War and Peace and Women and Men

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The following post contains spoilers for War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

I really didn’t intend to write yet another post on War and Peace, but as I was reviewing comments, I decided that Katrina had a fair point. I need to write about my disappointments in Tolstoy’s women.

From page one of War and Peace, I pictured Audrey Hepburn, and I think that’s why I liked Natasha from the beginning (I think Audrey Hepburn is very pretty). I only made it through half of the movie a few years ago because I got tired of it, but that was enough to transform Natasha into Ms Hepburn. I was surprised to discover that at the beginning of the novel, Natasha was a twelve-year-old girl, not a grown woman. The movie was not very accurate (*shocking*).

At any rate, every indication of Natasha’s personality should have pointed to me not liking Natasha. She was flighty. She was fickle. She was spoiled and inconsiderate. All of those are qualities I don’t prefer in people or favorite characters. Yet, hers was the story in War and Peace I waited for. Was it because Tolstoy created her so well she seemed real? Was it because she was a likeable person deep down? Was it because I unfortunately related to her flaws to some extent?  Was it because I’m just a romantic and I like stories about girls who probably get married in the end? (Yes, probably that.)

I was sorely disappointed. Natasha grew into a dour homebody that never sang and rarely smiled. She became dependent on her husband to bring that smile, and, while she loved her children, she completely disregarded her best friend: Sophie. For some reason, Sophie, who was part of Tolstoy’s original childhood love story as introduced in the very beginning, was completely ignored in the end. I especially missed her in the second half. Even though at the critical moment (really, the mid-point) Sophie is the one who stops Natasha from eloping, she is ignored and treated as a servant when the story is resolved.

Marya is almost the opposite. In the beginning, she is doudy and complaisant under her father’s critical (and I’d say abusive) treatment. Upon his death, she blossoms into a woman with personality. Yet, in the epilogue, she is again rather complaisant, always worried about what Nikolai thinks of her, he being the moodiest of them all.

We don’t get to know the other women very well. Lise, the mustachioed princess, was a silent sufferer and a devoted wife, but given the right encouragement, she may have blossomed. Andrei seems to stifle her, and Tolstoy kills her off in childbirth rather opportunely. (Was that look on her face Tolstoy’s way of saying “See? I do think about the women! They go through a lot and then they die!”)

Helene was the opposite of Lise: an outgoing, bewitching and sexy participant in various social circles of Russia and the love affairs of St Petersburg.  She didn’t need a man to find her place, and had no trouble finding men to meet her desires. Her end seemed to be Tolstoy’s response to her moral indiscretion: the wicked suffer. How convenient.

And then I start to think about the men. I pretty much didn’t like any of them. Pierre was obnoxious. Although his transformation was greatest from the beginning of the novel until the end, I still didn’t like his subordination. He never seems to grow a spine. Did he really learn to love life? Was that the point? What was his transformation? Since I still didn’t like him, I honestly don’t know. Andrei was okay, but I felt he was a typical chauvinist, treating his wife poorly and not taking her needs and desires into consideration.

The war obviously was a major player on all the characters in the novel. Maybe the moodiness of Nickolai and Andrei, etc. was Tolstoy’s portrayal of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; although it obviously hadn’t been named at that point, surely the cruel battle conditions would have given a number of soldiers psychological battle-scars.

Tolstoy draws all of the characters incredibly realistically. Both the women and the men I see as real in his descriptions. Yet, in the end, all of the women seem unfairly developed. Their ends don’t seem to match their personalities.  The men are the ones Tolstoy is writing as changed, and it kind of frustrated me. Maybe it’s realistic, but it just reminds me that I prefer the romantic approach to things.

War and Peace, as a whole, seemed a depressing commentary on the effects of war and the realistic changes in long-term relationship. I can’t fault Tolstoy for capturing things well, but I certainly wished for more bildungsroman, I suppose. Pierre didn’t count; I never liked him.

Which character did you like most in War and Peace? What did you make of the generals? (I most skimmed over them, as neither of them interested me)?

What things would you say about these characters? Am I reading any of them differently from your reading?

Did you find the end rather depressing? Or was Pierre’s transformation satisfying for you?

Reviewed on January 26, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I too hated how Natasha turned out in the end. HUGE disappointment. I totally agree with you, I think his women are very “real” yet never develop in the same way that men do. There’s a quote floating around out there where Tolstoy describes an “ideal” women … it’s not very encouraging. 🙁

    • Ingrid, I was disappointed in most of the women. But then I started to think of it, and the men were kind of lousy in the end too. Except Pierre, who was supposedly all changed. Not sure, the end was rather discouraging in general, I think. Too bad. And yes, not sure I’d have liked Tolstoy himself…

  • As you know, I didn’t like the life which Tolstoy gave to Sophie and I especially hated the fact that Natasha said that Sophie was one of those people who didn’t really have feelings and was happy to do things for other people. The reader knows that Sophie was heart-broken but was being stoical.
    Sadly though I think Tolstoy was being really true to life because we can’t all have the happy ending. Natasha’s change into a sort of earth-mother type isn’t unheard of even nowadays, a bit of a shock for a husband I always think. The men were all fairly unlikeable, but recognisable!
    It’s 101 years since Tolstoy died. I wonder what he would have been like today?

  • Certainly if he were just the same as he was then, he would be hard to live with. I like to think that he would have improved over the years. It seems to me that since I got married in 1976 men have changed radically, they’ve had to. Mind you there are still some Neanderthals around!

  • Thanks for your posts – I just finished War and Peace today, and was looking around for thoughts. I agree with you almost entirely. I really couldn’t stand Natasha. Just the kind of girl I wouldn’t like in life – flitting around carelessly without considering other people’s feelings. And she also just didn’t seem very bright. I also thought Pierre was just … irritating. Oblivious and prone to fads. Although I agree Prince Andre was a chauvinist, and I also thought he was a bad father, I suppose I liked him. He at least seemed to have a handle on life. My favorite character was Marya (perhaps in part because she initially disliked Natasha also – ha). I thought she was Tolstoy’s best woman character – strong, virtuous, thoughtful, but also not too perfect (as her bouts of jealousy illustrated). Thanks for the post!

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