Friday, October 31, 2014

Women in War and Peace

I am really interested in Tolstoy's portrayal of women in War and Peace. Initially, I was pretty happy with him. I think this was primarily because of Anna Pávlovna, the very first character introduced in the book. She seemed like a cool lady! She was independent, powerful, and very well-informed about the goings on in the world. In this same opening chapter, Hélène and Lise were also both introduced. I have to say, I thought that they were bumbling idiots at the time and to be honest my opinion hasn't really changed. Lise died before she could be very deeply developed (although she does arguably represent women wronged by the structure of marriage and society in general) and Hélène, while she has become powerful, is still treated primarily by Tolstoy as a seductive, trouble-making fool. But overall, I thought, "Who cares? These are just two small examples of silly women who hide behind their beauty." Now though, I'm not so sure for several reasons.

First off, what happened to Anna Pávlovna? Why has Tolstoy stopped mentioning her? The fact that the least "feminine" woman in the book has disappeared suggests that Tolstoy just doesn't value the idea surrounding feminism at all.

I also have a problem with Mary. I was very pro-Mary initially, seeing her the same way I saw Anna but to a slightly less extent. She was educated beyond most people's dreams, but was held back by her father. This didn't bother me too much because I thought that it meant that the family was just really tightly-knit. However, recently the Old Prince has been terrible to Mary, ultimately destroying my idea. Now she's just a smart woman wasting her potential by being held back by a man. I'm hoping that Tolstoy is doing this on purpose and will develop her more later on, but I can't be sure.

Next, Natasha. Natasha was my favorite character for quite a while. She seemed like the only one of the lot who thought for herself and had any life in her. Now that life has been crumbling away before our eyes; she's a shell of her former self.

So it seems to me like Tolstoy and strong women just don't get along well. I hope this changes, but I also understand that it would be natural for this time period for him to brush most women aside.


  1. I totally agree with you. I was very hopeful in the beginning, but have come to conclude that any sort of feminist seeming values in Tolstoy's writing can actually just be attributed to his need for character development and quickly disappear (are removed) once they become irrelevant. When Natasha was still with Prince Andrew, the scene when she is hunting strongly shows her independence and nonconformity to gender stereotypes. This made me very hopeful for feminist writing, if such thing is possible in the mid 1800's, from Tolstoy, but evidently that dream was crushed when Natasha reverted back to her confused, helpless state. I too hope Tolstoy turns it around for the better, but I am not super optimistic.

  2. Oh yeah, I totally forgot about the hunting scene! You're right, that was pretty excellent for Natasha. Not that I've finished the reading for tomorrow yet but it seems like Mary is about to blossom and I'm very excited for her! But it's terrible how guilty she feels for wanting a life. I wish Tolstoy would have made her more willing to let her father go.

  3. I agree with everything you're saying and would add on that Helene is a character who could have had a ton of potential but, because of the time period, was demonized for things that feminism has since fought for acceptance and recognition in society such as women's sexuality.

  4. In addition to what you said (which I agree for the most part; good job!), I thought it would be interesting to examine Mary and her circumstances. In a way, Mary lived under most restriction and oppression than any other female characters we've seen so far. The Old Prince never lets her out of the house or meet people. Her only friends have been Mm. Bourienne and Julie (and she only contacted Julie via mails!). I feel especially pitiful toward Mary because she just lacks the ability to make good decisions because she was never forced to make decisions in her life. The Old Prince did for her. Also, what do you think of Sonya? Is Sonya under the same circumstance as Mary due to her obligation to the Rostovs?

  5. Really awesome post. This is something that has been on my mind as well, and you all bring a lot of good ideas on the matter. I also felt that Tolstoy was being very mindful in his selection of women charters, but the more I've been reading, the more I realize that Tolstoy is almost simply using the women characters so that more happens to the men. I remember, although I may be wrong, Prof Herold talking about Tolstoy's take on women. I remember her saying that Tolstoy didn't have much respect for women, and that they were mostly used for society, nothing more.

  6. I also think it's important to note the time period Tolstoy wrote this in. Women could not really have a position of power because their main job was to get married and reproduce. I don't think that Tolstoy is necessarily trying to degrade women, rather he just views them as having little power and importance. I think reading a similar based novel but about the importance of women in the war of 1812 (and that time period) would be an interesting contrasting piece.