no more by their actions to the accomplishment of such and such an event than the private soldier who was compelled to fight for them as a recruit or a conscript.” “Those who are known as great men are really labels in history, they give their name to events, often without having so much connection with the facts as a label has.” For Tolstoy they were no more than figure-heads, who were carried on by a momentum they could neither resist nor control. There is surely some confusion here. I do not see how he reconciles his conviction of the “predestined and irresistible necessity” of occurrences with the “caprices of chance”; for when fate comes in at the door, chance flies out of the window.

It is hard to resist the impression that Tolstoy’s philosophy of history was, in part at least, occasioned by his wish to depreciate Napoleon. He seldom appears in person in the course of War and Peace, but when he does, he is made to seem petty, gullible, silly and ridiculous. Tolstoy calls him “that infinitesimal tool in history, who at no time, not even in exile, showed any manly dignity”. Tolstoy is outraged that even the Russians should look upon him as a great man. He had not even a good seat on a horse. Here, I think, it is well to pause. The French Revolution gave rise to scores of young men who were as ambitious, as clever, as resolute and as unscrupulous as the son of the Corsican lawyer; and one cannot but ask oneself how it happened that this particular young man, of insignificant appearance, with a foreign accent, without money or influence, managed so to make his way in the world that after winning battle after battle he made himself dictator of France, and brought half Europe under his sway. If you see a bridge-player win an international tournament, you may ascribe it to luck or to the excellence of his partner; but if, no matter who his partner is, he goes on winning tournaments through a number of years, it is surely simpler to allow that he has a peculiar aptitude for the game, and outstanding gifts, than to claim that his triumphs are the result of the immense, irresistible pressure of antecedent and contingent events. I should have thought a great general needed that same combination of qualities, knowledge, flair, boldness, the intelligence to calculate chances and the intuition that enables him to judge his adversaries’ mentality, as are needed by the great bridge-player. Of course Napoleon was aided by the circumstances of his time, but it is only prejudice that can deny that he had the genius to take advantage of them.

All this, however, does not affect the power and interest of War and Peace. The narrative carries you along with the impetuous rush of the Rhône at Geneva as it hurries to meet the placid waters of Lake Leman. There are said to be something like five hundred characters. They stand firmly on their feet. This is a wonderful achievement. The interest is not concentrated, as in most novels, on two or three person, or even on a single group, but on the members of four families belonging to the aristocracy, the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Kuragins and the Bezukhovs. The novel, as the title indicates, deals with war and peace, and that is the sharply contrasted background against which their fates are presented. One of the difficulties a novelist has to cope with when his theme requires him to deal with events violently diverse, with more groups than one, is to make the transition from one set of events to another, from one group to another, so plausible that the reader accepts it with docility. If the author succeeds in doing this, the reader finds he has been told what he needs to be told about one set of circumstances, one set of persons, and is ready to be told about other circumstances, other persons, whereof for a time he had heard nothing. On the whole, Tolstoy has managed to perform this difficult feat so skilfully that you seem to be following a single thread of narration.

Like writers of fiction in general, he framed his characters on persons he knew, or knew of, but it appears that he did not merely use them as models for his imagination to work upon, but drew faithful portraits of them. The thriftless Count Rostov is a portrait of his grandfather, Nicholas Rostov of his father, and the pathetic, charming, ugly Princess Mary of his mother. It has sometimes been thought that in the two men, Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrew Bolkonski, Tolstoy had himself in mind; and if this is so, it is perhaps not fantastical to suggest that, conscious of the contradictions in himself, in thus creating two contrasted individuals on the one model of himself he sought to clarify and understand his own character.

