War and Peace Theme of Society and Class
In War and Peace, subtlety tends to be Tolstoy's technique of choice. We see the way the different members of the aristocracy jockey for slightly higher positions within the ranks of society, the government, or the military. But not much attention is paid to the glaring gulf in early 19th century Russia – the divide between the aristocrats who own the huge estates and the serfs peasants who work them. Several characters make gestures toward making their serfs' lives better, but the general blinkered attitude is not addressed. This is a prominent and telling omission, given that Tolstoy himself was writing at a time when the serfs had finally been declared free.
Questions About Society and Class
- War and Peace gives us examples of characters who rise socially (like Boris), fall socially (like the Rostovs), and ones who bob up and down like a cork (the constantly demoted Dolokhov, or Pierre, when he is bent on assassination). How do these characters react to their waxing or waning fortunes? Do they experience them differently depending on whether the movement is voluntary or not?
- Compare social life in Western-leaning Petersburg (for instance, Anna Mikhailovna's salon), in more Russian-centered Moscow (the night out at the opera, for example), and in the army (say, the visit with the doctor's wife in Poland). How are they the same? How are they different? Are there ways to tell how high or low on the social ladder people are by just listening to their conversations? Who fits in well in these circles? Who doesn't? Why?
- Why does Pierre fail when he tries to improve the lives of his serfs? Why does Nikolai succeed? What does their treatment of their serfs reveal about these two characters?
Chew on This
The characters who care about class differences the most are the ones who suffer least from them.
The book is least progressive in its depiction of the serfs, who are either backward idiots or a threatening mob. Even Platon, the magical, saintly peasant, actually does a disservice to the other serfs: because he is so much less realistic than the other characters, there is nothing particularly humanizing about him that would help make us care about the peasants' treatment.