War and Peace offered a new kind of fiction, with a great many characters caught up in a plot that covered nothing less than the grand subjects indicated by the title, combined with the equally large topics of youth, marriage, age, and death. Though it is often called a novel today, it broke so many conventions of the form that it was not considered a novel in its time. Indeed, Tolstoy himself considered Anna Karenina (1878) to be his first attempt at a novel in the European sense.
It might be objected that Tolstoy himself never intended to publish the original version; on the other hand, he later revealed that he was disappointed with the "known" version of War and Peace as well, describing it as "loathsome".
It has been pointed out that it is the deliberate strategy of Tolstoy to use French to portray artifice and insincerity, the language of the theater and deceit while Russian emerges as one of sincerity, honesty and seriousness. So as the book progresses the use of French diminishes. When Pierre proposes to Helene he uses French - Je vous aime- so that when the marriage emerges as a sham he blames those words. The progressive elimination of French from the text is a means of demonstrating that Russia has freed itself from foreign cultural domination.
The novel tells the story of five aristocratic families, particularly the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, and the Rostovs, and the entanglements of their personal lives with the history of 1805–1813, principally Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. As events proceed, Tolstoy systematically denies his subjects any significant free choice: the onward roll of history determines happiness and tragedy alike.
The standard Russian text is divided into four books (fifteen parts) and two epilogues – one mainly narrative, the other wholly thematic. While roughly the first half of the novel is concerned strictly with the fictional characters, the later parts, as well as one of the work's two epilogues, increasingly consist of (nonfictional) essays about the nature of war, political power, history, and historiography. Tolstoy interspersed these essays into the story in a way that defies fictional convention. Certain abridged versions removed these essays entirely, while others, published even during Tolstoy's life, simply moved these essays into an appendix.
Pierre's friend, the intelligent and sardonic Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, the husband of a charming wife Lisa, also visits the soireé. Finding Petersburg society unctuous and starting to find married life little comfort as well, he chooses to be an aide-de-camp to Prince Mikhail Kutuzov in their coming war against Napoleon.
Tolstoy then switches to Moscow, Russia's ancient city, as a contrast to St. Petersburg. The Rostov family will be one of the main narrative players of the novel. The Moscow Count Ilya Rostov family has four adolescent children. Young Natasha is supposedly in love with Boris, a disciplined boyish officer and a relative. Nikolai pledges his teenage love to Sonya, his younger cousin. The eldest child of the Rostov family, Vera, is cold and somewhat haughty but has a good prospective marriage in a German officer, Berg. Petya is the youngest of the Rostov family; like his brother he is impetuous and eager to join the army when of age. The heads of the family, Count Ilya Rostov and Countess Natalya Rostova, are an affectionate couple but forever worried about their disordered finances.
At Bald Hills, the Bolkonskys' country estate, Prince Andrei leaves his pregnant wife with his eccentric father Prince Nikolai Andreivitch Bolkonsky and devoutly religious sister Maria Bolkonskaya. He leaves for war.
The second part opens with descriptions of the impending Russian-French war preparations. At the Schöngrabern engagement, Nikolai Rostov, who is now conscripted as ensign in a squadron of hussars. He has his first baptism of fire in battle. He meets Prince Andrei whom he does not really like. Like all young soldiers he is attracted by Tsar Alexandr’s charisma. However Nikolai gambles recklessly and socializes with the lisping Denisov and the ruthless Dolokhov.
Book Two begins with Nikolai Rostov briefly returning home to Moscow on home leave in early 1806. Nikolai finds the Rostov family facing financial ruin due to poor estate management. With Denisov he spends an eventful winter home. Natasha has blossomed into a beautiful young girl. Denisov proposes to her but is rejected. Although his mother pleads with Nikolai to find himself a good financial prospect in marriage, Nikolai refuses to accede to his mother's request. He promises to marry his childhood sweetheart, the orphaned, penniless cousin Sonya.
