From the award-winning translators of Anna Karenina
The Brothers Karamazov
comes this magnificent new
translation of Tolstoy''s masterwork.
War and Peace
broadly focuses on
Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the most
well-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the
illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and
yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who
leaves his family behind to fight in the war against Napoleon; and
Natasha Rostov, the beautiful young daughter of a nobleman who
intrigues both men.
A s Napoleon's army invades, Tolstoy brilliantly follows characters
from diverse backgrounds-peasants and nobility, civilians and
soldiers-as they struggle with the problems unique to their era,
their history, and their culture. And as the novel progresses,
these characters transcend their specificity, becoming some of the
most moving-and human-figures in world literature.
1. Richard Pevear suggests that, "The first thing a reader today
must overcome is the notion of War and Peace as a
classic, the greatest of novels, and the model of what a novel
should be," and focus on the immediate experience of reading it [p.
x]. What is the experience of reading the first few chapters? What
seems clear, and what is confusing? What do you think Tolstoy wants
you to experience as the novel begins?
2. Tolstoy distinguishes between characters who have integrity
and those who operate more superficially and with greater
self-interest in the social worlds of Petersburg and Moscow. What
do Prince Vassily's remarks reveal about him and the way he feels
about his children [pp. 6-7]? What do the conversations at these
two parties tell us about the main concerns of the Russian
aristocracy? Why is Pierre a disturbing presence at the soirée of
Annette Scherer and a welcome presence at the Rostovs'? What are
the Rostovs like as a family?
3. Pierre was brought up abroad and has recently returned from
Europe [pp. 9, 25]. We know very little about Pierre's upbringing
except that he is the illegitimate son of a wealthy courtier from
the time of Catherine the Great, Count Bezukhov [p. 9]. Why do you
think Tolstoy chose not to fill in any details of Pierre's past?
Why is his lack of familial ties and guidance an important element
in Pierre's life?
4. The deathbed of Count Bezukhov is the scene of an urgent
struggle for a share of the dying man's riches, with Anna
Mikhailovna Drubetskoy and Prince Vassily as the main contenders.
How does Pierre behave during these crucial scenes [pp. 76-87]? Why
is he an easy target for those who seek to manipulate him for their
5. Prince Andrei admits to Pierre that he wants to go to the war
because "this life I lead here, this life-is not for me!" [p. 25].
What does the scene between Andrei and his wife Lise reveal about
him [pp. 25-28]? What does he demand of life? Why does he later ask
Kutuzov to put him in a detachment of which only a tenth may return
alive [p. 169], and how does he behave under fire?
6. Tolstoy describes the mental state of the men in the front
line at Schöngraben: "Again, as on the Enns bridge, there was no
one between the squadron and the enemy, and there lay between them,
separating them, that same terrible line of the unknown and of
fear, like the line separating the living from the dead. All the
men sensed that line, and the question of whether they would or
would not cross that line, and how they would cross it, troubled
them" [p. 188]. He characterizes the actions of Tushin's
artillerists as "merry and animated" [p. 192]. Nikolai's shifting
thoughts are conveyed as he rushes into battle and is wounded [pp.
188-90]. What is Tolstoy like as a psychologist of men at war?
7. Prince Vassily has decided that his daughter Hélène should
marry Pierre [pp. 201-214]. How does this come about for Pierre,
who admits to himself that it is something which "was obviously not
good and which he ought not to do" [p. 208]? He sees himself drawn
into a "frightening abyss" [p. 209]. Is it purely sexual attraction
that decides the question for him?
8. Tolstoy portrays the disastrous battle of Austerlitz on two
levels: as a "world-historical" event and also as a series of
devastating physical and psychological experiences for the
individual people involved: "As in a clock the result of the
complex movement of numberless wheels and pulleys is merely the
slow and measured movement of the hands pointing to the time, so
also the result of all the complex human movements of these hundred
and sixty thousand Russians and French . . . was merely the loss of
the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of three emperors,
that is, a slow movement of the worldhistorical hand on the
clockface of human history" [p. 258]. With this metaphor in mind,
think about how Tolstoy is intent on showing both vast and minute
effects of this "mere" movement of history's clock, particularly
through the experience of Prince Andrei.
