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Tolstoy's Writing in War & Peace: Part 2

by John Cobley

Monday Mar 22nd, 2021

In this second of five studies of Leo Tolstoy’s writing style in War and Peace I have chosen Tolstoy’s depiction of Natasha’s remorseful thoughts after her failed elopement. In this excerpt Natasha considers both her situation and her future. It is found in Volume Three, Part One, Chapter Seventeen.



Natasha's Remorse

War and Peace III.1.xvii


Tolstoy  uses only two large paragraphs of  228 and 395 words. The first paragraph sees her considering her current position; the second looks to the future. Paragraph 1 is fundamentally negative: see the blue highlights for the negative words. There are of course many positive words like “happy,” “laughter” and “freedom,” (green highlight) but they are all used to contrast and emphasize her current disastrous condition. Throughout this paragraph there is a thus see-saw battle between the negatives and the positives; the negative aspect becomes dominant primarily by the frequent use of no/never/no. The paragraph ends with the realization that although the previous happy life  “would never return,” she still “had to live.’


Paragraph 2 follows on with this realization and finds Natasha considering her future. As

the blue highlighting shows, the first part of this paragraph is predominantly negative (blue), but it soon switches to positive with words like ”tender,” “pleasure” and “comfort.” (green). This happens first when she considers her young brother Petya, and second and most significantly when she considers Pierre, who is destined to be her husband much later.


Thus in 423 words Tolstoy tracks Natasha’s thoughts from despair to some glimpses of hope. But he does this in a different way from his depiction of Nikolai’s thoughts in Part 1 of these studies, where he continually enters Nikolai’s thoughts and states them in quotation marks. Of course the two excerpts are quite different: Nikolai’s involves an event (battle) whereas Natasha’s has no context at all. It’s possible that Tolstoy didn’t feel comfortable entering a female mind, though later in the novel he does enter Princess Marya’s mind on the occasion of her father’s death. Here Tolstoy uses the omniscient narrator’s voice to explain Natasha’s thoughts: “It was clear to her,” “She never gave a thought” and “She appeared to have.” (pink highlights)


Finally, this excerpt again shows Tolstoy’s predilection for repetition. Early on he uses laughed/laughter/laugh/laughter and sing/sing/singing in quick succession. And in the last line of Paragraph 1 and the first five lines of paragraph 2 he uses not/never/nothing eight times.


The Text 

Natasha was calmer but not happier. She not only avoided all external forms of amusement--balls, outings, concerts, the theatre--but she never once laughed without a note of tears behind her laughter. She was unable to sing. As soon as she began to laugh or tried to sing alone, tears choked her: tears of regret at the memory of those irretrievable days of innocence; tears of vexation that she should have recklessly ruined her young life, which might have been so happy. Laughter and singing in particular seemed to her a blasphemy against her grief. She never gave a thought to flirtation; she had no need to restrain herself. She said and felt that at this time all men meant no more to her than the fool Nastasia Ivanovna. An inner custodian firmly prohibited her any joy. And indeed she appeared to have lost all the interests of the carefree girlish life that had been full of hope. Most often and most painfully she remembered those autumn months—the hunting, her uncle, and Christmas spent with Nikolai in Otradnoe. She would have given anything to bring back a single day of those times! But now they were gone forever. Her misgivings at the time had not been wrong. That state of freedom with her openness to every joy would never return. Yet she had to live.


It comforted her to think she was not better—as she had previously thought—but worse, much worse, than anyone else in the world. But this was not enough. She knew that and kept on worrying: “What’s next?” But there was nothing. There was no joy in life, and life was passing by. Natasha’s sole aim was not to be a burden or hindrance to anyone, and she wanted nothing for herself. She avoided all domestic interaction, and felt at ease only with her brother Petya. She liked being with him more than with anyone else, and when alone with him she sometimes laughed. She almost never left the house, and the only visitor who pleased her was Pierre. No one could have been more tender, more cautious and at the same time more serious with her than Count Bezukhov. Unconsciously sensing this tender treatment, Natasha found great pleasure in his company. She was not even grateful for his tenderness; to her Pierre’s goodness seemed to require no effort. It was so natural for Pierre to be good to everyone that in her mind his kindness had no merit. Sometimes Natasha noticed Pierre’s embarrassment and awkwardness, especially when he wanted to do something kind for her or when he was afraid that something in their conversation would lead Natasha to unhappy memories. She noticed this and put it down to his innate kindness and shyness, which as she understood it, he must have shown to everyone else as well. After those inadvertent words that if he were free he would go down on his knees and ask for her hand, spoken when she was overwrought, Pierre had never said anything again about his feelings toward Natasha; It was clear to her that these words, such a comfort to her at the time, had been spoken in the way all kinds of meaningless words are spoken to comfort a crying child. It was not because Pierre was a married man, but because Natasha felt to an extreme degree the moral barriers between them—which was not the case with Kuragin. It never occurred to her that her attitude to Pierre might lead to not only love on her side, or still less on his side, but even to that type of tender, self-conscious, poetic friendship between man and woman which she had witnessed in several couples.


Translation by John Cobley with the help of published translations by Anthony Briggs, Rosemary Edmonds, Louise and Aylmer Maude, and Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.


Colour Highlighting



Photo: Ludmila Savelyeva as Natasha in the 1966-7 Mosfilm production of War and Peace


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