Both these men, Pierre and Prince Andrew, are in love with Natasha, Count Rostov’s younger daughter, and in her Tolstoy has created the most delightful girl in fiction. Nothing is so difficult as to portray a young girl who is at once charming and interesting. Generally the young girls of fiction are colourless (Amelia in Vanity Fair), priggish (Fanny in Mansfield Park), too clever by half (Constantia Durham in The Egoist), or little geese (Dora in David Copperfield), silly flirts or innocent beyond belief. It is understandable that they should be an awkward subject for the novelist to deal with, for at that tender age the personality is undeveloped. Similarly, a painter can only make a face interesting when the vicissitudes of life, thought, love and suffering have given it character. In the portrait of a girl, the best he can do is to represent the charm and beauty of youth. But Natasha is entirely natural. She is sweet, sensitive and sympathetic, childish, womanly already, idealistic, quick-tempered, warm-hearted, headstrong, capricious and in every way enchanting. Tolstoy created many women, and they are wonderfully real, but never another who wins the affection of the reader as does Natasha. She was drawn from Tanya Bers, the younger sister of his wife, and he was charmed by her as Charles Dickens was charmed by his wife’s younger sister, Mary Hogarth. An instructive parallel!

To both the men who loved her, to Prince Andrew and Pierre, Tolstoy attributed his own passionate search for the meaning and purpose of life. Prince Andrew is the more obvious. He is a product of the conditions prevalent then in Russia. A rich man, in possession of vast estates, he owns a great number of serfs, from whom he can exact forced labour and, if they displease him, have them stripped and flogged, or wrest them from wife and children and send them to serve as common soldiers in the army. And if a girl or married woman takes his fancy, he can send for her and use her for his pleasure. Prince Andrew is handsome, with marked features, weary eyes and an air of boredom. He is in fact the beau ténébreux of romantic fiction. A gallant figure, proud of his race and rank, high-minded, but haughty, dictatorial, intolerant and unreasonable. He is cold and arrogant with his equals, patronising but kind with his inferiors. He is intelligent, and ambitious to distinguish himself. With a nice touch, Tolstoy wrote of him: “Prince Andrew always became specially keen when he had to guide a young man and help him to worldly success. Under cover of obtaining help for another, which from pride he would never accept for himself, he kept in touch with the circle which confers success and which attracted him.”

Pierre is a more puzzling character. He is a huge, ugly man, so short-sighted that he has to wear spectacles, and very fat. He eats too much and drinks too much. He is a great womaniser. He is clumsy and tactless; but he is so good-natured, so manifestly sincere, so kindly, considerate and unselfish, that it is impossible to know him without loving him. He is wealthy. He allows a horde of hangers-on, however worthless, to dip freely into his purse. He is a gambler and is unmercifully cheated by the members of the aristocratic club in Moscow to which he belongs. He lets himself be jockeyed into an early marriage with a beautiful woman, who marries him for his money and is impudently unfaithful to him. After fighting a grotesque duel with her lover, he leaves her and goes to Petersburg. On the journey he meets by chance a mysterious old man, who turns out to be a Freemason. They converse and Pierre confesses that he does not believe in God. “If He did not exist we could not talk about Him,” answers the Freemason, and on these lines goes on to give Pierre an elementary version of what is known at the ontological proof of God’s existence. This was devised by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, and runs as follows; We define God as the greatest object of thought, but the greatest object of thought must exist, or else another, as great but having existence, would be greater. From this it follows that God exists. This proof was rejected by Thomas Aquinas and demolished by Kant, but it convinced Pierre, and very shortly after his arrival in Petersburg he was initiated into the Masonic Order. Of course, in a novel events, whether material or spiritual, have to be telescoped, otherwise it would never end: a long-fought battle must be described in a page or two, and everything but what the author thinks essential has to be omitted; it is the same with a change of heart. In this case, it seems to me that Tolstoy has gone too far; so sudden a conversion makes Pierre uncommonly superficial. As a result of it, however, desiring to abandon his dissipated ways, he decides to return to his estates, liberate his serfs and devote himself to their welfare. He is hoodwinked and cheated by his steward, just as he was by his gambling friends, and finds himself thwarted in all his good intentions. His philanthropic schemes for the most part come to nothing for lack of perseverance, and he returns to his old life of idleness. His enthusiasm for the Masonic Order dwindles as he discovers that most of the brethren see nothing in it beyond its forms and ceremonies, while many cling to it “simply for the sake of being intimate with rich people and getting some benefit out of the intimacy.” Disgusted and weary, he takes once more to gambling, drink and promiscuous fornication.

