a site by John Cobley

a coppice gate

Tolstoy's Writing in War & Peace Part 3

by John Cobley

Thursday Apr 1st, 2021


In this third of five studies of Leo Tolstoy's writing style in War and Peace I have chosen the depiction Princess Marya's mental turmoil over her dying father. As with Natasha's remorseful thoughts in the first study, Marya here also frets over her situation and her future. This excerpt is in Volume Three, Part Two, Chapter Eight.





Marya and Her Father's Death

War and Peace III.2.viii


Tolstoy conveys the see-saw battle in her mind between wanting her father to live and wanting him to die (“Yes, I wanted it to be over.”) He also introduces a secondary dilemma arising out of her wanting him gone: Another see-saw between the fear of life without him and the desire for a life free of his cruel influence.


To convey Marya’s thoughts, Tolstoy provides direct quotations of her thoughts five times (yellow highlights). This differs from the passage on Natasha’s thoughts (See Tolstoy’s Writing in War and Peace #1), where he never quotes her thoughts. But the bulk of this excerpt uses the omniscient approach; for example “She felt that she was now living in another world.”


Tolstoy starts by introducing Marya’s thoughts about her wanting her father to die quickly (“Wouldn’t it be better if it was all over and done with?”). The next paragraph shows Marya wrestling with these thoughts; here religion comes in strongly (pink highlights). In this paragraph she is uncharacteristically thinking of herself; after two references to her father in the early part (blue highlights), they disappear until the end of the long paragraph. But then, as soon as she hears her father’s groans there is a large number of third-person pronouns referring to him (blue highlights). This return to thinking of her father brings on her love for him and her fear of losing him. 


After a night’s sleep, her head clears and she realizes after all that she wants him to die, wants it to be all over. Following her final encounter with her father, she reverts yet again back to feeling profound love for her father, and she runs into the garden sobbing. Here Tolstoy uses a lot of her thoughts (yellow highlights). These quoted thoughts are effective in capturing her divided feelings. Note that at this stage, where she is thinking of herself and her future, there are only two references to her father. Pronouns (blue highlights) return when she is called to his death bed. 


Since Tolstoy’s focus in this passage is on Marya’s’s thoughts and feelings, there is little external description. Sounds (groans, creaks and footsteps) are effective. And there is symbolic power in the lime-tree avenue planted by her brother. There is also effective description in the scene where she stops at the door of her now-dead father’s room—dark to light.


Tolstoy’s predilection for repetition is evident in his frequent of the third-person-singular pronoun (blue) and in the triple nothing’s (orange).


(Note: There are three gaps in this excerpt. I have omitted pure narrative where Tolstoy doesn’t describe Marya’s thoughts and feelings.) 



The Text

There was no hope of recovery. Transporting him was out of the question. What if he were to die on the road? “Wouldn’t it be better if it was all over and done with?” Princess Marya sometimes thought. She cared for him day and night, almost without sleep, and terrible to say, she often watched him not with the hope of finding signs of improvement but often wishing to find signs of an approaching end. 


The princess was dismayed to find this feeling within herself, yet there it was. And what was more appalling to Princess Marya was that ever since her father’s illness (perhaps even before that when she, anticipating something, stayed up with him), there had awoken in her some personal hopes and desires that she had long forgotten. Thoughts that had not entered her mind for years—of a free life without the constant fear of her father, of the possibility even of love and family happiness—continually occupied her like temptations of the devil. Try as she might to push them away, questions continually entered her head about how she would arrange her life when it was all over. These were temptations sent by the devil, and Princess Marya knew it. She knew that the only weapon against them was prayer, and she tried to pray. She knelt, contemplated icons, and recited prayers, but she could not actually pray. She felt that she was now living in another world—an everyday world of hardship and freedom, the complete opposite of the moral world in which she was previously imprisoned and in which her only consolation was prayer. She could not pray, could not weep and everyday concerns took hold of her.


·      (With the invading French army closing in, she decides to leave Bogucharovo. These are her thoughts in the night before her planned move. She had moved to a room next to her dying father.)


Several times she woke to hear his groans and muttering, the creak of his bed, and the footsteps of Tikhon and the doctor as they turned him over. A few times she listened at the door, and it seemed to her that he was now muttering louder and growing more restless. She was unable to sleep and a few times went to the door to listen, all the time wanting to go in but unable to do so. Although he no longer spoke, Princess Marya had seen how he hated any sign of fear for him. She noticed how angrily he turned away from the gaze she often involuntarily directed at him. And she knew that an intrusion in the night, at an unusual time, would annoy him.


And yet never had she felt so sorry for him, never felt so frightened of losing him. She recalled all her life with him and found in his every word and act an expression of love for her. Sometimes during these memories, the temptations of the devil would invade her imagination, thoughts about what would happen after his death and how her new liberated life would be organized. But she drove away these thoughts with disgust. Toward morning he became quiet, and she fell asleep. 


She rose late. The mental clarity that comes on waking up showed her clearly that it was her father’s illness that concerned her the most. She woke up, listened to what was happening behind the door, and hearing him groan, said to herself with a sigh that nothing had changed.


“But what did I expect? What did I want? I want him to die!” she cried out in self-loathing.


* (In the morning Princess Marya has her last talk with her father. He apologizes and thanks here. She manages to tell him that his son Andrei is alive before he has his second and final stroke.)


Princess Marya stayed on the terrace. The day became warm and sunny. She could understand nothing, think of nothing and feel nothing except the passionate love of her father, a love which, as it seemed to her, she had not known until that moment. Sobbing she hurried into the garden and ran down to the pond along the paths between the lime trees that Prince Andrei had recently planted.


“Yes, I…I…I…I wished for his death. Yes I wanted it to be over quickly…I wanted to be at peace…But what will become of me? What use will peace be when he is no longer alive?” Princess Marya murmured aloud, pacing quickly through the garden with her arms pressed to her breast, which heaved with convulsive sobs.


*Marya is called indoors to her father’s deathbed.


When she opened the door, the bright daylight in the previously darkened room startled her. There were women in the room and her nurse. They all moved away from the bed to make way for her. He was still lying there on the bed, but the stern look on his calm face stopped Princess Mary on the threshold.


“No, he’s not dead. He can’t be!” Princess Marya said to herself. She approached him, and overcoming the fear that had gripped her, pressed her lips to his cheek. But she immediately recoiled from him. All the power of tenderness toward him that she had previously felt instantly disappeared and was replaced by the terrible fear of what lay ahead for her. “No, he’s gone. He’s gone, and in his place there’s something alien and hostile, some kind of dreadful, terrible and repulsive mystery…” And burying her face in her hands, Princess Marya fell into the arms of the doctor, who held her up.

 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.





Photo of Angela Down, who played Marya in the 1972 BBC production of War and Peace



Leave a Comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.