Ever since I announced that I had started reading War and Peace, more than one person has warned me about its ending, particularly of its female protagonist, Natasha. “The more you like her in the beginning,” a friend said firmly, “the more disappointed you’ll be toward the end.”
My friend is right. I fell in love with Natasha at first sight, when the thirteen-year-old girl scampers into the room, embracing a doll and laughing her loud, contagious laughter. My favor for her grows when she nags her mother about what dessert will be served for that night, and when later, on a sleepless night, she expresses her wish to fly to the moon. Even her affair with Anatole cannot remove me from her fan club. I try not to see her as only a naïve girl readily seduced by a playboy, but a courageous young woman who is willing to pay the price for giving her heart. (She uses the word “love” to define her relationship with Anatole.) I admire her kindness and tenacity in tending to Andrei on his deathbed, her ex-fiancé who broke off their engagement when he learned she was unfaithful. Perhaps like Andrei and Pierre in the fiction, I am drawn to Natasha’s vivacity and, more importantly, her tremendous joy that is independent of any external condition; as Andrei once marvels, “this slender and pretty girl did not know and did not want to know of his existence and was content and happy with some separate—probably stupid—but cheerful and happy life of her own.”
My frustration with the ending comes not as a surprise. Natasha turns out the very opposite of what she used to be. Seven years after she marries Pierre, she has “filled out and broadened,” her inner fire for life has extinguished, and her contentment derives from the one and only source: her husband and children.
Like any movie viewer who is unhappy with a tragic ending of her beloved character, I accuse the director of his personal malevolence. Tolstoy, I decide, has a very narrow understanding of women at best, or is a hidden misogynist at worst.
We have every reason to suspect him. Unlike Gustave Flaubert, who famously said that he had to let Madame Bovary die because that decision was made by aesthetics, Leo Tolstoy is known as both an artist and a preacher. This does not only refer to the fact that War and Peace is interpolated with large prosy passages about history but also, as critic James Wood observes, the two seemly distinctive selves of Tolstoy are intertwined. (James Wood, “War and Peace: Many Stories, Many Lives”) In other words, Tolstoy is sermonizing while telling a story.
Tolstoy is very emphatic and specific about our takeaways from his tales. Take his anti-war message. Almost all the male characters start out harboring a youthful passion about the Great Men and the war. Tolstoy uses a romantic language to describe Nikolai Rostov’s adoration of the tsar: Nikolai fantasizes what “happiness” it would be “simply to die before the eyes of the sovereign,” and realizes that he is “indeed in love with the tsar.” Later, the exact same language is applied to depict the feelings that Petya—Nikolai’s younger brother—holds for his leader in the army, Dolokhov: in one scene, Petya is too infatuated to let go of Dolokhov’s hand; rather, he leans toward him and requests a kiss. Romance, almost by definition, suggests an ignorance of reality and admits illusion and falsehood. Soon, we attest to those characters’ awakening. After seeing the self-satisfied emperors and many devastated soldiers and civilians, Nikolai rids himself of all the halos of a glorious death. “We’re told to die—and we die,” he concludes, “If we’re punished, it means we’re guilty; it’s not for us to judge.” Similar moments of disillusionment can be found in Andrei’s and Pierre’s wartime experience. Petya, who doesn’t have enough time to acquire this insight, is shot to death in a battle. Nevertheless, you won’t miss Tolstoy’s emphasis: Dolokhov, Petya’s Great Man, doesn’t even bother to bury the dead admirer.
