In War and Peace, most major characters wrestle with how to live fulfilled, happy lives in a world that seems to be overwhelmed with suffering. For example, Pierre seeks meaning and stability in Freemasonry, a spiritual brotherhood that promises to cure him of his youthful debauchery, but he’s soon disillusioned by its members’ hypocrisy. Princess Marya, who’s otherwise an exemplar of genuine religious faith, finds that her virtue makes her vulnerable to a self-sabotaging pride. Both Pierre and Marya learn that to live a meaningful life, it’s necessary to accept the realities of ordinary life in the world, not try to escape them. A partial exception is Prince Andrei, who transcends worldly ventures (like war, career, and love) to such a degree that he glimpses the ultimate object of life—eternal love—and is therefore able to die peacefully. For most people, though, Tolstoy suggests that happiness is found not in indulgence, escapism, or relentless self-denial, but in the ability to see the beauty and goodness present in everyday existence.
Pierre’s storyline shows how escapism fails to provide a meaningful life. Disillusioned by a failed marriage and a life of physical indulgence, Pierre meets a Mason named Bazdeev and believes Masonry will cure him of the depravity of his past—he thinks “with a rapture of renewal” about the “blissful, irreproachable, and virtuous future” that awaits him due to Masonry. But within a few years, Pierre discovers that his escapist attempt to find meaning in an esoteric society has failed: the majority of Masons only care about the rites, not any kind of meaning or virtue. In addition, many “did not believe in anything […] and joined the Masons only to be close to the rich young brothers.” This is a blow to Pierre’s idealism, since he’d joined the brotherhood as a way of avoiding the pressures of aristocratic society. But most Masons simply replicate aristocratic structures within the brotherhood. It isn’t until Pierre meets a poor peasant named Platon Karataev while suffering together in French captivity that Pierre learns that neither indulgence nor escape will bring happiness. From Platon’s simple integrity, Pierre learns to find joy regardless of his external circumstances. After being freed, Pierre learns “to see the great, the eternal, and the infinite in everything […] And the closer he looked [at it], the calmer and happier he became.” Peace and happiness are found not in some distant, disembodied state, but in seeing mundane existence as a divine gift.
While Pierre’s arc shows how escapism fails to bring happiness, Princess Marya’s story shows that self-denial is no better. Marya’s primary struggle is reconciling her religious faith with her desire for earthly love. Though Marya wants love and a family, she sees such desires as sinful, since loving a man would distract her from serving God wholeheartedly. Because of this, she denies her own desires, making her miserable and alone. Out of slavish family loyalty, Marya also denies her self-worth. As her father Prince Nikolai declines into senility, he becomes abusive, but Marya either reproaches herself for judging his behavior or notices that a “feeling resembling the pride of sacrifice gathered in [her] soul.” In other words, Marya becomes self-conscious about how much she’s putting up with, and it leads to self-righteousness instead of the humility she wants to have. This shows how excessive self-denial can backfire—it makes her neither happy nor virtuous. But by the end of the book, Marya is married to Nikolai Rostov and she finds peace in conventional family life. In marriage, she learns to integrate her spiritual beliefs with care for her family—namely by loving her family in the way that “Christ loved mankind.” Through this, she learns that she can serve God while loving those around her and even enjoying family life.
While Pierre and Princess Marya’s spiritual journeys involve learning to live happily on earth, Prince Andrei finds happiness that frees him to leave everyday life behind. After getting injured at the battle of Austerlitz, Prince Andrei lies on the battlefield staring at the sky, oblivious to the carnage around him. The sky changes him—he thinks “Yes! everything is empty, everything is a deception, except this infinite sky.” Having sought glory in war, Andrei now realizes that there is “infinite” beauty he’s never noticed before, and that war is “empty” by comparison. After surviving this moment, Andrei struggles to find a satisfying role in earthly life. He tries government service and quickly grows disillusioned, and while he initially believes that marrying Natasha will fix him, it becomes clear that he hasn’t really seen her for who she is—he only saw what she might do for him. It’s not until Andrei glimpses eternal love and turns away from desiring anything in the material world altogether that his tension is resolved. Gravely wounded at Borodino, he sees his enemy Anatole suffering and “a rapturous pity and love for this man filled his happy heart,” making him realize that universal love is what he’s been missing. The more he contemplates this, the less it’s necessary for him to persist in the world, and he dies.
Tolstoy suggests that meaning and happiness aren’t found through a universal, prescribed path, but through one’s ability to come to terms with the mystery of the world as it is. Generally speaking, though, beauty and goodness aren’t “out there”—they’re not objects of endless striving—but instead they can be embraced here and now, by recognizing what’s been right in front of a person all along.