War and Peace – Book & Plot Summary – Read in 5 minutes

If you’re watching BBC One drama War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and want to get a quick overview or summary of the plot (to enjoy it more as research suggests), here it is 587,287 words of the book summarised in just 1,945 words (which is 0.33% of the total book which means you can read this summary in about 5-10 minutes as opposed to an average of 32 hours for the whole book):

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by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Type of work Epic and romantic Russian novel
Setting Russia; the Napoleonic Era
Principal characters
Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, a cynical, intellectual soldier-prince
Pierre Bezuhov, a sensitive nobleman and seeker of truth
Natasha Rostov, Pierre’s beautiful and well-to-do lover
Nikolay Rostov, a soldier, Natasha’s older brother
Sonya, a relative of the Rostovs who falls in love with Nikolay
Anatole Kuragin, a womanizing, high-ranking officer

Tolstoy’s purpose in writing his 1600-page War and Peace was to present a historical account of the French invasion of Russia and also to provide himself a forum for his own intellectual and spiritual insights and theories. He accomplishes this through the characters’ searches for identity as well as in the volume’s two extensive epilogues. 

Tolstoy fought in the Crimean War, adding to the realism of his accounts of the Napoleonic struggle. Soon after, he experienced a religious conversion, gave up all his material wealth, and lived out his remaining days in the simple life of a peasant.

This work, written in 1869, has been termed an epic because it portrays history as cyclical. To Tolstoy, every human being holds great influence over others. And even as the novel draws to a close, the births and lives of the second generation begin their ever-more influential, historical journeys along the never-ending river of life.

Story Overview
During a magnificent ball held in St Petersburg, Pierre and Prince Andrey, close friends, sat to one side discussing the rise of Napoleon, who had single-handedly saved his country from inner destruction. But now the same Frenchman waged war against Russia, and everyone held differing viewpoints on how best to defend their motherland. “To help England and Austria against the greatest man in the world is not right,” Pierre, the boorish idealist said; to which the realist Andrey replied, “If no one fought except on his own conviction, there would be no wars. I am going because the life I am living here does not suit me.” Indeed, Andrey had experienced the misfortune of marrying a society woman whose only interest lay in the numerous soirees among the elite. His fondest wish was to escape his pregnant wife by leaving Russia and going to war. 

At the battle of Austerlitz Andrey had been assigned adjutant to General Kutuzov. Nikolay, another young soldier, had declined a position in the rear, choosing instead to fight with the front-line “Hussars,” or Russian Cavalry. Both men, spurred on by pride, were filled with the foolish notions of glory – but were quickly disillusioned when they took part in a battle and saw the firsthand horrors of war. Nikolay’s steed was shot from under him and he retreated from the advancing French troops. Andrey was wounded in a desperate charge. As he lay gazing up at the sky among the masses of dead and wounded soldiers, Napoleon and his victorious generals approached nearby. The Emperor himself glanced halfheartedly at Andrey and, thinking he was dead, almost passed by – when he thought he saw the young officer move. Napoleon had Andrey picked up and cared for, and later asked him, “And how do you feel, mon brave?” As the rest of the Russian army retreated, Andrey could not answer.

Pierre, meanwhile, having inherited a fortune, married a beautiful but disloyal woman whose only interest was retaining her name through social climbing. At dinner, a former gambling friend, Dolohov, insulted Pierre. Incensed at this – and more so at the rumor that Dolohov had had an affair with his wife – Pierre challenged the more experienced man to a duel, and though he had hardly ever fired a gun, he managed to wound Dolohov. He then left town, alone, and joined the brotherhood of Freemasons, a religious order founded to care for the needy and lift the lower classes. Pierre had finally found people who shared his ideals.

Soon thereafter, Andrey returned from the war to find his estranged wife about to give birth. He looked helplessly on at the frightened, accusing, deathlike face of his wife, who seemed to blame him for her pain. When she died right after the birth, Andrey, haunted by her ordeal, fell into a deep and cynical depression. Austerlitz … his wife … he no longer could summon the lofty ideals he once knew.

Pierre, once more in company of his friend, noticed that Andrey seemed to have lost his zeal for life. He spoke to him about Freemasonry and the good it could do, but Andrey spurned such philosophical drivel. “What error can there be,” Pierre replied, “in wishing to do good? … There is a future life. The Some One is God.”

“It’s true. I believe it,” Andrey finally affirmed, and began to think that, yes, perhaps he could remove himself from life’s “abyss.” The despair that tortured him gradually began to fade.

The handsome Nikolay, Andrey’s army mate, had also returned from Austerlitz, resigned to marry his cousin Sonya, a girl completely devoted to him but whom he did not love in return. The now-healed rascal Dolohov tried to woo her, but she rejected him in favor of Nikolay. Dolohov, in revenge, challenged Nikolay to a game of cards, and won 43,000 rubles. The disgraced young man quickly borrowed money from his father, paid Dolohov, and returned to the war.

In 1809, Napoleon and Alexander, Czar of Russia, signed a never-honored peace treaty. Each chose at random one soldier from their ranks to receive the Legion of Honor. Nikolay marveled that an officer rather than a man of real courage was recognized: “Our business is to do our duty. To fight and not to think. That is all.”

