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War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy

Critical Essays Technical Devices Used in War and Peace


According to Le Vicompte E. Melchior de Vogue in The Russian Novel (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1916), War and Peace is"a unique alliance between the grand spirit of an epic and that of minute analysis." This"unique alliance" derives from Tolstoy's careful craftsmanship, only a few significant devices of which we have space here to discuss.

To provide the vast material of War and Peace with some semblance of unity, the author must make his transitions between ideas or between settings intelligible to enable the reader to keep up with the movement of the novel. Tolstoy smoothly introduces us to the three settings wherein we first meet the major and minor characters as he takes us from one party in Petersburg to another in Moscow, and thence to a family reunion at Bleak Hills. From the general war scene at Austerlitz in Book III, Tolstoy conveys us, in Book IV, to a scene of violence in a duel between Pierre and Dolohov. This marks the transition between the"outer" state of war and the inner turmoil within Pierre. The radiant intermezzo of Book VII shows us the end of youth for the Rostovs and prepares us for Natasha's sad moment of maturation in Book VIII. Within this movement, Pierre appears as the transition figure between the personal events of the novel and the gathering tide of war that engulfs the whole nation. He effects the bridge to convey us from Natasha's heartsick lethargy to Russia's major historic struggle. Many other significant and masterfully executed transitions can be cited besides these examples, but the careful reader can discern these for himself (or herself) as he or she studies the novel.


Besides formal transitions to carry specific ideas from one context to another, Tolstoy employs symbols to underscore the moral significance of his narrative. His most frequent symbolic devices are naturalistic. For Tolstoy, nature is not merely a background for human destiny but is a partner to it, and images of nature provide him with the physical manifestations of the inner struggles of his protagonists. In this way, the author emphasizes for individuals his major thesis that historical happenings spring from unconscious impulses and from the instincts of the masses. As Tolstoy associates the indifference of nature to death with its unquenchable impulse to life, we see the peaceful sky over Austerlitz promising death to Andrey, and later, during his talk with Pierre, the same sky promises him a renewal of inner life. The comet of 1812 is another example: whereas it symbolizes the apocalypse to most people, Pierre believes it shines as a beacon for his inmost hopes. The old oak tree, to cite another example, is at one point a projection of Andrey's despair, at another it affirms his renascence. The pagan quality of the wolf hunt shows Rostov's youth and recklessness; later, when the same spirit carries him at a gallop against the French, Nikolay cannot bring himself to kill another human being. As Tolstoy describes the joys of hunting in the same way he describes the primitive exultation of war, the parallel is a symbolic expression that elemental forces may enrich or submerge the humanity of man.

Physical Description

Tolstoy's ability to evoke the physical presence of characters is what Merezhovsky calls his gift of"clairvoyance of the flesh." Karataev's symbolic roundness, the podgy hands of Napoleon, and the mobile play of Natasha's facial expressions attest to this judgment. Kutuzov's obesity, for instance, becomes symbolic of his passivity in face of destiny, his impassivity at moments of crisis. Ellen Bezuhov's"unvarying dazzling smile" indicates her picture-book beauty as well as her emotional shallowness.

These details of physical description also act as identifying motifs to help us distinguish among the many characters in the novel. Marya's"heavy tread," Dolohov's cold blue eyes, Andrey's bored expression, Count Rostov's characteristic attitude of ineffectuality — his gesture of throwing up his hands — are significant particulars that fix these personalities firmly in our minds.


Tolstoy uses irony to express his opinions on certain incidents he portrays. An obvious example is the way he handles Pierre's initiation into the masons and his light treatment of Pierre's methods to better the lot of his peasants. Tolstoy is decidedly satirical when he describes the German theorists who believe in the science of war. The incidents Tolstoy selects from biographies of Napoleon are satirical evidences to show Bonaparte's vanity and showmanship.

Interior Monologue

Where narrative devices and externalizing inner states of mind are insufficient to show the train of thought of his characters, Tolstoy uses the device of interior monologue. Having his characters talk to themselves, Tolstoy clearly shows us the development of their ideas and their abilities, or lack of abilities, of self-reflection. Andrey's thoughts on the eve of battle and his reflections on Kutuzov, Pierre's notions of right and wrong and his inspiration upon seeing the faces of soldiers at Borodino are a few examples of this device.