If there is a central character to War and Peace it is Pierre Bezukhov, who, upon receiving an unexpected inheritance, is suddenly burdened with the responsibilities and conflicts of a Russian nobleman. He then enters into marriage with Prince Kuragin's beautiful and immoral daughter Hélène (Ëlena), against his own better judgement. He is continually helpless in the face of his wife's numerous affairs, has a duel with one of her lovers, and is faced with anguish as all this happens. He later joins the Freemasons but becomes embroiled in some of the Freemasonry's politicking. Much of Book Two concerns his struggles with his passions and his spiritual conflicts to be a better man. Now a rich aristocrat, his former carefree behavior vanishes and he enters upon a philosophical quest particular to Tolstoy: how should one live a moral life in an ethically imperfect world? The question constantly baffles and confuses Pierre. He attempts to free his peasants, but ultimately achieves nothing of note.
Pierre is vividly contrasted with the intelligent and ambitious Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. At the Battle of Austerlitz, Andrei is inspired by a vision of glory to lead a charge of a straggling army. He suffers a near fatal artillery wound which renders him unconscious. At the face of death, Andrei realizes all his former ambitions are pointless and his former hero, Napoleon (who rescues him in a horseback excursion to the battlefield), is apparently as vain as himself.
Prince Andrei recovers from his injuries in a military hospital, and returns home, only to find his wife Lise dying during childbirth. He is struck by his guilty conscience for not treating Lise better when she was alive.
Burdened with nihilistic disillusionment, Prince Andrei lives anonymously in his estate until he is led to a philosophical argument with Pierre one day. When Pierre visits his estate he poses the question: where is God in this amoral world? Pierre points to panentheism and an afterlife.
Young Natasha meets Andrei during her very first ball, and briefly reinvigorates Andrei with her lively vitality. Andrei believes he has found purpose in life again. However, the couple's immediate plan to marry has to be postponed with a year-long engagement.
When Prince Andrei leaves for his military engagements, Ëlena and her handsome brother Anatole conspire for Anatole to seduce and dishonor the young, still immature and now beautiful Natasha Rostova. They bait her with plans of an elopement. Thanks to Sonya and Pierre, this plan fails, yet, for Pierre, it is the cause of an important meeting with Natasha. He realizes he has now fallen in love with Natasha. During the time when the Great Comet of 1811–2 streaks the sky, life appears to begin anew for Pierre.
Natasha breaks off her engagement with Andrei. Shamed by her near-seduction, she has a very serious illness and, with the help of her family; Pierre; and religious faith, manages to persevere through this dark period of her life.
Meanwhile the whole of Russia is affected by the coming showdown between Napoleon's troops and the Russian army. Pierre convinces himself Napoleon is the Antichrist in Revelation through numerology. The old prince Bolkonsky dies from a stroke. In Moscow, Petya manages to snatch a loose piece of the Tsar's biscuit outside the Cathedral of the Assumption; he finally convinces his parents to allow him to conscript.
Meanwhile Nikolai unexpectedly acts as a white knight to the beleaguered Maria Bolkonskaya, whose father's death has left her in the mercy of an estate of hostile, rebelling peasants. Struck by Maria, whom he is seeing for the first time, Nikolai reconsiders marriage and finds Maria's devotion, consideration, and inheritance extremely attractive. But he is restricted by his earlier, youthful pledge to Sonya, and hesitates to woo Maria.
As Napoleon pushes through Russia, Pierre decides to leave Moscow and to watch the Battle of Borodino from a vantage point next to a Russian artillery crew. After watching for a time, he begins to join in carrying ammunition. From within the turmoil he experiences first-hand the death and destruction of war. The battle becomes a horrible slaughter for both armies and ends up a standoff. The Russians, however, have won a moral victory by standing up to Napoleon's seemingly invincible army. Having suffered huge losses and for strategic reasons, the Russian army withdraws the next day, allowing Napoleon to march on to Moscow.
