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?