9. Looking for his moment of heroism, Andrei finds it at
Austerlitz, where he is gravely wounded [p. 280]. Discuss how
Tolstoy handles the description of these scenes in order to produce
a sense of estrangement. What does Andrei realize as he looks up at
the sky [p. 281]? How does Napoleon come across as he surveys the
battlefield and comes across Andrei lying on the field, and what
does Andrei think of Napoleon now [pp. 290-93]?Volume
IINikolai Rostov returns home on leave with his friend
Denisov to find his family's financial affairs in disarray; Count
Rostov gives a ball at which Dolokhov insults Pierre by openly
referring to his intimacy with Hélène; Pierre wounds Dolokhov in a
duel and separates from Hélène, leaving her a fortune and the house
in Moscow. Pierre, seeking spiritual direction, joins the Masons.
Prince Andrei meets and falls in love with Natasha; they are
secretly engaged while Andrei goes to Europe and spends a year
there at his father's insistence. Natasha is seduced by Hélène's
brother, Anatole Kuragin, who arranges to elope with her from a
house in Moscow. The plan is discovered. Andrei, embittered,
returns Natasha's letters and takes up residence at his country
10. After the duel, Pierre asks himself why he had allowed
himself to tell Hélène he loved her, why he married her. What is
Pierre now seeking to do with his life? How successful is he in
finding a sense of direction?
11. Prince Andrei, assumed dead by his family, arrives home only
hours before his wife dies in childbirth. This is one of the most
emotionally charged episodes in the novel. What are the memorable
images, actions, or words spoken during these events [pp. 320-28]?
With which details does Tolstoy most forcefully convey tenderness,
grief, or remorse?
12. Listening to Natasha sing, her brother Nikolai finds that
her voice "touched . . . something that was best in [his] soul. And
that something was independent of anything in the world and higher
than anything in the world" [p. 343]. What is this "something" that
Natasha is able to express? Does Natasha also have this effect on
Pierre and Andrei?
13. Pierre visits Andrei at his Bogucharovo estate, where they
have an extensive conversation about God, life, and death. How do
their positions differ? Andrei "saw that high, eternal sky he had
seen as he lay on the battlefield, and something long asleep,
something that was best in him, suddenly awakened joyful and young
in his soul"; Andrei begins what "was in his inner world a new
life" [p. 389]. What effect, if any, has Pierre had upon Andrei's
change of heart?
14. Nikolai Rostov, to ease his guilt over his gambling losses,
resolves to "be a perfectly excellent comrade and officer, that is,
a fine human being-which seemed so difficult in the world, but so
possible in the regiment" [p. 396]. What is it about his character
that makes him so contented as a military officer? Nikolai has been
trying to intercede on Denisov's behalf when he observes a meeting
between the newly allied Napoleon and Czar Nicholas I. What effect
do these events have upon him, and why [pp. 410-17]?
15. How is the bare oak that Andrei notices in the woods
relevant to the scene in which he overhears Natasha as she leans
from the window under the moonlight [pp. 419-23]? Tolstoy writes
about Natasha at the ball, "She was in that highest degree of
happiness when a person becomes perfectly kind and good, and does
not believe in the possibility of evil, unhappiness, and grief "
[p. 462]. What qualities make Natasha an extraordinary character?
What is her effect upon Andrei, and how does she make him think
differently about his life [p. 467]?
16. Tolstoy presents a series of hunting scenes at the Rostovs'
Otradnoe reserve, followed by an evening of singing and dancing at
their uncle's house in his village [pp. 495-514]. Dancing a Russian
dance with her uncle, Natasha is "able to understand everything
that was in Anisya, and in Anisya's father, and in her aunt, and in
her mother, and in every Russian" [p. 512]. What do these scenes
suggest about the essence of being Russian, for Tolstoy? Why is it
important that the Rostovs, particularly Natasha and Nikolai,
express this essential Russianness?
17. The engagement of Prince Andrei and Natasha goes on for a
year during his absence: the delay is in deference to his father,
who is against the marriage. Andrei's absence causes anxiety and
suffering for Natasha as well as her mother, who is fearful for her
[p. 522]; the visit of Natasha and her father to the Bolkonsky's
house in Moscow is a disaster [pp. 554-57]. Why does Tolstoy make
the marriage of Natasha and Andrei seem ill-fated? Are they not
suited to each other?
18. Pierre feels lost after Natasha's engagement, and finding
himself again with Hélène as "the rich husband of an unfaithful
wife" he wonders: "But I, what am I to do with myself?" [pp.
536-37]. Wrestling with "the tangled, terrible knot of life," he
says, "Nothing is either trivial or important, it's all the same;
only save yourself from it as best you can! Only not to see it,
that dreadful it!" [p. 538]. What is it?
