Saturday, October 8, 2011

Tolstoy - War and Peace - The Beehive metaphor

The most striking difference between modern literature and nineteenth century literature is, for me, the way classic authors, such as Tolstoy, explore each concept fully. Modern writers tend to edit until their work says precisely what they want said with as few words as possible. Flash fiction, for example, is a style that could not have succeeded in the eighteen hundreds.

My preference is for the modern, concise style, but both forms have their attractions. I thought about this specifically when I read a section in War and Peace where the mostly deserted city of Moscow was compared to a beehive.

If Tolstoy had been a twenty-first century writer and chosen the beehive metaphor for his work, he would have stopped after the section that reads:

There were still people in it, perhaps a fiftieth part of its former inhabitants had remained, but it was empty. It was empty in the sense that a dying queenless hive is empty.

Instead Tolstoy went on for pages of description about the similarities between the hive and the city. Here are some samples:

1....instead of the former spirituous fragrant smell of honey and venom, and the warm whiffs of crowded life, comes an odor of emptiness and decay mingling with the smell of honey.
2.There is no longer the measure quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder.
3.Instead of a neatly glued floor, swept by the bees with the fanning of their wings, there is a floor littered with bits of wax, excrement, dying bees scarcely moving their legs, and dead ones that have not been cleared away.

It is amazing to me how carefully he was able to explore each and every detail and see the comparison from hundreds of different perspectives. It is an amazing section to read.

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely agree. I think it is one of my favorite parts of the book. I love the metaphor and also Tolstoy's usual mastery of language. It also demonstrates the level of research and detail that Tolstoy put into War and Peace.