Before we start digging into the tangled web that is this book as far as genre is concerned, let's ask Tolstoy what he himself thought about what he'd written. Well, how about it, Tolstoy – what is this book?
This work is more similar to a novel or a tale than to anything else, but it is not a novel because I cannot and do not know how to confine the characters I have created within given limits – a marriage or a death after which the interest in the narration would cease. . .[it] is not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wished and was able to express in the form in which it is expressed. (From "Some Words About War and Peace," published in 1868 in Russian Archive).
All of which is to say basically, it is what it is. OK, thanks, that's very helpful.
Part of Tolstoy's problem with describing War and Peace is that everyone wanted him to just boil the genre down to one word. But War and Peace is an amazing, unprecedented experiment in NOT doing that, and instead in trying to mush as many genres together into one giant amalgam as possible. Honestly, it might be easier to find genres that aren't in the book. (And for the purposes of Shmoop, we're going to skip over the nonfictional genres, like war journalism, military history, and cartography.) So let's try to see what he's managed to pack in there as far as fiction is concerned, shall we?
First off, we've got the obvious: war drama. War and Peace is set during Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia, and each of the characters is profoundly and irreversibly affected by that war. We've got honest, brutal, no-holds-barred descriptions of battle gore and chaos. We've got Nikolai, Andrei, and Petya (along with various other secondary characters) in the army, fighting, getting wounded, and dying (well, two out of three at least). We've got the Rostov family having to flee Moscow with basically just the clothes on their backs, financially ruined by the occupation of the city. And of course, we've got Pierre trying to assassinate Napoleon and getting taken prisoner by the French army, only to have some kind of breakthrough epiphany because of the horrors of the deprivation and suffering of that experience.
Next we move on to one of the more experimental genres in the book: historical fiction. Not only did Tolstoy throw his fictional characters into the historical mix, he also tossed some real guys into his created world. Napoleon Bonaparte, Tsar (Emperor) Alexander, and General Kutuzov, come on down! You're the next contestants on "Who wants to have their reputation totally transformed through the magical power of fiction?"
Tolstoy is out to do a couple things here. First of all, he's fixated on taking Napoleon down a peg, from numero uno military superdude of all time to a more reasonable human-level smart guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Second, he's trying to pull the reverse of this on Kutuzov, who's been totally written off as a visionless fuddy-duddy for failing to go after Napoleon after kicking him out of Russia, but who Tolstoy thinks was actually a brilliant and intuitive general during this campaign. And finally, there's a little bit of time spent trying to give some context to the way Alexander changed from a liberal reformer in his youth to an odd mystic giving up his throne in middle age. For Tolstoy, some of this must have come from what Alexander saw during the Napoleonic wars.
What really makes War and Peace stand out is the time Tolstoy spends laying out his ideas about the way the study of history has to evolve. Forget about just finding some important guy in the crowd and pinning all explanations of events onto him, Tolstoy argues. Instead, what we need to do to explain a specific historical event is:
1. Look at what happened before, because the past will give us context and a sense of momentum;
2. Look at the present to see what else could have happened, because very often the thing that happens is the only one of the many possible outcomes;
3. Finally, look around at what's in the air in terms of culture, people's mood, and general feeling (i.e., the "zeitgeist"), since that will also explain a lot.
And guess what: this is just about the way history is practiced today. Good for you, Tolstoy!
If there's one thing Tolstoy is obsessed with, it's with keeping it real. Really, really real. Much more real than other writers of his time, and real even when dealing with icky, painful, or disturbing circumstances. Here's a good passage that describes the problem with most storytelling – in this case the way soldiers tell war stories:
[Rostov began] to tell them how and where he had received his wound. [...] He told them about his Schongraben action in just the way that those who take part in battles usually tell about them, that is, in the way they would like it to have been, the way they have heard others tell it, the way it could be told more beautifully, but not at all the way it had been. Rostov was a truthful young man, not for anything would he have deliberately told an untruth. He began telling the story with the intention of telling it exactly as it had been, but [if] he had told the truth to these listeners, who, like himself, had already heard accounts of attacks numerous times and had formed for themselves a definite notion of what an attack was, and were expecting exactly the same sort of account—they either would not have believed him or, worse still, would have thought it was Rostov's own fault that what usually happens in stories of cavalry attacks had not happened with him. He could not simply tell them that they all set out at a trot, he fell off his horse, dislocated his arm, and ran to the woods as fast as he could to escape a Frenchman. [...] They were expecting an account of how he got all fired up, forgetting himself, how he flew like a storm at the square; how he cut his way into it, hacking right and left; how his saber tasted flesh, how he fell exhausted, and so on. And he told them all that." (184.108.40.206)
Notice how easy it is for Nikolai to fall into formula when he's telling his buddies about being in battle. It's more complicated than wanting to lie to make himself sound good. It's just that his story is itself a kind of genre, the "soldier's tale of fighting" genre, which has its own rules for what it's supposed to sound like ("he flew like a storm," "his saber tasted flesh") and what it's not supposed to sound like ("he fell off his horse," "he dislocated his arm"). Tolstoy is strongly aware of this tendency and tries as hard as possible to keep this kind of thing from happening in his own narrative.
Next we have family drama. Actually, we have the drama of several families. There are the nice and normal Rostovs, who love each other and are reasonably happy. They are economically destroyed by the war, but their surviving children are able to make pretty happy family lives for themselves afterwards.
There are also the self-serving and kind of gross Kuragins and Drubetskoys. The Drubetskoys end up just fine, with the agile Boris steering his way up and up through the army ranks and marrying strictly for money. Meanwhile, the Kuragins collapse under their combo of being way too oversexed and too eager to seduce everyone around them.
Finally there are the Bolkonskys, a family that struggles under a domineering and half-crazy father, but whose children go on to be arguably the most morally centered people in the book.
Love is in the air. How many couplings are there in this book? Seriously, let's count: 1) Natasha and Boris, 2) Natasha and Denisov, 3) Natasha and Andrei, 4) Natasha and Anatole, 5) Natasha and Pierre, 6) Marya and Anatole, 7) Marya and Nikolai, 8) Sonya and Nikolai, 9) Helene and Pierre, 10) Helene and two competing suitors, 11) Vera and Berg, 12) Boris and Julie, and 13) Andrei and Liza. There are others that we're missing, but obviously War and Peace is pretty heavy on the love. What else are people going to do in peacetime, after all?
Finally, literary fiction. OK, come on people, this one is a gimme. This book is basically the mother of all books. What's the title most guaranteed to impress when you tell someone what you're reading? What's become the proverbial jokey name for a weighty and long novel? That's right, it's this one, arguably the cornerstone of the Western literary canon. (You know, that long list of awesome classics that our culture is based on.)