Seven reasons to suspect War and Peace may not be the greatest novel ever written
(Warning: contains spoilers!)
As far as I know, it was John Galsworthy that first explicitly called War and Peace “the greatest novel ever written.” The credibility of that evaluation lies partly in literary criticism, and partly on whether one can come up with a rival contender. Is Ulysses better? Is Anna Karenina? Or Middlemarch? Or Moby Dick? Ultimately, one might acknowledge War and Peace to the greatest novel of all time simply because one can’t think of a better candidate. In that case, there would be no inconsistency in considering it seriously flawed. Tolstoy famously said that he didn’t consider it a novel at all (although it is difficult to see what else it could be).
Anyway, let us begin by examining its chief critical defects. These are my own views. I am not basing them on critical studies elsewhere. I have put them in order of perceived (by me) seriousness, not the order they occur in the novel.
1. Sonya Rostov. The Rostov family consists of two parents, their four children, and Sonya, an orphaned cousin. Sonya is in love with Nicholas, the eldest of the four children, and hopes to marry him. He eventually reciprocates and they get engaged. Unfortunately, Count Ilya Rostov, the father, spends money way beyond his means and drives the family ever deeper into debt. Thus the need grows for Nicholas to marry someone rich, ie, not Sonya. Luckily (but not for Sonya), Nicholas later meets the noble-hearted Marya Bolkonsky and falls in love with her. His mother, Countess Rostov, finds out about this piece of good fortune, and bullies Sonya into renouncing the engagement - which she does, very reluctantly. Eventually, Nicholas marries Marya, and Sonya goes to live with them as a kind of helpmate. At this point, Tolstoy clearly stops caring about her. He never tells us how she feels.
Yet, even so, we do get some sense of the author’s final judgement on her. In Chapter 8 of Part 1 of the Epilogue, Marya “thoroughly realised the wrong [Nicholas] had done Sonya, felt herself to blame toward her, and imagined her wealth had influenced Nicholas’s choice. She could not find fault with Sonya in any way and tried to be fond of her, but often felt ill-will which she could not overcome.” One day, she broaches the subject with her sister-in-law, Natasha, also part of the Rostov clan. Natasha explains that Sonya is an illustration of the Gospel passage, “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.” Sonya, she goes on, is a ‘sterile flower’. She deserves to be where she is. Unlike Natasha and Marya, she stands condemned to a husband-less, child-less life as other people's unpaid servant by the limitations of her own character. (Only don't tell her that!) Afterwards, Marya comes to ‘realise’ the accuracy of this assessment. And it is hard to believe Tolstoy does not concur. Some women may possess every conceivable virtue, but unfortunately, they are just ‘sterile flowers’. “I don’t know why,” Natasha keeps saying, as if to excuse her verdict.
Pretty nasty stuff. But in some ways, Sonya is what deconstructionists call an aporia: the most dubious part of a text which, once identified, reveals significant fault lines elsewhere. Because all the other identifiable defects of War and Peace are connected to it.
2. The Epilogue. In response to the point just made, it might be said that perhaps Tolstoy did not have time or space to give detailed consideration to Sonya’s tragic predicament. After all, War and Peace isn’t exactly the shortest of novels!
No, but he could have saved himself a lot of time by not writing the epilogue. The epilogue consists of two parts: (1) a depiction of the post-marital bliss of the two main couples: Pierre and Natasha, and Nicholas and Marya; (2) historiography and philosophy. My copy of War and Peace is 1358 pages long. The epilogue runs to 99 pages, so it is not insubstantial. But it doesn’t do anything worth doing. Its first part is maudlin and can be reduced, without significant loss, to a single sentence: “they all lived happily ever after.” Part 2 is complete twaddle. Let’s examine that now.
3. Tolstoy on history. Tolstoy has (a) a particular reading of history and (b) a theory of history in general, both expounded at length throughout War and Peace. His particular reading of history is that Napoleon was neither a skilled general nor an effective leader; at best, he was just very lucky. So for example, in Ep. Pt. II Ch 6, we learn that Napoleon issued hundreds of orders, some of which were carried out, some of which weren’t. But the former just happened to coincide with what was going to occur anyway. “From the incalculable series of Napoleon’s orders that were never carried out, one series of orders for the campaign of 1812 was carried out, not because of any essential difference between these and the ones not carried out, but simply because this series happened to correspond with the series of events bringing the French soldiers into Russia.” The whole of Napoleon’s career is explained like this, very unconvincingly.
As regards the theory of history in general, Tolstoy thinks it is possible to discover historical laws. His means of demonstrating this is consistently whacky. Volume IV, Part 3 Chapter 3 is typical: “Imagine a situation in which ten men, battalions or divisions take on and defeat fifteen men, battalions or divisions, killing or capturing everybody while sustaining only four losses themselves; they have lost four to the other side’s fifteen. The ratio, four to fifteen, may be expressed as 4x = 15y. In other words, x:y = 15:4… And by expressing a whole range of historical data (battles, campaigns, periods of war) in equations like these, we can obtain sets of figures that must contain laws, and these laws should be discoverable.” This is patent drivel, and of a piece with Tolstoy’s whole theory.
Arguably, an extended explanation of factual matters in a novel – especially a nineteenth century novel, where the notion of ‘info-dump’ hadn’t yet been invented – is forgivable, and may even be interesting and useful (consider the cetological passages in Moby Dick). But long passages of pontificating gibberish, such as we have in War and Peace, can only detract from the overall quality.
