I’ve recently read War and Peace. You know, the massive doorstopper by Leo Tolstoy. It was on my list of books to get to some day but my daughter bought it for me for Christmas and told me to read it. As the weeks of the new year slid by, she said ‘When are you going to read War and Peace?’ While I digested this, I figured that it’s great to have a child to nag you to read rather than the other way around. My daughter knew I would like the book as I had watched with extreme enthusiasm the BBC series of the novel which was so well done (as BBC adaptations usually are), with doe-eyed Natasha and wicked dark-haired Helene.
In reading the book, I realised that it’s not just about the peace that exists before or after a war but it is about what is peace for human beings: Tolstoy philosophizes about this through the character of Pierre. Pierre is a bumbling young man with daggy spectacles who is duped into marrying the sexiest woman in St Petersburg, Helene, because she and her father are after his money. Once the marriage takes place, he finds that sex will be non-existent between them but that Helene will deliver to others outside the marriage. After he shoots her first lover in a duel (non-fatally), Pierre feels he needs to take a good look at his life. He encounters a freemason and he is inspired to see his life a different way. He decides to live for others as this may be the way to enjoy life and feel fulfilled. He visits all his serfs and attempts to liberate them to be free agricultural labourers; after separating from Helene, he returns to her and tries to make the best of living with her.
Pierre’s idea of living for others gives him a new lease on life. Whereas his life has been miserable with a loveless marriage and a lack of purpose, this idea turns his life into something more meaningful and enjoyable. His idea to liberate the serfs make him feel good about himself (although things do not go according to plan); he is able to talk to his down-at-the-mouth friend, Prince Andrei, in a way that sows the seeds for Andrei to develop more optimism in life and he is able to offer support and kindness to his friend, Natasha, when she feels her life is over after a failed elopement/seduction.
The idea of living for others keeps Pierre going for a while but then war starts. He looks for opportunities to be heroic: he fights in a battle even though he isn’t a soldier; when Napoleon’s troops invade Moscow, he plans to kill Napoleon with a knife tucked in his shirt but instead, he rescues a child from a burning building; he fights a soldier who is assaulting a young woman and becomes a prisoner. In being a prisoner, he is surprised to learn that simplicity of life can bring contentment. He reflects that he had previously unsuccessfully striven for peace of mind through various ventures, diversions and through reasoning about the purpose of life. Once released from captivity, he enjoys having his needs for food, warmth and clothing met and having the freedom to choose his own occupation in life. He engages better with people and they start to confide in him. He really listens to others and starts to understand them. He feels at peace with life.
So what does Pierre’s story tells us? To appreciate what we have. To listen to others and try to understand them. That to live for others can bring us happiness.
As the great works of literature show us how to live, Tolstoy has shown us how to find peace.