89 pages 2 hours read

Leo Tolstoy

War and Peace

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1867

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide

Overview

War and Peace is a Russian historical fiction novel written by Leo Tolstoy, published in 1865-1869. The story charts the alliances and wars between Russia and France at the beginning of the 19th century, following the lives of characters swept along by historical events. War and Peace is heralded as one of the most important novels in Russian and world literature and has been adapted into films, television shows, and more.

Multiply nominated for both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Nobel Literature Prize, Tolstoy is considered one of the fathers of Russian literature and widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of all time. This guide uses the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, revised and edited by Amy Mandelker.

Plot Summary

In Saint Petersburg in 1805, rich people talk about Napoleon’s war in Western Europe. Many of the characters gather at a dinner party, including Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a very wealthy man. Despite his awkward demeanor, he is intelligent and likable. Andrei Bolkonsky, an ambitious, clever young aristocrat, is an old friend of Pierre. Vasili Kuragin is a scheming nobleman who plots advantageous marriages for his children, the debauched and dashing Anatole and the beautiful but cold Helene. The Rostov family moves in similar social circles. Its patriarch, Count Rostov, is well meaning but bad with money. Middle daughter Natasha Rostov is an enchanting teenager on the verge of womanhood. Eldest brother Nikolai Rostov is an impetuous young man who dreams of joining the army. Their orphaned cousin Sonya also lives with the Rostov family.

Napoleon’s French army invades Austria. Russia, Austria’s ally, sends troops to halt the invasion. Andrei and Nikolai are both sent to the front. Andrei is wounded and presumed dead, but he manages to survive the chaos and travels home.

In Moscow, Pierre’s father legitimizes Pierre as his heir and dies—this means Pierre inherits his father’s vast fortune. He quickly becomes a very eligible bachelor, and Vasili convinces him to marry Helene. Pierre agrees, even though he does not love Helene. Later, rumors abound in the city that Helene is sleeping with another man. Pierre challenges the man, an experienced soldier named Dolokhov, to a duel. Against the odds, he wounds Dolokhov, but the victory does not satisfy him.

Andrei’s wife gives birth to a son while he is missing. He arrives home just in time to see her die in childbirth. His religious sister Marya helps raise the baby while Andrei goes into mourning. Searching for meaning in life, Pierre joins the Freemasons to learn about their beliefs and spirituality. When he applies the Freemasons’ teachings to the running of his estate, the results are disastrous. He meets with Andrei and talks about the matter but discovers that his old friend has become cold and distant.

The Rostovs struggle to maintain their fortune. Count Rostov spends more than he earns, and Nikolai accrues a huge gambling debt in a game of cards against Dolokhov. Nikolai’s family encourages him to marry a rich young woman, but he only thinks about the military. Also, he loves the penniless Sonya and feels obliged to marry her. While with the army, Nikolai sees Tsar Alexander and is inspired by the monarch. Natasha grows into a beautiful young woman. She attracts a great deal of attention, including that of Andrei Bolkonsky. Andrei considers marrying Natasha, but his father refuses to give his approval. He insists that Andrei wait a year before the wedding. Natasha reluctantly accepts these terms while Andrei leaves to travel through Europe. Natasha pines for her fiancé.

Andrei’s father grows old and irritable. He takes out his anger on Marya, who turns to her Christian beliefs to help her forgive his behavior. Natasha, still missing Andrei, meets Anatole Kuragin. She is very attracted to him, and he hatches a plot to elope with her. The plan fails, and Anatole is chased out of the city. Andrei returns from Europe. He is disgusted by Natasha’s behavior and rejects her. Pierre tries to console the heartbroken Natasha and falls in love with her. Natasha attempts suicide but survives, slowly recovering her health.

Napoleon invades Russia in 1812. Andrei returns to the military, while Pierre becomes obsessed with the idea that he will kill Napoleon. The French army marches relentlessly through Russia toward Moscow, burning and looting everything in its path. Marya pleads with her father to leave the family estate as the French army draws close. The shock of the situation kills him. Marya tries to flee, but the local serfs trap her. Nikolai Rostov passes through the area with his army unit and saves Marya. Romantic feelings develop between them.

The decimated Russian army fights back against the French but cannot hold back Napoleon’s forces for long. Even as the high society parties in Saint Petersburg continue, the French take Moscow and burn the evacuated city to the ground. However, lacking supplies and resources, the French army flees after five weeks. Pierre remains in Moscow to try to kill Napoleon. His wife arranges a divorce but dies before she can marry again. Andrei is mortally wounded in a battle. The fleeing Rostov family discovers him, and Natasha refuses to leave his side. She nurses Andrei back to health. French soldiers capture Pierre and throw him in jail. As the French army retreats, he is forced to march with them. He witnesses numerous executions and a great deal of suffering on the long march through the harsh Russian winter.

Nikolai still feels committed to Sonya. He knows his family needs money, but he cannot abandon his promise to marry her, even though he has fallen in love with the wealthy Marya Bolkonsky. Sonya sends him a letter, freeing him from his promise. Marya goes to the Rostovs to see her dying brother. Andrei reconciles with Natasha and dies.

The Russian army chases the French. In one skirmish, they free Russian prisoners, including Pierre. On the same day, the young Petya Rostov is killed in the fighting.

Pierre spends three months recovering from his experiences. He returns to Moscow and visits Marya and Natasha. Both women are mourning the deaths of Andrei and Petya. Pierre realizes his love for Natasha. Eventually, with Marya’s help, they agree to marry. They have children and raise a family. Nikolai marries Marya and rebuilds his family fortune. He devotes himself to the careful management of his estates and becomes obsessed with his new responsibilities. Andrei’s orphaned son lives with Nikolai and his aunt Marya. As he grows older, he sees Pierre as a hero. Pierre and Natasha visit Nikolai and Marya. The two families are close, even though Pierre and Nikolai disagree on political matters. The novel ends with the two families enjoying their newfound happiness.

In the last section of the novel, Tolstoy merges with his narrator as he explains his views about historiography. Breaking with the tradition of the time, he does not subscribe to the “great man” style of history—the idea that solitary exemplary individuals make most important historical events happen. Instead, as his novel has taken pains to show, he believes that history is the result of many small, random coincidences that build up to influence whether, for example, a battle is won or lost. This randomness is the result of free will.

Related Titles

By Leo Tolstoy

SuperSummary Logo
Study Guide
Leo Tolstoy
Guide cover image
SuperSummary Logo
Study Guide
Leo Tolstoy
Guide cover image
SuperSummary Logo
Study Guide
Leo Tolstoy
Guide cover image
SuperSummary Logo
Study Guide
Leo Tolstoy
Guide cover image
SuperSummary Logo
STUDY + TEACHING GUIDE
Leo Tolstoy
Guide cover image
SuperSummary Logo
STUDY + TEACHING GUIDE
Leo Tolstoy
Guide cover image
SuperSummary Logo
Plot Summary
Leo Tolstoy
Guide cover placeholder
SuperSummary Logo
STUDY + TEACHING GUIDE
Leo Tolstoy
Guide cover image
SuperSummary Logo
Study Guide
Leo Tolstoy
Guide cover image
SuperSummary Logo
Study Guide
Leo Tolstoy
Guide cover image