Characters Set in Motion: Entrances in War and Peace
Elsa Trimble '06
With a rustle of tulle, a stumble, or a languid gaze, the characters of a realist novel are ushered into the judicious scrutiny of the audience by a careful author. This is a moment of prodigious artistic risk, when the captured reader is momentarily released from the credible linearity of action that has hitherto bound him. A fictional person is balanced in the doorway between non-existence and being. Can the author imbue his character with a projected ray of life, a compelling human future with which the reader can identify? Or will the suddenly suspicious reader seek telltale allegory and symbolism, grasping at such literary devices to deny the text as a relevant, recognizable world? At the crucial moment of entrance the author must manipulate the attention turned on the arriving character so that the reader glimpses a human existence that has been set into motion. The reader experiences the arrival of the character in an extended moment of verbal description so loaded with significance that it is applicable to every subsequent scene involving that figure. Every change in the character, every shift in trajectory as he is elbowed by circumstance must be an extension of what was both overt and encoded in his first appearance. With infinite care, Tolstoy negotiates the entrances of his heroes, breathing into them undeniable life, and adorning them with indirect, but decided implication. Natasha's breathless dash into her first scene, Pierre's clumsy, imbalanced entry into his, and Andrew's ominous absences that precede his appearances are all examples of how a character's first appearance is always relevant, no matter how much he changes over the course of the novel.
Andrew and Pierre first appear in Petersburg. From the sparkling insincerity of this city, where Anna Pavlovna's guests pursue their social agendas and debauched men drunkenly admire the ruthless Dolokhov, Tolstoy moves his narrative to Moscow. The scenes, separated in time by several weeks, by grace of novelistic strategy are presented but one page turn from each other. In stark contrast to the strict social imperatives that govern the characters in Petersburg, Natasha runs into the Rostov's Moscow dining room. "It was evident that she had not intended her flight to bring her so far" (33), we are told, and yet her mistake does not register in her mind as improper or embarrassing. Rather, she laughs without self-consciousness or self-reproach. This disregard for the constraints of society is essential to Natasha's character; it must be present at her first entrance. The reader will recognize its recurrence later, and will also recognize deviations from this original behavior. Natasha's entrance implies a character that, in the ideology of the human subject that Tolstoy maintains, may act as expected or against expectations. The reader feels able to differentiate between the two. During Natasha's first meeting with Princess Mary, we recognize the discrepancy between the behavior we expect of her and the way she acts in this scene. It does not surprise the reader that Mary dislikes Natasha, for Natasha seems obviously not herself. In the awkwardness of the situation, "Natasha suddenly shrank into herself and involuntarily assumed an offhand air which alienated Princess Mary still more" (494). It is also not surprising that when Mary and Natasha are again brought together at Andrew's death, Mary's reaction to Natasha is quite different. "Light, impetuous, and seemingly buoyant steps were heard at the door. The princess looked round at Natasha coming in, almost running...hardly had the princess looked at Natasha's face before she realized that here was a real comrade in her grief, and consequently a friend" (864). It is not an accident that Natasha's entry into this scene strongly echoes her first appearance.
Natasha's future is predictable in that it must happen; she has been set on a trajectory from the moment she first runs into the novel. What will happen to her in the future is not hidden in her entrance, but how she must react to it is. When Andrew asks Natasha to wait a year before they are married, the reader will remember her first impetuous sprint and know that Natasha cannot wait a year. When the engagement does end, it seems that it was inevitable that it do so. In writing for a reader who will make these connections and assumptions, Tolstoy achieves realism. His characters act in accordance with the predictions that the reader is encouraged to make, so the reader's sense of reality is affirmed through non-reality, through a novel. One of Natasha's final entrances will be when she rushes to meet her husband, Pierre, upon his return from Petersburg. On learning of Pierre's arrival, "the blood rushed to Natasha's face and her feet involuntarily moved, but she could not jump and run out. The baby again opened his eyes and looked at her" (1024). She cannot run with the same impetuosity as she did when we first knew her, but the weight of domesticity is not necessarily an impediment, and her single-minded attention to her family is not necessarily a reductive conclusion to her character. Natasha's dash into the novel was made possible by her lack of social and self-consciousness. Likewise now, her unhindered devotion to her family is brazenly in the face of society's expectations of an upper class woman. She is described as unkempt and generally disliked, but saucily rejects these judgments. Natasha here, free from society's manipulative forces, is still true to the girl of the beginning. Tolstoy maintains credibility; Natasha has moved in a path from her first entrance through events put to her and has emerged a plausible summation of all that has transpired in her life.
