Picture yourself as a writer in the middle of the 19th century. You’re wearing wool underwear (cause you can’t really afford the nice silk ones), sitting in your dark little room, the candlelight is flickering (still waiting on that Thomas Edison guy), and you’re holding a quill pen in your hand thinking about the blank page in front of you. Mostly, though, you’re really, really stressed out.
Why? Well, if you’re like pretty much every other writer in the 19th century, you’re totally doing it for the money – fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, people gotta eat, and all that. And as we all know from the summer blockbusters we pay to see, if you’re trying to make bank from providing entertainment to the masses, you need to stick to some tried and true formulas: go big, stay away from anything too complicated…and then rinse and repeat for as long as you can. Transformers 5? Here we come.
But what if you didn’t have to worry about what your audience thought, or at least didn’t stress about whether your big work was going to pay for your kids’ schools and whatnot? Well, then you'd be Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy was from a wealthy, aristocratic family (that's Count Tolstoy, thank you very much), so he could basically write whatever he wanted without worrying too much about how many copies he was going to sell. And so, from 1865 to 1869, he indulged his inner history buff by digging deeper and deeper into Napoleon’s campaigns in Russia in 1812. When he was done, he ended up with what is pretty much the most impressive-sounding book to ever brag about reading: War and Peace.
And with good reason. Tolstoy’s research didn't just involve reading some history books and calling it a day. No, he dove into the archives, getting his hands on actual letters sent by Napoleon and the Russian and French generals and figuring out the personalities involved from the way they wrote about their activities. Even more impressive, he traveled to the actual battlefields, compass and surveying tools in hand, to map out for himself where the troops were stationed and how they attacked and defended. Now that’s dedication. Tolstoy combined all this research with firsthand knowledge about the ways wars were really fought (he had been an embedded journalist during the Crimean War in 1857). He became angry about the crazy inaccuracies in the historical accounts being published and decided to correct historians once and for all by laying it all out in his own book.
It wasn't just the small mistakes that made him mad, either – it was the whole system of historical writing. Back then, the “great man” theory of history reigned supreme. Basically, whenever something big happened, you were supposed to look around for the most awesome leader and give all the credit or blame to him. Tolstoy thought that was just idiotic, since leaders don’t just materialize out of thin air but are the products of their time. Events are necessarily very much the result of all the other events that lead up to them.
Tolstoy’s two major points are: 1) historians should think not just about the big names like Napoleon, but also about the forces that shaped them and the events that allowed them to take power; and 2) even the most seemingly insignificant people can affect history, by following or not following orders, for example, or delivering or not delivering a message. And that's actually how modern historians conceive of history, so Tolstoy was ahead of his time.
OK, now before we go finish, everyone gather round as Shmoop spills a secret. Have you noticed how we’ve been going out of our way not to call War and Peace a novel? You haven’t? Well, trust us, it’s been happening. That’s because Tolstoy packed the thing so full of stuff (like, say, military history, complete with detailed maps) that it really isn’t a novel. Even Tolstoy said so a few years after it got published. Instead, it’s a work that's crammed with every possible kind of writing that you can use to tell a story, and even the parts that do recognizably belong to one genre or another are twisted and transformed to the point where it’s hard to identify them. Want to know more? Check out the “Genre” section.
Is there anything that will impress the ladies or gents more than a claim that you have actually read – and understood – the great masterwork of Western literature? Imagine cruising the night scene with some prepared segues: "Oh, really? That's very interesting. It's just like Tolstoy writes in War and Peace. ...What's that? Yes, I just finished it." Will this make you the life of the party? Probably not. Will it up your snob appeal and show off your cultured smarts? You betcha.
But, we hear you asking, would anything besides a selfish quest for intellectual glory propel me to open up this forbidding tome? Shmoop is here to tell you – oh yeah, baby.
In fact, War and Peace might well be the only book you ever need to read. It's about everything. Seriously, pick a theme, any theme. Pick any philosophical question or thorny policy problem. Pick any relationship problem, in any kind of relationship, from friendship to family to love to hate. They're all in there. This is basically a guide to life as we know it.
Not only that, this is the novel that looks at all that stuff in a totally modern way. Forget all that fussy 19th century finger-wagging. Forget pat answers and endings. Tolstoy throws all that away and decides to treat his readers like grownups who are able to make up their own minds about the characters and situations he's describing. What you get here is the real deal: pain, pleasure, suffering, happiness, sex, love, childhood, parenthood, work life, religious faith.... Not to mention the meaning of life.