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Napoleon and Discourse in War and Peace

Napoleon, as a character in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, is more than once described as having “plump little hands.” Nor does he “sit well or firmly in the saddle.” He is said to be “undersized,” with “fat thighs … short legs” and a “rotund stomach.” And he holds court smelling of “Eau-de-Cologne.” The issue here is not the accuracy of Tolstoy’s description—it seems not that far off from nonfictive accounts—but its selectivity: other things that could be said of the man are not said. We are meant to understand the incongruity of a warring imperator in the body of a fat little Frenchman. Tolstoy’s Napoleon could be a powdered boulevardier putting a pinch of snuff up his nose—and that is the point. The consequences of such a disparity of form and content can be counted in dead soldiers strewn across the European continent.

It is a stratagem of the novelist no less than of the playwright to symbolize physically the moral nature of a character. And it turns out that, as Tolstoy has it, Napoleon is a preening pompous megalomaniac. In a scene in Book Three of War and Peace, the Russo-French wars having reached the crucial year of 1812, Napoleon receives an emissary from Tsar Alexander, a General Balashev, who has come with peace terms. Napoleon is enraged: doesn’t he have the numerically superior army? He, not the tsar, is the one to dictate terms. Having been dragged unwillingly into war, he will destroy all of Europe if his will is thwarted. “That is what you will have gained by alienating me!” he shouts. And then, Tolstoy writes, Napoleon “walked silently several times up and down the room, his fat shoulders twitching.”

Still later, after consoling himself by parading before adoring crowds, Napoleon invites the shaken General Balashev to dinner: “He raised his hand to the Russian’s … face,” Tolstoy writes,

and taking him by the ear pulled it gently … To have one’s ear pulled by the Emperor was considered the greatest honor and mark of favor at the French court. “Well adorer and courtier of the Tsar Alexander, why don’t you say anything?” said he, as if it was ridiculous in his presence to be the adorer and courtier of any one but himself, Napoleon.

Tolstoy did his research, but the composition is his own.

9 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for this. Much appreciated.

  2. Tolstoy certainly had a biased opinion of the French. This kind of discussion must make the book real fun to read. 🙂

  3. How many times have you read W&P now? This sort of post would have made my reading of the novel much richer. I feel like I only skimmed the surface. It’s so interesting to think about the characters and how they’re protrayed and what Tolstoy meant by it!

  4. Echoing Greg S., thanks for the background info.

    I am reading a NF book about the 1941 invasion of Moscow.

    The Russians still didn’t admire Napoleon.

  5. You could substitute my name in there and get an accurate description of how I look these days. (!!!) I, too, find it interesting what writers use to describe their characters (fictional or real) to make them more interesting. And Napoleon was already very interesting.

  6. Greg S:
    You’re always welcome. My students love this mini lecture series!

    That’s what I thought would really intrigue the students. 🙂

  7. Danielle:
    Tolstoy simply told us the story and let his characters slowly manifest and come alive. He didn’t tell us about their past or their personality, so we’ll have to get to know them through their own examination and experience. This is my 4th reading of W&P. 🙂

  8. Isabel:
    Just like the Chinese will always see the Japs as monsters. 🙂

  9. mari:
    That’s why I find Tolstoy very intriguing to read. In his other book, Anna Karenina, his characters are so etched and nuanced that they are as if real people that we know.

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