Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace

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War and Peace Summary

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War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, is a work of historical fiction written in 1860 about the Napoleonic Wars in Russia. This epic novel begins in July 1805. Russia and allies England, Austria, and Sweden are striving to prevent Napoleon’s expansion from France. The novel is broken up into four books, with two epilogues.

In Book One, Tolstoy introduces a number of important characters. Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of an aristocrat, who will not acknowledge him. Pierre is often critical of the government and its policies. He frequents parties, drinking and gambling. At these parties, Pierre spends time with Anatole Kurgagin, Fedya Dolokhov, and Prince Andrew. Prince Andrew defends the aristocracy. There’s also the Rostov family. They’re about to have a celebration for Natasha, their youngest daughter.

Pierre’s father, on his deathbed, finally acknowledges Pierre and names him heir to his fortune. He marries Helene Kuragin, Anatole’s sister. Meanwhile, Prince Andrew leaves to fight in the war against Napoleon. He leaves behind his wife, who is pregnant, and she goes to stay with Prince Andrew’s father and sister, whose name is Mary. At the end of book one, Prince Andrew is wounded in battle and presumed dead. In the Rostov family, Natasha’s brother Nicholas first gets into trouble for trying to cheat a superior officer, and later flees from battle.

Book Two begins with Nicholas Rostov wanting to marry his cousin Sonya. However, her family won’t allow the match because the Rostov’s are losing wealth. Rumors abound that Helene, Pierre’s wife, is having an affair with Dolokhov, so Pierre duels with Dolokhov and wounds him. Pierre runs from Dolokhov and ends up in an inn, where he meets someone who gets him involved with the Freemasons. Pierre joins the secret society, leaves Helene, and gives away his belongings in an effort to help humanity through the masons.

Prince Andrew’s wife, meanwhile, perishes in childbirth. She gives birth to a boy, and on that same day, Prince Andrew returns. Dolokhov, recovered from his duel with Pierre, asks Sonya to marry him; Nicholas tries to convince her to accept, but she will not. In light of the family’s dwindling finances, Nicholas is put on an allowance of two thousand rubles. He loses forty-three thousand to Dolokhov while gambling, requiring his family to sell property in order to pay the debt. Both Pierre and Prince Andrew are taking steps to empower their serfs. Pierre is freeing them, and Prince Andrew is putting economic policies in place so that they will be able to earn their freedom and become self-sustaining.

In 1808, there is a truce. Both Pierre and Prince Andrew are disenchanted with the Freemasons and the army, respectively. A year later, they both fall in love with sixteen-year-old Natasha. Prince Andrew proposes, but his father insists he wait a year to marry, denying his consent until then, so he returns to the army. Meanwhile, Nicholas’ mother convinces him that he shouldn’t marry Sonya—instead, he should find a wealthy bride. Anatole courts Natasha, who plans to elope with him until it is revealed that he is already married, in secret, to a woman from Poland. Anatole runs away, Prince Andrew breaks off his engagement to Natasha, and she tries to poison herself. She lives, and Pierre declares his love for her.

Book Three picks up in 1812. The war is back on, with the French army invading Russia. In this part, Tolstoy writes from Napoleon’s and Tsar Alexander’s points of view. As the French approach Prince Andrew’s father’s estate, Mary tries to free all the serfs so that they won’t be killed by the French, but they think it an attempt to kick them off the land, so they revolt. Nicholas arrives and saves her, falling in love with her in the process.

In Borondino, the French defeat the Russians. With Moscow as Napoleon’s target, the city must be evacuated. Natasha demands that her family’s wagons be used to carry injured soldiers; among them is Andrew, who forgives Natasha. In Moscow, Pierre decides that he should assassinate Napoleon, so he gets captured by the French. He saves a man’s life, is rewarded with food and drink, and forgets his assassination plans. After saving a child from a burning building, Pierre attacks a French soldier in order to stop his assault on a woman, and is arrested.

In the fourth and final book, Pierre’s wife dies while he is imprisoned. Mary and Natasha take turns looking after Prince Andrew, yet he dies. Finally, Kutuzov, the Russian General, leads the army in an attack on the French, who retreat. Pierre and Natasha console each other over their losses, and fall in love.

In the first epilogue, there are two weddings. Nicholas and Mary marry, and so do Pierre and Natasha. In the second epilogue, Tolstoy highlights the difference between the results of free will and of circumstance, as well as the difficulty the historian has in distinguishing between the two.