War and Peace has a huge cast of characters, some historically real, like Napoleon, the majority of whom are introduced in the first book. The scope of the novel is vast, but the focus is primarily on five aristocratic familes and their experiences in life. The interactions of these characters are set in the era leading up to, around and following the French invasion of Russia during the Napoleonic wars
Book One (Volume One)
The novel begins in the Russian city of Saint Petersburg, at a soirée given in July 1805 by Anna Pavlovna Scherer — the maid of honour and confidante to the queen mother Maria Feodorovna. Many of the main players and aristocratic families of the novel are introduced as they enter Anna Pavlovna's salon. Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of a wealthy count who is dying after a series of strokes. He is about to become embroiled in a tussle for his inheritance. Educated abroad in France after his mother's death and at his father's expense, Pierre is essentially kindhearted, but socially awkward owing in part to his goodhearted, open nature, and finds it difficult to integrate into the Petersburg society. He is his father's favorite of all the illegitimate children the old count produced, and this is known to everyone at Anna Pavlovna's.
Pierre's friend, the intelligent and sardonic Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, husband of the charming Lisa (the little princess), also attends the soireé. Finding Petersburg society unctuous and finding married life rather boring as well, Prince Andrei makes the fateful choice to be an aide-de-camp (called "adjutant" in many translations) to Prince Mikhail Kutuzov in the coming war against Napoleon.
Tolstoy then takes us to Moscow, Russia's ancient city and former capital, contrasting its provincial, more Russian ways, to the highly mannered society of Petersburg. The Rostov family will be one of the main narrative players of the novel. The Moscow Count Ilya Rostov family has four adolescent children. Young Natasha is supposedly in love with Boris Drubetskoy, a disciplined but boyish officer who is a relative. Nikolai pledges his teenage love to Sonya, his younger cousin. The eldest child of the Rostov family, Vera, is cold and somewhat haughty but has a good prospective marriage in a German officer, Berg. Petya is the youngest of the Rostov family; like his brother he is impetuous and eager to join the army when of age. The heads of the family, Count Ilya Rostov and Countess Natalya Rostova, are an affectionate couple but forever worried about their disordered finances.
At Bald Hills, the Bolkonskys' country estate, Prince Andrei leaves his pregnant wife with his eccentric father Prince Nikolai Andreivitch Bolkonsky and his devoutly religious sister Maria Bolkonskaya. He leaves for war.
The second part opens with descriptions of the impending Russian-French war preparations. At the Schöngrabern engagement, Nikolai Rostov, who is now conscripted as ensign in a squadron of hussars, has his first baptism of fire in battle. He meets Prince Andrei whom he does not really like. Like all young soldiers he is attracted by Tsar Alexander's almost inexplicable charisma. However, Nikolai gambles recklessly and socializes with the lisping Denisov and the ruthless Dolokhov.
Book Two (Volume Two)
Book Two begins with Nikolai Rostov briefly returning home to Moscow on home leave in early 1806. Nikolai finds the Rostov family facing financial ruin due to poor estate management. He spends an eventful winter at home, accompanied by his friend Denisov, met during the war. Natasha has blossomed into a beautiful young girl. Denisov proposes to her but is rejected. Although his mother pleads with Nikolai to find himself a good financial prospect in marriage, Nikolai refuses to accede to his mother's request. He promises to marry his childhood sweetheart, the orphaned, penniless cousin Sonya.
If there is a central character to War and Peace it is Pierre Bezukhov who, upon finally receiving his massive inheritance, is suddenly burdened with the responsibilities and conflicts of a Russian nobleman. He then enters into marriage with Prince Kuragin's beautiful and immoral daughter Hélène (Elena), against his own better judgment. He is continually helpless in the face of his wife's numerous affairs, has a duel with one of her lovers, and is anguish over whether it is his own character flaws that might be causing his marital woes. He later joins the Freemasons, and becomes embroiled in some of the Freemasonry's politicking. Much of Book Two concerns his struggles with his passions and his spiritual conflicts to be a better man. Now a rich aristocrat, his former carefree behavior vanishes and he enters upon a philosophical quest particular to Tolstoy: how should one live a moral life in an ethically imperfect world? The question constantly baffles and confuses Pierre. He attempts to free his peasants, but ultimately achieves nothing of note.
