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Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is a behemoth of a book. Going into it, that was all I really knew about the famous Russian classic.
My copy was well over 1,000 pages long, and even though I consider myself a fairly avid reader, it was an intimidating undertaking.
However, right from the get go, I was immediately greeted with some of most interesting, charming characters I have ever read, and a vivid portrait of early 19th-century Russia on the brink of a war with France.
Not only that, but the development of a pretty substantial cast of characters that occurred in meaningful and interesting ways throughout the novel had me hooked.
So, is War and Peace worth reading? Yes, War and Peace is absolutely worth reading. The character development alone is perhaps what makes this novel so timeless and universal in its appeal, but that isn’t to undercut Tolstoy’s portrayal of Russian culture and history. It’s a fantastic, complex read that anyone will enjoy (granted that they have the time for it).
But what about the length of the book? That’s certainly enough to turn any reader away. And all the characters with Russian names, and all the historical figures you need to know, and all the battles…it’s too much!!!
Before you throw your book down in frustration, though, let’s look at what makes this book so worthwhile (and hopefully convince you to give it a try)!
Also, I’m about to get into mega-spoiler territory, so if you’re already convinced and want to read this book, then read it! Once you’re done, come back to this article and read on!
Why Is War and Peace So Famous?
The thing that totally sold me on War and Peace (and probably why War and Peace is so famous) wasn’t necessarily the Russian history lessons I got, nor the crazy battles that take place throughout, but the characters.
Tolstoy’s character building has got to be the strongest element of this book.
More so than many books I’ve read before, each player in this story feels so believable and human in their motives. Even though the story might seem very -noble and heroic-, the characters have real flaws and self-fulfilling motives.
These flaws create a deeper sense of complexity that makes for a lot of amazing growth over the decades that the book covers.
Though I’d love to cover every single character, from the egotistical Anatole Kuragin to the literal Napoleon Bonaparte, I’m gonna stick to my three favorite characters: Pierre, Andrei, and Natasha.
Pierre Bezukhov and the Search for Meaning
Pierre Bezukhov has to be the most iconic character in War and Peace (also he was played by Paul Dano in the BBC adaptation which is pretty cool).
Though Pierre has many epiphanies throughout this novel, what struck me the most was his continual search for fulfillment and meaning.
After the death of his father, Pierre finds himself the inheritor of a pretty huge amount of money.
At first, Pierre was kind of an awkward nerd, but now he’s rich and everybody wants to hang with him, including Hélène Kuragina (whose main attribute is being pretty) and her family.
Hélène’s dad, Prince Vasily, plays matchmaker and sort of forces Pierre into an awkward marriage between the two.
This incident acts as the catalyst for Pierre that forces him to reckon with his own life’s purpose and his inability to make meaningful decisions.
“He was about to stoop over her hand and kiss it, but with a rapid, almost brutal movement of her head, she intercepted his lips and met them with her own…’It is too late now, it’s done; besides I love her,’ thought Pierre. ‘Je vous aime!’ he said…but his words sounded so weak that he felt ashamed of himself.”
Hélène turns out to be kind of the worst, and Pierre is stuck enduring a marriage with a woman who is allegedly sleeping around. Pierre’s frustrations in their marriage lead him to dueling a man, almost killing him, and also almost killing Hélène. Uh oh!
Pierre then gets kind of involved with Freemasons. He looks at this group as an answer to his lack of meaning, as he attempts to use their quasi-religious beliefs to try and change the world for better. However, he is still filled with doubts!
“Pierre, perplexed, looked round with his shortsighted eyes without obeying, and suddenly doubts arose in his mind. ‘Where am I? What am I doing? Aren’t they laughing at me? Shan’t I be ashamed to remember this?’…He was aghast at his hesitation and, trying to arouse his former devotional feeling, prostrated himself before the Gates of the Temple.”
The Freemason-philanthropist-thing also does not work out! Eventually, war breaks out in Russia and Moscow is evacuated. However, Pierre stays behind!
He is captured and taken as a prisoner of war, and at that point Pierre begins to find real value in life.
Being faced so closely with death and suffering, and the impact of watching his fellow prisoners either executed or endure terrible conditions causes Pierre to find value in his own life as it is.
