What it IS, is a whole heck of a bunch of characters. It reads like a 150 page novel- one about each of 10 major characters. If you just cut apart the chapters of those 150 pg. novels, and glue them together rather haphazardly, you've got yourself W&P: a 1500 pg. monster of a novel.
Now, those mini-novels do inter-relate, of course. But I'm tempted to follow Tolstoy's example and cut-and-paste my own version of his great novel, following only one character. Would it be blasphemy? Yes, of course, but certainly in the spirit of Tolstoy's treatment of the Gospels.
One thing I've discovered beyond a shadow of a doubt (I'm only 1/3 through): The names Boris and Natasha, and their connection together (see: Rocky and Bullwinkle) come from characters in this novel.
I can also tell you of these themes running through the book:
- Nobility: Is it necessary? Even useful? Are the serfs as good as the 'Lords'? Does it do them good to emancipate or a disservice?
- Religion: I believe we're following (through the character of Pierre) Tolstoy's own religious searching, as he goes from atheist, to strict religious adherent, to questioning, and back. Is his religion more powerful than his passions & lusts? Is forgiveness worth denying what he feels? Is a religious person relevent to society (in the person of Ellen's 'salons')?
- Glory & Uselessness: When Pierre tries to do good, he is only duped by those who should be working for him. But when Andrei quietly follows his example, society notices and respects him for it. Andrei's dreams of battlefield glory seem to end in nothingness (and nearly death), and his efforts at remaking the army show him almost absorbed by society in spite of his best intentions: simply repeating over and over again the thoughts he came up with in solitude. When Pierre tries to enliven and impassion the masons, he meets with rudeness and nearly violence. But when he is simply seen as an eccentric weirdo, he is beloved for it.
- Relationships: Boris discovers in the army that it is not at all what you know (your rank) as much as it is WHO you know. In his childhood relationship with Natasha, in Nicolai's with Sonya, and in other places, we are asked again and again: Which is most important? Courtly party life and societal connections? Or the relationships and promises we carry with us from the past?