Book Four climaxes Napoleon's invasion of Russia. When Napoleon's Grand Army occupies an abandoned and burning Moscow, Pierre takes off on a quixotic mission to assassinate Napoleon. He becomes an anonymous man in all the chaos, shedding his responsibilities by wearing peasant clothes and shunning his duties and lifestyle. The only person he sees while in this garb is Natasha, who recognizes him, and he in turn realizes the full scope of his love for her.
His plan fails, and he is captured in Napoleon's headquarters as a prisoner of war after saving a child from a burning building and assaulting a French legionnaire for attacking a woman. He becomes friends with his cell-mate Platòn Karataev, a peasant with a saintly demeanor, who is incapable of malice. In Karataev Pierre finally finds what he is looking for, an honest, "rounded" person who is totally without pretense. Karataev is unlike those from the Petersburg aristocratic society, and also notably a member of the working class, with whom Pierre finds meaning in life simply by living and interacting with him. After witnessing French soldiers sacking Moscow and shooting Russian civilians arbitrarily, Pierre is forced to march with the Grand Army during its disastrous retreat from Moscow owing to the harsh winter. After months of trial and tribulation — during which Karataev is capriciously shot by the French — Pierre is later freed by a Russian raiding party, after a small skirmish with the French that sees the young Petya Rostov killed in action.
Meanwhile Andrei, wounded during Napoleon’s invasion, is taken in as a casualty cared for by the fleeing Rostovs. He is reunited with Natasha and sister Maria before the end of the war. Having lost all will to live after forgiving Natasha, he dies, much like the death scene at the end of The Death of Ivan Ilych.
As the novel draws to a close, Pierre’s wife Elena dies (sometime during the last throes of Napoleon’s invasion); and Pierre is reunited with Natasha, while the victorious Russians rebuild Moscow. Natasha speaks of Prince Andrei’s death and Pierre of Karataev’s. Both are aware of a growing bond with each other in their bereavement. Matchmade by Princess Marya, Pierre finds love at last and, revealing his love after being released from his former wife’s death, marries Natasha.
The first epilogue begins with the wedding of Pierre and Natasha, in 1813. It is the last happy event for the Rostov family which is going through a transition. Count Ilya Rostov dies soon after, leaving the eldest son Nikolai to take charge of the debt-ridden estate.
Nikolai finds himself with the task of maintaining the family on the verge of bankruptcy. His pride almost gets in the way of him, but Nikolai finally accedes to his mother's wish. He marries the now-rich Marya Bolkonskaya in winter 1813 - both out of feeling and the necessity to save his family from ruin.
Nikolai Rostov and Marya then move to Bald Hills with his mother and Sonya, whom he supports for the rest of their life. Buoyed on by his wife's funds, Nikolai pays off all his family's debts. They also raise Prince Andrei's orphaned son, Nikolai Bolkonsky.
Like in all marriages there are minor squabbles but the couples – Pierre and Natasha, Nikolai and Marya – remain devoted to their spouses. Pierre and Natasha visit Bald Hills in 1820, much to the jubilation of everyone concerned. There is a hint in the closing chapters that the idealistic, boyish Nikolai Bolkonsky (15-year-old in 1820) and Pierre would both become part of the Decembrist Uprising. The first epilogue concludes with Nikolai Bolkonsky promising he would do something which even his late father "would be satisfied…" (presumably as a revolutionary in the Decembrist revolt).
The second epilogue sums up Tolstoy’s views on history, free will and in what ways the two may interact to cause major events in humankind. in a long, partially historical and partly philosophical essay, where the narrator discusses how man cannot be wholly free, or wholly determined by "necessity" and this is primarily down to God.