Andrey, meanwhile, found himself suddenly attracted to a longtime acquaintance, Natasha, Nikolay’s younger sister. Immediately the seeds of renewal planted by Pierre sprang forth in love. He forgot his dead wife and began to think of marriage. However, the girl’s quarrelsome old father, considering her too inexperienced to run a household, refused to allow Natasha to marry until a year had elapsed. Andrey, dejected, left Moscow to work for the government. During this time, the handsome yet disreputable Anatole Kuragin, who had left his first wife, spied Natasha and determined to make her his own. With her fiancé gone, Natasha was weakened and almost ran away with the insistent high-ranking officer. Pierre confronted Anatole and stood up for his absent friend. Dejected, Anatole soon left for Petersburg, but when Andrey learned of the near-marriage, he rejected Natasha and pursued Anatole for revenge.

About this time, Pierre himself became disillusioned; he had found many of the masons to be corrupt and concerned only with themselves and with their own status and wealth, at the expense of the truly needy. “The Order should be preparing men of virtue, punishing vice and folly, patronizing talent, and raising men from the dust and attaching them to the Brotherhood,” he declared. The Freemason members – who had in fact inducted Pierre into the order solely for his wealth – did not approve of his rhetoric, and Pierre left the Order, never to return.

Pierre, alone, was sensitive to heartbroken Natasha, and soon found rebirth in his relationship with the young woman. Though she still pined over the loss of her beloved Andrey, Natasha tried but failed to take her own life. As she recovered, Pierre tenderly cared for her needs. But because of his friendship with Andrey and being such a short time since Andrey and Natasha had been lovers, he could not bring himself to proclaim his affection. In despair, he also departed Moscow.

The war of 1812 ensued, and Nikolay and Andrey enlisted as before. Again Nikolay found his way to the front lines, but this time he felt mortal. Still full of courage, he led a charge. When he hesitated killing a French soldier, he was awarded a medal for bringing him back a prisoner. Confused, he thought, “So that’s all there is in what is called heroism! And did I do it for my country’s sake? Why should I kill him? And they have given me St George’s Cross. I can’t make it out at all.”

The night before the battle, Andrey paced the floor out of the bitterness he harbored over Anatole robbing him of Natasha. It was killing him, knowing that Anatole was alive and happy while he, unfulfilled, wallowed in sadness. Then Andrey, meeting up again with Pierre, at first assumed Pierre represented the Freemasons, and treated him with hostility, but soon realized he was there as a friend, bringing news of his family. Later, Pierre asked Andrey to define his idea of success in war. Andrey’s answer came as a ball from a cannon: “Success never depends on position, equipment or numbers, but on the feeling that is in me and in each soldier. A battle is won by those who firmly resolve to win it!”

The sun rose, the battle commenced, and Andrey stood in his ranks as the field jumped to life around him. A grenade landed nearby and everyone around scrambled for cover. But Andrey froze, staring at the bomb, his mind suddenly alive to his existence: “… I do not wish to die. I love life.” Just then the mortar exploded, throwing Andrey to the ground, gravely wounded. Though he was taken to be nursed by his precious Natasha, he soon died, after declaring his love.

In the subsequent Battle of Borodine the Russians lost half their regiments. They brought the French to a temporary standstill outside of Moscow, however, giving its citizens time to escape. Nevertheless, with Moscow abandoned, the French soldiers moved in and began burning the deserted houses. In the melee of events, Pierre saved the life of a French officer; later, the officer in turn saved Pierre from a French firing squad after he was captured as a prisoner of war. Arrested for alleged “incendiary activity,” he in fact had remained behind with thoughts of assassinating Napoleon. While incarcerated, Pierre became acquainted with another prisoner who taught him patience, acceptance, appreciation and love, even for those who persecuted him. Amid his privations, he regained faith, “not faith in any kind of rule, words or ideas, but faith in an ever-living ever-manifest God.”

Despite the French occupation of Moscow, the Russian soldiers remained in good spirits. Ironically, Napoleon’s troops suffered low morale. The Russians had burned everything on the road to Moscow, ensuring that the French would find nothing along their route of retreat. After looting and burning much of the city, the soldiers, inadequately supplied, began their demoralizing march home. The struggle to survive, the frequent Cossack skirmishers, the bitterly harsh winter and the lack of food all but destroyed Napoleon’s Grand Army.

Pierre was eventually rescued during a raid by Russian troops, and returned to Moscow. His imprisonment had changed him much. “Now a smile at the joy of life played about his lips and sympathy for others shone in his eyes.” He had lost his entire fortune but proclaimed, “By being ruined I have become richer.” With his little remaining money, he helped rebuild Moscow, which rapidly sprang back to life. He later met up with Natasha, who told him of Andrey’s death. Pierre sought to comfort the grieving woman, and gradually their love for each other rekindled. She proved to be an excellent wife to Pierre: “she let her love for her husband and children overflow all bounds.” Four children and eight years of devotion was a fulfillment of all their dreams.

Nikolay also returned from war, married Marya, Andrey’s sister, and they adopted Andrey’s son. Sonya never married. Rejected after having waited faithfully for eight years, she nonetheless remained with Nikolay, content to be his servant.

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