Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Actions (and Appearance) Speak Louder than Words

"We don't love people so much for the good they have done us, as for the good we have done them," writes Sterne. Princess Mary quotes his remark in Book 1, Chapter 16 of Tolstoy's War and Peace. I found myself frequently coming back to this passage. Something about this Sterne guy intrigued me. His words provoked a lot of thought and questions in my mind. So, I decided, why not do my blog about him. That way, I could discover for myself (and all of us) who Sterne was and why Tolstoy decides he's important enough to be quoted in his great novel.
Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) was an English Sentimentalist writer, who, it turns out, had a great effect on Tolstoy. Tolstoy read at least two of Sterne's works, The Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy. The influence Sterne's assertions in these two works had on Tolstoy made it into the text of War and Peace and into many of his other works. Sterne was a firm believer, as many Sentimentalist writers were, in the belief that body language and appearance told more about characters than their stated thoughts did. Consequently, we see Tolstoy's emphasis on physical features and "significant looks." Take for example, his description of Natasha (33) or the way Princess Mary's eyes reflect her true feeling (91). In both of these instances, the physical being expressed more than their words alone could have. Emotion, body language, and physical appearance often tell us much of what we know about Tolstoy's characters. Thus, Sterne's sentimentalist approach to character development had a great influence on Tolstoy, as seen over and over again in War and Peace.


  1. It is interesting how actions really do speak louder than words; in the world of War and Peace, everyone is clouded by the effects of elite society. They wear their fancy clothes and politely say what won't cause too many waves (except for Boris, of course). Tolstoy's descriptions save us from believing that the characters are all the same.

  2. It is interesting that Tolstoy and Sterne seem to believe that body language and appearance were more significant than actual thoughts. Perhaps this comes from how rapidly everyones thoughts were changing during this time period. In the world of Salons, commonly held opinions changed and therefore voiced thoughts rarely remained constant. Body language and appearance however, were not likely to change throughout someones life.

  3. Interesting post, Emily. I wonder if you are finding more of Sterne as you read more of War and Peace.