Initial Thoughts on Finishing War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

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If you follow my twitter stream, you may have noticed that in the last few days a few complaint tweets about the never-ending nature of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Well, it ended. This morning I finished the last fifteen pages. My book club discusses it tomorrow night, but I wanted to record my initial impressions on having finished. I’m hoping that our discussions will convince me to try it again….maybe in a decade or so.

The storyline was wonderful: Natasha, Pierre, Andrei, Marya. I wanted to know what was going to happen to them as the war progressed. As I read volume II, for example, I could not put down the book: I wanted to know how it would resolve. Tolstoy did a wonderful job of creating well-rounded, complex characters.

But as Tolstoy indicates in his Appendix (“A Few Words Apropos of the Book War and Peace“), his book is “not a novel, still less, an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle” (page 1217). In short, he indicates that he wrote what he wanted to, without any regard to “conventional forms of artistic prose.” And these non-conventional elements are where he lost my interest: the historical digressions, his personal visit to the battle field and his own opinion on how the battle played itself out, his personal opinions on the character of Napoleon, a philosophical debate on man’s free will.

In part Two of the Epilogue, which was, essentially a 30-page philosophical discussion on free will (talk about a way to end a book), Tolstoy indicates what I think was his purpose in writing this book.

The subject of history is the life of peoples and of mankind. To grasp directly and embrace in words — to describe — the life not only of mankind, but of one people, appears impossible. (page 1179)

And yet, that “impossibility” is what Tolstoy has attempted in his giant tome. This book is not called “Pierre’s Journey to Happiness” or “Natasha Grows Up” or even “The War of 1812.” This is a book about war and peace: human nature and the entire human condition in the midst of both war and peace. Tolstoy wrote a classic because he attempted the impossible: he departed from the normal way of capturing human nature and wrote an account of the Russian people, as a whole, during a monumental time in Russian history. There are many facets to human nature, and he has tried to capture them all, from the people I was interested in to the not-so-interesting leaders of the war.

I am grateful for the storyline. I kept reading because I wanted to know how the every-day people (the upper class, at least) survived and thrived after tragedy. I kept reading because I wanted the satisfaction of resolution and happiness. Tolstoy followed the story through to the end, for the most part. In the end, there are still some questions of who is actually happy. But this is satisfying to me: nothing is completely “happily ever after.” Russian history did not stop when Napoleon left Moscow.

Although I disliked what I’ve been calling “digressions,” they really aren’t that: they are a part of Tolstoy’s work, and they are there for a reason. Take out the 300 pages of philosophy and history, and I’d have liked the book more — but it wouldn’t be Tolstoy’s tome.

As I was complaining to my husband last night, he called me out. “You read classic literature, but you’re still just reading for the story. You’re still just approaching it superficially.”

He’s right. I am reading superficially. I wish I could approach the tome as Tolstoy intended, that I could take the non-linear, non-fictional sections as important material and enjoy it for it’s insights into human nature and history. It may be that I’m just in a more “superficial” mood lately (I was similarly unsatisfied and almost bored by Persuasion recently too). Because my current reading state of mind may be to blame, I feel I should give War and Peace another chance to prove itself to me.

Just not any time soon.

Any thoughts you can give me on your first read of War and Peace? I’m leading the discussion tomorrow night, so would love your insights on what we should look at.

Reviewed on January 18, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Well, I hate to admit it, but I always read for the story. Otherwise it’s just work, and I’m done with school. I can’t help it, I guess I am just not an intellectual. But good for you finishing the whole thing — when I read it in college I never finished the epilogue. Luckily it wasn’t on the final.

    • Karenlibrarian, well, this one does have a wonderful story, just lots of other not-so-interesing (to me) stuff too. I’m liking it more now that I’m actually done. I was wondering what college professors make of the epilogue. Interesting it was never addressed It’s just so….random-ish, but obviously Tolstoy had SOME point. Just beyond me, I guess.

  • You were bored by Persuasion? *gasp* That is my favourite Austen! Not that that will keep me from reading your blog or appreciating your views..

    I can imagine that this is hard to read not only because of the length, but also because it looks like a book that tries to do a lot all at once. I wonder if it is possible to read this without focusing on one of those things?

    I think it is interesting that Tolstoy wrote this as a history of “the life of peoples and mankind” and remarks on the impossibility of it. It sounds like he was ahead of his time, looking at the way history is written nowadays.

    • Iris, well, I honestly think my problems with Persuasion, and even War and Peace for that matter, stem back to the fact that I’m a bit ADD these days with reading in general. So much going on. I WILL reread PERSUASION some day, but I suspect P&P will remain my favorite.

      And yes, this book does a lot. I was trying not to focus on the history, but I think my reading ADD meant that whenever I did come to a 20-page “digression” I was impatient with it. I definitely think that Tolstoy was trying to think “out of the box” here, though. I’m pondering another post looking at that angle.

  • Being only 1/4 of the way in (I’m done with Vol. 1 and barely into Vol. 2) I’m slightly intimidated by it. I think I have a grasp of it, but I continuously doubt myself and my reactions. I know that I am going to have to read it again to fully “Get it” and that makes me cranky. I like to understand the story and the message the first time around, you know?