4. Helene Kuragina’s intelligence. There are two issues affecting Helene, Pierre’s first wife. Firstly, the question of how intelligent she actually is, regardless of her moral character (about which I shall remain agnostic); second, the haste with which Tolstoy dispatches her to make way for Natasha, Pierre’s second wife and his one true love. As regards the first question, the reader is consistently invited – to some extent through Pierre’s eyes - to see Helene as ‘stupid’. Volume 1 Pt 3 Chapter 1: “But she’s stupid. I used to say that myself – she is stupid.” “She could say the emptiest and stupidest things and everyone would go into raptures.” Indeed, in Vol II Pt 5 Ch 9, she is “one of the stupidest women in the world.” But sometimes, Tolstoy seems to confirm this assessment: “Pierre,” he writes in Vol II Pt 3 Ch 9, “who knew she was very stupid…”
Yet this doesn’t accord with the way other people see her. For them, she is “the last word in intelligence and sophistication.” She has a reputation as “‘a charming woman with a mind as sharp as her beauty.” And we hear that “To be received in her salon was to be certified as an intellectual. Young men read up on things before going to one of Helene’s soirées.”
Of course, Tolstoy/ Pierre has an explanation for the apparent contradiction. Soirées are the epitome of superficiality, and what passes for intelligent talk there is invariably piffle. Tolstoy establishes this right at the novel’s beginning, where Pierre nearly ruins one of Anna Scherer’s soirées by attempting to bring some sort of intellectual rigor to a polite discussion about the balance of power in Europe. And naturally (later), “the successful management of a salon [like Helene’s] depended on nothing but stupidity.”
But there are other, better explanations for the contradiction, the most plausible being that Pierre, not Helene, is the stupid one. Here we have a man who spends a significant amount of time (Vol III, Pt 1 Ch 19), working on Biblical numerology and emerging with the conclusion that he is destined to assassinate Napoleon; who idolises the kind-hearted simpleton, Platon Karatayev; who in the early days of his (second) married life can be instructed by his wife about precisely what to buy on one of his infrequent trips to Saint Petersburg, but still comes back with nothing (Ep. Pt 1 Ch 12); who tells Natasha he is going away for three weeks, but manages to stay away for six, on “business”, which, in this instance, means a discussion of Masonic questions; who regularly (and revealingly) experiences “bewilderment” at Helene’s soirées.
5. Helene Kuragina’s death. Helene finally hits on a scheme to get away from Pierre. She decides to convert to Catholicism so she can marry again. Why she needs to marry again, given that she is supposed to be a materialistic schemer, and has Pierre’s wallet firmly in the palm of her hand, we are not told. But then she becomes pregnant, falls ill and dies. Her death, it is implied, comes from a drug overdose in an attempted abortion. The whole thing reeks of deus ex machina, an authorial set-up so that Natasha and Pierre can marry, and live happily ever after, undisturbed by a grasping harridan.
6. Natasha Rostov’s attempted elopement in Volume II. Natasha Rostov becomes engaged to Andrei Bolkonsky, Marya’s brother and a central character in the novel. But Andrei’s father doesn’t want him to marry, and Andrei suffers from a war wound. Natasha and he become engaged, but agree to postpone the marriage for a year while he goes abroad to recuperate and await his father’s favour. Towards the end of the twelve months, Natasha meets Helene’s brother, the handsome and amoral Anatole. Anatole decides to seduce her. He arranges an elopement, which fails, leaving Natasha virtually on the brink of a breakdown.
The problem here is one of insufficient motivation on both sides. In the Epilogue, the old Countess Rostov, Natasha’s mother, reflects that “Natasha’s wild behaviour had sprung from the need to have a husband and children of her own – as Natasha herself had declared more than once… [The Countess] never stopped saying that Natasha would make an ideal wife and mother” (Ep. Pt 1 Ch 10). Her elopement with Anatole doesn’t chime with such an assessment: at the time of the planned abscondment, the pair have met a mere three times over three days, hardly time and opportunity for Natasha to assess Anatole’s suitability as a husband and father. And, of course, she doesn’t seem brainless enough not to have weighed at least some of the possible ramifications, even apart from that. She knows, for example, of his reputation, that he was “the butt of so much gossip.”
But this isn’t the whole problem. We also have the question of what Anatole himself hopes to achieve. As his friend and collaborator, Fedya Dolokhov, points out, he has almost everything to lose: even if he succeeds in getting away, Natasha’s family will pursue him, and possibly kill him. And given that he is already married, he will at least find himself facing criminal charges.
Now if Anatole was deeply in love with Natasha, we might be able to understand his determination. But we get no indication of that. Quite the opposite. Tolstoy doesn’t even attempt to persuade us that he is infatuated in any meaningful sense. All Anatole wants is sex, and he is depicted as pretty self-centred. In short, his behaviour seems much too weakly caused. Why is he running these particularly severe risks? Add that to the implausibility of Natasha’s own recklessness and we have a deeply implausible scene at the novel’s very heart. 7. The marriage and family ideal. At the end of the novel, we get a picture of domestic bliss. It is one in which the wives are dutiful, obedient and relatively housebound, and the husbands are dutiful, loving and relatively active in society at large. This is 1820, so it reflects something of the way the world was. But there is a distinction to be made between describing a state of affairs and promoting an ideal, and arguably, in the Epilogue (particularly Part 1 Chapter 10), Tolstoy errs strongly on the side of the latter. His is not an ideal with which our own age feels entirely comfortable.
I do not believe that War and Peace is the greatest novel of all time, but it may be that asking, ‘so which novel is?’ is pointless. Novels are products of their age and meant to address their own time. They may occasionally achieve a degree of universality, but the more complicated they are, the more they are likely to fall short of the expectations of later generations. War and Peace definitely transcends its time and place, and it still speaks to us today - if we want it to. But how far is its voice unique? And, more importantly, how far do we still have a duty to read it and take note of it?
I think rather less than is often supposed.