War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace Theme of Morality and Ethics
Most of War and Peace's points about morality are made through quiet, unpunctuated irony – like when we see the standard church service's calls for world peace interrupted by a long sermon urging believers to pray for success in war. Almost nothing is entirely spelled out by the narrator. Instead, we pick up on the kinds of hypocrisies and discrepancies of ethics life is filled with through the eyes of the characters – for instance, Pierre's totally different reactions to witnessing deaths during battle and later watching soldiers execute prisoners. The distinction is profound, but it requires the reader's attention to catch and ponder.
Questions About Morality and Ethics
- Who in the novel has rigid and inflexible morals? Whose moral standards are more shifting and adjustable? Is one of these styles shown to be superior to the other? What would "superior" mean in this case?
- One of the unquestionable principles of the book is that war is inherently an unreasonable, inhuman thing. Are there other firm moral stands like this one? What are they?
- Which characters' morals change during the course of the novel? How and under what influence?
- Does Napoleon (as portrayed here) consider himself to be a moral person? What about Helene? Sonya? How do you know?
Chew on This
Although following a moral code would seem to ensure strictly ethical behavior, in practice most characters are able to convince themselves that whatever they want to do falls within the realm of whatever principles they claim to espouse. In other words, they twist their morals to suit their desires.
War would seem to be a case of the simplest kind of ethics: "might makes right." But instead, the book shows war to be ambiguous, complicated, and even nonsensical. (Half the time no one knows who won a particular battle, and both sides claim victory.)