‘War and Peace’ is regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written. This is ironic because while Tolstoy’s work acts as a rejection of the Western tradition of thought on art and literature, ‘War and Peace’ challenges the base that the original European novel was built on. The work itself was so different that even the first Russian reviewers were perplexed. All over the world today there exist almost as many criticisms as copies of the work itself, while many points have been made to describe the troubles within the novel that lead to its “disunity”.
The beginning reads like a typical novel. However with the start of the second half Tolstoy begins to directly express his opinions and views in a series of nonfictional essays. This mixture of fiction and nonfiction was unheard of at the time. These essays were found to be particularly annoying due to the lack of smooth transitions between them and the fictitious body of the novel. Tolstoy’s use of “absolute language” and his absolute perspective on certain events also caused distress among critics. His god-like stance was considered an artistic flaw and an arrogant assault on the reader. His style leads readers down one of two paths; they either believe him or quarrel with him. Tolstoy claims a sort of clairvoyance of knowledge through his narrative technique. Readers have felt that he truly knows everything. It is this absolute point of view that prevents readers from skipping the essays for if they do they will certainly not understand Tolstoy.
Language is another troublesome point. A majority of the text is written in French with Tolstoy’s own translation at the bottom. When one reads this however they will often find that the translations were far from correct. It could be said that Tolstoy’s use of “familliia” to mean “family” was a mocking Gallicism. His translations can be described as macaronic, or a mixture of languages.
Plot was one of the earliest subjects to be protested. Many claimed the trouble to be a multitude of plot line, many which led nowhere, thus the work seemed to have no single coherent story. Others claimed there to be a genre problem. The novel was determined to consist of three different genres with jarring transitions between them. The reader’s inability to determine the main characters from the minor was also a plot issue. With so many side stories and minute details that were unimportant critics and readers alike were frustrated by the lack of connection. This was apparent not only in actions but thoughts as well. According to critics necessary events remain untold in favor of unnecessary ones. Length caused difficulty when determining a theme since no one was used to reading such a gigantic work. Lack of a “main idea” was also a problem which was supposedly solved by claims that life itself is Tolstoy’s main theme. This is just a nice way to say that there isn’t one.
One of the most troublesome peculiarities is the lack of an ending. If one is familiar with the history of the time they can recognize that this work as a prologue to the novel Tolstoy originally intended to write about the Decembrists. Many reviewers commented that the work itself is a series of beginnings and unfulfilled promises with many places that could have just as easily been used as the beginning and end in place of that which Tolstoy chose. The formal peculiarities of ‘War and Peace’ are disturbing and numerous. It is a masterpiece written by a genius that has evoked centuries of controversy and disparate readings.