Monday, 13 October 2014

Analysis of battle scenes in War and Peace


War and Peace (1869) is an epic historical-fiction novel by Leo Tolstoy about five Russian aristocratic families caught up in the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), in particular the French invasion of Russia (1812).

This essay will analyse two battles in the novel to see how Tolstoy uses certain literary techniques to bring them to life. First, I will analyse the Battle of Schongrabern (1805) to explain what these literary devices are; then I will use the Battle of Austerlitz (1805) to show how they all come together for an exhilarating battle experience – as if the reader were actually there as a participant in the fighting.

Battle of Schongrabern (1805)

Stream of consciousness

This is Tolstoy’s forte. The characters pour out their thoughts and feelings, so the reader is actually in their mind, and this often leads to great insight. For example, Tolstoy picks out a common, anonymous soldier, and we enter his mind: 

"One step beyond that boundary line is uncertainty, suffering, and death. And what is there? Who is there?—there beyond that field, that tree, that roof lit up by the sun? No one knows, but one wants to know. You fear and yet long to cross that line, and know that sooner or later it must be crossed and you will have to find out what is there.’ (This, of course, is the same technique used to great effect in Terrence Malick films, especially The Thin Red Line, 1998)

Later, as Nicholas, a regular soldier, gazes upon the battlefield, we can read his thoughts: ‘How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! How bright and glorious was the setting sun!’


This is the most common literary device of Tolstoy’s battle scenes, and he never strays from it. He uses colour and light, including smoke, mist, rain, sun, even darkness, to paint a picture of the battlefield so it literally appears as a painting in the reader’s mind.

The battle begins on ‘a warm, rainy, autumnal day’ with a ‘curtain of slanting rain’ and ‘spread out in the sunlight far-off [soldiers and artillery were] glittering as though freshly varnished.’ Also ‘the little town [in the distance] could be seen with its white, red-roofed houses and … jostling masses of Russian troops.’

Also ‘the brilliance of the bright sunshine merged in a single joyous and spirited impression’ and ‘the sun was descending brightly upon the Danube and the dark hills around it.’

Smoke from the battle appears regularly as an image: ‘On the French side, amid the groups with cannon, a cloud of smoke appeared, then a second and a third almost simultaneously’; then, later: as ‘the infantry in their blue uniforms advanced …  Smoke appeared again but at irregular intervals’ and ‘a dense cloud of smoke arose’ from the battlefield.

Sight and Sound

Tolstoy relies heavily on these two senses, at the almost complete detriment of other senses (I could  find only one instance of smell in the entire battle).

The reader is always looking at the battlefield through the eyes of the soldiers as if he or she were an actual witness to the unfolding horror. For example: ‘Everyone got up and began watching the movements of our troops below, as plainly visible as if but a stone's throw away.’ Later, ‘Silence fell on the whole squadron. All were looking at the enemy in front and at the squadron commander, awaiting the word of command.’ To continue: ‘The soldiers without turning their heads glanced at one another, curious to see their comrades' impression.’ Finally: ‘All the officers and men … kept constantly looking at the patches appearing on the skyline, which they knew to be the enemy's troops.’

Then there is Sound, a powerful tool that really brings the battle alive: ‘grapeshot cracked and rattled’ and  ‘the artillery gun rang out with a deafening metallic roar, and a whistling grenade flew above the heads of our troops.’ Then:  ‘the clang of hoofs, as of several horses galloping, resounded on the planks of the bridge’ and ‘the bugle calls and the shouts of the enemy could be heard from the hill.’

Sight and sound are usually combined to increase the effect of war upon the reader: ‘the sun [that the officers and men were watching] came fully out from behind the clouds, and the clear sound of the solitary shot and the brilliance of the bright sunshine merged in a single joyous and spirited impression.’ Also ‘Nickolas saw nothing but the hussars running all around him … their sabers clattering.’ (Note also here the imagery of the sun and light, and, to an equal extent, the stream of consciousness)

Facial Expression

Facial expression is used to convey the anticipation of battle. For example: ‘Every face, from Denisov's to that of the bugler, showed one common expression of conflict, irritation, and excitement, around chin and mouth.’ To continue: ‘Cadet Mironov … was glancing at everyone with a clear, bright expression, as if asking them to notice how calmly he sat under fire.’

Then, as the horrors of war unfold, facial expression is used to convey the fear of the soldiers: ‘on all the bright faces of the squadron the serious expression appeared that they had worn when under fire.’ Also, ‘the colonel looked as he always did when at the front, solemn and stern’ and ‘the soldiers crowded against one another with terrified faces.’


Tolstoy often compares parts of the battlefield to other objects in life, so the reader can relate to the battle through a wider context. For instance: ‘like a fleck of white foam on the waves of the Enns, an officer squeezed his way along the men’ and ‘like a log floating down the river, an officers' or company's baggage wagon, piled high, leather covered, and hemmed in on all sides, moved across the bridge.’


The battle scene is littered with detail, from fieldglasses, knapsacks, and pies to mud on the uniforms. This makes the scene authentic. It is as if the reader were a journalist on the spot, taking note of all the detail. Look at all the detail in this scene: ‘A Cossack who accompanied Nesvitski had handed him a knapsack and a flask, and Nesvitski was treating some officers to pies and real doppelkummel.’ Later, Prince Nesvitski saw ‘waves of soldiers, shoulder straps, covered shakos, knapsacks, bayonets, long muskets, and … feet that moved through the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge.’