    • Allie, I’d be one to say just enjoy the story and ignore or skim quickly the ramblings. but, obviously, I am in the midst of reading ADD so I’m the wrong one to talk to. Yeah, I think to “get” Tolstoy’s point, I’ll have to read it again. But I guess I”m okay with that right now. I wish you the best in your continued reading!

  • I haven’t read W&P, but I did read Anna Karenina back in university and it had a lot of digressions too. The final “book” is a long musing on the role of peasants and uprisings and the like, which seemed like an odd way to finish off the book, but I suppose Tolstoy was a very political writer and couldn’t help but insert his views on society and civilization into his works.

    • Steph, so interesting, as when I read ANNA KARENINA I really enjoyed the digressions about peasants and so forth. (I wasn’t so stressed and busy so maybe that’s what it didn’t bug me so much?) It really seemed to have a point. I think Tolstoy had a point in W&P too. May write about it another post.

      As to Tolstoy being a political writer: yes, but he was so bad at tying the political “digressions” into the STORY! Again, for tomorrow’s post….

  • As someone just embarking on my journey through War and Peace, it was very interesting to read your thoughts on just having finished it. I’ve not yet hit any major “digressions,” but I know they’re coming! I have a feeling I’ll dislike them, but I also hope I’ll like Tolstoy’s characters and stories enough to plow through the less enjoyable parts. That’s quite a tome for a book group to tackle; I hope you have a lively discussion!

    • Erin, I felt like the “digressions” didn’t start until Volume III. Which I why I’m suspecting I was getting impatient with it more than anything. Sigh. I need to slow down and read fewer books so I can better enjoy the ones I DO read!

      We did have a nice discussion at our book group!

  • I relate to the impatience you mention to get on with a particular storyline, although over the years I’ve trained my brain to kind of step back and take a deep breath when it’s feeling like that, and try to just “be” with whatever’s happening at the moment, rather than wishing to get back to X or Y. It was definitely a process, though, and one with which I’ll probably never be completely done. I think part of it is that I’ve become more & more interested in authorial voice and technique as time has gone by, so it’s easier to be like “Huh, this is an interesting choice the author is making…wonder what that’s about.” I do remember feeling amused by Tolstoy in Anna Karenina for all the seeming digressions about collective farms, etc. Haven’t read War & Peace, but it’s on my list…

    • Emily, what you explain is exactly what I need to do with my reading….Since I’m getting less reading time in, I have to make sure I’m reading RIGHT. Thanks for putting it so well. I do think Tolstoy has a lot of interesting ideas going on. I wish I appreciated it more! Instead of being impatient…

  • I finished War and Peace and blogged about it at the beginning of the year. I really enjoyed it, although Part II Epilogue just about did me in. I felt very sorry for one of the female characters towards the end though, I shan’t say who in case it spoils it for anyone.

    • Katrina, yes, *SPOILER WARNING FOR OTHERS* I actually felt rather sorry for all of the females at the end. S. ended up really stuck in her role and N was doudy and blah. Even M. was pretty blah at the end. It’s like they lost their personalities. I don’t think Tolstoy thought much of women. Our group talked about them….

  • Wow, I’m so impressed you finished this. I tried to read it a while back and thought I would try again but I think it’s not to be for now. But wow, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  • Nothing wrong with reading for the story. 🙂 I did read this over a summer with a group. It was hard going at times but I’m glad I did it. There were so many characters; it was hard to keep them straight.

    • Chris@bookarama, I kept referring to the front page with all the characters for the first half of the book! By the second half they were all old friends 🙂 I think reading with a support group is perfect!

  • I love that quote by your husband. That’s an excellent reminder for me – too. I’m 101 pages in. So far I really like it, though Prince Andrei is way honorable, in my mind, than Pierre. I may be disproven.

    Great post. 🙂

  • […] Here’s another take on War and Peace by Rebecca, who just finished the novel – The storyline was wonderful: Natasha, Pierre, Andrei, Marya. I wanted to know what was going to happen to them as the war progressed. As I read volume II, for example, I could not put down the book: I wanted to know how it would resolve. Tolstoy did a wonderful job of creating well-rounded, complex characters… Read More […]

  • I enjoy that extract by your hubby. That’s an excellent reminder for me – too. I’m 101 pages in. So far I real equivalent it, tho’ Prince Andrei is way upstanding, in my intention, than Pierre. I may be disproven.

  • Just finished reading War and Peace. The last 40 pages were a slog. I almost felt like the whole narrative was a set up for this rambling, abstruse dissertation on history, power, and free will. The thing is, reading the novel, I think, gives you a tacit understanding of what he says at the end. I can’t explain how. It just does. Wonderful book. I may re-read the last 40 pages when I’m feeling sharper.

      • I’m taking a break by reading something a bit shorter: Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee. Reads very fast compared to War and Peace! After that, maybe take a deep breath and pick up Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The classics are work, but the payoff is wonderful. They have a way of changing you.

  • The historical substance only severed as the delivery method for Tolstoy’s free will versus necessity argument. I just finished W&P yesterday. Where do you think LT ultimately comes down on fatalism? He seems to leave a slight opening for a smidgen of free will at the end of the book. Also, do you think LT thought that leadership was totally inconsequential to outcomes for groups of people?

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