We may easily trace those morals to Tolstoy’s personal answers to the big questions he poses in the book. For example, he rejects the pervasive notion that Great Men determine the trajectory of history. Adopting the preacher’s voice, he argues in the beginning of Volume Three, Part Two, “the drawing of Napoleon into the depths of the country [Russia] occurred not according to someone’s plan, but occurred as the result of the most complex interplay of intrigues, aims, and desires of the people participating in the war […] It all occurs by chance.” In that regard, the enlightenment those male characters have attained during the war are artistic footnotes to Tolstoy’s outlook. There is also his answer to what a “true life” is, the philosophical inquiry that firstly loomed large before Tolstoy out of his fear of death: How can there be a meaning of life that is not canceled out by the inevitability of death? Tolstoy, through a lengthy spiritual journey, has found the key in faith and collectivity. Faith, as he wrote in A Confession, is the “meaning imparted by infinity—a meaning not extinguished by suffering, deprivation or death.” Collectivity, as a way out of one’s clinging to immortality, points to the possibility of a union with others through love. (Tolstoy, On Life.) Even though both essay collections, A Confession and On Life, were composed after War and Peace, the Tolstoian characters in the great novel have already come to the same conclusion, and their revelation arrives precisely at the moment when they are facing death. “I experienced the feeling of love,” the dying Andrei murmurs in hallucination, “which is the very essence of the soul and which needs no object. Now, too, I am experiencing that blissful feeling. To love my neighbors, to love my enemies. To love everything—to love God in all His manifestations.” Andrei’s epiphany is interchangeable with the lesson Pierre has acquired after he barely escapes death himself: “He could have no purpose, because he now had faith—not faith in some rules, or words, or thoughts, but faith in a living, ever-sensed God.” Andrei and Pierre’s revelation serves as the dramatic underlining of Tolstoy’s own philosophy of life.
This pronounced intention of storytelling complicates our perspective of Natasha’s ending: Is the abandonment of personhood Tolstoy’s ideal picture for women? Clues that support this hypothesis abound. First, we have the omniscient narrator’s explanation for Natasha’s disinterest in talks regarding women’s rights:
These questions, then as now, existed only for those people who see in marriage nothing but the pleasure the spouses get from each other, that is, nothing but the beginnings of marriage, and not its whole insignificance, which consists in the family.
[The same questions do not exist] for whom the purpose of a dinner is nourishment and the purpose of marriage is the family. (Tolstoy, War and Peace)
Arguably, the voice belongs to Tolstoy. Later in What Is Art, he draws a similar analogy between dinner and art:
People come to understand that the meaning of eating lies in the nourishment of the body only when they cease to consider that the object of that activity is pleasure. And it is the same with regard to art. People will come to understand the meaning of art only when they cease to consider that the aim of that activity is beauty, i.e., pleasure.
If family, as Tolstoy claims, is the only true purpose of marriage, it is logical that he applauds Natasha’s motherhood as the only true purpose of womanhood—even at a price of losing her individuality. As a matter of fact, we can find a personal note in Tolstoy’s real life to this, what seems now, very limited view of women. Like Pierre in War and Peace, the young Tolstoy lived a life of indulgence; he once confessed to Anton Chekhov that he had been “an indefatigable chaser after women.” In “Tolstoy the Apostolic Crusader,” scholar Rene Rueloep-Miller observes that after his famous conversion, the great author “regarded women as evil because they threatened to awaken man’s sensuality and to provoke what he called ‘the sin of fleshliness.” Tolstoy even recorded his generalization of women on the page: “Women are harmless only when they are wholly engrossed in the duties of motherhood, or when they have acquired the venerability of old age.” (Rueloep-Miller, “Tolstoy the Apostolic Crusader”)
In that light, every change that happens to Natasha in the end substantiates Tolstoy’s dichotomy of women’s virtues and physical attraction. In the novel, this dichotomy is also illustrated by a stark contrast between Pierre’s previous and present wife. Helene is extremely beautiful and always brags about a string of lovers. Natasha, when in her prime, almost sins by eloping with Anatole while she is still engaged to Andrei. However, as she grows obese, plain, and dull in the wake of marriage, she no longer poses threat to her husband’s moral integrity; rather, her lack of charm is sufficient proof of Pierre’s lofty mind: Pierre has finally learned “to see the great, the eternal, and the infinite in everything,” and leads a content life of simplicity. Interestingly, Tolstoy adds a nationalistic note to this outlook: the preservation of self, talent, and appearance after marriage is very “French,” with a prejudiced undertone of immorality. In contrast, the selfless, charmless, and very often mindless Natasha epitomizes Tolstoy’s authentic Russian women.
