A Reexamination of Details in Tolstoj's War and Peace

Kelly Herold, University of California, Los Angeles

Viktor Shklovskij, in Material i stil' v romane L. Tolstogo 'Voina i mir', states that details in War and Peace are not related to the plot, but rather to characterization of an epoch or a person. Shklovskij asserts that Tolstoj's use of details in the novel allowed him to, "create a literary system which differed greatly from the usual system, from the customary transmission of reality and which could be interpreted as historical because of this very thing. But for this system he no longer needed historical facts. The discovery of this new method consisted in the device of 'making strange,' that is taking a thing out of normal perception." Shklovskij also claims that Tolstoj characterized his secondary heroes with details (for example, Lise's upper lip and teeth, Speranskij's white hands), but not his main heroes (including Pierre, Natasha and Andrej).

There is, however, another distinguishing characteristic of Tolstoj's use of details in War and Peace. The details Tolstoj selects for his fictional characters are quite different from those chosen for the real, historical figures in the novel. Details characterizing fictional characters are almost always physiological, with no implied cultural meaning. Those characterizing historical figures, even if physiological, always carry cultural resonance. If we take for example, Lise's lip and Speranskij's hands (a rare physical detail applied to a historical character) as examples, this distinction is immediately clear. There is no cultural importance attached to Lise's lips and teeth, which give her an "animal, squirrel-like expression," whereas "plump, white hands" have always been used to describe an idle man or a bureaucrat. This contrast is even more apparent when cultural artifacts are attached to a historical figure (Kutuzov's reading material, Napoleon's portrait of his son, Rostopchin's uniform).

Thus, Tolstoj in his use of details creates people from his fictional characters and cultural icons, emblematic of an age or political position, from the historical ones. And, in keeping with his claims of historical accuracy, he chooses historically verifiable details to fill out his historical characters. By carefully selecting a few details of cultural import, Tolstoj encapsulates the history and cultural milieu of the years 1805-1812 with a minimum of real, historical characters and without taking them out of "normal perception." The contrast Tolstoj creates by grounding his fictional characters with physical characteristics and historical characters with culturally relevant details suggests that we need to nuance Shklovskij's theory of "making strange" in relation to Tolstoj's use details in War and Peace.