Leo Tolstoy

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By Jia Pan

As a literary giant who has served as a model for other writers to follow, Leo Tolstoy utilizes various literary strategies, including excessive repetition, unconventional syntax, to assist him to create impeccable and flawless works. In one of his most renowned masterpiece, War and Peace, one of the main themes in the book is the inquisition of the meaning of life. Tolstoy employs epiphany to explore the essence of existentialism.

Repetition, according to the literary scholar R.F. Christian, is the most deliberate and distinctive literary feature of Tolstoy’s work. He has highlighter several types of repetition in War and Peace (R.F). For example, Tolstoy constantly repeating the same adjectives or physical appearance to emphasize a character’s image and thus, suggest their moral qualities. Prince Marya is always characterized to have the “radiant eyes”. And Napoleon is always associated with the “small white hands.” The intention of the excessive repetition is to accentuate the effect of rhythms and rhetorical effect. In Prince Andrei’s death scene, Tolstoy repeats the word “wept” seven times in just a few paragraphs.


     “They all went up to [the body in the coffin] for a last farewell and they all wept. Nikolushka wept from a suffering bewilderment that rent his heart. The countess and Sonya wept from pity for poor Natasha and because he was no more. The old count wept because he felt that soon he, too, would have to take that dreadful step. Natasha and Princess Marya also wept now, but they did not weep from their own personal grief; they wept from a reverent emotion that came over their souls before the awareness of the simple and solemn mystery of death that had been accomplished before them.”


Tolstoy’s syntax is one of eccentric and complex in War and Peace. He has unconventional one as he ignores the rules of grammar and word order. However, this seemingly complex syntax is created for an effect to recreate the looseness of the spoken word. In order to portray the different characteristics and charismas of people from disparate social classes, ranging from peasants to Napoleon, he employs a wide variety of linguistic idioms, from the archaic civil service language of the chancelleries and the Latin-German pattern of eighteenth century literary Russian to the Gallicized and sentimental Russian of the early-nineteenth century salon and the plain speech of the soldiers, peasants, and workmen (Nabokov). Because Tolstoy has been having a close relationship with the peasants, he is familiar with their life styles and daily language, the slangs and jargons are employed to portray the vivid characteristic of people from different social classes.

In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy allows the main characters in the novel to experience epiphany when they are attempting to search for the meaning of life. Epiphany is a term introduced by James Joyce, which describes a moment of revelation or insight in which a character recognizes some truth. An epiphany usually occurs when the character has endured or suffered various obstacles.

There is one typical character in War and Peace that can bear witness to the sudden revelation. Andrew, the son of the retired military commander Prince Bolkonski, has a lofty ambition and is coldly analytical and resistant to flights of emotion. Andrew serves as a sharp contrast with Pierre, another main character in the book. He is free from Pierre’s disabling search for the meaning of life, but he is also unable to forge deep and lasting connections with others, and unwilling to forgive their misdeeds. His revelation of the absurdity and falsity of the earthy life happens when he is almost dead. Thus, this spiritual vision happens after the devastating event.

Existentialism is another literary strategy Tolstoy employs in his work War and Peace. Pierre, the lucky illegitimate child who has inherited a lot of fortune, is a witness in War and Peace of the prevalence of existentialism in Tolstoy’s work. Existentialism is a term applied to a kind of philosophical, religious and artistic thought that emphasizes existence rather than abstract ideas and asserts that human reason is inadequate to explain the meaning of life. Although Pierre is materialistically rich, he is spiritually inadequate.

In the novel, Pierre spends countless time to ponder about the meaning of life, of why his life is so superficial and philistine. His unsuccessful marriage with the woman who he was not in love with is another important reason of his pondering. Although Tolstoy attempts to allow Pierre to involve with the mystical practice of Freemasonry to give the meaning to his life, this approach is fruitless, as Pierre is discontent with the passiveness of the Masons. The essence of existentialism is explored here, as existentialists believe that the universe is indifferent to humans, that things in general exist, but they have no meaning of human except that meaning which humans create by acting on them.



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