Comic Effect as a Supportive Element of Tolstoj’s View on History in War and Peace

Elena Kirilyuk Wilcox, Brown University

In accordance with Tolstoj’s vision of historical development, the role of the individual and “great man” in the historical process is meaningless. Napoleon, Alexander, Alexander’s generals, Speranskij and all others who consider themselves important figures in the making of events are portrayed by Tolstoj as nothing but puppets in the hands of history. The characterization of historic “great heroes” and fictional heroes differs in War and Peace. Fictional heroes in their search of true values spiritually grow and change; historic figures remain static. In my opinion, to show the insignificance of historical heroes in the process of creating history, Tolstoj reduces their image to the level of caricature.

My paper is focused on the effect Tolstoj creates in depicting historical heroes. In my analysis of the historical as opposed to the fictional characters, I refer to Henry Bergson’s essay “Laughter” (1956). Bergson’s essay drew my attention to caricature and to the notion of rigidity and the mechanical as the sources of the comic. I suggest that Tolstoj’s technique of comic representation is very similar to the one outlined by Bergson. In particular, Tolstoj creates comic effect by using several strategies, such as: “the absence of feelings”; “rigidity of face, body, mind and character”; “the comic effect of the machine”; drawing attention to bodily defects; “concentrating our attention on gesture … in gesture, an isolated part of the person is expressed, unknown to, or at least apart from, the whole of the personality”; and so on. I conclude that Tolstoj created historical characters as incomplete individuals by drawing them as caricatures in order to display the reduced role of the individual in the historical process.