War and Peace Volume 2, Part 2, Chapter 17 Summary
It’s June, and the army is fighting the battle of Friedland. This is the climactic fight that Russia loses and that will cause it to make a five-year-long peace treaty with Napoleon.
Meanwhile, Nikolai goes off to visit Denisov at the hospital.
The hospital is a terrifying, disgusting nightmare.
When Nikolai rides up, the doctor there tells him to go away because the place is too disease-ridden to enter. He goes in anyway.
The smell of rotting flesh is nauseating and overpowering. This is before antibiotics, remember – people are just lying around with festering wounds, typhus, tuberculosis, and every other kind of awful, untreatable thing.
The doctor’s assistant takes Nikolai into the soldiers’ wing of the hospital, which is just like one of the circles of Dante's Inferno. He sees people writhing around in pain. A soldier is banging his head on the floor begging for water, and another is desperately asking for a dead body to be removed.
Shmoop fun fact time. Tolstoy is writing in the 1860s about the war of 1805-1812. But Tolstoy had been a war reporter during the Crimean War between Russia and England, in 1857. That was the first war in history that journalists actually got to cover and describe what things were like for the soldiers fighting. Tolstoy’s reports are honest, sometimes gruesome, and pretty amazing. The British side had its own war correspondent, William Russell, who described how terribly equipped, malnourished and disease-ridden the British soldiers were. When England lost the Crimean War, everyone back home blamed it on the poor condition of the troops. There was such a huge scandal that many institutions were reformed and reorganized. Amazing stuff. Tolstoy’s background as a war reporter comes out in the way he describes the battle scenes in this novel, and especially the kind of exposé-style descriptions that this chapter gives us.