Pierre is vividly contrasted with the intelligent and ambitious Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. At the Battle of Austerlitz, Andrei is inspired by a vision of glory to lead a charge of a straggling army. He suffers a near fatal artillery wound which renders him unconscious. In the face of death, Andrei realizes all his former ambitions are pointless and his former hero, Napoleon (who rescues him in a horseback excursion to the battlefield), is apparently as vain as himself.
Prince Andrei recovers from his injuries in a military hospital, and returns home, only to find his wife Lise dying during childbirth. He is struck by his guilty conscience for not treating Lise better when she was alive.
Burdened with nihilistic disillusionment, Prince Andrei lives anonymously in his estate, working on a project that would codify military behavior and help solve some of the problems of Russian disorganization that he believes were responsible for the loss of life in battle on the Russian side. Pierre comes to visit him, and brings new questions: where is God in this amoral world? Pierre is interested in panentheism and the possibility of an afterlife.
Prince Andrei feels compelled to take his newly written military notions to Petersburg, naively expecting to be able to influence either the Emperor himself or those close to him. Young Natasha, also in Petersburg, is caught up in the excitement of dressing for her first Grand Ball, where she meets Prince Andrei. Natasha briefly reinvigorates Andrei with her lively vitality. Andrei believes he has found purpose in life again. However, the couple's immediate plan to marry has to be postponed with a year-long engagement, because the Old Prince Bolkonsky threatens to die if any other plan is followed and will in any case oppose the marriage.
When Prince Andrei leaves for his military engagements, Helena and her handsome brother Anatole conspire for Anatole to seduce and dishonor the young, still immature and now beautiful Natasha Rostova. They bait her with plans of an elopement. Thanks to her loyal friends Sonya and Pierre, this plan fails. For Pierre, it is the cause of an important change in relations with Natasha. He realizes he has now fallen in love with her. During the time when the Great Comet of 1811–2 streaks the sky, life appears to begin anew for Pierre.
Book Three (Volume Three)
Natasha breaks off her engagement with Andrei. Shamed by her near-seduction, she makes a suicide attempt and is left seriously ill. With the help of her family, especially Sonya, and the stirrings of religious faith, she manages to persevere in Moscow through this dark period.
Meanwhile, the whole of Russia is affected by the coming showdown between Napoleon's troops and the Russian army. Pierre convinces himself Napoleon is the Antichrist in the Book of Revelation through numerology. The old prince Bolkonsky dies from a stroke while trying to protect his main estate from French marauders. No organized help from any Russian army seems available to the Bolkonskys, but Nikolai Rostov does manage to show up at their place in time to help put down an incipient revolt of the muzhiks. It occurs to him that Princess Marya is not completely unattractive. Still, he has made a promise to Sonya.
Back in Moscow, war-obsessed Petya manages to snatch a loose piece of the Tsar's biscuit outside the Cathedral of the Assumption; he finally convinces his parents to allow him to enlist.
Napoleon himself is a main character of this section and is presented in vivid detail, both as thinker and would-be strategist. We get to see his toilette, experience his customary attitudes and traits of mind, and watch as Napoleon's well-organized force of over 400,000 (with only 140,000 of them being actually French-speaking) marches quickly through late summer and the Russian countryside outside Smolensk. Pierre decides to leave Moscow and go watch the Battle of Borodino from a vantage point next to a Russian artillery crew. After watching for a time, he begins to join in carrying ammunition. From within the turmoil he experiences first-hand the death and destruction of war. The battle becomes a horrible slaughter for both armies and ends up a standoff. The Russians, however, have won a moral victory by standing up to Napoleon's seemingly invincible army. Having suffered huge losses and for strategic reasons, the Russian army withdraws the next day, allowing Napoleon to march on to Moscow. Two casualties include Anatole and Prince Andrei. Anatole loses a leg in a memorable scene of amputation in a military hospital and Prince Andrei takes a random cannon ball to the gut. Both are reported dead, but their families are in such disarray that no one can be notified.
