Monday, February 10, 2014

Tolstoy's Women

As we have finished our Fourth Book from War and Peace, we obviously know Tolstoy has a way with words. We've established that we like some characters, dislike others, yet many times we are not sure why we feel like this; we are just enraptured by Tolstoy and his prowess. For this reason, I would like to talk about the women of War and Peace, their portrayal and our feelings about it, and potentially get some of your insight on how you relate to some characters as opposed to others.

In this book we have met Lise, Andrei's wife, who does not have a fair fate and her destiny is relatively tragic. Nevertheless, even now, reading this book the second time, I cannot relate to her at all and I keep on empathizing with Andrew. Lise is beautiful, charming in society and does not have any traits to make her displeasing other than her husband's dissatisfaction with her. Does anyone else share the same feelings about Lise?

Helene is a character that we don't even see that much, she is mostly portrayed as an object of veneration for men because of her looks. However, even before we quite understand she has an affair with her brother or before she starts cheating on Pierre, we dislike her. Is it because we don't know her as anything else but a marble figure? Is it because we think she is not worth of Pierre or because she appears to be shallow? Mary is at the opposite end of the spectrum, we learn that she has very intense spiritual feelings, that she is in tune with her thoughts and has a powerful will to understand, but she is not as beautiful as Helene, she lacks social skills and she oftentimes seems naive. I personally am fascinated by Mary and can't understand how I paid so little attention to her the first time I read the book. Why don't we dislike Mary despite her lack of beauty and charm? Why does it seem so unremarkable that she lacks beauty even if Tolstoy emphasizes her plainness every chance he gets?

Of course there's Natasha, but I still think of her as a child and as a rather undeveloped character, there's also Sonya, perhaps Anna Mikhaylovna. Who is compelling to you, whom do you dislike and why?

I have a few more opinions on why Tolstoy is constructing the characters the way he is, but I will save them for until after I receive a few comments on the topic to see if we are on the same page.


  1. I wonder if Tolstoy shows the female characters like Lise and Helene as being beautiful as a way to demonstrate some of the shallowness of Russian aristocratic society. Their focus on beauty and social norms might kept them from fully growing emotionally and spiritually.

  2. For me, Helene is the most detestable female character. I do not take issue with her as a character, but rather with how she has been constructed. I don't know if Tolstoy will allow us further access into the mind of Helene like he has with other characters, but so far Helene is the flattest and most static of all the major characters. In broader terms, Helene serves as the quintessential example of the Tolstoyan female character, thus far in the novel. We talked in class about how the narrator allows the reader access into the minds of certain characters. We are over a third of the way through the novel, and so far we have only been granted insight to the minds of the novel's male characters with a few small exceptions. The scales are drastically unbalanced, and I am anxious to see whether this trend continues or if Tolstoy at least attempts to present more diverse perspectives in terms of gender.

  3. One other thing--Lise is essentially as flat as Helene, but it seems like Helene's beauty makes us assume that she is more shallow than Lise. Are we as readers in some way naturally predisposed to judge outward beauty more harshly? For me, Helene's supposed stunning beauty simply makes her less likable and trustworthy than Lise. On the flip side, the description of Mary's plainness evokes my sympathy. Is this inverse relationship between physical appearance of the character and sympathy of the reader generally universal? Or is it just me? Can characters evoke sympathy by sheer attractiveness? This seems unlikely, yet it happens all the time in the real world.

  4. It's too bad we never get to actually know Lise - her premature death prevents us from doing so. However, I do feel that up to the point we have arrived now in the book we learn some more about Helene, particularly through her involvement in the Anatole and Natasha affair. If anything, we discover an ugly side to her character: not only is she involved with Boris but she also has no problem setting up a "maid" ( as Pierre describes Natasha) with her depraved brother. On the other hand, Mary is all spirit and not that much looks. I wrote this when we knew a lot less about any of these characters and right now my impression of Mary is unchanged, but I am tempted to dislike Natasha a little bit. Tolstoy started describing her as plain and not particularly beautiful but having a charm that draws attention to her which to me is and insult for Mary.

    Logan - your question about attractiveness is brilliant! I do think it is possible - but maybe not in Tolstoy? I personally don't like any of the physically attractive characters, but relate more to the plain ones. Maybe it is because I have thing for the underdogs.