19. Several chapters are devoted to Anatole Karagin's seduction
of Natasha and its aftermath [pp. 557-600]. Natasha is first
confused, then thinks herself in love, then is humiliated, then
dangerously ill. Pierre comes to her defense [p. 593]; Andrei,
proud and remote, releases Natasha from her engagement and returns
her letters [p. 597]. It has been said that this episode of the
novel is one of the most purely conventional: an innocent girl is
seduced by a dissolute rake. Why might Tolstoy have included this
twist in the story? What do you think of these events, and what do
they contribute to your sense of the story and the characters
20. What is the effect of the exchange between Natasha and
Pierre that closes this volume [pp. 598-600] in which Pierre
declares his love and devotion to her? Note that just as Volume I
ended with Andrei looking up at the sky, Volume II ends with Pierre
gazing up at "the huge, bright comet of the year 1812" [p. 600].
How does Pierre act upon the sense of "new life" that comes of
these experiences?Volume IIIThe year is 1812. War
resumes as Napoleon advances to the Russian border. Prince Andrei
returns to service, refusing a position with the Czar in order to
serve in the army, leading a regiment of chasseurs. After massive
losses at Borodino, the Russian army retreats, leaving the French
to take Moscow. Having decided to observe the battle, Pierre
carries ammunition for an artillery battalion and sees masses of
men slaughtered around him. He makes a vague plan to assassinate
Napoleon and is taken prisoner. The Rostovs leave their home,
emptying carts of their furniture to take wounded Russian soldiers
to safety. Prince Andrei, again gravely wounded at Borodino, is
among the soldiers brought to the Rostovs' mansion in Moscow and is
taken care of by Natasha.
21. As Volume III opens, Tolstoy expounds his view of the war of
1812, when Napoleon advanced upon Russia and occupied Moscow: "On
the twelfth of June, the forces of western Europe crossed the
borders of Russia, and war began-that is, an event took place
contrary to human reason and to the whole of human nature" [p.
603]. Do you find Tolstoy's view of this war convincing? What does
he mean by "fatalism in history" [p. 605], and what role does human
nature play in historical events? Consider how Prince Andrei's
experiences of accidental events in battle and the unpredictable
actions of the enemy [p. 632] correspond with what Tolstoy has to
22. Tolstoy presents Napoleon in a series of small scenes: he
looks on at the Polish soldiers crossing the Niemen [pp. 607-12];
he is massaged and dressed by his valet and then presented with a
portrait of his infant son just before the battle of Borodino [pp.
777-80]; he awaits the official surrender of the city of Moscow
[pp. 873, 875]. How does Napoleon come across in these scenes? Why
does the perspective on Napoleon become more negative as the novel
23. Tolstoy introduces Part Two with a description of the events
of 1812 that were to result in the destruction of Napoleon's army.
Why are these events ironic, for Tolstoy? Everyone acted as they
did "as a result of their personal qualities, habits, conditions,
and aims" [p. 682]. Is there a quality of absurdity in history, as
Tolstoy sees it? What does he see as the truth about the battle of
Borodino, as opposed to the way historians have recounted it [pp.
24. Experiencing his life as "nothing but meaningless phenomena,
without any connection with each other," Andrei returns to military
service. As the troops retreat from Smolensk, they pass near
Andrei's family estate, Bald Hills. What does Andrei's way of
seeing reveal about his state of mind [pp. 702-04]? Later, on the
eve of the battle of Borodino, Andrei thinks of his past "in that
cold, white daylight-the clear notion of death" [p. 769]. How does
Andrei now think about his love for Natasha [pp. 770, 776-77]? Do
such descriptions provoke your sympathy for Andrei as a romantic or
25. All her life, Princess Marya has suffered from her father's
manipulative and often cruel treatment of her. Yet she forgives
him, telling Andrei, "Grief is sent by [God], not by people. People
are His instruments, they're not to blame" [p. 631]. Is Princess
Marya a model character? What qualities does she represent? Why
does she suffer from her own conscience, both before and after the
old prince's death [pp. 713-18, 729-30]? What effect does she have
on Nikolai Rostov, who arrives in time to help her leave Bald Hills
26. Kutuzov, the commander of the Russian forces, is the
opposite of Napoleon in terms of his character as well as his
strategic thinking. What are his personal qualities? What is the
nature of Kutuzov's wisdom, as Tolstoy sees it [pp. 738-45,
27. Tolstoy makes the reader experience the battle of Borodino
by using the perceptions of the naïve Pierre as well as those of
Prince Andrei [pp. 795-98, 808-12]. What is the effect of reading
the description of Prince Andrei's injury and his treatment in the
field hospital where he witnesses the amputation of Anatole
Kuragin's leg [pp. 813-14]? What aspects of Tolstoy's prose make
these scenes feel so immediate and real?