This type of transformation doesn’t happen to Natasha alone. Princess Marya who used to be a fervent spiritual seeker is also reduced to a mother and wife after marriage. Her religious side which previously gained Nikolai’s respect is no longer shown; instead, same as Natasha, she displays a complete failure in connecting to her husband’s intellectual concerns. The only difference between Princess Marya and Natasha is perhaps that the former doesn’t have the urgency to grow out of shape, since she has been stamped as ugly from the very beginning.
James Wood notices that Tolstoy’s storytelling has a lot in common with fairytales. For one thing, Tolstoy sometimes begins an episode with a throat-clearing “Here is how it came about.” (Wood, “War and Peace: Many Stories, Many Lives.”) The objects and plants in War and Peace sometimes can talk. (An oak tree once exclaims, “Spring, and love, and happiness!”) Also, Tolstoy punctuates the characters with their physical attributes: the “fat” Pierre; Prince Vassily with his “shinning bald head”; the “round” Little Princess. Yet, the most fundamental similarity Tolstoy’s stories share with fairytales is perhaps character “types.”
The good, married female type can also be found in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s other masterpiece. Kitty, a pretty, lively girl before marriage and a faithful, devoted mother after marriage, reminds readers of Natasha. And, like Natasha and Marya, Kitty is indifferent to her husband Levin’s intellectual side. The lofty, converted male types may include Levin. Just as Pierre gets to appreciate the simple beauty in life after his encounter with the peasant foot soldier Platon Karataev, Levin returns to his childhood Christian faith after talking to a peasant. Even though Levin doesn’t transform immediately, he believes that faith will eventually guide his life toward righteousness.
In essence, this is precisely how fairytales convey their morals: ascribing good or bad endings to different types. The beautiful, kind princesses always win the heart of the handsome, brave princes and vice versa; together they live happily ever after. In other words, virtues such as kindness, courage, and loyalty are always rewarded in fairytales. However, the real world is hardly—if ever—that simple. In a similar and yet more complicated way, Tolstoy tries to convince us that a submission to suffering promises a fulfilled, joyous life. Take the story about an old merchant that Platon Karataev tells Pierre when they are both taken prisoners by the French. The old merchant is wrongly charged for manslaughter and robbery and sent to hard labor. Coincidentally, the real culprit happens to be in the same labor camp with him. Feeling profoundly sorry for the innocent merchant’s suffering, the culprit writes a note to confess. With time, the tsar finally orders the release of the merchant. But when the message finds the poor man, he has already died. “The hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one’s suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering,” so Pierre summarizes the moral he has drawn from the tale. The story itself and the “rapturous joy” Karataev exudes when telling the story make me uneasy. Although I concede that suffering may potentially offer a deeper understanding of life, I wouldn’t go so far as to say all sufferings are meaningful and therefore necessary. But it is hard to push back. Tolstoy hijacks our way of thinking by imposing a religious condition: you don’t appreciate the significance of suffering because you don’t believe all is God’s will; if you have faith, you will agree with me. No, Tolstoy, that’s not a fair play.
The danger of preaching through types is that those types are no longer various personalities, but absolute moral judgement. In fairytales, for example, one of the most common villain types is the stepmother. With perpetuation and reinforcement, a moral connotation is carried directly through this identity, regardless of its specific contexts. We are imparted this false “rule of thumb”: all stepmothers are evil. This is what happens to Tolstoy’s female types. His bias of women wears the garment of universal truth: either they are attractive, childless, and morally suspicious charmers, or plain, dumb, dedicated mothers. He murders the energetic and pretty Natasha because he doesn’t believe women could be both glamorous and virtuous. He is responsible for Natasha’s death.