Pierre enters the novel in a manner fundamentally dissimilar to Natasha's entrance. He lumbers into Anna Pavlovna's soiree in Petersburg, "a stout, heavily built young man with close cropped hair, spectacles, the light-colored breeches fashionable at that time, a very high ruffle, and a brown dress coat." (8). Pierre's entrance invokes anxiety in Anna Pavlovna, "as at the sight of something too large and unsuited to the place" (8). He is larger than the other men in the room, his expression "clever though shy, but observant and natural... which distinguished him from everyone else in that drawing room" (8). The theme of balance/imbalance is one that will follow Pierre, here physically manifest and later an intellectual and spiritual struggle for him. He is too big for this room. He will soon anxiously observe a man balancing on a roof. He will trip in his duel with Dolokhov. His world will become physically disorienting as his spectacles are removed and replaced. All these periods of imbalance will lend him a dynamic immediacy as he moves through the novel. He is set on a course that is always unstable, always grasping for something that will steady him. Pierre will come to a resolution; he will balance society and self, life and death, love and desire, through his faith in God and devotion to family. This resolution has been implicit from the moment that Pierre awkwardly entered Anna's Pavlovna's soirée, and the reader finds relief in Pierre's coming to rest, for the reader has known always through physical details that Pierre is not at rest, is not balanced or steady. The perfect opposition of his and Natasha's entrances is deliberate. Natasha's loving, decisive spirit will ultimately bring the searching Pierre the balance and peace that he seeks.
Prince Andrew Bolkonski shares Pierre's tendency towards spiritual oscillation but not Pierre's naïve, endearing indecision. Prince Andrew's conflict is between life and death, but it is death that dominates him from the beginning. His spiritual vicissitudes
attempt to pull him towards life, whether through military focus, investment in social reform, or romantic love, but death is an inexorable weight from which Andrew does not free himself. His first entrance is shortly after that of his wife, but she introduces him to the reader before he comes through the door. "'You know,' said the princess in the same tone of voice and still in French, turning to a general, 'my husband is deserting me? He is going to get himself killed.'" (8). She speaks the truth, though neither she nor the reader knows it. The realist author does not place these signs in order to symbolize or to represent or even to foreshadow. Rather, such statements are made in the context of natural social intercourse. Their weight will come with readerly recognition and association later in the novel. When Andrew is wounded the first time and presumed dead, when he is wounded a second time and again given up for dead, and finally when he dies, the careful reader may remember the point of Andrew's predicted death in the beginning, and the scenes will be connected to form the path of Andrew's character. Compatible points maintain Andrew's credibility for the reader by making everything seem inevitable in retrospect. Andrew is consistently preceded by his absence. Lise mentions his death before we see him at Anna Pavlovna's soiree, news of his death arrives at Bald Hills before he returns alive, and Pierre and the reader are informed of his death at Borodino though he will be proven alive soon after.
Andrew's actual entrances do not lesson our impression of his absence. The physical description of him is bland. "He was a very handsome young man, of medium height, with firm, clear cut features... It was evident that he not only knew everyone in the drawing room, but had found them to be so tiresome that it wearied him to look at or listen to them... screwing up his eyes, [he] scanned the whole company" (12). Andrew gazes at the guests not searchingly, as does Pierre, but without purpose, desire, or interest. Andrew's entrances, so associated with disappointment and discomfort, project no predicted resolution, nor do they posit goals for Andrew to reach. Andrew is almost consistently a non-presence, and Tolstoy perpetuates this impression. When Andrew returns to Bald Hills he is ineffective, even unrecognizable. First he is thought to be the doctor, and then when the dying Lise sees him she does not know him. Ultimately, Andrew has no place among the living characters. He resignedly acts on his desires but they do not satisfy or change him.
The details that accompany Tolstoy's characters into the rooms that he has methodically prepared for their entrances are chosen with precise selectivity. But emphases are not made with the intention of forcing an ideology on the reader. Certainly Tolstoy decides what to show the reader and what to omit. Certainly Tolstoy makes use of the coincidence over which he has power. His point in these cases is not to create an ideology, but to pattern his characters so thoroughly within already-established Western ideology that the reader identifies with them, predicts their reactions, and feels at every new revelation that events could have unfolded in no other way. This careful restraint is not a universal characteristic of War and Peace. Tolstoy boldly manipulates the burning of Moscow; that historical event is molded into the author's fiction with the same art and deliberation as are his characters.
The difference is that in treating history as a pliable force that supports his story, Tolstoy restricts history to a single interpretation, an ideology constructed by the author. In crafting his fictional characters, Tolstoy demonstrates his mastery of an idealogy that already exists in our notions of human character. When Natasha enters the novel, there is a feeling of wound-up energy beyond the exuberance of her appearance. Tolstoy has released a character as a sculptor releases a figure from marble, seemingly not by external construction but as if some inner force has pushed the subject into definition. The realist character enters so resolutely into our common ideology that we cannot help but project his future for him. "Composed so as to be knowable though not yet known, the subject is cleanly figured against a ground of familiar space and time, pregnant with a future" (Weinstein 35). After bringing the characters into the novel, Tolstoy may put to them what trials he chooses, but their reactions must be informed by the initial details of their entrances. Tolstoy's role becomes an amalgamation of creator and chronicler, setting his beings into motion and recording the angling trajectories along which their momentum takes them.
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Trans. Maude. Ed. Gibian, George. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.
Weinstein, Philip. Unknowing: The work of Modernist Fiction. mans. pp.28-50.
About writing, Elsa says: "It would be arrogant to suppose that I should lock into a style of academic writing as a junior in college. I want to approach a perfect balance of elegance, coherence, and originality. I want to learn from writing that I admire. I do not think that there is a formula for writing about literature. Style should be reactive and not static. When I write about a literary work I find myself trying to enter a zone in which I can meet the author on his or her own terms, and my writing style reflects this engagement."