Lie down and pull up the blanket; Shmoop's going to tell you a story. Once upon a time France was a monarchy. King, queen, the whole deck of cards. Then, in 1789, there was a revolution. You may have heard of it – it's called the French Revolution. Inspired a little bit by the slightly earlier American Revolution, it was all about democracy. Rule of the people. Voting. And so on.
The king and queen got an axe to the neck, and everything seemed hunky dory until the people who started the revolution began to kill off everyone who wasn't quite pure and revolutionary enough. Sound familiar? It's actually a pretty common storyline in big political upheavals. So instead of a glorious people's republic, France ended up with a lot of drama and chaos.
Into the mix came Napoleon, who rose through the ranks of the military, then got himself elected to office, and then…declared himself emperor. The most awesome thing was that he argued that having an emperor was totally in keeping with democracy. After all, it's not like he's a king or anything. Um, right.
After a short while Napoleon felt that France was not enough to satisfy his ambitions. He decided to marauder his way through Europe, Asia, and whatever else he came across (much like his hero, Alexander the Great) to create one glorious French empire. For a while, all the pieces were falling into place, especially since England was a wee bit preoccupied, what with the Americans making a land grab to the north (the War of 1812). All the other countries were just holding up white flags and welcoming their new French overlords, basically handing Napoleon oversized novelty keys to their kingdoms.
But then along came Russia, with its General Kutuzov, its Emperor (Tsar) Alexander, and its unwillingness to let the empire built by Catherine the Great (Alexander's grandma) be taken over by some upstart Frenchie. When push came to shove, the French invaded all the way to Moscow.
The French invasion revealed the full depths of Napoleon's cocky arrogance and the Russians' infectious patriotism. The French came without enough supplies, assuming they could just take whatever they needed along the way. As the Russians retreated before the invaders, though, they burned their possessions rather than letting things fall into French hands. Now that's dedication. A horrible slaughter at Borodino and a burned-out, chaotic, depopulated Moscow was the last straw. The French army melted into a sad bunch of looters, starving weaklings, and runaways.
For such an innovative book (check out the "Genre" section, for example), the setting is pretty conventional. We've got action happening in two cities, Petersburg and Moscow, which we're clearly supposed to compare and contrast to get a nice little window into the lives of Russian aristocrats of the time.
Petersburg is the most European-leaning place in Russia. All the aristocrats there speak French, to the extent that they can hardly speak Russian anymore. (Check out the scene in Chapter 3.2.17 where Julie Karagin's party guests are charged a fine for speaking French and no one can even finish a sentence.) There's a lot of politicking about status and position, and manners and behavior are super-affected and totally unnatural. Finally, this is where morals are at their loosest and least constrained. Helene becomes the hit of the town with her salon and her multiple affairs. Nobody is the least bit shocked when she starts talking about her second marriage before her first one is even over.
Meanwhile, Moscow is much more Russia-oriented. This is the capital, the seat of the government, the place where the zeitgeist (the general cultural/intellectual/political/philosophical climate) best reflects the view of the Russian people, not just the aristocrats. It's in Moscow that Kutuzov is chosen as commander in chief, despite being unpopular with the elite. It's also a much more natural place than Petersburg. (It's where the happy, normal Rostov family lives.) Of course, because of all of this, Moscow becomes the focus of Napoleon's invasion and his attempt to demoralize and subdue the country. The burning and rebuilding of the city acts as a nice little parallel to the way the characters' lives are shattered by the war and then pieced back together at the end of the book.
For a book that's so serious about getting big historical events right, there sure are a lot of times when the action slows down and gets into the minutiae of home life. There are the scenes of the Rostovs hanging out together, not doing much of anything, while all around them discussions of the coming war are raging (Chapters 1.1.8-1.1.16). And there's the long first part of the Epilogue, where we check out how the Natasha/Pierre and Marya/Nikolai families are living, down to their babies' poopy diapers. These passages obviously fall under the "Peace" part of War and Peace.
The domestic can break out at any time, in any circumstance in this novel. For example, there's that scene where Pierre sticks around in Moscow and meets and saves the French officer. He immediately forms a kind of household with the guy, eating and telling stories as if they weren't on opposite sides in a war (Chapter 3.3.29). Same thing with the anonymous Russian soldiers we see setting up camp and then sharing their food with a straggling and wounded French soldier who comes out of the woods (Chapter 4.4.9). People seem to just want to get back to the basics of being humans together, regardless of their social or economic or political affiliations.