Leonid Andreyev in a 1904 portrait by Ilya Repin
Leonid Andreyev in a 1904 portrait by Ilya Repin

Leonid Andreyev (1871-1919) was never a soldier: he trained as a lawyer before embarking upon his literary career, producing numerous short stories, plays, and novels before his early death in self-imposed exile in Finland after the Bolshevik Revolution. And yet, in The Red Laugh (1904), Andreyev’s lack of frontline experience serves him well, allowing him to forgo realism in favour of a surreal, hallucinatory portrait of warfare and its psychological impacts.

The Red Laugh is divided into nineteen “fragments”, and this is one of those instances in which form and content in a literary work are perfectly matched. The work’s fragmented structure reflects the shattered psyche of the protagonist, shifting uneasily from moment to moment, scene to scene, with very little linear momentum or logic. This creates a circular, nightmarish effect in which we glimpse only pieces of the protagonist’s experiences and feelings, with all of these pieces gradually building into a thematically unified picture of unending horror — both in the battlefields and, more disturbingly, back in the supposedly safe haven of “home”.

Since we never learn the protagonist’s name, his relative anonymity enables him to function as a stand-in for Everyman Soldier. We learn that he serves as an officer in the “twelfth battery”, that he is “only thirty”, and that he has a wife and small son waiting for him at home. Like his identity, his personality is never quite clearly defined either: we discover later on that he seems to have some sort of literary or scholarly ambition, and that his brother believes he is a gentle, kindly person ill-suited for the brutalities of war. The first nine fragments are narrated by this vague soldier; the remaining fragments are narrated by his brother, but the narrative voice of both protagonists become virtually indistinguishable quite quickly.

It is, then, war itself that is the true protagonist in The Red Laugh. From the opening lines of the novella — “Horror and madness” — the tone is set. The protagonist is caught up in a world where it is all but impossible to distinguish madness from sanity, considering the sheer senselessness of the violence that surrounds him: “all that I saw seemed a wild fiction, the terrible raving of a mad world.” Madness stalks the work from beginning to end, and leaves no one untouched. The protagonist describes his fellow soldiers repeatedly in terms of insanity, calling them “all mad” and watching them “wander[ing] about like lunatics”. He openly doubts his own sanity, struggling to retain his hold upon himself in the midst of punishing forced marches and sleep-deprivation. He is fixated on the “red laugh” of the work’s title, a vague phenomenon that appears to him in moments of trauma: “Now I understood what there was in all those mutilated, torn, strange bodies. It was a red laugh. It was in the sky, it was in the sun, and soon it was going to overspread the whole earth—that red laugh!”

One of the greatest strengths of The Red Laugh lies in Andreyev’s insistence that the deepest wounds war inflicts are not physical, but psychological. Even men who still seem physically intact can become mentally broken, as the protagonist hears a medical orderly admit:

“Are there many wounded?” asked I.

He waved his hand.

“A great many madmen. More so than wounded.”

“Real madmen?”

“What others can there be?”

Madness spreads through the army like a disease, infecting both the soldiers and the support staff that serve them. “They say there are a great number of madmen in our army as well as in the enemy’s'”, the protagonist reflects matter-of-factly in one fragment, “Four lunatic wards have been opened.” While out on a mission to retrieve the wounded from the battlefield, the protagonist witnesses a medical orderly commit suicide. Later, while recuperating in a hospital from the amputation of both his legs, the protagonist meets a doctor who is slowly losing his sanity as well, and whose speech and behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. The doctor asks the protagonist if he has ever seen “a fight in an asylum”. When the protagonist replies that he hasn’t, the doctor insists, emphatically and repeatedly, that the inmates fight “like sane people”. This image, in all its absurdity, contains a sort of parallel truth: supposedly sane men fighting wars is where the real madness lies.

As with any good war story, scenes of battlefield horrors are juxtaposed with memories of a longed-for domestic sphere. The protagonist reflects movingly on the life he has left behind, narrowing in on the small, seemingly insignificant details that gain such importance at a distance:

And then—then I suddenly remembered my home: a corner of my room, a scrap of light-blue wall-paper, and a dusty untouched water-bottle on my table—on my table, which has one leg shorter than the others, and had a small piece of paper folded under it. While in the next room—and I cannot see them—are my wife and little son. If I had had the power to cry out, I would have done so—so wonderful was this simple and peaceful picture.

