Part of that Enormous Whole: Battle Scenes in War and Peace

A page from Tolstoy’s ninth draft of War and Peace. 1864.

The cinematic nature of Tolstoy’s scenes, especially those involving battle, has been widely noted.  His ability to give us an overall perspective of the war as a whole as well as up close and personal views of battle through the eyes of specific characters is astonishing.  A short paragraph inserted during the scenes of the battle of Austerlitz captures both of these perspectives: “Every general and every soldier was conscious of his own insignificance, aware of being but a drop in that ocean of men, and yet at the same time was conscious of his strength as a part of that enormous whole.”  I thought I would share a few examples of Tolstoy’s writing that have captivated me both for their literary brilliance as well as their display of raw emotion; Tolstoy consistently pans out wide and zooms in close to give us both a philosophical and a personal view of warfare.

In a passage describing the Russian army under Bagration’s command as it is about to fight the French in Austria Tolstoy writes:

A soldier on the march is hemmed in and borne along by his regiment as much as a sailor is by his ship.  However far he has walked, whatever strange, unknown, and dangerous places he reaches, just as a sailor is always surrounded by the same decks, masts, and rigging of his ship, so the soldier always has around him the same comrades, the same ranks, the same sergeant-major Ivan Mitrich, the came company dog Zhuchka, and the same commanders.  The sailor rarely cares to know the latitude  in which his ship is sailing, but of the day of battle—heaven knows how and whence—a stern note of which all are conscious sounds in the moral atmosphere of an army,, announcing the approach of something decisive and solemn, and awakening in men an unusual curiosity.  On the day of battle the soldiers excitedly try to get beyond the interests of their regiment, they listen intently, look about, and eagerly ask concerning what is going on around them.

Later on in the same battle, we get a view of the horror of warfare from the eyes of Prince Andrei who has suffered a terrible head wound:

On the Pratzen heights, where he had fallen with the flagstaff in his hand, lay Prince Andrei Bolkonsky bleeding profusely and unconsciously uttering a gentle, piteous and childlike moan.

Towards evening he ceased moaning and became quite still.  He did not know how long his unconsciousness lasted.  Suddenly he again felt that he was alive and suffering from a burning, lacerating pain in his head.

‘Where is it, that lofty sky that I did not know till now, but saw today?’ was his first thought.  ‘And I did not know this suffering either,’ he thought.  ‘Yes, I did not know anything, anything at all till now.  But where am I?’

And later in the novel when Count Rostov is fighting French dragoons, Tolstoy gives us a vision of the enemy’s humanity through the eyes of the Count:

Rostov reined in his horse, and his eyes sought his foe to see whom he had vanquished.  The French dragoon office was hopping with one foot on the ground, the other being caught in the stirrup.  His eyes, screwed up with fear as if he every moment expected another blow, gazed up at Rostov with shrinking terror.  His pale and mud-stained face—fair and young, with a dimple in the chin and light blue eyes—was not an enemy’s face at all suited to a battlefield, but a most ordinary, homelike face.

I have read 900 pages of the Maudes’ translation and am beginning to panic that there are only 400 pages left in the novel for me to read.  I am utterly engrossed in this epic and I don’t know what I shall read after this!


Filed under Classics, Russian Literature

13 responses to “Part of that Enormous Whole: Battle Scenes in War and Peace

  1. Ali

    You write so movingly about the book, as well as your experience reading it! I almost picked it up this morning, but Miklos Banffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy won out instead! It’s a long one, too, at almost 1500 pages. I will probably read the first volume of Banffy’s work and then pick up War and Peace.

    I’m so impressed with the rate at which you are reading this. I also saw on Twitter that you would like to read Broch’s Death of Virgil. (I don’t have an account, but I look at the accounts of people with bookish interests; I think I found your blog from a retweet of John Wilson, the former editor of Books and Culture, so I guess Twitter is good for something!) Broch’s work is another book on my TBR pile as I have owned it for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! I actually thought that it would take me months to get through it. But I am so engrossed that I read it every chance I get. Yesterday I read 65 pages. I just can’t help myself! I also downloaded it onto my phone so that I can read it whenever I have a free moment. I am at a loss for what to read next. I was thinking maybe some of Tolstoy’s small works. I’ll have to see what I am in the mood for.

      Twitter can be very useful for book recommendations!


  2. I have wondered, regarding the cinematic techniques you describe, how many “thinking parts” there are in W&O. A huge number. The Emperor’s horse has a thinking part! Incredible.

    Following Tolstoy with more Tolstoy is a good idea. Long ago I took a Tolstoy class with a professor who believed – correctly! – that we had to have read the entire book before discussing it, so we read the Great Short Works book simultaneously with War and Peace, discussing the former, and then read Anna Karenina while working on W&P in class. Heavy, but terrific.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Qualis Apes: Vergil, Tolstoy and Bees |

  4. Vincent

    Hello. Thanks for this article. I really like the way you write. I am an constant reader of this site and also a bookaholic. In this moment i read but i like every genre. I recommend everyone to read it. From drama to thriller i adore to read all i can. Books are a super way to spend your time.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The Sum of These Infinitesimals: Some Concluding Thoughts about War and Peace |

  6. Venditozzi

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  7. Catherine F.

    A long shot but…I am reworking the war chapter in a book about Boudica’s rebellion and a writer friend suggested re-reading a war scene in Tolstoy. There is a scene that seared itself into my mind when I read years ago. The overall image was one of a churning chaos that belied any idea of actual control over the battle, but I’ve never been able to find it in the book. Do you know the (approximate page number) of the first scene you reference?

    Liked by 1 person

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