War and Peace by Lev Tolstoy (1869)
introductory post here, and also my first and second progress reports.
I discussed some of the details of the plot and characters before and I don't want to say too much more about that at the risk of spoiling it for any of you thinking of reading the book. So I'll keep my final discussion a bit more general.
Our instructor insists that this isn't a historical novel, that to Tolstoy it was about family because family is the most important thing ever. It's hard to see sometimes, especially because in all his philosophical musings in the epilogue and appendix, he doesn't really talk about family at all. But our instructor cites Tolstoy's 99 volumes of journals as evidence of his ideas.
There were, of course, some families in the novel and the parts centering around them were my favorite. I'm not super interested in military strategy, and am rather shaky with history (I find it interesting, but have a hard time grasping it), so I preferred everything that revolved around the romantic entanglements and family life. There were some good war parts though, especially those that focused on particular characters like Bolkonsky, Rostov, and Kutuzov.
It was a bit rough getting through all the philosophical musings (especially at the end), though Tolstoy discussed some interesting ideas. For instance, the difficulty of separating historical events from one another. How do you decide where to begin with a story, when clearly everything that happens has roots in earlier events? He also questions what causes movements. Is it personalities of leaders, conditions of the time, the results of particular orders that were given, or a combination of all of these things? Tolstoy seems to accept a certain inevitability when he discusses our lack of free will. We may think we are doing what we want to do, but there are always restrictions and obstacles, and that applies as much to historical events as to actions in our daily lives.
As you can probably tell, this novel is nothing if not ambitious, and the 1200 or so pages were crammed not only with a great story, but many big thoughts and ideas. Even reading along with a class I know I'm still missing some things. This seems like the sort of book you could read 10 times and get more out of it each time. (I am unlikely to read it 10 times though.)
Reading War and Peace feels like a huge accomplishment, and I'm very glad I did it. Now I don't feel quite so daunted by other unread classics, and hopefully I'll be able to take classes on some others as well to make the reading go a little easier. But maybe not soon.