Thursday, November 14, 2013

People are animals too!

Tolstoy has compared his characters to animals many times throughout War and Peace. Lise's upper lip is described as having a "squirrel-like expression" (Tolstoy 22), and Sonya is frequently alluded to as a kitten or cat. Though it could be argued Tolstoy gives these ridiculous descriptions to make characters more memorable, I would argue that Tolstoy truly sees humans as having characteristics of animals. Animals can also be seen as spontaneous and thoughtless at times (not to bash on animal rights activists), and Tolstoy seems to promote the belief that although humans are capable of complex thinking, we still have animal instincts. Don't get me wrong, we're not savage wild beasts all the time; however, in many of the war scenes in the novel, men are portrayed as making rash and savage decisions.

I did not make the connection between Tolstoy's portrayal of large groups of people and animals until Book Eleven when Tolstoy compares Moscow to a dying bee hive. He describes in great detail what the bees do in the dying hive, "languidly fighting, or cleaning themselves, or feeding one another" (Tolstoy 778), and then goes on to describe the men in Moscow doing the same. Many men are fighting for stupid reasons, and stealing food.

Tolstoy's parallel between animals and humans aligns with his belief in each individual's incomprehensible motives. As I have mentioned before, a major theme in War and Peace is irrational decisions such as Andrew's decision to marry Natasha based on her approaching her cousin before Mademoiselle Bourienne, or Pierre playing a game of patience to decide his future in the army. Tolstoy might explain these irrational decisions by the animal side of the human psyche. Humans and animals are all subject to innate desires that cannot be controlled. Although humans have advanced far enough to understand mathematics and plan wars, we still have internal desires similar to our furry friends.


  1. Very interesting observations! I never noticed that before, but now that you mention it, comparisons of humans to animals are all over the place in War and Peace. Your post makes me wonder if Tolstoy's comparison of humans to animals is a way to demonstrate human's rash irrational decisions or if the comparison actually rationalizes those decisions by the fact that humans are animals too. There is probably a bit of both perspectives in Tolstoy's writing, but and this conflicting interpretation seems to appear quite frequently in society. For example, sometimes when someone does something irrational, someone else says that it is because they are young. One could interpret that as an attempt to rationalize their irrationality by the fact that they are young or it could be interpreted as demonstrating how young people are irrational.

  2. I agree with Brianna that one of the reasons Tolstoy could compare people to animals is to show how irrational young people are. We've talked about the distinction between love and lust, and I think the animal instinct of the latter fits in here. By showing characters as animals rather than humans, Tolstoy underscores the instincts that drive both animals and his characters. Animals' lives are generally considered to be simpler than humans', too. Tolstoy could be using the comparisons to explain the actions of the citizens of Moscow and the people in society.

  3. Thanks for bringing this to our attention Lizzie! I also did not realize all of these comparisons until you brought it to my attention. I wonder if Tolstoy purposefully did this or if he compared so many characters to animals without even realizing it?