Liminal Laughter in Tolstoj’s War and Peace: On the Verge of Consciousness

The most capacious consciousnesses in Tolstoj’s War and Peace resound with bursts of childlike and hysterical laughter. Such laughter unmasks pretension and incorporates paradox. On the audible plane of articulation, the insignificance of utterance is juxtaposed only to the meaningfulness of laughter. It gives voice to truths that otherwise in Tolstoj’s fictions are only mutely acknowledged by the refracted semantics of the body—by gaze, gesture, smiles (a silent permutation of laughter)—and interior dialogized monologues, sub-speech genres investigated by critics such as Vinogradov (O jazyke Tolstogo, 1939) and Ginzburg (On Psychological Prose, 1971). Yet laughter cannot be physiologically or fictionally sustained. In Tolstoj’s narrative, it is expressed on the verge of consciousness. It is muted with the maturation of characters and is absent from the framing narrative voice.

This paper investigates the carnivalesque physiology and subversive semantics of laughter in War and Peace. Its typology of laughter in the novel begins with Pierre’s childlike, forgiveness-asking smile in the novel’s opening scene and examines, among other full and muted expressions of laughter, his hysteria in captivity, his gently ironic smile after the war, Kutuzov’s smile in his speech to the troops, laughter around the campfire, and Nataša’s fully-voiced childish but then muted adult laughter. Further, it considers the epistemological limits of laughter in the novel, of laughter which is internally generated and externally indecipherable, which is not embodied in a buffoon and which is absent (except for cynical, parodic intonations shared by such consciousnesses as Andrej’s) in the narrative voice. Finally, it suggests a reading of War and Peace as dark/infernal comedy, in which only unsustainable laughter can fully incorporate the unbearable consciousness of an existence that is both grotesque and sublime.