Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Great Men, Great Disappointment

At the end of book three Andrew encounters his hero Napoleon, albeit not in the best of circumstances. During two chance encounters with Napoleon Andrew feels absolutely no interest in Napoleon despite previously having thought greatly of him.

He knew it was Napoleon-his hero-but at the moment Napoleon seem to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between himself and that lofty infinite sky with clouds flying over it.(253)

Being seriously wounded in battle changes Andrew’s opinion of Napoleon and of greatness. Just two chapters earlier Andrew expressed having no fear and a strong desire for glory stating; “Death, wounds, the loss of family-I fear nothing. And precious and dear as many persons are to me... I would give them all at once for a moment of glory, of triumph over men, of love from men...(230)” What does Andrews’s sudden change in perspective mean? Tolstoy himself provides us with help in his article Some Words about War and Peace.

In Some Words about War and Peace first published in 1868 Tolstoy describes six considerations for readers of War and Peace to keep in mind so that might better understand ideas that Tolstoy wishes to convey in his novel. The sixth consideration which Tolstoy describes as the most personally important consideration is “the small significance that in my conception should be ascribed to so-called great men in historical events.” (1094)

The concept of “great men” is the idea that some men due to their extraordinary character can influence events and shape history by themselves. Two obvious “great men” in War and Peace are Emperor Napoleon and Czar Alexander I. Knowing Tolstoy’s opinion on “great men” it is much easier to understand what Tolstoy intended Andrew’s change of opinion toward Napoleon mean.


  1. You have identified the theoretical heart of "War and Peace," David, and you will see more of Tolstoy's beliefs on Great Men and History as the novel continues. (More, indeed, than you may want to!)

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  3. I think this is a really interesting point. That Andrew has such a different perspective on Napoleon in person is something I hadn't thought of. I'm really fascinated by how Tolstoy portrays Napoleon and the Tzar sort of juxtaposed, and how he sees them through the views of different people, the elders, the soldiers, the women, its all really interesting commentary on how society views "great men" as defined by war and their own role in society. Like when Nicolas sees the Tzar in the field but he feels unapproachable even with all the death around that usually unifies a body of people... I don't know its just so subtly expressed but I think its beautiful. Thanks for posting this.

  4. After realizing the true insignificance of Napoleon, Prince Andrew is bound to view his own importance in the war very differently. Now that he no longer feels the allure of being a "great man" who shapes history, I wonder where his motivation will stem from. He was previously driven by an idealistic perception of "great warriors", but now his passion seems to have diminished. Will this peaceful realization cause Prince Andrew to become lost or to achieve internal equilibrium? Or perhaps he will be empowered by the thought that an average soldier is just as capable of making history as a "great man". This was a great post. It really made me think.