Pierre knows his faults and hates them, but he lacks the tenacity of purpose to amend them. He is a modest, humane, good-natured creature, but strangely devoid of common sense. His behaviour at the Battle of Borodino is of a singular ineptitude. Though a civilian, he drives in his carriage to the field of battle, gets in everybody’s way, makes a thorough nuisance of himself and finally, to save his life, takes to his heels. When Moscow is evacuated, he stays on, is arrested as an incendiary and condemned to death. The sentence is remitted, and he is imprisoned. He is taken along with other prisoners when the French set out on their disastrous retreat, and is eventually rescued by a band of guerrillas.

It is difficult to know what to make of him. He is good and modest; he has a wonderful sweetness of disposition; he is terribly weak. I am sure he is true to life. I suppose he should be regarded as the hero of War and Peace, since in the end he marries the charming and desirable Natasha. I imagine that Tolstoy loved him: he writes of him with tenderness and sympathy; but I wonder if it was necessary to make him quite so silly.

In so long a book as War and Peace, and one that took so long to write, it is inevitable that the author’s verve should sometimes fail him. Tolstoy ends his novel with an account of the retreat from Moscow and the destruction of Napoleon’s army. But this long and, no doubt, necessary narrative has the disadvantage of telling the reader, unless he is abnormally ignorant of history, a great deal of what he knows already. The result is that the quality of surprise, which makes you turn the pages of a book eager to know what is to happen next, is lacking; and, notwithstanding the tragic, dramatic and pathetic incidents which Tolstoy relates, you read with a certain impatience. He used these chapters to tie up various loose ends, and to bring upon the scene again characters of whom we have long lost sight; but I think his main object in writing them was to introduce a fresh character who was to have an important effect on Pierre’s spiritual development.

This was one of his fellow-prisoners, Plato Karataev, a serf condemned to serve in the army for stealing wood. He was a type that at this time seems to have much occupied the Russian intelligentsia. Living, as they did, under a severe despotism and knowing the empty, frivolous lives of the aristocracy, the ignorance and narrowness of the merchant class, they had come to believe that the salvation of Russia lay in the down-trodden and ill-used peasantry. Tolstoy in A Confession tells us how, despairing of his own class, he turned to the Old Believers for the goodness and faith which gave meaning to life. But, of course, there were good landlords as well as bad ones, honest tradesmen as well as dishonest ones, and bad peasants as well as good ones. It was merely a literary illusion to suppose that in the peasants alone was virtue.

Tolstoy’s portrait of the simple soldier is one of the most winning of all the portraits in War and Peace. It was natural that Pierre should be drawn to him. Plato Karataev loves all men. He is perfectly unselfish. He endures hardship and danger with cheerfulness. He has a sweet and noble character, and Pierre, as susceptible as ever to every influence, seeing the goodness in him, comes himself to believe in goodness: “the world that had been shattered was once more stirring in his soul with a new beauty and on a new and unshakable foundation.” From Plato Karataev, Pierre learns that “happiness for man is only to be found within, and from the satisfaction of simple human needs, that unhappiness arises not from privations but from superabundance, and that there is nothing in life too difficult to face.” At last he finds himself possessed of that serenity and peace of mind that he had so long and so vainly sought.

If for some readers there is a certain diminution of interest in Tolstoy’s account of the retreat, it is richly made up for in the first part of the Epilogue. It is a brilliant invention.

