I can easily see why Tolstoy would rankle at the idea that his book was a novel. It has novelistic aspects that largely dominate, but it’s also so much more. If I had to made a guesstimate, I’d say that it’s just under two-thirds novel, just under one-third history, and the remainder is philosophical.
There’s so much going on in this large novel that it can be hard to distill the story down to an easy summary, but I think the second epilogue is the key to it. That epilogue is all about Tolstoy’s justifications for certain thoughts he peppered throughout the narrative, in particular about the nature of power and the influence of great men on history. He consistently rejected the idea that great men are the drivers of history, and he makes the case that it’s actually the masses of people that do it instead. I don’t buy the line of thinking, but it’s not poorly considered. The idea is that the nature of power actually lends itself to those being ordered and not to those doing the ordering. We saw this especially around the battle scenes (in particular Borodino) where Tolstoy described how Napoleon would give orders and nothing would fall the way he wanted. No matter what Napoleon wanted done, things happened in their own way, according to Tolstoy.
I think it’s ultimately a reaction against the sources he used to research the book. He doesn’t directly quote them much (I think I remember one direct quote from a source), but the impression I get is that they were consistently full of fulsome praise for Napoleon’s genius. Tolstoy obviously found those explanations wanting especially considering Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow through the Russian frontier. I think that Tolstoy goes too far in the other direction, though. The idea that Napoleon had nothing to do with the movement of peoples from the west to the east and then back to the west is absurd. If Napoleon hadn’t claimed power in the wake of the French Revolution would France have made the same moves that drove it to creating a nascent empire that tried to overtake Russia? Counterfactuals are hard, but I think it’s safe to assume that the French people wouldn’t have just picked up and marched to Russia without Napoleon’s influence, and yet that’s exactly what Tolstoy argues at one point.
Still, I think the point is reasonably well argued that great men aren’t the sole drivers, but then, again, he simply goes too far in the other direction.
And what does that have to do with the point to the rest of the book? Well, we follow a handful of aristocratic families in Moscow and St. Petersburg from 1805-1820, and none of them hold any particular amount of power. They range from rich property owners who do little in terms of government to social climbers who use the military as a means of increasing their standing. Not a one drives any governmental policy or designs military strategy. They represent the story of Russia in that time period of great turmoil, and it works so well because the characters are wonderfully drawn.
From the core three characters of Pierre, Prince Andrei, and Natasha to the secondary characters like Nicholas Rostov and Helena, War and Peace is just fully populated with vivid characters with distinctive wants and needs that drive their actions. There are the makings of a simple love triangle between the core three characters, but it never feels nearly so trite as that. These are people driven by sets of ideas that define them, making their actions inevitable in a way that reminds me of Ahab in Moby Dick. Natasha is a young girl, so of course she is going to fall for Anatole after her betrothed has been gone for 9 months. Of course Andrei is going to react badly to that and break it off. Of course they’re going to come back together after Andrei is mortally wounded at Borodino. Of course Pierre is going to marry her after Andrei dies as well as Helena, his first wife.
Princess Mary, Count Rostov, Denisov, and the rest are just great characters that drive their own actions in the midst of this great turmoil.
And that’s the other large part of the book, that turmoil wrought by Napoleon. The history parts of this book are great. The battles of Austerlitz and Borodino are remarkably well realized and clear. They’re exciting and filled with great detail. One of the big things that Tolstoy tried to do in this part of the book is a corrective to what he saw as the standard thinking especially around Napoleon and the Russian general Kutuzov who faced Napoleon at Borodino and managed the army through the occupation of Moscow and most of the French retreat back to the west. It’s an interesting conflict with Tolstoy’s central thesis on the nature of the great man in history because he wants to heap praise on Kutuzov for how he managed the abandonment of Moscow and following, but refusing to engage, Napoleon out of Russia. Tolstoy wants to give him all the credit for the overall strategy, but he’s just spent the last few hundred pages calling Napoleon essentially no more than lucky in his success prior to Moscow because of his concept of power (detailed in the second epilogue). There’s an opening there for Tolstoy to simply take a step back and say that Napoleon mismanaged the Russian campaign and Kutuzov managed it well, but he needs to go further. So, the detail of the armies are great, but his commentary becomes a bit confused.
Still, the book as a whole is a fantastic achievement. I don’t really agree with Tolstoy’s outlook on history and warfare (being an expert armchair general myself), but the whole book is just a great read filled with battles, duels, executions, and desperate marches through winter. It’s so far from a heady ponderous tome.