Thomas Hardy was an English author who lived at approximately the same time as Tolstoy. One of the crowning achievements of his later life was a long poem, The Dynasts, written between 1903 and 1908. It is an epic drama with nineteen acts and 135 scenes that are impossible to produce for the stage. The work focuses on England’s role in the Napoleonic Wars.
Leo Tolstoy was born to an upper-class Russian family on September 9, 1828, at the family’s estate in Tula province, Russia. His father was Count Nikolay Tolstoy, a nobleman and prestigious landowner. Tolstoy’s mother died when he was two years old. Tragically, his father died when Leo was nine, leaving the young boy to be raised in the home of his aunts. He went to the University of Kazan when he was sixteen, studying Oriental languages and then law, but he left in 1847 without completing his degree.
War and Peace is a historical novel that chronicles the tumultuous events in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. Focusing on an aristocratic way of life that had already started to fade at the time that Leo Tolstoy wrote the book in the 1860s, it covers a comparatively short span of time-fifteen years-but it renders the lives of disparate Characters from all segments of society with vivid, well-realized details. The story captures a generation on the brink of change, with some defending the existing class structure with their lives while others realize that the old way of life is disappearing. Part history lesson, part grand romance, part battlefield revisionism, and part philosophy lecture, War and Peace has captivated generations of readers with its gripping narrative and its clear, intelligible understanding of the human soul.
A Book I
War and Peace is a massive, sprawling novel that chronicles events in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, when the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte conquered much of Europe during the first few years of the 19th century. Bonaparte unsuccessfully tried to expand his dominion into Russia, only to be turned back in 1812. The novel opens in July of 1805, with Russia allied with England, Austria, and Sweden to stave off Bonaparte’s aggressive expansion.
Sonya is a pathetic figure, always in love but too meek to do anything about it. She is a cousin of and lives with the Rostov family, and early in the book she and Nicholas Rostov pronounce their love for one another. His family, in bad financial shape, object and hope that he will find a woman with a better dowry to offer. Sonya is Natasha’s confidante, and stands by her during her various disastrous love affairs.
A Class Conflict
Although there is not much open conflict between members of the different classes of this novel, there is an underlying tension between them. Members of the older generation, such as Countess Rostova and Prince Nicholas Bolkonsky, verbally abuse the peasants who are under their command. In a patronizing manner, they openly discuss how lost the peasants would be without their guidance. At the same time, there are Characters like Platon Karataev, a poor man who leads a simple and happy life.
Since War and Peace was first published, critics have discussed the ambiguous structure of the novel. Some contend that Tolstoy raced through the book, putting down ideas as they came to him; therefore, any structure in the story is accidental. As evidence of this, they point to the final chapters, which seem if the author’s attention was distracted and he followed his interests rather than doing what the novel would require for completion. Some critics consider the free-floating structure to the appropriate device for the ideas that Tolstoy was trying to convey about free will, and they credit him with utilizing a structure that permitted him to balance necessity with chance.
A The Napoleonic Wars
In 1789 the French Revolution swept through France, marking one of the true turning points in Western civilization. In part, this revolt was inspired by the success of the American Revolution, which had rejected the old English monarchy and established a new country based on democratic principles. Mostly, though, the French Revolution was a protest against the widespread abuses of the French aristocracy, who lived in decadence while the lower classes had to endure higher taxes and economic restrictions. When the peasants realized that the French government was going to use force against protesters, they became violent. The violence escalated as the people systematically began to eliminate anyone of aristocratic lineage. After a long fight, King Louis XVI was beheaded in Paris in 1793. There followed a two-year period called the Reign of Terror, during which the revolutionary leaders executed more than 17,000 people.
Find out about the music that would have been played at Russian society gatherings in the 1800s and 1810s. Play some samples for your class. What role did music play in 19th-century Russia? Identify the most important Russian composers during that time.
1805: America is still developing an identity after winning its independence from England in 1783. A second war against England will be fought from 1812-1814. 1866-1869: In the aftermath of the Civil War, America undergoes a period known as ReConstruction. Today: America is a stable country. It is considered the dominant economic and military power in the world.