Monday, October 28, 2013

A Feminist Interpretation of War and Peace?

When reading through book eight, I couldn't help but to think about the role of gender in War and Peace. In 19th century Russia, gender obviously had a much different role in society than now, but I still think that Tolstoy must have been trying to say something about the role of women in Russian aristocratic society through the character Natasha. I'm not very familiar with feminism or feminist interpretations of literature, but I think that it might be valuable to look at War and Peace through the lens of feminism. In just chapter eight, there is a lot of developments that could be important to a Feminist interpretation of War and Peace. Natasha's character has developed into what feels like a feeble girl that is controlled only by her passion. All of her thoughts and actions revolve around men, and the ease and speed with which Anatole seduced her makes it seem like Natasha is controlled by her suitor and doesn't have any willpower of her own. As Natasha matured, I feel like she lost her individual identity. Now that Natasha has reached young adulthood, her identity is based off of the man that most recently expressed his love for her. Natasha's futility as a character is contrasted by her hostess, Marya Dmitrievna. Dmitrievna is a widow that does not depend on anybody else. She advocates not only for herself, but for the Rostov family, taking charge of their downward spiral. Tolstoy includes Marya Dmitrievna to show that women in Russian society can have influence while maintaining the respect of the public. Marya has the unique position of being a widow, however. Tolstoy has made a lot of statements about marriage in the novel, but could all of the action surrounding marriage also be interpreted as Tolstoy's commentary on the position of women in Russian society?


  1. I've wanted to do a feminist reading of War and Peace since we first met Natasha, and I'm really glad you brought this up. I agree that Tolstoy has defined views of what men's and women's places are in society, as did most authors of his time. Natasha's story is tragic, in my opinion. Everyone at this time knows what women do, how they act, and what they feel (or at least they assume they know these things). Despite this, no one teaches Natasha how to act. Her mother never sits her down and says, "You're pretty, men will want to take advantage of you," which really surprised me, given Natasha's close bond with her mother. Natasha gets no guidance, and has to fend for herself. Then, when men meet her, she assumes that she is in love with all of them, because she doesn't understand love. Inevitably, Natasha makes mistake after mistake, and she still receives no help other than ineffective doctors. At the end of this, Tolstoy's big solution is that Natasha finds religion. The only people we've seen who are religious are Mary and Natasha, so it's obviously a feminine trait. While the women are praying and pouring out their emotions to God, the men are off fighting wars, or having deep intellectual conversations. Interestingly enough, Natasha and Mary are also both unmarried. Apparently, either God or a husband is the end goal for women in 19th century Russia.

  2. This is a really interesting post. I think we have to remember when reading War and Peace that in 19th century Russia many women found their identity in their husbands. Women in the modern world can find identity in careers or other aspects of life similar to men, however, back then women did not have as many options. Both Marya and Natasha have sadly been placing value on their life due to men's opinions of them: Marya of her father, and Natasha of whomever is pursuing her at the time. Interestingly enough I am currently reading a book for sociology called "Privilege" by Seamus Khan in which he talks about modern society's implied expectation of women to control their sexual urges and lack thereof for men. I believe that even in Natasha's case this was an issue, as she was clearly judged more harshly for her interaction with Anatole than he was, although from the reader's standpoint it is clear that Anatole was the more guilty party.