Study Guide

Napoleon in War and Peace

By Leo Tolstoy


Emperor of France and the would-be creator of a European empire, Napoleon is also an actual character in this work. Sure, everything he does is straight out of history, but still. Taking a real guy (and not just any guy, but Napoleon Bonaparte) and making him into a character in a novel was an unprecedented thing to do in the 19th century. So why does Tolstoy do it?

Shmoop would like to throw out one idea. Back in Tolstoy's day, Napoleon was thought of as just about the world's greatest general. That made the Russian army's victory over the invading French truly extraordinary. After all, not just anybody can defeat the greatest military commander in history.

For Tolstoy, though, this kind of thinking was exactly what fueled the wrong-headed "great man" method of history – finding one supposedly awesome guy and then basing all analysis of the times on what he did or didn't do.

Instead, by putting Napoleon into War and Peace – giving him dialogue and describing his weird habits (like pulling his favorites by the ear) – Tolstoy can take Napoleon down a few notches. We can see Napoleon not just as a myth but as a human being. Once we see that he had just as many foibles and made just as many mistakes as anyone else, we are free to look at other explanations for our historical theories. Which is exactly what Tolstoy wants us to do.

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