“One step beyond the line” : the sensory experience of the battlefield in Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”. (2020)
Type of ContentTheses / Dissertations
Degree NameMaster of Arts
PublisherUniversity of Canterbury
AuthorsMorrison, Justine Vanessashow all
War and Peace is Tolstoy’s harrowing indictment of the Napoleonic Wars, laying bare the shattered expectations, illusions, and lives of a generation of young Russians. In this thesis I show how the methods employed by inter-disciplinary sensory historians can be applied to the novel, demonstrating how it can be read not simply as a depiction of war but as a sensory reaction to it. More than simply telling us what happened, Tolstoy uses a representation of the senses to explore the lived, or ‘felt,’ experience behind the established historical narratives, offering bitter truths rather than familiar tropes that valorise war. The battlefield left an indelible impact on those who experienced it, and I demonstrate how Tolstoy uses the senses holistically to bring this space to life and how this sensory assault takes his characters to the limits of human experience. As readers, we accompany them into battle, where we must smell the rotting earth, gunpowder, and corpses; hear the screams of thousands of wounded and dying soldiers; and look, and keep looking, at the terrible sights. Further, I argue that the sensory assault is a morally affective experience. From the roaring cannons of the battlefield to the stench of a field hospital and the horrors of amputation, the senses frequently play important roles in not only motivating characters’ actions but in shaping them. Tolstoy not only uses the senses in and of themselves, but also as a crucial component in bearing witness. Anticipating the ethical questions of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Tolstoy invites, and even implores his characters to relate and react to the suffering of others, placing them in horrific situations where they must regard the humanity of the victims, and make a response with emotion, conscience, and compassion. Moreover, Tolstoy puts us, as readers, into relationship with his characters – their combat stress, injury, and war-weariness – that we might understand the influences under which they act (or fail to act) because we are affected by them, too. As scene after scene demands attention, we are obliged not to turn away, that we might have compassion for the countless nameless, faceless soldiers left to fester and writhe on the battlefields.