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A Close Reading of War and Peace

July 6, 2023

By Larry Brenner, faculty, writing for TV, screen, and stage

Lately, I have been on a classic literature kick. I’ve been trying to read those impossibly long novels that intimidate us by the virtue of their sheer, unrelenting size. (I’ve found many of them possible to read only with the help of my amazing book-club friends.)

I love the joy of decoding meaning, trying to open myself up to really getting into the head space of the author and seeing what they are trying to communicate with me about the human condition.

I spent the bulk of 2022 reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The novel is all about how we get caught in the currents of the world. It’s a paradox. There are times where we think we have agency but have none. And there are other times when we believe ourselves to have no agency, as a means to absolve ourselves of making decisions. It’s a book that posits that the struggle of being human is identifying the moments where we get to choose.

I’m going to limit myself to two examples, but my head is swimming with the implications.

Pierre instinctively knows he should not marry Helene but is caught in the currents of societal pressure and feels that he must marry her. His instincts were right, the marriage is disastrous, but to him it is a thing that “had to happen.” He could not fight against it. “It was fate.” But that’s a self-deception, as it was entirely possible for him to have chosen otherwise.

Pierre constantly finds himself on paths where he “must” take certain actions. When his wife is unfaithful, he must defend his honor. What else can he do? He sends her away, but his in-laws petition him to take her back. So he does. Over and over again, Pierre feels powerless in his personal life.

The man has abdicated all control over his life, and yet somehow is responsible for the greater thrust of history. At one point, he comes to the conclusion that the only way to truly take control of his life is to change the course of history. The universe has sent him a message: it is his duty to assassinate Napoleon and save all of Russia. (Spoiler: he never comes close.)

And let’s talk about Napoleon. Is he a man that changed the face of the world? Yes and no, says Tolstoy. Napoleon rode the currents of history, but the book posits that the events that occurred would have happened with or without him. The wars he fought were the wars his supporters wanted. Had he sued for peace, his own followers would have overthrown him. He has become the man the moment demanded, but if he was not that man, another would have stood in his place.

Napoleon’s flaw is buying into his own mythology. His genius for military tactics is an illusion—a butterfly flaps its wings and the course of a battle is changed. In other words, his victories weren’t certain—they are only certain when they are past events, and his string of successes blinds him to the possibility that the future may hold a failure in store for him.

Did he make the decisions that led to the changing of Europe? He did. But if he wasn’t the man who would have made those decisions, he would never have had the power to make them in the first place.

But the book isn’t FATALISTIC. There’s no nonsense about things being predestined, only things that SEEM predestined in retrospect. No one has the unfettered free will to dictate future events. Yes, Moscow “must burn,” but it’s because that’s what happens when you build a city of wooden buildings, the peasants cook porridge, and the fire departments disband. A natural consequence, but not destiny.

Here are the takeaways I’ve really been reflecting on:

1) When large, world-shaking events occur, we have to endure them. These are not things we get to choose, and all of the “what if we. . .?” in the world doesn’t change our present reality.

2) But we do get the choice—daily—hourly!—to follow the currents or resist them. Wisdom is knowing when we should do what. Sometimes we SHOULD follow the currents. Other times we should switch streams.

3) There’s no going backwards, though. Trying to get back to the world that was by erasing what has happened since is folly. Things that are broken can heal, but that’s going forward. You can’t make the break have never occurred in the first place.


Larry Brenner's screenplay Bethlehem was a winner of Final Draft’s Big Break Contest. He has also written Labyrinth for Walt Disney Pictures and Angelology for SONY/Columbia Pictures. He is a co-host of Once Upon a Disney, a podcast that analyzes Disney movies from a screenwriter’s perspective. His play Saving Throw Versus Love was produced as part of the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival and was selected for the Fringe Encore Series. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America and WGA East. Brenner earned his MFA at Spalding and has a PhD in educational theatre from NYU.


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