September 19, 2011

Leo Tolstoy’s War AND Peace

Sara Stefani's well-worn copy of War and Peace.

Tolstoy obviously didn’t use all caps for the conjunction in the title of his great masterpiece. Although I have read and taught War and Peace several times, I find that I am looking at it somewhat differently this semester. Perhaps not really “differently” – I have always taught my students to see the connections between the “war” scenes and the “peace” scenes – but I think that the Themester goals have made this issue of the connections between war and peace come into clearer, sharper focus. I am currently teaching a course on War and Peace as well as conducting an on-line discussion group of the book, both as part of IU’s Themester program. Since one of the goals of this fall’s Themester is to question the relationship between war and peace, and whether it is even legitimate to separate the two, I find myself coming back to this issue in relation to Tolstoy’s novel. I do think Tolstoy wants us to question whether we can truly separate war from peace. With the Themester goals in mind, however, I am starting to realize how much it is in our human nature and human psychology to do just that – to ignore Tolstoy’s conjunction, to separate war from peace and assign them to different realms of experience.

Tolstoy’s novel opens with a set of “peace” scenes in Part One of Book One and is followed in Part Two by a set of “war” scenes. In my first on-line chat session with the discussion group, one participant made the comment that Part One is all domestic, as if Tolstoy is trying to give his readers a peek into everyone’s “normal” lives before the war drops like a cannonball into their midst. But the war is a palpable presence even from the first lines of the book. Tolstoy doesn’t start us off with a piece of description (“It was a dark and stormy night”), but with the speech of a society hostess who welcomes a guest to her party by proclaiming, “If you won’t say this means war [with Napoleon] … I shall disown you.” War and peace are intertwined from the beginning. Another participant asked the question, “At the time Russia was fighting battles all over the place – so did war become a part of ‘normal’?”

In many ways, this question applies as much to our modern experience as to 18th- and 19th-century Russia. Tolstoy himself was a soldier, and he took part in one of the bloodiest battles of the Crimean War in the 1850s. One of his goals in War and Peace as well as in his earlier “Sevastopol Stories” is to de-romanticize war. His narrator (especially in the “Sevastopol Stories”) lets the reader know quite explicitly that the reality of war does not conform to the idealized image you have of it from books. But in this day and age when we rely less on books for our archetypes than on television, movies, and the Internet, our experience of war may be more immediate, but is it any less romanticized?

One of the participants in the discussion group raised the following point about the male characters in War and Peace: “How much do these men really know about actually being in war? They seem almost to regard it as a game.” Another participant responded with, “Don’t all young men heading into war try to somewhat regard it as a game? How else could you manage to do it?” And another stated, “Men never learn from history. They keep getting pulled in to war even when they know it will not be the glorious experience they envision.” Such comments illustrate the continued relevance of Tolstoy’s novel for us today, teetering as they do on the brink of chronology – are we discussing Tolstoy, or our contemporary experience? 

There are scenes in War and Peace where war and peace converge. The war is no longer just a subject for drawing room conversations. Characters face execution at the hands of a firing squad or are forced to evacuate and abandon their homes – the war literally shows up on their doorstep. But in addition to the intrusion of actual, physical war into the characters’ lives, their personal relationships often seem to be based on the tactics of war. Many seemingly “peaceful” events are fought as if on a battlefield. Marriages are not arranged based on love and companionship, but by one side ambushing another. Romantic and familial relationships are often antagonistic and occasionally violent, and characters ruin (or attempt to ruin) each other using subterfuges that are as strategic as any battle plan. Tolstoy’s novel should make us question our relationships with those around us. Why do we so often treat other people as if they were the enemy and we were at war with them?

Even though War and Peace was written in another time (the 1860s) and another place (Russia), and deals with an enemy who no longer threatens us (Napoleon), it still holds relevance for us today. After all, how much have we really changed since the 1860s? It is a mistake to ignore Tolstoy’s conjunction. We have to see the connections between war and peace. How can we possibly change the former if we don’t change the latter? How can we get rid of war if we can’t get peace right?

Sara Stefani
Assistant Professor, Slavic Languages & Literatures
IU College of Arts and Sciences

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