War & Peace & Letting Go of “The Great Man Theory”

On a cold, snowy night in January of 2016, I sat curled up in front of a crackling fire at my childhood home in rural Ohio. Fresh from finishing graduate school in London, I’d only been back in the country for a week. Feeling heartbroken over leaving London, I was clinging to my fundamental desire to work that sometimes substitutes for a deeper sense of identity or purpose.

This was around the time the new BBC adaptation of War and Peace was airing on American TV. Watching the lush series and struggling to recall the half of the novel I’d managed to find time to read as an undergrad, I had an idea that merged my newfound time for pleasure reading with my desire for a long-term writing project: I’d read War and Peace over the space of a year, and blog about it weekly. I’d experience the passage of time along with the characters, observing them and myself as specks underneath Tolstoy’s vast expanses of sky and history. 2016 was already looking to be an eventful year both for myself as an individual and America as a whole: I was poised on the edge of something new, and, it seemed, somewhat dauntingly, so was the nation. I’d be the Pierre to the United States’ Imperial Russia. What could go wrong?

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If you’ve never felt a desire to slog through one of the heavier cornerstones of the Western canon, I regret to inform you that even the substantial and fully-formed, nearly three-hour-long musical adaptation of the novelNatasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812—only covers about 70 out of War and Peace‘s 1,000+ pages. The wider picture is part philosophy, part wartime epic, and part soap opera.

The soap opera part, which is considered the plot proper by most, follows several aristocratic families as they navigate the Napoleonic wars and changing ideas of what it means to be Russian. There is much talk about Napoleon, who eventually appears as a character. His rise from cocktail conversation topic to looming tyrant is so gratingly relevant it puts a certain production of Julius Caesar to shame. Oafish Pierre, his father’s favorite of many bastard children, becomes Count Bezuhov when his father dies, inheriting a massive fortune and all the duplicitous leeches that come with it. Pierre is the stand-in for Tolstoy himself, and his journey to enlightenment embodies Tolstoy’s beliefs on religion, morality, and happiness. Natasha’s coming of age is shaped by her family’s dwindling fortune, losing her loved ones to the war, and the vulnerability of being young and romantic. Siblings Marya and Andrey manage their senile father and take different paths to faith and fulfillment while Nikolai discovers the brutal, unromantic reality of battle.

As the cast recording of The Great Comet would suggest, there’s plenty of drama, heartbreak, and looking up at the vastness of the sky, feeling overwhelmed about what a tiny tiny ant you are compared to the enormity of the universe. As I hacked my way through the beginning of the book, bit by bit and day by day, my relationship to that sensation was less the spiritual awakening it is for Tolstoy’s characters and more a sneaking suspicion that I’d bitten off more than I could chew.

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Did I think Pierre was awful last time? I asked myself about six months later. While I was sweltering through my first New York City summer and Trump was continuing to not go away, Nikolay was informing his mother of his intention to marry his penniless cousin Sonya, Marya was moving to Moscow and struggling to handle her increasingly abusive father, and Pierre was sliding back into drunkenness. He’d finally become disillusioned with the Freemasons, which I’d dubbed his “special club of rich dudes who like to think” in my blog. I hated his elitist dream of a Freemason shadow government, I hated his pretentions, I hated being subjected to his opinions on his wife Helene (whom I’d dubbed “Our Lady of the Matriarchal Revolution,” Patron Saint of characters written by men who fear female sexuality), and I hated his need to personally save the world.

Time kept passing and America looked forward to the day we’d swear in the first female President and forget this whole mess of an election ever happened. Meanwhile, feeling adrift, I’d come to the conclusion that I somehow existed outside of Tolstoy’s endless horizons. I hated Pierre because I saw myself in him; we were fumbling around in the dark, desperate to be working towards something but struggling to use our own tools. I found Andrey’s nihilism both grating and understandable. I relished the occasional updates on Anna Pavlovna, whom I imagined as Gillian Anderson in all her glamorous glory, a woman who seemed sure to survive whatever Napoleon or Tolstoy himself would try to throw at her. It seemed to me that some of us are born Anna Pavlovna while others were destined to stagnate as Pierre.

As if to put my petty, personal existential angst in perspective, Trump won the election and Napoleon invaded Russia. Tolstoy killed my precious Helene with an abortion gone wrong, and Pierre earned more of my hatred with his attitude towards Karataev, fellow prisoner of war and mystical peasant. As the fictional plot waned, Tolstoy filled in the gaps with his personal philosophy and attitude towards historians, free will, determinism, and necessity.

The prevailing attitude towards history at the time when Tolstoy was writing was wrapped up in something called the “Great Man Theory,” which states that there are single people who are powerful enough to change the course of history. Tolstoy argues against this, explaining that any historical event is really the result of an infinite amount of smaller events and choices made by everyday people. The Great Man Theory would say that Trump is one of those significant figures with the power to change the world, and Tolstoy would counter that by pointing out the circumstances and widespread attitudes that led to him gaining his influence. Basically, Trump is to Napoleon as white people are to the bourgeoisie… Basically.

Let me assure anyone reading this that despite being the Pierre of this metaphor I have no desire to assassinate anyone and no delusions that Freemasonic numerology is telling me I’m destined to do so. Like so many of us, I skipped to Pierre’s uncomfortable realization that since history is the result of a multitude of individuals acting as drops in an oceanic wave of history, individual agency is pretty limited. Helping the Russian aristocracy regain a sense of national identity apart from Catherine the Great’s preoccupation with French culture, getting a job with health insurance, falling in love with the girl who was engaged to marry your best friend, wondering if the thirty bucks you can spare to help Planned Parenthood will make any difference; it’s all the same. You only have free will so much as you aren’t tied down by necessity, and your actions mean both everything and nothing.

These days, with the blog well over and done with and the finished novel on my bookshelf, I feel a bit more comfortable living in the valley of that contradiction. It’s important to act, even if I can’t do anything singlehandedly; an idea that feels relevant both to my life in the macro sense as an American citizen and in the micro sense as yet another small town gal trying to make it in the big city.

Sometimes I feel almost at peace with that idea. I’m better off now than I was when I started that blog. I feel almost as different from the rudderless woman by the fire as the Pierre who married Natasha is from the Pierre who spilled drinks at Anna Pavlovna’s salon. But for our collective sakes much more than my own, I wish we all had Tolstoy’s benefit of looking back on events sixty years later with the comfort of knowing that the Russian winter spares no demagogue.

Chelsea Ennen has a Master’s in Contemporary Literature, Theory, and Culture that she actually uses in her current career. She lives in Manhattan, New York and writes fiction and essays on all things media and pop culture.