Reader Response: War and Peace

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I loved War and Peace from the moment Pierre bumbled into scheming Anna Pavlovna’s party and proceeded to horrify everyone by fawning over Napoleon.

I’m a sucker for an epic tale, and War and Peace contains all the elements of a great epic, with the bonus of also being a sweeping historical novel and intense work that explores love and the human condition.

A few notes on what kept me immersed and tearing through the pages of this work:

  • Interesting characters who are sometimes more than they seem, sometimes less than they seem, and sometimes precisely what they present themselves to be.
  • Complicated social constructs that confine every character, regardless of their social standing, and make them do ridiculous things that actually aren’t ridiculous at all in the context of time and place.
  • Glorious battle scenes that become decidedly inglorious when you zoom in for a closer look, revealing both the necessity and  futility of war.
  • Existential crises, the necessity for characters to make heart-wrenching decisions, and a dash of forbidden love kept me fully submerged and invested in wide sweeping historical  events on a personal level.
  • Prison time. A little time in captivity is always good for a hero to search his soul about what truly matters.
  • Self sacrifice, written beautifully, and undertaken by different characters for different reasons–for family, for country, for loftier ideals–was met throughout this work with varying degrees of success. There is no straight path to fulfillment or redemption for Tolstoy’s characters, which made their evolution that much more satisfying.

Similar to Prince Andrei, I had a mid-novel realization that I love everyone in this work because they simply are who they were meant to be. I loved that characters had moments of clarity that were profound and presumably life-changing, and that sometimes they remained changed by those moments and sometimes their return to “civilized” society pushed those revelations to the background.  I found that as I became more involved in this novel, I came to sympathize with everyone, but most especially Pierre, who was so sincere in his search for meaning and purpose that I couldn’t help but feel protective of him when he seemed he would never truly find his way.

And, just when I though I had come to the conclusion of this epic journey, Tolstoy endeared himself to me even more in the epilogues. I appreciated that Tolstoy did not fast forward to an idealized, soft-focus montage of Natasha and Pierre’s married life, but instead dropped us in the middle of a relatable and rather humorous description of squabbles, diapers, and the thought that goes into doling out gifts after a business trip. I also enjoyed the philosophical meanderings in the epilogue, but it was the unkempt Natasha and her family who made the epilogues worth reading for me.

While it is Pierre that I enjoyed getting to know most as a character, it is Prince Andrei whose thoughts resonated most strongly with me throughout War and Peace. Prince Andrei sums up my overall take-away from this multilayered tale of history, sacrifice, mortality, and love when he says to Pierre, “Here I am alive, and it’s not my fault, so I have to try and get by as best I can without hurting anybody until death takes over.” Like Andrei, I find this concept both comforting and hopeful.

It has been a week since I finished War and Peace, and I’m still not ready to pick up another book just yet. It was that good.

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