War and Peace offered a new kind of novel, with a great many characters caught up in a plot that covered nothing less than the grand subjects indicated by the title, combined with the equally large topics of youth and age.
The novel tells the story of five aristocratic families and the entanglement of their personal lives with history, specifically the invasion of Russia by Napoleon. As events proceed, Tolstoy systematically denies his subjects any significant free choice: the onward roll of history determines happiness and tragedy alike.
In his 365 chapters, some only a few pages in length, Tolstoy tells of birth and death, balls and battles, gossip and tragedy, military strategy and political philosophy.
If there is a central character to War and peace it is Pierre Bezuhov, the illegitimate son of a wealthy count, who upon receiving an unexpected inheritance is suddenly thrust upon with the responsibilities and conflicts of a Russian nobleman. His formerly carefree behavior vanishes and he enters upon a philosophical quest particular to Tolstoy: how should one live a moral life in an imperfect world? He frees his peasants and improves his estate, but goes bankrupt in the process. He is tricked into marriage with Prince Kuragin's beautiful, immoral daughter Helene.
Helene and her brother Anatole conspire to ruin the beautiful Natasha Rostova. Pierre rescues her, but recoils from his feeling of love for her. He later takes off on a quixotic mission to assassinate Napoleon and is captured as a prisoner of war. His wife dies and Pierre is reunited with Natasha. They find love at last and marry.
Tolstoy vividly depicts the conflict between the Russian general Kutuzov and Napoleon Bonaparte, both in terms of personality and in the clash of armies. General Kutuzov strives mightily to hold back the French advance when his best tactic would have been to draw the French on into the depths of Russia. Napoleon likewise chose wrongly, attempting to complete his march to destroy Moscow when he would have been better off destroying the Russian army in a decisive battle. The French are demoralized and destroyed by a final Cossack attack as they straggle back towards Paris.
In 1956, this novel was released as a motion picture. See War and Peace (movie).