Napoleon believed that he could control the course of a battle through sending orders through couriers, while Kutuzov admits that all he could do was to plan the initial disposition and then let subordinates direct the field of action. Typically, Napoleon would be frantically sending out orders throughout the course of a battle, carried by dashing young lieutenants—which were often misinterpreted or made irrelevant by changing conditions—while Kutuzov would sit quietly in his tent and often sleep through the battle. Ultimately, Napoleon chooses wrongly, opting to march on to Moscow and occupy it for five fatal weeks, when he would have been better off destroying the Russian army in a decisive battle. Instead, his numerically superior army dissipate on a huge scale, thanks to large scale looting and pillaging, and lack of direction for his force. General Kutuzov believes time to be his best ally, and refrains from engaging the French. He moves his army out of Moscow, and the residents evacuate the city: the nobles flee to their country estates, taking their treasures with them; lesser folk flee wherever they can, taking food and supplies. The French march into Moscow and disperse to find housing and supplies, then ultimately destroy themselves as they accidentally burn the city to the ground and then abandon it in late Fall, then limp back toward the French border in the teeth of a Russian Winter. They are all but destroyed by a final Cossack attack as they straggle back toward the west. Tolstoy observes that Kutuzuv didn't burn Moscow as a "scorched earth policy," nor did Napoleon; but after taking the city, Napoleon moved his troops in, to find housing more or less by chance in the abandoned houses: generals appropriated the grander houses, lesser men took what was left over; units were dispersed, and the chain of command dissolved into chaos. Quickly, his tightly disciplined army dissolved into a disorganized rabble; and of course, if one leaves a wooden city in the hands of strangers who naturally use fire to warm themselves, cook food, and smoke pipes, and have not learned how particular Russian families safely used their stoves and lamps (some of which they had taken with them as they fled the city), fires will break out. In the absence of an organized fire department, the fires will spread. As support for his outlook on history, Tolstoy concludes that the city was destroyed not by the freewill of either Napoleon or Kutuzov, but as an inevitable consequence of battle-weary foreign invaders occupying an abandoned wooden city.
Many of Tolstoy's characters in War and Peace were based on real-life people known to Tolstoy himself. Nikolai Rostov and Maria Bolkonskaya were based on Tolstoy's own memories of his father and mother, while Natasha was modeled after Tolstoy's wife and sister-in-law. Pierre and Prince Andrei bear much resemblance to Tolstoy himself, and many commentators have treated them as alter egos of the author. (It is an innovation for a writer to create two alter egos of himself, and Tolstoy's are both compelling and complementary.)
Some are historical figures, and several chapters of the novel are devoted in particular to the discussion of Tolsoy's interpretation of the military and historical roles of the two generals, Napoleon and Kutuzov.
There are numerous minor characters in War and Peace, who appear in one chapter or are mentioned occasionally in passing. A few of these, such as Platon Karataev, are not really minor in terms of the development of the characters: Karataev plays a major role in the maturation of Pierre Bezhukhov after he becomes a prisoner of war.
The novel has been adapted twice for cinema outside of Russia. The first of these was produced by F. Kamei in Japan (1947). The second was the 208-minute long 1956 War and Peace, directed by the American King Vidor. This starred Audrey Hepburn (Natasha), Henry Fonda (Pierre) and Mel Ferrer (Andrei).
A stage adaptation by Helen Edmundson, first produced in 1996 at the Royal National Theatre, was published that year by Nick Hern Books, London. Edmundson added to and amended the play for a 2008 production as two 3-hour parts by Shared Experience, directed by Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale. This was first put on at the Nottingham Playhouse, then toured in the UK to Liverpool, Darlington, Bath, Warwick, Oxford, Truro, London (the Hampstead Theatre) and Cheltenham.
The book is translated, with a preface and introductory notes, by Aylmer Maude, with a foreword by Clifton Fadiman. Includes detailed Table of Contents, various famous authors' praises of War and Peace, a list of dates of principal historical events, and 7 maps throughout text, as well as maps on the front & rear paste-down endpapers.