The older novelists were in the habit of telling the reader what happened to their principal characters after the story they had to tell was finished. He was informed that the hero and heroine lived happily, in prosperous circumstances, and had so and so many children, while the villain, if he had not been polished off before the end, was reduced to poverty and married a nagging wife, and so got what he deserved. But it was done perfunctorily, in a page or two, and the reader was left with the impression that it was a sop the author had somewhat contemptuously thrown him. It remained for Tolstoy to make his epilogue a piece of real importance. Seven years have passed, and we are taken to the house of Nicholas Rostov, who has married a rich wife and has children. Prince Andrew was mortally wounded at the Battle of Borodino. It was his sister that Nicholas married. Pierre’s wife conveniently died during the invasion, and he was free to marry Natasha, whom he had long loved. They too have children. They love one another, but oh, how dull they have become, and how commonplace! After the hazards they have run, the pain and anguish they have suffered, they have settled down to a middle-aged complacency. Natasha, who was so sweet, so unpredictable, so delightful, is now a fussy, exacting, shrewish housewife. Nicholas Rostov, once so gallant and high-spirited, has become a self-opinionated country squire; and Pierre, fatter than ever, sweet and good-natured still, is no wiser than he was before. The happy ending is deeply tragic. Tolstoy did not write thus, I think, in bitterness, but because he knew that this is what it would all come to; and he had to tell the truth.

[1] Cf. Maugham’s treatment of Rosie in Cakes and Ale (1930). Ed.
[2] Moby-Dick, Wuthering Heights and The Brothers Karamazov. Ed.
  WSMaugham | Jul 17, 2018 |
War and Peace broadly focuses on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the most well-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family behind to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men. A s Napoleon’s army invades, Tolstoy brilliantly follows characters from diverse backgrounds—peasants and nobility, civilians and soldiers—as they struggle with the problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture. And as the novel progresses, these characters transcend their specificity, becoming some of the most moving—and human—figures in world literature.
  Cultural_Attache | Jul 13, 2018 |
I have finished War and Peace, and it should feels like I have crossed the Rubicon of literature. It doesn't. I found it strangely easy reading, with even the war chapters and the explanations of the strategy of Kutuzof being concise and readable. The major complaint I would have for Mr. Tolstoy, is that he kept writing when the story was over. I hated plodding through the final section after I had enjoyed the story so much up to that point.

No need for me to attempt any dissection of this novel in a review. Greater minds than mine had exhausted it already. I am very pleased to have read it at last. It was a prick on me every time I passed the TBR bookshelf. My timing was superb, since there is a mini-series beginning tonight and I can now watch it after having read the book.

I gave it a 4-star rating mainly because it does not measure up to Anna Karenina, which is an absolute wonder and would get more than 5-stars from me if it were possible. That it is a spectacular achievement is hardly debatable.

On a personal note, I confess that I had never quite connected the year of Napoleon's defeat in Russia with the year of Dolly Madison's saving of treasures of the White House and the writing of our National Anthem...but both wars are the War of 1812. Seems strange that we were such a young country when these events in Russia unfolded. ( )
  phantomswife | Jul 6, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 305 (next | show all)
I had it on my desk for about a year, and now I've given up and put it back on the shelf.
added by Sylak | editStylist [Issue 338], Paula Hawkins (Oct 12, 2016)
Tolstoy’s singular genius is to be able to take the torrent of conscious experience and master it. There are countless moments in the book where this happens ...

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307266931, Hardcover)

From Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the best-selling, award-winning translators of Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov, comes a brilliant, engaging, and eminently readable translation of Leo Tolstoy’s master epic.

War and Peace centers broadly on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the best-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves behind his family to fight in the war against Napoleon; and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman, who intrigues both men. As Napoleon’s army invades, Tolstoy vividly follows characters from diverse backgrounds—peasants and nobility, civilians and soldiers—as they struggle with the problems unique to their era, their history, and their culture. And as the novel progresses, these characters transcend their specificity, becoming some of the most moving—and human—figures in world literature.

Pevear and Volokhonsky have brought us this classic novel in a translation remarkable for its fidelity to Tolstoy’s style and cadence and for its energetic, accessible prose. With stunning grace and precision, this new version of War and Peace is set to become the definitive English edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:19 -0400)

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From Pevear and Volokhonsky, the bestselling, award-winning translators of "Anna Karenina" and "The Brothers Karamazov," comes a brilliant, engaging, and eminently readable translation of Tolstoy's master epic.

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