As a modern woman, I always stay alert when reading the portrait of women of the past. The married Natasha who speaks only her husband’s mind can easily find company in many other stories. In Chekhov’s short story “The Darling,” which was once reviewed by Tolstoy, whenever the female protagonist, Olenka Plemyannikova is attached to a man, she becomes a tape recorder of his opinions. There is also the story by Hans Christian Andersen, “What the Old Man Does Is Always Right,” in which the wife applauds her husband’s each and every stupid decision. Those characters do not necessarily bother me, as I know those kinds of women exist in a miscellaneous collection of humanity. But when I stumbled upon Margaret Schlegel in E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, I couldn’t hold still. Margaret and her younger sister Helen represent the “New Woman” type: independent, compassionate, and liberal-thinking. Earlier in the novel, when Margaret hosts a luncheon for Ruth, the matriarch of the wealthy Wilcoxes, Margaret is in every way the opposite of this conventional woman in service of her husband and family. When Ruth utters her belief that “it is wiser to leave action and discussion to men” and her gratitude in “not to have a vote herself,” the table falls into a polite but alarming silence. Unfortunately, after Margaret replaces the deceased Ruth to become the new Mrs. Wilcox, she accommodates herself to the role by taking her husband’s words as orders. It pained me to see her suspect the cold and distant notes Helen has written to her as signs of mental illness; she absorbs this thought from her practical-minded husband Henry who always defines Helen’s attraction to spiritualism, music, literature, and art as clinically-defined “hysteria.” For a certain period of time in that fictional world, Margaret the New Woman—with all her advanced knowledge and progressive ideas—falls back helplessly to a conventional woman type which she refused to be before marriage.
The unsettling picture reminds me of a remark my college professor once made about his female classmates: “I am really sad to see those who used to talk about philosophy and art now only discuss infant formula and diapers.” It may sound insensitive as uttered by a man, but I, too, have mixed feelings when seeing some of my female Chinese friends switch from a challenging job they enjoyed to a stable, routine bureaucratic position so they would have more time for their family. Like Margaret, they have turned into the women they once swore not to be. Viewing Natasha through the same lens, I guess what upsets me the most—more than her tragic loss in physical glamor and personhood—is a retrogression of her life trajectory. Spiritually speaking, the Natasha in the Epilogue is not that different from her thirteen-year-old self when she first emerges: bundling a doll in her skirt, she proudly tells her guest, “This is my younger one.” It feels as if she hasn’t advanced an inch of length in her spiritual journey with all the events she has been through in her life.
Almost all the male characters in War and Peace, on the contrary, have undergone a certain level of intellectual and psychological transformation. Take Pierre. He first appears as the illegitimate son of Count Vladimirovich and as a depraved young man. He is placed in the company of Anatole and Dolokhov; the three of them drink, gamble, and tie a policeman to a bear merely for fun. But through failures, struggles, and revelations, Pierre ripens into a New Man: kind, wise, content, a symbolic figure of the future Russian revolutionary. Tolstoy builds noticeable parallels between the two main characters: Pierre and Natasha. They are both seduced by extremely attractive lovers, and they both face the death of their loved ones toward the end. However, while the death of Karataev triggers Pierre’s rebirth, the death of Andrei is subject to oblivion for Natasha to move on. According to Tolstoy, whether the problem of death would initiate a revelation depends on whether the thinker confronts death concretely and corporeally. Pierre does. What ends Karataev’s life may have ended his too. The fear, anxiety, and despair pushes him to find a resolution or reconciliation in faith. Natasha doesn’t. Though heartbroken to see her ex-fiancé die, she is not threatened by war or illness or death, nor does she feel the urgency to search for the true purpose of life. In fact, all the Tolstoian female characters, domestically bound, fail to attain revelation through life experience as their male counterparts do. When Nikolai is awarded the St. George Cross, for example, Natasha’s initial response is “I’m so proud of him,” so are Sonya and Nikolai’s mother. However, exposed to the brutal nature of the war, Nikolai has already grown ambivalent about the decoration. I am not defending Tolstoy, but the huge discrepancies in the level of male and female life experience might partially explain his stiff portrait of women’s incapacity to connect with their husbands intellectually and spiritually.