Finally, what would a battle scene be without action, and there is lots of it here. For example: ‘The French had time to fire three rounds of grapeshot before the hussars got back to their horses … the last round fell in the midst of a group of hussars and knocked three of them over.’ (Notice the detail: ‘three rounds’, ‘the last round’, and ‘three of them’)

Battle of Austerlitz (1805)

Now we will turn to the Battle of Austerlitz to see how all the literary tools of the writer come together to create a unique battle experience for the reader:

First there is imagery: ‘At five in the morning it was still quite dark’ and there is ‘the smoke of the campfires.’ Then the soldiers are stirred into action, accompanied by detail: ‘the regiment began to move: the soldiers ran from the fires, thrust their pipes into their boots, their bags into the carts, got their muskets ready, and formed rank.’ This is quickly followed by sound: ‘the monotonous tramp of thousands of feet.’
As the armies line up into formation, Tolstroy turns to simile: ‘just as a sailor is always surrounded by the same decks, masts, and rigging of his ship, so the soldier always has around him the same comrades, the same ranks, the same sergeant major.’ Simile also evokes imagery: ‘Bushes looked like gigantic trees and level ground like cliffs and slopes.’ This conveys the heightening senses of the soldiers as battle is approaching.

Sound is used to introduce the actual fighting: ‘In front in the fog a shot was heard and then another, at first irregularly at varying intervals—trata... tat—and then more and more regularly and rapidly, and the action at the Goldbach Stream began.’

As the fighting continues, Tolstoy maintains his use of imagery: ‘Below, where the fight was beginning, there was still thick fog; on the higher ground it was clearing, but nothing could be seen of what was going on in front.’

Even when Napolean enters the scene, imagery is maintained: ‘Above him was a clear blue sky, and the sun's vast orb quivered like a huge hollow, crimson float on the surface of that milky sea of mist.’
Next, we have sight: ‘Napoleon with the naked eye could distinguish a mounted man from one on foot’;  ‘He gazed silently at the hills.’ And ‘his gleaming eyes were fixed intently on one spot.’
Then there is sound: ‘he listened to the sounds of firing in the valley’; and the ‘sound ‘of wheels and footsteps.’

Facial expression is used: ‘Not a single muscle of his face—which in those days was still thin—moved.’ And: ‘his cold face wore that special look of confident, self-complacent happiness.’

Then, more imagery: ‘bayonets glittering.’ Sight is combined with imagery: ‘He sat motionless, looking at the heights visible above the mist’ and ‘he looked now at the Pratzen Heights, now at the sun floating up out of the mist’ and the ‘fields and mist were aglow with dazzling light.’

As we turn to the Russian side, ‘the musketry fire of unseen forces could be heard (sound),’ then Tolstoy employs stream of consciousness to convey the bravado of Prince Andrew in the battle: ‘Standard in hand, I shall go forward and break whatever is in front of me.’

Then there is sight: ‘He could not look calmly at the standards of the passing battalions … he kept thinking, That may be the very standard with which I shall lead the army (stream of consciousness).’
Tolstoy conveys imagery and sound again: ‘the valleys lay like a milk-white sea.’ Then ‘came the sounds of firing’ and ‘guards were entering the misty region with a sound of hoofs and wheels and now and then a gleam of bayonets’

As the battle continues, there is more sound: ‘the firing became more distinct’; facial expression: ‘the expression on all [the generals’] faces suddenly changed to one of horror’ as the Russians see the French suddenly appear; and sight as Prince Andrew watches the battle with his ‘naked eye’ with ‘a cloud of smoke spread all round’ (imagery) and ‘firing heard quite close at hand.’

Then there is action as ‘confused and ever-increasing crowds [of Russians] were running back’ and ‘the soldiers started firing without orders’.  Then more facial expression: ‘General Bolkonski ‘looked around bewildered’; and detail: ‘blood was flowing from [General Kutuzov’s] cheek.’

There is simile as ‘bullets flew hissing across the regiment and across Kutuzov's suite like a flock of little birds.’

Action continues as Prince Andrew, with the standard ‘ran forward with full confidence that the whole battalion would follow him.’

Then there is facial expression: the ‘distraught yet angry expression on the faces of the soldiers.’
Finally there is stream of consciousness as Prince Andrew is hit by a bullet: "What's this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way,"

Without a doubt, imagery returns: ‘Above him there was now nothing but the sky—the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with gray clouds gliding slowly across it.’ And more stream of consciousness:  ‘How quiet, peaceful, and solemn; not at all as I ran, thought Prince Andrew … How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!...’


In conclusion, this essay has looked at the use of literary features in Tolstoy’s War and Peace to see how the effect of battle has been achieved. What stands out is that imagery is most popular, and the writer surprising only uses two senses: sight and sound. He uses simile a lot, but hardly any metaphor (except for that ‘milky sea of mist’ and one or two others). Also, stream of consciousness gives a spiritual element to the battles. I would say the literary devices Tolstoy uses in the battle scenes are relatively few – but the ones he chooses (like imagery, sound, sight, facial expression, and stream of consciousness) he uses extremely well – they carry the whole battle. He’s like a good tight-head prop in a rugby game, capable with the ball in hand if needed, but would rather stick to a few core duties and do them consistently well; unlike other literary stars like Conrad and Hemingway who are the flashy players out wide in the backline, usually brilliant, but who sometimes fumble the ball. At any rate, with the limited techniques that Tolstoy does employ, the two battles come alive, leaving a marked, almost terrifying, impression of warfare upon the reader.

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