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War and Peace: Theme Analysis

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Freewill and Pre-destination
Throughout the course of this novel, the themes of freewill and pre-destination are examined. The argument is, do people make their own decisions, or are their lives already decided (that is, pre-destined)? These contrasting philosophies are studied in relation to war and also, more broadly, in terms of the choices men and women make in living their lives. The tension between these two accounts of our actions is demonstrated in particular through the decisions made by Napoleon and Pierre and is specifically mulled over in the lengthy epilogue where the connection between freewill and necessity is discussed.
The concept of freedom to make choices is central to this debate and this novel argues that this is complex and freedom is relative to the situation one is experiencing. This is made evident when Pierre recognizes he feels freer as a prisoner than as a wealthy member of the aristocracy with more choices available to him.
The recounting of the past and the subjectivity of historical supposed truths, such as those written by Thiers, is examined here. The 'greatness' of Napoleon is especially undermined by this novel as the notion that he alone brought about the wars is questioned. This novel also argues that the occupation of Moscow and the retreat from Russia were far from glorious and is, for the most part, biased in favour of the Russian experiences.
Instead of only focussing on one leader to understand the laws of history, this novel argues explicitly and implicitly that historical events may be understood more comprehensively when examining the 'small units' of observation. That is, the micro level is of importance when understanding how war, for example, has been instigated and fought.
The theme of regeneration (re-birth) is referred to intermittently in this work. Both Pierre and Prince Andrei attempt to find regeneration through the course of this novel. Initially, Pierre seeks it through the freemasons and later in his desire to kill Napoleon. Prince Andrei searches for it in war and, after the death of his wife Lisa, in Petersburg. The love these two characters have for Natasha symbolizes the end of this search for meaning and re-birth as they find a form of truth.
It is also possible to see a tentative claim that the burning of Moscow offers the possibility of regeneration for the Russian population, as with Lazarus. The present and future may be different if the actions of the group coincide to challenge and burn the past.
This is a recurring theme throughout the work and is exposed and criticized in Napoleon's actions and in many of the characters' claims who are associated with salon life. Vanity is described as superficial and worthless and it is the adherence to living in this way which Pierre continuously tries to find an alternative to. Furthermore, Natasha is undone when she turns from the honorable Prince Andrei in favor of the unscrupulous (and vain) Anatole.
The criticism of vanity is not only a vehicle to undermine the vacuous aristocrats, but it is also a pervasive moral aspect to this work. The shallow life, it is argued, is worthless and reprehensible especially when noted in Anatole, Helene and their father Prince Vasili.
As the title indicates, war is the backdrop for this work. The actions of the main characters are influenced, restricted or regenerated through the Russian wars with Napoleon. This novel also engages with the historical accounts of war, especially with those that have been biased in favor of Napoleon's 'greatness'. Here, Tolstoy dismantles the versions of history that single out individual decisions and, instead, uses this novel to argue that war is brought about by a combination of wills.
The conflict on the battlefields is examined in detail and this is juxtaposed with the rumours and spite of the circles of the salons. The superficiality of this type of conflict is examined and disposed of as shallow.


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