Affirming Determinism in Tolstoj’s War and Peace

Heather Daly, Brown University

This paper proposes a reconciliation between the historical and fictional narrative strains in War and Peace through an examination of Tolstoj’s deterministic philosophy as presented in the novel. Using the concepts of “freedom” and “necessity,” I demonstrate how they serve to bridge the two spheres, underscoring the interconnectedness of the historical and the fictional. “Necessity,” in particular, is fine-tuned, revealing a division into categories of “true” and “false” necessity. “False” necessity is the corrupting social force which characters such a Pierre and Nataša misinterpret as genuine due to a lack of experience or disregard of their instinctual inner voice. Both succumb to social pressures and as a result both experience a sort of fall. In contrast, “true” necessity is a choice informed by both instinct and experience. “Freedom” within War and Peace is primarily illusory, yet within the limited window where freedom intersects with “true” necessity one can take limited action, as does Pierre on the realization that he is to marry Nataša.

Using the historical characters of Napoleon and Kutuzov as a starting point, this paper demonstrates how these figures represent “false” and “true” necessity, respectively. On this basis, I examine the parallels that exist between the historical and fictional characters: between Napoleon and Helène and her father, and between Kutuzov and Pierre. I trace Pierre’s development in order to demonstrate how he matures, eventually reaching a Kutuzovian state of enlightenment, where he no longer submits to pressure exerted by others, but to a general, organic will. Pierre’s development leads him to perceive the existence and strength of his will while, in contrast, Nataša’s leads her to see that her will is not infinite. From Pierre’s example in particular we learn that Tolstoj’s deterministic philosophy need not be seen as inherently negative. It can be surprisingly affirmative.