Reading War & Peace #5: One Woman’s Journey to Healing a Broken Leg

* translation: Louise and Alymer Maude (for page # references)

So this week, instead of war and peace between countries, we had some war and peace between hearts. Lots of proposals, engagements, disapproving parents. In a world with issues of class, hierarchy, and not much gender equality love can become a very unpleasant game. But let’s start at the beginning.

My initial reaction to Tolstoy’s treatment of women was disgust. Women are presented as weak and silly, a hindrance to their husbands and man in general. This is presented quite clearly in a conversation between Pierre and Andrew Bolkonski early on in the book. “‘If only you knew what those society women are, and women in general! My father is right. Selfish, vain, stupid, trivial in everything – that’s what women are when you see them in their truest colours! When you meet them in society it seems as if there were something in them, but there’s nothing, nothing, nothing! No, don’t marry, my dear fellow; don’t marry!’ concluded Prince Andrew.” [pg. 22] Let’s not bring up the “those were different times” argument. I know. It’s still uncomfortable to read.

Andrew is not the only man who thinks along those lines. Pierre’s marriage weighs him down. He regrets it all, and thinks of his wife, Helene, as stupid and empty. It can be said in his favor that he realizes his marital issues stem from being coerced into a marriage he didn’t exactly want. “‘But in what was I to blame?’, he asked. ‘In marrying her without loving her; in decieving yourself and her.'” [pg. 245] Yet, he doesn’t handle the issue as an adult, as opposed to his wife who confronts him. “‘It is all, all her fault,’ he said to himself;” [pg. 246], “‘Don’t speak to me, I beg you,’ muttered Pierre hoarsely. ‘Why shouldn’t I speak? I can speak as I like, and I tell you plainly that there are not many wives with husbands such as you who would not have taken lovers, but I have not done so.'” [pg. 247] It may seem that Tolstoy actually makes Helene out to be the mature adult in the situation, but the fact that Pierre is a main character, and Helene is only ever mentioned in relation to him, makes us sympathize with him and view her through his eyes, thus painting her as cruel, even though it is Pierre who leaves her (only after almost killing a man he accuses of being her lover). In other words, he views himself as a martyr, absolving himself of any guilt or blame, and through the narration so do we.

Only when Andrew’s wife, Lise, dies, does he seem to acknowledge her personal sacrifice for his sake, giving birth to a son on her own while her husband has left her, isolated in his father’s home, to go to the army. “[…] and despite the fixed eyes and the pallor of the cheeks, the same expression was on her charming childlike face […] ‘I love you all, and have done no harm to anyone; and what have you done to me?’ – said her charming, pathetic, dead face.” [pg. 254], “And there in the coffin was the same face, though with closed eyes. ‘Ah, what have you done to me?’ it still seemed to say, and Prince Andrew felt that something gave way in his soul, and that he was guilty of a sin he could neither remedy nor forget.” [pg. 254].

The women in War & Peace constantly have to put up with their husbands behavior, often without any acknowledgment or reward. Countess Rostova forgives her husband for his gambling and bad management of their affairs despite his careless behaviour risking their entire family’s well-being. Lise, as we’ve mentioned, gives up her home, family and friends to go live far away with her husband’s family despite fearing his father and constantly feeling alone and afraid in her new home. And it’s not just husbands. Mary Bolkonski, for example, silently takes the abuse spewed at her by her father, forgiving him because of his old age. Her older brother never comes to her defence. Furthermore, he asks her to help convince the old man to accept his desire to marry a woman of which his father does not approve. This, of course, just leads their father to take out his anger at Andrew on Mary.

During Vera and Berg’s dinner party, Tolstoy gives us a glimpse into the minds of both characters. “Berg smiled with a sense of his superiority over a weak woman, and paused, reflecting that this dear wife of his was after all but a weak woman who could not understand all that constitutes a man’s dignity […] Vera at the same time was smiling with a sense of superiority over her good, conscientious husband, who all the same understood life wrongly as, according toVera, all men did. Berg, judging by his wife, thought all women weak and foolish. Vera, judging only by her husband and generalizing from that observation, supposed that all men, though theu understand nothing and are conceited and selfish, ascribe common sense to themselves alone.” [pg. 367]

In the midst of all of this, two young women stick out in the way they are treated by the men surrounding them. Sonya and Natasha Rostov are rarely mocked or ridiculed. They are still often described as over-emotional, dramatic or silly, but unlike in the case of other couples, here the men who fall in love with them respect them and cherish their company. For instance, when Andrew Bolkonski goes to visit the Rostov’s and hears Natasha’s optimistic speech about her love of life through the window at night he does not regard it as childish and foolish. Instead, it deeply affects him and make him change his way of life. “In his soul there suddenly arose such an unexpected turmoil of youthful thoughts and hopes, contrary to the whole tenor of his life […]” [pg. 332] He describes her as “charming, so original” [pg. 363] She is not a hindrance, but a blessing. “The whole world is now for me divided into two halves: one half is she, and there all is joy, hope, light; the other half is everything where she is not, and there all is gloom and darkness…” [pg. 374] Both Sonya and Natasha form partnerships with men considered above them in class and honor. Some may say that this is just another attempt to depict women as evil, and that Tolstoy intended to show how a woman’s power can cause a man to lose his senses: Andrew angers his father, Nicholas defies his mother’s wishes that he marry a rich heiress to save his family’s affairs. And yet, in both cases the men seem truly happy, and thus the reader imediately finds himself rooting for the young couples. “But, Mamma, suppose I loved a girl who has no fortune, would you expect me to sacrifice my feelings and my honour for the sake of money?” [pg. 407] (Have I mentioned how much I love Nicholas Rostov?)

I did not really have a plan when I set out to write these weekly posts, and I have to admit that now I’m actually quite proud of what they’ve become: serious, thought-out analysis. It must be mentioned that I do not have a degree in history, Russian literature nor gender studies. These are my own opinions based on my interpretations and involvement in online discussions. You’re all of course welcome to join in at any point.

And one last thing before I go, since this is getting a bit long. I’ve finally passed the big landmark: my old bookmark from my first attempt. I’d left it in there, and today my worn out, High School Musical themed one finally beat it. It’s pretty exciting. It also reduces the number of bookmarks from three to two (the extra is for the notes section at the back for easy flipping to and fro), which is much more pleasant, logistically speaking. And now we step off the well trodden path into the new and unknown.


previous entry here


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