Then again, this conundrum itself is a patriarchal social construct. Women’s lack of exposure to life experience outside the home originates from men commanding women to stay at home. In War and Peace, we can also see a curious parallel between Pierre’s and Marya’s religious pursuit. Pierre runs into a “traveler” who will introduce him to Masonry. But, when later he meets Marya’s wanderer woman, he speculates that Marya is dumb enough to have been deceived by a false monk. “It’s a trick,” Pierre blurts out. He does not realize that Masonry also craves his wallet, neither is he aware that the war itself is the biggest trick. As a woman, Marya does not have the freedom to wander and gain spiritual experience. She can only imagine herself walking in “coarse rags,” “with a stick and a bag down a dusty road,” and in the end arrive at the place “where there is no sorrow or sighing, but eternal joy and bliss.” That is the exact image of Pierre after his moral conversion: “Pierre’s clothing now consisted of a dirty, tattered shirt, the only remains of his former attire, a soldier’s trousers, tied with string at the ankles for the sake of warmth, on Karataev’s advice, a kaftan, and a muzhik’s hat, […] His former laxness, expressed even in his gaze, was now replaced by an energetic composure, ready for action and resistance. His feet were bare.” Clearly, Marya’s confinement in a conventional gender role prevents her from transforming into a New Woman.
Besides, the paternalistic cultural models that encourage men to protect women from potential harm often results in further restricting women’s life experience. Take the different impact that carnal love has left on Pierre and Natasha. Pierre almost kills a man out of jealousy and, reflecting on the whimsical duel, learns that his feelings for Helene are only wild lust, not love. Natasha does not seem to acquire any emotional knowledge from her aborted elopement. By driving Anatole out of town and locking Natasha up in her room, Pierre saves her reputation but stops her from possibly learning a life lesson from her failings. As a result, Natasha will fall for the next available suitor like before and her happiness will still be entirely dependent on whoever asks for her hand. This protective rhetoric is tricky because it is justified by the sad fact that women do not have the privilege to err. In Howards End, Leonard Bast—an impoverished lower-class man—summarizes the meaning of privilege sharply, “If rich people fail at one profession, they can try another. Not I.” Similarly, if a noble man like Pierre fails at his marriage, he can try remarrying, but not women, not Natasha. So the vicious circle goes on and on: the more men feel the need to prevent women from irredeemable pitfalls, the more they infantilize women.
Perhaps—and I am aware of my idealistic thinking—rather than sheltering women from the exposure to potential harm, or any life experience in general, we should instead fabricate a safety net for the underprivileged. That way, they can gain miles in their spiritual journey and, if they fail, they can start anew without paying too big a price.
Motherhood and an abandonment of individuality, in Tolstoian sense, is never a solution to women’s dilemma. (Tolstoy might even go on to deny that women faced any dilemma at all.) The final picture of Howards End as a home where the free-spirited Helen Schlegel and her extramarital son can fall back upon is closer to the concept of “safety net” which I proposed, but still, even that home is conditional on Henry Wilcox’s changeable conscience and hardly a guardian of women’s precarious lives. Nevertheless, fiction, as an agency of real life experience, engages us in the joy, shame, sorrow, and fear of others. By experiencing their struggles with women’s pressing issues concretely and corporeally, we may come to our respective resolution in reality, the same way Pierre realizes the meaning of a “true life” in facing the death of Karataev, an epiphany Natasha would have attained if given the same opportunity.