28. Note how often Tolstoy includes details of Hélène's body and
dress in his descriptions of her, for instance: "Hélène was wearing
a white dress, transparent on the shoulders and breast" [p. 835];
on Hélène "there was already a sort of varnish from all the
thousands of gazes that had passed over her body . . ." [p. 460].
Does sexuality seem to be connected, for Tolstoy, with moral
corruption? Why does Hélène convert to Roman Catholicism and ask
Pierre for a divorce? What does Hélène die of [pp. 936, 939]?
29. The reconciliation of Natasha and Andrei [pp. 918-22], and
their time together until his death, are among the most moving
scenes in the novel. How does their time together change
30. Pierre has convinced himself through numerological
calculations that he, "l'russe Besuhof" is destined to assassinate
Napoleon [pp. 665-66]. But on the way to carry out this task, he
rescues a little girl from the flames of the burning city, saves an
Armenian woman from looting soldiers, and is captured by the French
[pp. 928-32]. What is comical, even farcical, about Pierre's
heroism, and what does the episode underscore about the way Pierre
lives his life?Volume IV and EpiloguesNikolai
meets Princess Marya again and realizes that he loves her; Pierre
is among six prisoners sent for execution and is pardoned; he meets
Platon Karataev, another prisoner marching with retreating French
forces; Petya Rostov joins Denisov's party in a raid on a French
camp and is killed; Prince Andrei dies; French troops, now a
starving and diminished band of looters and thieves, retreat west
as winter sets in. The Rostovs return to Moscow where Count Rostov
dies. Pierre and Natasha marry, as do Nikolai and Princess Marya;
the two families live happily with their children in the
countryside. The story of these characters ends with Epilogue I.
The second epilogue is a long treatise on Tolstoy's vision of
31. Nikolai, after helping Princess Marya to leave her home
safely in the midst of invading French forces, finds that he is in
love with her: "That pale, fine, sorrowful face, that luminous
gaze, those quiet, graceful movements, and above all that deep and
tender sorrow which showed in all her features, stirred him and
called for his sympathy" [p. 955]. Why is Nikolai attracted to
Marya's spirituality, a quality he did not like in her brother?
Seeing Marya at prayer, Nikolai prays for release from Sonya. What
do you think of Sonya, and of her sacrifice of her own wishes, as
she releases Nikolai from their long-standing engagement at the
request of Countess Rostov? Are Marya and Nikolai better suited to
32. Pierre is saved from execution by a pardon and realizes that
"his faith in the world's good order, in humanity's and his own
soul, and in God, was destroyed. Pierre had experienced this state
before, but never with such force as now. . . . He felt that to
return to faith in life was not in his power" [pp. 968-69]. Why is
it significant that he meets Platon Karataev at this moment in his
life [pp. 972-74]?
33. From the time he is wounded at Borodino, Andrei questions
the meanings of life, death, and love: "Why was I so sorry to part
with life? There was something in this life that I didn't and still
don't understand . . ." [p. 812]. Later, Marya and Natasha feel his
alienation from the world of the living [p. 978]. What is the
significance of his dream of the door [pp. 984-85]? What is your
response to Andrei's death, which Tolstoy calls "an awakening from
life" [pp. 985-86]?
34. Pierre undergoes a transformation while a prisoner of the
French. He has long been a seeker of peace and contentment with
himself: "he had sought it in philanthropy, in Masonry, in the
distractions of social life, in wine, in a heroic deed of
self-sacrifice, in romantic love for Natasha; he had sought it by
way of thought, and all this seeking and trying had disappointed
him" [p. 1012]. What does he learn during this period that finally
brings him peace? How does the scene in which Pierre laughs to
himself, looking up at the stars, show how far he has come [p.
35. In one of his many historical discourses, Tolstoy likens the
conflict between the French and the Russians to "two men who came
with swords to fight a duel by all the rules of the art of fencing"
until one, knowing that his life is at stake, picks up a club
instead [p. 1032]. Why does Tolstoy enjoy this idea of Napoleon
complaining that "the war was being conducted against all the
rules" [pp. 1032-33]? What does Tolstoy find most interesting and
admirable about the conduct of Kutuzov and the Russians?
