Leo Tolstoy

Imagery Analysis

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by Mirna Ezra

            Leo Tolstoy uses imagery in his literary works to communicate to his readers his messages by appealing to their senses. In his short story “After the Dance”, Tolstoy presents imagery from the point of view of an upper-class gentleman telling a story of his youth, illustrating the situations he was in to his audience, a group of friends of similar social status, through the details of his recollections. The short story is a framed narrative, however, and so starts off with one of these friends describing the second narrator and the scene around them, using third person to make the reader feel like a part of the scene itself.

             The narrative opens with the second narrator’s argument that chance can determine whether a man can come to know the difference between good and evil, and continues with a description of this narrator, Ivan Vasilievich, by the first narrator, who is a friend of Vasilievich’s who remains anonymous to the reader throughout the story. The friend describes Vasilievich in a way that allows the reader to begin to understand him, mentioning his “habit” of responding to his own ideas on a subject rather than the ideas presented by the others involved in the discussion, and also describing the way he told his stories, “with great sincerity and feeling,” even though he would often forget why he was telling the story in the first place. Such a description gives the reader not only a figurative image of Vasilievich being sincere, but also appealing to the emotions of the reader through pity for his good intentions.

              The short story continues with Vasilievich’s telling of his own story, so that the reader may experience it, and interrupted only by the interjections of the first narrator telling the questions and comments that the other friends who listened to the story posed to Vasilievich. The story begins with Vasilievich’s detailed description of a girl, Varinka, whom he fell in love with in his youth, creating an image of her in the reader’s head through his words, “tall, slender, graceful, and stately,” all adding to the reader’s mental image of her “exquisite” beauty.  Vasilievich then describes her using kinesthetic imagery, by speaking of the tension in the Varinka’s muscles, with the phrases “she held herself very erect” and “carried her head high”, using that tension to create a contrast between the image of grace previously described and the stiffer aspects of Varinka’s figure spoken of here. Both kinds of imagery, visual and kinesthetic, are intended to help the reader “see” Varinka through the story.

            Vasilievich then states that Varinka had a “queenly air in spite of being thin, even bony one might say.” Here a great contrast is presented between the image of grace and beauty and a thin, fragile image of Varinka, described as “bony”. Then Vasilievich returns to the first image by saying that her thin disposition may have repulsed him had it not been for “her smile, which was always gay and cordial, and for the light in her eyes and for her youthful sweetness.” Through this description the reader is again presented with the image of youthful beauty and kindness, as well as appealed to through the love with which Vasilievich describes this beauty, also a representation of his youthful days. The description of her smile adds to the visual physical image of Varinka that has already been presented, as well as the light in her eyes. Her “youthful sweetness”, however, is an addition to the figurative image of Varinka as a kind youth.

            In the next paragraph Vasilievich describes himself as a young man, depicting himself as a “very gay, lively, careless fellow”, which fits with his disposition to go to balls and dances, one of them being the main event of his story, the one, as he names it, that changed his life. His description gives the reader a figurative image of the young Vasilievich, matching up with Varinka’s description of lively and youthful, and representing those images of youths at parties enjoying themselves that many can relate to. Vasilievich tells his friends that he did not drink anything but champagne with his youthful friends, contrasting their choice with the youth of “now”, who he describes as drinking vodka with a tone of disgust. He says that he “danced well, and was not an ugly fellow”, which gives the reader not only a stronger visual image of Vasilievich in his youth, but also a stronger figurative image of him in the present, as being less than modest and appalled by the behavior of the youth of the present. The imagery here provides a window into Vasilievich’s personality that allows the reader to foreshadow his behavior and reactions in the situations to come.

            Then the story begins. Vasilievich dedicates paragraphs to describing the ballroom on the night of the dance that he and Varinka attended, and he describes everything in sight with a positive and cheerful tone, while incorporating other literary devices to add to the imagery he is using. He uses a simile and a historical allusion, for example, to add to his description of the provincial marshal’s wife, who was “dressed in puce-coloured velvet, and had a diamond diadem on her forehead, and her plump, old white shoulders and bosom were bare like the portraits of Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great.” Vasilievich then uses an allusion to describe Varinka’s father; “He had a good colour, moustaches curled in the style of Nicolas I., and white whiskers that me t the moustaches”, and later, “He was the ultra-military produced by the discipline of Emperor Nicolas I”, presenting an image of the father both physically and figuratively, for it is implied that his mentality is also the of the discipline of Emperor Nicolas I, strict and specific. Vasilievich uses another simile to express his feelings at the ball, and it is very powerful in transforming those images into an image, “As the contents of a bottle flow readily when the first drop has been poured, so my love for Varinka seemed to set free the whole force of loving within me”, presenting his emotions as a picture to the reader, making them all the more powerful to the reader, and more easily experienced by those who have shared similar emotions.

            The color imagery of the “puce” dress and the “white” shoulders and bosom of the provincial marshal’s wife introduce the color imagery that Vasilievich uses throughout his story, focusing on the color white, which represents, in this story, the youth and innocence of Varinka, the object of Vasilievich’s pure and innocent love, but is also present in characters who change in Vasilievich’s eyes throughout the story, like Varinka’s father. More color imagery is used throughout the short story, again in describing Varinka, who was in a “white dress, with a pink sash”, and to describe her “cheap white fan” and “white satin slippers”. Later Vasilievich uses color imagery in describing Varinka’s father, a colonel, who had “silver epaulettes”, a “good colour”, and “white whiskers.” When the procession of soldiers at the end of the story approaches, however, the color black is used more often, to contrast with the innocence of Varinka and show the dark side of her father and of the bleak proceedings of the soldiers. This procession is because of a Tartar who tried to desert the soldiers, and is being beaten for his offense during the early morning following the dance. Vasilievich, who was wondering about the streets because he could not contain his joy from the night before, saw something “very huge and black” moving towards him, and met up with a “blacksmith” on the way to see what it was, and then he realized that the figure turned out to be “soldiers in black uniforms”. Again here Varinka’s father is described as having “a rosy face and white moustache”, which contrast greatly with his actions of violence, for he was the one surpervising the beating, and even beat a soldier for not beating the Tartar with enough force. Finally the Tartar is described, showing “his white teeth” and begging for forgiveness to the other soldiers, and when he turned around Visilievich saw his back and described it as being “so many coloured, wet, red, unnatural, that I could hardly believe it was a human body”. These colors stay in his mind, with the red representing the violence and blood that he witnessed, staining his previous joy.   

            Thus, through different kinds of imagery and various literary devices, such as similes and allusions, as well as with the incorporation of colors into imagery to form color imagery and add to already detailed descriptions even more, Leo Tolstoy is able to present, through the character Ivan Visilievich, a vivid sensory experience for his readers to understand the changing emotions and contrasting themes in the story, and to represent the ideas he is communicating through his story, of love and self-discovery, as well as the idea of chance directing man’s ability to distinct between good and evil.