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.
Some critics perceive a clear pattern to the overall book: the alternation of chapters about war with chapters about peace; the symmetry and repetition in the amount of time spent on the march to Moscow and the march from it; in the scenes of blithe society and the scenes of existential angst; and in the scenes about love and the scenes about death. The question of whether Tolstoy planned the patterns that can be found in his book or whether they were coincidences is an issue that will be debated throughout history.
In the early 19th century Russia was going through a tumultuous and transitional time. The old feudal system was disappearing. Conventional ideas of honor were losing ground to pragmatic ideas from the Enlightenment. Military victories were seen as a result of luck. Tolstoy took advantage of these unique circumstances to set his sprawling tale of love, war, and changing political and social ideas. It took genius to recognize the potential of this Setting and exploit it, but his philosophical case was helped greatly by the fact that this was a situation rich in possibility.
Prince Andrew is a hero in a conventional sense: he overcomes initial fear in battle to ride bravely against the enemy, and he has a beautiful woman waiting for him at home, dreaming of his return. He has qualities, though, that are less than heroic, such as a fear of commitment. He is all too willing to accept his father’s demand that he put off his marriage for a year. During that time, Natasha is drawn to another man, Anatole, who almost ruins her socially. In the end, Andrew remains an idealized hero by dying a soldier’s death after he has been reunited with his beloved.
On the other hand Pierre is more of a modern hero. He is not a warrior, but a thinker: the struggle he fights is with his conscience, after he is made rich with an unexpected inheritance. He is not a dashing figure, and he bears his love for Natasha silently instead of declaring it. Yet in the end, he is the one who wins her hand.
Toward the end of the story, Tolstoy increasingly addresses the reader directly, stepping out from behind the persona of the third-person narrator who has told the stories of the Characters. Throughout the novel, there are breaks from the action where the theoretical aspects of war are discussed. Sometimes these are written like textbooks, describing troop movements; sometimes the important figures of the war are discussed as Characters, describing their specific movements and thoughts. At the end, the narration directly addresses the reader, referring to thoughts presented as having come from “I,” and apparently abandoning the structure of the story to talk about philosophy. The narrator becomes a character who hijacks the novel by the second and last epilogue, lecturing his audience about his theories of historical truth.