36. What is the meaning of the tale Karataev tells Pierre when
he himself is dying [pp. 1062-63]? How has Pierre's sense of the
relationship between God and life been changed by having known
Karataev [p. 1064]?
37. Having to care for her mother upon the news of Petya's death
pulls Natasha out of her grief over Andrei: "She thought her life
was over. But suddenly her love for her mother showed her that the
essence of life-love-was still alive in her. Love awoke, and life
awoke" [p. 1080]. How does this awakening prepare Natasha for the
arrival of Pierre? Discuss the scene in which Pierre and Natasha
meet again, when Pierre realizes "it was Natasha, and he loved her"
38. Once married, Natasha focuses her energies solely on her
husband and children: "In her face there was not, as formerly, that
ceaselessly burning fire of animation that had constituted her
charm. Now one often saw only her face and body, while her soul was
not seen at all. One saw only a strong, beautiful, and fruitful
female" [p. 1154]. Readers have understandably been disappointed by
this seeming diminishment of Natasha's vitality; Tolstoy explains
that her family absorbed her "with her whole soul, with her whole
being" [p. 1155]. Is this outcome to Natasha's story disappointing?
Why or why not?
39. Tolstoy's early idea for this book was to write about a
Decembrist on his return from Siberia in 1856 [pp. viii-ix]. The
Decembrists were a group of young aristocrats and officers who, at
the death of Alexander I in December 1825, rose up in the name of
liberal reforms and constitutional monarchy, were arrested, and
either executed or sent to Siberia. Hints remain of this plan as
Epilogue I closes with Andrei's son Nikolenka and Pierre looking
towards the future. What is the effect of the shift in focus at the
end, to Nikolenka and his dream of Pierre and his father, and of
doing "something that even [Prince Andrei] would be pleased with"
[pp. 1177-78]?GENERAL QUESTIONS
40. Richard Pevear writes about the unusual structure of this
work, "War and Peace is a work of art, and if it
succeeds, it cannot be in spite of its formal deficiencies, but
only because Tolstoy created a new form that was adequate to his
vision." Tolstoy himself wrote, "It is not a novel, still less an
epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what
the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it
is expressed" [p. xi]. Does it matter that War and
Peace is not the seamless fictional universe that novel
readers expect? What is the effect of reading a book of this hybrid
41. What are the human qualities that Tolstoy most highly values
and which characters seem to exemplify them most fully? Which
characters, and which forms of human behavior, particularly stir
Tolstoy's anger or contempt?
42. What answers does Tolstoy present, in the course of
War and Peace, to the question, "How should I live
43. War and Peace has had an enormous influence
on writers who came after Tolstoy. Read the three quotes below and
discuss what, for Virginia Woolf, Isaiah Berlin, and Boris
Pasternak, are the extraordinary aspects of Tolstoy's vision. What,
for you, are the things that make Tolstoy unlike other writers
you've read?Virginia Woolf:"From his first words
we can be sure of one thing at any rate-here is a man who sees what
we see, who proceeds, too, as we are accustomed to proceed, not
from the inside outwards, but from the outside inwards. . . .
Nothing seems to escape him. Nothing glances off him unrecorded. .
. . Even in a translation we feel that we have been set on a
mountaintop and had a telescope put into our hands. Everything is
astonishingly clear and absolutely sharp. Then, suddenly, just as
we are exulting, breathing deep, feeling at once braced and
purified, some detail-perhaps the head of a man-comes at us out of
the picture in an alarming way, as if extruded by the very
intensity of its life" (from her essay "The Russian Point of View"
in The Common Reader).Isaiah Berlin:"No one has
ever excelled Tolstoy in expressing the specific flavour, the exact
quality of a feeling-the degree of its 'oscillation', the ebb and
flow, the minute movements (which Turgenev mocked as a mere trick
on his part)-the inner and outer texture and 'feel' of a look, a
thought, a pang of sentiment, no less than of a specific situation,
of an entire period, of the lives of individuals, families,
communities, entire nations." (from The Hedgehog and the Fox: An
Essay on Tolstoy's View of History)Boris
Pasternak:"All his life, at every moment, he possessed the
faculty of seeing phenomena in the detached finality of each
separate instant, in perfectly distinct outline, as we see only on
rare occasions, in childhood, or on the crest of an all-renewing
happiness, or in the triumph of a great spiritual victory." (quoted
in Pevear's introduction, p. ix)