The writer Boris Akunin once said in an interview that Tolstoy’s characters are as real to him as, and sometimes even more real than, real people. I absolutely agree, and I enjoy exploring the various characters. So for those who also agree, here’s yet another War and Peace blog post. About Denisov this time. A favorite of many readers, and one of those characters who one would have liked to have had a bigger part.
The opposite of Dolokhov
Denisov is the complete opposite of Dolokhov. Where Dolokhov is described as handsome, with piercing blue eyes and without moustache, Denisov is hairy, with a disheveled moustache, and eyes as black as coal. Dolokhov usually wins when playing cards (albeit cheating) and Denisov usually loses.
Their personalties couldn’t be more opposed either: although Tolstoy describes a rogue who drinks heavily and curses heartily when he introduces Denisov, from the way his eyes light up when he sees Nicholay it is immediately clear that he is a good guy.
Denisov has some endearing characteristics: he can’t pronounce the letter ‘r’. Everyone in the army calls him ‘Waska’, a rather childish diminutive of Wasili. He only makes an effort with his appearance when going into battle or in the company of ladies, making it clear where his priorities lie. Although we never find out much about Denisov’s background, he has an uncle with a high rank and that’s all, he is clearly from the same background as Nicholay, and has for instance had dancing lessons at the same place as all of the young Rostovs. Although he is short, he looks like a fine fellow on horseback and when dancing.
There are four epic dance scenes in War and Peace: the old count Rostov, dancing like an ‘eagle’; Natasha’s Russian dance at Uncle’s house; Natasha’s dance with Andrey and then there is Denisov’s mazurka. He dances such a dazzling mazurka with Natasha, that she nearly falls in love with him. But she is only fifteen then, and Denisov is at least ten years older, practically an old man!
Denisov is, as he puts it himself, bewitched by Natasha and adores the whole family. When he proposes to Natasha, he doesn’t just propose to her, but to her whole family. Dolokhov takes revenge on Nicholay after Sonya has refused him; Denisov loves Nicholay more after Natasha’s refusal. At some point we can hear him mutter with a choked voice “Ah, what a mad bweed you Wostovs are!”. And when he finds Petya Rostov dead, bystanders can hear a yelp like of a dog coming from him.
A heart of gold
Denisov is driven by his care for others. He would give his life twice for any of the Rostovs and risks serious repercussions when he steals a food supply for his starving soldiers. His soldiers in turn like him, and show it by building him an extra nice ‘house’ during their exploits. He gets gloomy when bored and almost depressed when in hospital, but when he goes into action he is clearly in his element. His bravery does not require recognition from superiors, he would rather be respected by his equals and subordinates. The ones that are lucky enough to be loved by him, can count on his (albeit somewhat sentimental) devotion.
Beneath his rough exterior, but not very deep beneath it, Denisov has a heart of gold.
Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019
Book: War and Peace – Tolstoy – the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation