War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is my favorite novel, if we can call it a novel. Perhaps the epitome of the multi-generational and multi-decade timeframe construction of Russian literature, Tolstoy’s epic centers around several characters set in the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars: a dashing young prince named Andrei Bolkonsky, a revolutionary enthusiast named Pierre Bezukhov, and a beautiful young girl maturing into womanhood named Natasha. There are other key characters: the manipulative yet seductive Helene, and Natasha’s cavalry brother Nikolai. War and Peace is the about the personal wars, the struggles of the characters as they fight to learn love and embrace love amid the nihilism and vainglory of war and revolution.
Andrei’s character arc develops from a vain incarnate reflection of “his hero” Napoleon into a forgiving image of the Christ of mercy. Betrayed by friends and Natasha, he seeks revenge on the man who has ruined his prospective marriage to Natasha: Anatole. He rejoins the army not to defend Russia from Napoleon’s invasion but to kill Anatole (an officer). They see each other in the hospitals of Borodino and Andrei forgives Anatole and then meets Natasha one last time during the retreat and forgives her before he dies.
Pierre, meanwhile, learns that helping people isn’t through abstract idealism and revolutionary fervor but flesh and blood relationships of friendship (with Andrei) and family life (eventually, with Natasha). He learns this through the loss of his family who spurn him after he comes into inheritance and his failed marriage with Helen who married him only for his wealth, his inability to find meaning in the esoteric mysticism of the freemasons, or on the battlefield of Borodino. He eventually, however, loves Natasha and marries her and has a beautiful and bountiful family.
Natasha grows into womanhood and her loving nature through the trials and tribulations of young adult womanhood and maturation. Introduced as a child about to enter her prime, she is described as a life-giving flower but not exceptionally beautiful (in contrast to Helene). As she grows older she grows into passion, she plans to marry Andrei but is manipulated by Helene and Anatole, breaking off the engagement and falling prey to the schemes of Helene and Anatole which drive her nearly to death. Pierre helps her overcome. Eventually Natasha and Andrei reconcile with each other in the aftermath of Borodino and she becomes that life-giving flower when she marries Pierre and have a big and beautiful family together.
Tolstoy’s epic deals with history, philosophy, and the meaning of human existence. Tolstoy asserts that the pursuit of glory: be it politics, military, or wealth, is fleeting. The true meaning of life is love: exhibited by all the principal characters in some form or another: forgiveness, friendship, and marriage being the highest manifestations of love—and we all struggle, war, to find that love which brings peace.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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