Even more tragically, when the soldiers attempt to recreate something of their lost pre-wartime lives in the midst of the army camp, they discover that their efforts to do so fall short. The protagonist recalls the soldiers struggling to create a “sad and strange entertainment” for themselves, during which, “We got a samovar, we even got a lemon and glasses, and established ourselves under a tree, as if we were at home, at a picnic.” But thoughts of their fallen comrades haunt them; the samovar becomes a “dead and incomprehensible object” in its nightmarish surroundings, and one young soldier eventually cries out in despair, “you can speak of—home. What home? Streets, windows, people, but I would not go into the street now for anything. I should be ashamed to. You brought a samovar here, but I was ashamed to look at it.” The war is so omnipresent in the lives of these men that even momentary escapism is rendered impossible.

And yet the greatest tragedy occurs later in The Red Laugh, away from the battlefield. While the soldiers try and fail to bring something of their domestic lives into the war zone, the war manages to gradually seep into the domestic world and irrevocably taint it. When the protagonist returns home after his amputation, he is not the same man he was when he left. He is now permanently crippled and confined to a wheelchair, dependent on his family members and servants to assist with even his most basic needs, such as bathing. He wishes to write, but suffers from such intense tremors in his head and hands that he produces only an indecipherable scrawl upon each page. Towards the end of the last fragment he will narrate, the protagonist becomes dimly aware of the extent of the damage, and of his own rapidly-encroaching madness:

And then I saw that I often forgot very many things, that I had become strangely absent-minded, and confused familiar faces; that I forgot words even in a simple conversation, and sometimes, remembering a word, I could not understand its meaning. And I clearly pictured to myself my daily existence. A strange short day, cut off like legs, with empty mysterious spaces, long hours of unconsciousness or apathy, about which I could remember nothing.

When the narrative is taken over by the protagonist’s brother, there is very little change in perspective or style, as the brother soon begins to succumb to depression and madness himself in the midst of his grief. Although he has never witnessed the war first-hand, the brother sees the effects of war infiltrating civilized society all around him. People are increasingly numb to the mounting number of casualties and the seemingly interminable conflict — or even worse, turn against one another. Veterans return broken and disturbed, unable to integrate back into the lives they had before. The sight of little children emulating the violence of war in their own play leaves the brother feeling sickened. “Something shrank within me from horror and disgust”, he says, “And I went home; night came on—and in fiery dreams, resembling midnight conflagrations, those innocent little children changed into a band of child-murderers.”

As the second half of The Red Laugh stresses, each literal casualty of war — a soldier killed, a soldier wounded or left traumatized — creates a ripple effect of indirect casualties within a wider circle of family, friends, and fellow citizens. One of the most moving moments in The Red Laugh touches upon one such instance of intertwined casualties, and it seems only fitting to end this article by giving that moment the final word:

A mother was pointed out to me who kept receiving letters from her son for a whole month after she had read of his terrible death in the papers: he had been torn to pieces by a shell. He was a fond son, and each letter was full of endearing and encouraging words and youthful, naive hopes of happiness. He was dead, but wrote of life with a fearful accuracy every day, and the mother ceased to believe in his death; and when a day passed without any letter, then a second and a third, and the endless silence of death ensued, she took a large old-fashioned revolver belonging to her son in both hands, and shot herself in the breast. I believe she survived, but I am not sure; I never heard.

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4 thoughts on “The Horrors of War: Leonid Andreyev’s “The Red Laugh” (1904)

  1. Like Karen I’ve just read a few of Andreyev’s short stories and one(?) of his plays, but hadn’t heard of this which sounds so eerily true about the effects of war on soldiers and those around them. A very interesting post and introduction to the story!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Julé! Glad you enjoyed my article, and I really hope you’ll get the chance to read “The Red Laugh” for yourself one day — I’d love to hear your thoughts on it! It was my first time reading Andreyev, and I definitely intend to read more of his work soon. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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