War and Peace Leo Tolstoy

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

War and Peace Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace Leo Tolstoy (1869)

More epic than novel, the Russian author LEO TOLSTOY’S Voyna i mir (War and Peace), a classic of world literature, dramatizes the human destruction following a clash of despots that threatens homes and families. The opening lines “The Invasion” in Volume II, Book I, chapter 1 declare Czar Alexander I of Russia and Napoleon I of France “the arbitrators of the world’s fate” (Tolstoy 1915, 1), who control millions of lives and fortunes and a vast expanse of farmland, forests, waterways, and villages. To the detriment of health, rest, and passion plotted four years earlier, the battle of Borodino takes place on September 7, 1812. As though on a crusade, Napoleon Bonaparte, mounted on a thoroughbred Arabian, advances his troops from Dresden, Germany, against a Cossack force and marches toward Moscow, “the Holy City, the capital of an empire which reminded him of that of Alexander the Great” (200). The outsized fantasies of the French self-promoter conclude Volume II, Book I, chapter 24 with a Roman restatement of a Sophoclean PROPHECY, “Quos vult perdere Jupiter, dementat prius” (Whom Jupiter wishes to destroy, he first makes mad) (202).

Tolstoy is evenhanded in his blame of emperors for a national disaster, immense loss of life, and destruction of homes and crops. He emphasizes the vainglory of Czar Alexander I, who hopes to expand Russia from the Bosnian Gulf to the Danube. In a self-ennobling speech, the czar chooses the editorial “we” in directing an “ocean of soldiery” (351) toward a continental triumph: “We shall hasten to place our person in the midst of our people… . May the woes with which [Napoleon] hopes to crush us be visited on him alone, and may Europe, freed from the yoke, glorify Russia!” (265-266). The author accuses both French and Russian soldiers of battlefield bombast and jubilance. Men leave female characters with hopes of escape, trivial amusements, and feeble prayers that life can return to its former contentment, a major motif in William Makepeace Thackeray’s epic novel Vanity Fair (1848). Boris Drubetskoy, an immature officer who leaves his wife Julie in Moscow, perpetuates the stereotype of the shallow female by “accusing all women of frivolity, inconstancy and caprice, according to the humour they were in and their fancy for accepting the homage of the latest favourite” (142). Tolstoy’s aristocratic attitude also belittles peasants for fearing they will be enlisted among the Cossacks to ward off the anti-Christ and the APOCALYPSE.

Despite the thin narrative strand and miniaturization of characters, the social panorama of War and Peace has intrigued makers of epic cinema more than similar scenarios in the Napoleonic social satire of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. In 1956, King Vidor’s film version of War and Peace featured Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer as contrasting suitors for Audrey Hepburn. The actress won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for the elevation of her girlish character, Natasha Rostova, to a combat nurse who opens her home as a makeshift hospital. In 1968, a Russian remake of the novel won an Academy Award for best foreign language cinema. A BBC miniseries in 1972 starred Anthony Hopkins as the HERO Pierre Bezukhov.



Layton, Susan. Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1915.