War and Peace: Essay Q&A

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1. Consider how this novel engages with Russia's wars with the French?
The graphic descriptions of injuries suffered and the reality of the common soldier's life in battle are used in this novel to the extent that the senselessness of war is evoked. This is made particularly convincing with the initial patriotic desire of characters such as Rostov and Prince Andrei who wish to find glory on the battlefield. The respective development into maturity and eventual recognition of the catastrophic effects of war that these men experience illuminate how separate individuals contribute to the possibility of war coming about and how unthinking the search for glory is.
The retreat of the Russian and the advance of the French armies in 1812 are of particular concern in the latter stages of this novel. It is often reiterated that the defeat or victory of a nation is not attributable to the 'genius' of just one man. It is, instead, the actions of millions of men that account for the events of this and other wars. Coincidence and combinations of factors are also discussed, as with the burning of Moscow. This is not solely explained as patriotism on the part of the Russians. It is also pointed out that the fact that Moscow was predominantly built with wood, when conjoined with the presence of a marauding occupying army, the destruction became inevitable.
This novel always attempts to counteract the argument that one man (such as Napoleon) is solely responsible for these wars, but it is, conclusively, one that is offering a Russian perspective of events. It tends to favor the examination of Russian experiences, particularly those of the nobility.
2. Analyse how the subject of history is discussed in this novel.
Because of the nature of this work, which has the Napoleonic wars as a backdrop, this novel is always concerned with the narratives of history. An engagement with the Russian perspective is offered and it shows awareness of the storytelling process that informs historical accounts. A main thread of this novel, which is developed in the latter stages, depends on undermining the grand historical narrative that has tended to show bias towards Napoleon's supposed greatness.
By using the format of a novel to engage with historical events, an obviously fictionalized version is being proffered. The romantic relationships are counterpoints to the brutalities of the war. However, the incorrect assumptions of historians such Thiers, who tend to see Napoleon as 'great' or 'genius', are undercut by Tolstoy's insistence that history has more veracity when it examines the 'small units' for observation. This decision to examine events on the macro and micro levels also accounts for the sheer magnitude of this work.
3. Examine this novel's concern with freewill.
Freewill in tension with necessity is examined in detail in the epilogue, but is a philosophical concept that occurs thematically throughout the novel. There is an ongoing concern with ideas such as fatalism, which draw on the assumption that humans are pre-destined to follow certain paths. This is contrasted with the opposing perspective that humans are capable of making decisions and choices about their actions.
Freedom is at the heart of this debate, as it is the desire for freedom that informs the belief in freewill. The relativity of this concept is revealed most tellingly in Pierre's recognition that he is (ironically) freer as a prisoner of the French army, and in the company of Platon, than he was as a member of the aristocracy. The usual argument that freedom is preferable to a restricted life is also thrown into doubt when Pierre recognizes that his new-found sense of liberty after the 1812 war is diminished when his love for Natasha is reciprocated. Love, it is argued, is another form of imprisonment. These engagements with the complexities of freewill and freedom demonstrate that such terms should not be simplified or overlooked.
4. To what extent does War and Peace criticize the nobility?
War and Peace begins in the midst of a soiree held by Anna Pavlovna. This is a useful scenario to introduce several of the main characters; it is also a significant setting when considering the novel as a whole. This work is detailed in its examination of human relations and the canvas encompasses the battlefields as well as the social lives of those from the aristocracy. The 'war' of the title is not only concerned with the Napoleonic wars, it is also engaged with the conflicts between the nobility in their social circles.
The superficiality of the salons is exposed in this work, but the critique is limited as the narrative tends to depend on the perspectives of those in the highest classes. The perspective of the peasant or serf is rarely offered. When it is, as with the focus on Platon (the fellow prisoner of Pierre), the character is given only one dimension to his personality. Unfortunately, even this slight glimpse is interpreted through the medium of Pierre's sensibilities. The freedom of serfs is debated undoubtedly, as is the high-handedness of many of the central characters who tend to be otherwise drawn in sympathetic terms. The condemnation of this hierarchical society is, however, marginal to the examination of war and how individuals contribute to its occurrence.
5. Examine the characterization of Natasha and Pierre.
Both of these central characters are followed through the course of this novel and are typified by their desire for honesty. They are permitted flaws, as when Natasha believes she has fallen in love with Anatole and Pierre marries Helene, but the reader is also shown how they learn from these errors of judgement. The length of this novel allows these central characters to be developed in such a way that their maturation is convincing even though their eventual marriage is clearly a useful plot device to bring about closure to the preceding events.
Their marriage at the end of the novel is not only a typical use of closure in a realist text, but it is also emblematic of the concerns that Pierre and Prince Andrei have had for regeneration. This union between Natasha and Pierre symbolizes the possibilities of renewal and optimism especially when contrasted with the fatalities of war and the insincerity of salon life. Their offspring similarly represent alternatives and, of course, rebirth.

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