“‘People speak of misfortunes and sufferings,’ remarked Pierre, ‘but if at this moment I were asked: ‘Would you rather be what you were before you were taken prisoner, or go through all this again?’ then for heaven’s sake let me again have captivity and horseflesh! We imagine that when we are thrown out of our usual ruts all is lost, but it is only then that what is new and good begins. While there is life there is happiness. There is much, much before us.’”
Andrei Bolkonsky and the Quest for Glory
Andrei Bolkonsky is another major player in War and Peace. He’s the brother of Maria Bolkonsky, the son of the semi-crazy Nikolai Bolkonsky, and is kind of obsessed with making a name for himself.
Early on in the book, Andrei is introduced as a sort of rude, arrogant husband to his pregnant wife. Pierre’s his best buddy, and he advises him in a bizzaro way to never get married.
It’s pretty weird, but it establishes Andrei as having one thing on his mind: glory! He wants to be recognized for his military accomplishments and to avoid taking part in the trivialities of high society.
However, after the famous Battle of Austerlitz, Andrei lies on the battlefield seriously wounded. At this point, we see him have a kind of epiphany: he realizes his own life, and his attempt to fight against Napoleon and achieve fame in that way, was vain.
In fact, Napoleon even walks across the battlefield and discovers his body, but Andrei doesn’t even care! The old Andrei would freak out and be like “Wow! Napoleon!” but the new Andrei sees the bigger picture.
“Though five minutes before, Prince Andrew had been able to say a few words to the soldiers who were carrying him, now with his eyes fixed straight on Napoleon, he was silent…So insignificant at that moment seemed to him all the interests that engrossed Napoleon, so mean did his hero himself with his paltry vanity and joy in victory appear, compared to the lofty, equitable, and kindly sky which he had seen and understood, that he could not answer him.”
Natasha Rostova and Inner Healing
Finally, Natasha Rostova is another pivotal player in the story of War and Peace.
She’s the daughter of Ilya Rostov and Natalya Rostova, and she goes through quite a few deaths and socially unfortunate events.
Okay, spoiler alert!! I know I already said it, but this one is major. Andrei dies! Nooooo, but yes he does die, and Natasha was engaged to him!!
But they kind of broke it off because she sort of had a crush on another guy and then broke off the engagement with Andrei but turns out the other guy was bad!!
Then, Andrei found out and he was mad and she was very sad for awhile and it was not good. Then, Andrei got wounded in another battle, and he dies.
Quick little recap, but Natasha experiences some major growth during that time and is able to find healing in her community.
Natasha is introduced as a fairly naive character, and she makes a lot of decisions early on fairly flippantly.
However, seeing the hurt caused by her and to her makes for a wonderful character shift, and as the novel comes a close we see her become a very strong anchor for her family around her!
The quote below is from a very beautiful section of the novel where Natasha’s grief over Andrei and her brother’s death begins to heal. Ultimately, this healing is able to inspire healing in Andrei’s sister and Natasha’s mother!
“She did not know and would not have believed it, but beneath the layer of slime that covered her soul and seemed to her impenetrable, delicate young shoots of grass were already sprouting, which taking root would so cover with their living verdure the grief that weighed her down that it would soon no longer be seen or noticed. The wound had begun to heal from within.”
Is War and Peace Hard To Read?
Though War and Peace is a lengthy read, it isn’t particularly hard to read.
Keeping up with the characters is on par with keeping up with any cast of characters from a book or book series, and the plot overall is engaging and easy to track.
The actual historical elements of the text aren’t too off-putting either. I went in without any knowledge of Russian or French history, and I found it pretty easy to keep up with everything.
Towards the second half of the novel, Tolstoy has some lengthy rants about fatalism and his opinion of historical figures, but those are also pretty entertaining in their own special way.
So, no, War and Peace isn’t hard to read. It’s just long!
How Long Does It Take To Read War and Peace?
This definitely varies from person to person. I read pretty fast, and the book took me about a month and a half to read. However, I definitely zoomed through it, so taking 6 months or longer to read through it isn’t uncommon!
On average, War and Peace takes about 35-45 hours to read, which for some casual reading, should take up the span of a a few months.
I kind of treated War and Peace like a long TV series, like Grey’s Anatomy or literally any TV series longer than two seasons.
With that mindset, the book kind of loses its daunting quality and just becomes an enjoyable Russian novel about a group of people fighting in the war (and also not fighting in the war)!
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