Leo Tolstoy and His Great Epic War and Peace

Dr. Ruwan M Jayatunge M.D. – rumj@sltnet.lk

At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal force in the heart of man: one very reasonably tells the man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of avoiding it; the other even more reasonable says that it is too painful and harassing to think of the danger, since it is not a man’s power to provide for everything and escape from the general march of events; and that it is therefore better to turn aside from the painful subject till it has come, and to think of what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally yields to the first voice; in society to the second.
Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace)

According to E.M Forster, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace” (Voyna I Mir) has been the greatest novel ever written. It’s a novel that runs through time and space. Over four hundred fictional and historical characters are illustrated in this unique novel. War and Peace narrates Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the post war period. In War and Peace Tolstoy argued his own idiosyncratic theory of life. He was struggling between with his Christian ideals and his conflicts with lust and the hypocrisies. War and Peace is a question paper submitted to the reader. Tolstoy puts a question how to lead a perfect life in an imperfect world? His struggles with his passions and his spiritual conflicts made him to write the greatest book in the history of literature.

Character analysis is exceptional in this great novel. There are several central characters that keep the narrative live and distinctive. Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrey Bolkonsky two fictional characters appear throughout the novel are remarkable for their static nature. They often regarded as being reflections of Tolstoy himself.

Leo Tolstoy’s life was full of contradictions. He wanted to renounce wealth but until his old age he could not make a precise decision. He preached that the money was evil yet he enjoyed luxuries, he said people should detach from their wealth and look after the poor. However in real life he had to arrest three poor peasants who illegally cut timber in his state and later to prosecute them. He was trapped in an unhappy marriage for a long time. At a time he was an egoless lover and the next time he was jealous of his wife. Leo Tolstoy’s shifting emotions are well documented in his novels and many are reflected in his masterpiece War and Peace.

Tolstoy lost both of his parents at the small age. But their warmth and spiritual touch lived with him. He immortalized their memory by creating two fictional characters in War and Peace. Nikolai Rostov (young brave Army officer who is a passionate lover fond of gambling and leads a reckless life later turns in to a responsible man) and Maria Bolkonskaya (who is a loving and a religious woman) were based on Tolstoy’s own memories of his father and mother.

Pierre and Prince Andrei bear much resemblance to Tolstoy himself. Tolstoy was struggling with his passions and his spiritual conflicts were expressed via Pierre Bezukhov’s character. According to the novel Pierre Bezukhov is an illegitimate son of Count Kirill Bezukhov. Pierre is described as an ill-mannered non attractive socially awkward man who is fond of women, wine and gambling. This portrait is much similar to young Tolstoy.

Young Tolstoy had a passion for gambling and had exhausted the family wealth. Like Pierre Bezukhov he found it difficult to integrate into the Petersburg high society. Tolstoy admitted himself as a non attractive ugly man. Likewise Pierre Bezukhov is narrated as a huge bear like person. Pierre was ignored and rejected by the high society until he inherits his father’s fortune. Once he becomes rich and famous Pierre was forced to get married to a woman named Helen. Consequently he was trapped in an unhappy marriage and searching for meaning in his life. One time debauch now becomes a philosopher. Pierre Bezuhov represents much of Tolstoy’s philosophy.

The character of Platòn Karataev is relatively small but very inspiring. As the book describes Platòn Karataev is a peasant with simple and true qualities which Tolstoy admired most. The author becomes a prophet and a moral reformer who speaks to the reader directly. Platòn Karatheave becomes his mouthpiece.

One time Leo Tolstoy was an ambitious young officer who served in the Crimean War. There he witnessed horror and despair and as a result of battle stress he gradually experienced a personality change. The climax of this personality change occurred many years after the war when he was traveling to buy an estate. He had to stay in a motel and in the middle of the night he walked up with a mortal fear. This could have been a sever anxiety attack and this incident made distinct changes in him. He experienced persistent sorrow and emptiness which he described in his autobiographical book Confession….

I cannot recall those years without horror, loathing, and heart-rending pain. I killed people in war, challenged men to duels with the purpose of killing them, and lost at cards; I squandered the fruits of the peasants’ toil and then had them executed; I was a fornicator and a cheat. Lying, stealing, promiscuity of every kind, drunkenness, violence, murder – there was not a crime I did not commit…Thus I lived for ten years.”

Prince Andrei Bolkonsky mostly represent Tolstoy’s military period. Prince Andrei was a cynical man tired of his wealth and family glory goes in search of a new life adventure. He wants to make history and to be a large part of it. He was looking forward to find his greatness in the Battle of Austerlitz. When Andrei was wounded in the battle he sees the blue sky which implies the emptiness. Andrei’s NDE (Near Death Experience) makes him more matured and finally he realizes military glory, encounter with his former hero Napoleon, making history etc all were insignificant empty attempts. He realized the true meaning of human suffering. But he becomes more syndical and alienated.

Later in life Count Tolstoy formulated a stereotype unique philosophy. Although he was criticized by the clergy and even excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church Tolstoy believed that philosophic principles can only be understood in their concrete expression in history.

Tolstoy discussed the free will in War and Peace. War and Peace reflects Tolstoy’s view that all is predestined.. He wrights no one controls events not even Napoleon or Kutuzov Commander-in-chief of the Russian forces or the Tsar Alexander I.
In his own words Leo Tolstoy states

“In historical events great men – so-called – are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity.”

This philosophy was later grasped by many novelists and film directors. For instance in the movie Wind and the Lion (Staring Sean Connery) the nomad leader of the desert Raisuli compares his place in the universe as a pawn in the chess board which he has no control . Tolstoy once said man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity.

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