Book Four (Volume Four)
The Rostovs have waited until the last minute to abandon Moscow, even after it is clear that Kutusov has retreated past Moscow and Muscovites are being given contradictory, often propagandistic, instructions on how to either flee or fight. Count Rastopchin is publishing posters, riling up the citizens and urging them to put their faith in Holy Iberian icons, or at least, their own icons, while at the same time urging them to fight with pitch forks if necessary. Before fleeing himself, he gives orders to burn the town. The Rostovs have a difficult time deciding what to take with them, and in the end, Natasha and her father overrule mother's desire to take some of the good china - they end up loading their carts with the wounded and dying from the Battle of Borodino. Unbeknownst to Natasha, Prince Andrei is amongst the wounded and not dead at all, yet.
When Napoleon's Grand Army finally occupies an abandoned and burning Moscow, Pierre takes off on a quixotic mission to assassinate Napoleon. He becomes an anonymous man in all the chaos, shedding his responsibilities by wearing peasant clothes and shunning his duties and lifestyle. The only people he sees while in this garb are Natasha and some of her family, as they depart Moscow. Natasha recognizes and smiles at him, and he in turn realizes the full scope of his love for her.
His plan fails, and he is captured in Napoleon's headquarters as a prisoner of war after saving a child from a burning building and assaulting a French legionnaire for attacking a woman. He becomes friends with his cell-mate Platòn Karataev, a peasant with a saintly demeanor, who is incapable of malice. In Karataev, Pierre finally finds what he is looking for, an honest, "rounded" person who is totally without pretense. Karataev is unlike those from the Petersburg aristocratic society, and also notably a member of the working class, with whom Pierre finds meaning in life simply by living and interacting with him. After witnessing French soldiers sacking Moscow and shooting Russian civilians arbitrarily, Pierre is forced to march with the Grand Army during its disastrous retreat from Moscow owing to the harsh winter. After months of trial and tribulation — during which Karataev is capriciously shot by the French — Pierre is later freed by a Russian raiding party, after a small skirmish with the French that sees the young Petya Rostov killed in action.
Meanwhile, Andrei, wounded during Napoleon's invasion, has been taken in as a casualty cared for by the fleeing Rostovs. He is reunited with Natasha and sister Marya before the end of the war. Having lost all will to live, he forgives Natasha in a last act before finally dying. He had been thought dead twice before in the novel, but now it has come to pass.
As the novel draws to a close, Pierre's wife Helena dies after receiving medical treatment (it is implied that she tried to have an abortion); and Pierre is reunited with Natasha, while the victorious Russians rebuild Moscow. Natasha speaks of Prince Andrei's death and Pierre of Karataev's. Both are aware of a growing bond with each other in their bereavement. Matchmade by Princess Marya, Pierre finds love at last and, revealing his love after being released from his former wife's death, marries Natasha.
The first epilogue begins with the wedding of Pierre and Natasha, in 1813. It is the last happy event for the Rostov family which is going through a transition. Count Ilya Rostov dies soon after, leaving the eldest son Nikolai to take charge of the debt-ridden estate.
Nikolai finds himself with the task of maintaining the family on the verge of bankruptcy. His pride almost gets in the way of him, but Nikolai finally accedes to his mother's wish. He marries the now-rich Marya Bolkonskaya in winter 1813 - both out of feeling and the necessity to save his family from ruin.
Nikolai Rostov and Marya then move to Bald Hills with his mother and Sonya, whom he supports for the rest of their life. Buoyed on by his wife's funds, Nikolai pays off all his family's debts. They also raise Prince Andrei's orphaned son, Nikolai Bolkonsky.
As in all good marriages, there are misunderstandings, but the couples – Pierre and Natasha, Nikolai and Marya – remain devoted to their spouses. Pierre and Natasha visit Bald Hills in 1820, much to the jubilation of everyone concerned. There is a hint in the closing chapters that the idealistic, boyish Nikolai Bolkonsky (15-year-old in 1820) and Pierre would both become part of the Decembrist Uprising. The first epilogue concludes with Nikolai Bolkonsky promising he would do something which even his late father "would be satisfied..." (presumably as a revolutionary in the Decembrist revolt).
The second epilogue contains Tolstoy's critique of all existing forms of mainstream history. He attempts to show that there is a great force behind history, which he first terms divine. He offers the entire book as evidence of this force, and critiques his own work. God, therefore, becomes the word Tolstoy uses to refer to all the forces that produce history, taken together, and operating behind the scenes.
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