Back in January, I wrote a list of reading goals. One of them was to read either Anna Karenina or War and Peace. As it happened, my local library put together what they called the Big Book Club in an effort to tackle books with extraordinary page lengths, starting this summer with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I registered to get notifications and took a deep breath looking at the reading schedule, which put us at an average of 100 or so pages a week. And then I started reading.
Now on the other side of 1200+ pages (I read the ebook, so I’m not entirely sure how it all adds up with footnotes — and there are many — though Amazon tells me the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation we read sat at 1296 pages), I can tell you that I didn’t love War and Peace. For the most part, I didn’t even like it. The flip-flopping between domestic drama and war drama didn’t sit well with me — I much preferred the often Austen-esque domestic sections and was bored to tears by war. But I can’t deny that when Tolstoy got it, he really got it and these War and Peace quotes (as translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky) illustrate that.
If you’re not up to ascending the mountain that is War and Peace, take a gander at these quotes and you’ll just about get the gist. Then, go and tell your friends you’ve read the monster (abridged, if you want to be extra truthful). You won’t have missed out on much except for pages and pages of Tolstoy waxing philosophical on the discipline of history. (Although, if you are tempted by the idea of a police officer being tied to a bear, well, by all means — read away.)
war and peace quotes
“ ‘Well, what makes you go to war?’ asked Pierre.
“What makes me? I don’t know. I have to.’ “
“ ‘First of all, drink.’ “
“ ‘A limit has been set to human life, which cannot be overstepped.’ “
“ ‘Everything ends in death, everything. Death is terrible.’ “
“ ‘Try to weep. Nothing relieves one like tears.’ “
“He used to say that there were only two sources of human vice: idleness and superstition; and that there were only two virtues: activity and intelligence.”
“ ‘One step beyond that line, reminiscent of the line separating the living from the dead, and it’s the unknown, suffering, and death. And what is there? who is there? there, beyond this field, and the tree, and the roof it lit by the sun? No one knows, and you would like to know; and you’re afraid to cross that line, and would like to cross it; and you know that sooner or later you will have to cross it and find out what is there on the other side of the line, as you will inevitably find out what is there on the other side of death. And you’re strong, healthy, cheerful, and excited, and surrounded by people just as strong and excitedly animated.” So, if he does not think it, every man who finds himself within sight of an enemy, and this feeling gives a particular brilliance and joyous sharpness of impression to everything that happens in those moments.”
“He went on in the same way, in French, pronouncing in Russian only those words he wanted to underscore contemptuously.”
“ ‘I’ll flatten you like a pancake — turn back!’ “
“ ‘But you’re still afraid,’ the first familiar voice went on. ‘Afraid of the unknown, that’s what. However much we say that the soul will go to heaven…we know that there is no heaven, but only atmosphere.’ “
“ ‘Can it really be that, for court and personal considerations, tens of thousands of lives must be risked — and my own, my life?” he thought.
“ ‘Yes, I may very well be killed tomorrow.’ “
“ ‘I don’t know what will happen then, I don’t want to know and I can’t know; but if I want this, want glory, want to be known to people, want to be loved by them, it’s not my fault that I want it, that it’s the only thing I want, the only thing I live for. Yes, the only thing! I’ll never tell it to anyone, but my God! what am I to do if I love nothing except glory, except people’s love? Death, wounds, loss of family, nothing frightens me. And however near and dear many people are to me — my father, my sister, my wife — the dearest people to me — but, however terrible and unnatural it seems, I’d give them all now for a moment of glory, of triumph over people, for love from people I don’t know and will never know, for the love of these people here.’ “
“Every soldier felt pleased at heart, knowing that many, many more Russian soldiers were going where he was going, that is, no one knew where.”
“He recalled his mother’s last letter. ‘What would she feel,’ he wondered, ‘if she saw me here now, on this field, with cannon aimed at me?’ “
“ ‘Youth is no impediment to bravery.’ “
“Natasha fell in love from the moment she entered the ballroom. She was not in love with anyone in particular, but with everyone.”
“ ‘I’m afraid I’m very far from understanding — how shall I put it — I’m afraid my way of thinking about the universe is so much the opposite of yours that we won’t understand each other.’ “
“ ‘You are young, you are rich, you are educated, my dear sir. What have you done with all these good things that have been given you? Are you content with yourself and your life?’ “
“ ‘The whole world is divided for me into two parts: one is she, and there is all happiness, hope, light; the other is where she is not, and there everything is dejection and darkness…’ “
“Prince Andrei went up to her with lowered eyes.
“ ‘I loved you the moment I saw you. May I hope?’ “
“Since the day his wife arrived in Moscow, Pierre had been intending to go somewhere, only so as not to be there with her.”
“There are two sides to each man’s life: his personal life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental, swarmlike life, where man inevitably fulfills the laws prescribed for him.”
“Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals.”
“Natasha’s grief began to be covered over, by the impressions of ongoing life, it ceased to weigh with such tormenting pain of her heart, it began to become to past, and Natasha started to recover physically.”
“Natasha walked in her violet dress with black lace as women know how to walk — the more calmly and majestically, the more pained and ashamed she felt at heart.”
“The ancients left us examples of heroic poems in which heroes constitute the entire interest of history, and we still cannot get used to the fact that, for our human time, history of this sort has no meaning.”
“ ‘All kings except the Chinese wear military uniforms, and the one who has killed the most people gets the greatest reward … They come together, like tomorrow, to kill each other, they slaughter and maim tens of thousands of men, and then they say prayers of thanksgiving for having slaughtered so many people (inflating the numbers) and proclaim victory, supposing that the more people slaughtered, the greater the merit. How does God look down and listen to them!’ “
“To study the laws of history, we must change completely the object of observation, leave kings, ministers, and generals alone, and study the uniform, infintesimal elements that govern the masses.”
“ ‘Love hinders death. Love is life. Everything, everything I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is connected only by that.’ “
“ ‘Yes, death is an awakening.’ “
“When a man sees a dying animal, horror comes over him: that which he himself is, his essence, is obviously being annihilated before his eyes — is ceasing to be.”
“ ‘I don’t know since when I’ve loved her. But I’ve loved only her, her alone, all my life, and I love her so much that I can’t imagine my life without her.’ “
“He was putting together, as he said, a serious library, and made it a rule to read all the books he bought.”
“ ‘Not dear for being pretty, but pretty for being dear. Men only love Malvina and the like because they’re beautiful: but do I love my wife? It’s not love, but just…I don’t know how to tell you. Without you, or like today, when there’s some falling-out between us, it’s as if I’m lost and can’t do anything. Well, do I love my finger? I don’t love it, but try cutting it off…’ “
“What is War and Peace? It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.”
Have you read War and Peace? Did I miss some of your favorite War And Peace quotes? Tell us in the comments!