War & Peace
Lesson 81 Chapter 1 Module 8
Welcome to Week 7!
Continuing with literary and writing tools, we’re looking at Theme and (Life) Lessons this week.
I want to explain something that might get a little confusing if we don’t suss it out from the start.
A couple weeks ago (in Week 5), we studied Premise and Concept, which often get confused with Theme and (Life) Lessons.
They are often all tied together, with the characters and setting creating reality for the story.
The Premise and Concept are the basics to the piece. The thesis, the general plot line, the elevator pitch.
Theme and (Life) Lessons are what we learn in the work. They are what your reader will think the writing is about and what the writing says about the characters and settings and subjects of the story.
Often they’ll be categorized into a single word (“books on love”, “articles about war”, “essays on happiness”, etc) but that is a miscategorization.
The Theme is what you want your reader to walk away from the piece with.
It is the lesson or realization that you are communicating, after investigating and wanting to share your own thoughts and findings.
And some of the best on the planet at using characters and settings and other subjects of their stories to come down brooding and contemplative on a hard reality that we, as readers, must learn, are the Russian writers.
I’m sure there are a zillion stereotypical reasons that Russians seem to excel at this particular facet to writing, but there’s also the fact that their nation’s literary culture is built on it.
In today’s lesson, another book considered to be one of the most important pieces of writing ever, we again have a title that tells us exactly what we are going to be reading about (premise): War and Peace.
Tolstoy’s epic tome (1763 pages at one recent publishing count) is part novel and part philosophic wisdom and essays. It is the book that Max Perkins (famed editor to the Lost Generation of American writers (such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wolfe, etc) who rose to prominence on Paris’ Left Bank) gave to all his clients to “learn what great literature” was.
In this excerpt, we learn that Russia is now at war with Napolean, and the two characters are discussing what that means. Typical setting exposition, letting the reader know what is happening in the world around them to bring about this conversation.
But the lesson we walk away with has become one of the most famous lines from the whole book. Prince Andrew (Andrei in many previous translations) says to Pierre, "If no one fought except on his own conviction, there would be no wars."
The young Pierre essentially smiles and nods, as many of us do, at such a poignant realization.
If we all spent more time worrying about ourselves and our own inner battles, then there would be a lot less fighting between us.
Alas, Prince Andrew is older and wiser and knows. He knows that such a statement is idealistic and lovely, but will not happen in reality. He knows this, because he lives it.
We learn, as the chapter closes and in Prince Andrew’s final comment on the subject, "I am going [to war] because the life I am leading here does not suit me!"
A man, following an entire nation into battle, because that is easier than facing the demons that exist in his own personal reality.
So the theme, here, is about war (premise); but we learn that war is inevitable because people always will fight others before fighting themselves.
And that theme comes up again and again throughout the first half of the book. The reasons that people go to war, and it almost always comes down to unhappiness or unease in their own realities.