Thursday, January 9, 2014

Throwback Thursday: War and Peace

I read War and Peace a few years ago for a class and consider it too major a part of my literary life not to post something about it. Tolstoy has such spectacular characters, and you know how much I value a well-developed Character...

And so, here is an essay I wrote on Natasha as I was reading War and Peace. I think that this essay is better than anything I could write on the book at the moment, because it was written as I was immersed in the story.



Throughout War and Peace many characters undergo changes - Andrei, when he sees Natasha at the ball and is influenced by her vivacity and joyfulness; Pierre, when he becomes a Mason; Sonya and Nicholas, when they go as mummers to the Melukovs for Christmas. These changes are sudden and abrupt turns in the character’s lives.  But, more often, change is gradual, so that it is not noticeable at first, and this is what happens to Natasha Rostov.  We see her grow from a girl to a young woman and from a young woman to a wife and mother. Many experiences and outside forces, both significant and trivial, are involved in the continual shaping and refashioning of Natasha’s personality. One of these changes occurs at the opera during the Rostovs’ visit to Moscow. By comparing Natasha in the country, to Natasha in Moscow, we can see this change.

Natasha dances at Uncle's
(Artist: Valentin Serov)
In the country, Natasha is sincere, real, and natural. She watches the wolf hunt with excitement, and then accompanies the hunters to “Uncle’s” house. The house “with its bare, unplastered log walls, was not overclean - it did not seem that those living in it aimed at keeping it spotless - but neither was it noticeably neglected. In the entry there was a smell of fresh apples, and wolf and fox skins hung about” (Tolstoy 450). Uncle comes in wearing a “Cossack coat, blue trousers, and small top boots” (Tolstoy 450). He plays the guitar, and Natasha dances a Russian folk dance.  “Where, how, and when had this young countess, educated by an émigrée French governess, imbibed from the Russian air she breathed that spirit and obtained that manner which the pas de châle would. . . long ago have effaced? But the spirit and the movement were those inimitable and unteachable Russian ones that ‘Uncle’ had expected of her” (Tolstoy 453). Afterwards, “Uncle” sings “as peasants sing” (Tolstoy 454), accompanying himself on his guitar. The whole atmosphere of the party is earthy and peasant-like, heartfelt and frank.  Russian culture comes from the peasants, and in this scene, Natasha feels a connection to her culture.

Natasha's First Ball (Artist: Dementy Shmarinov)
The Natasha in the beginning of the opera scene is much the same as the Natasha who danced for “Uncle.” Fresh from the countryside, she does not understand why everyone enjoys the opera so much. “She knew what it was all meant to represent, but it was so pretentiously false and unnatural that she. . . looked at the faces of the audience seeking in them the same sense of ridicule and perplexity she herself experienced, but they all seemed attentive to what was happening on the stage, and expressed delight which to Natasha seemed feigned” ( Tolstoy 499). She does not fit into this society, as her personality is unique, or, as Prince Andrei put it, after meeting Natasha at the grand ball, “There’s something, fresh, original, un-Petersburg-like about her that distinguishes her”(Tolstoy 407)
           Steadily and gradually, this “something” begins to fade as the opera continues. Natasha watches Helene Bezukhova, who is in the next box, along with her brother, Anatole Kuragin. Helene is the prima donna of this artificial city world, and Natasha suddenly feels drawn to her. To Natasha, Helene is “wonderful,” and “a woman one could easily fall in love with”(Tolstoy 498), and it is obvious why Napoleon called her “un superbe animal”(Tolstoy 386).  Helene “could say what she did not think—especially what was flattering—quite simply and naturally” (Tolstoy 501). But there is no warmth in her, as there is in Natasha, as is shown in the grand ball scene. “Helene seemed, as it were, hardened by a varnish left by the thousands of looks that had scanned her person, while Natasha was like a girl exposed for the first time, who would have felt very much ashamed had she not been assured that this was absolutely necessary” (Tolstoy 405).  Helene “is a consumer of admiration: every glance serves as fuel to feed her vanity and to brighten the glow of her enticing body” (Benson 60). But Natasha looks up to Helene and wishes she could be like her. And slowly, as the evening progresses, Natasha does become a little like Helene. When Boris visits Natasha’s box, between acts, Tolstoy points out that, “the scantily clad Helene smiled at everyone in the same way, and Natasha gave Boris a similar smile” (500). During the second act, Natasha notices that Anatole Kuragin is watching her. “She was pleased to see that he was captivated by her and it did not occur to her that there was anything wrong in it” (Tolstoy 500).

A painting of Helene by Konstantin Rudakov
           Near the end of the opera, the dancer Duport performs, and “in the stalls, everyone clapped and shouted ‘bravo!’” After he has left the stage, “once more there was a terrible noise and clatter among the audience, and with rapturous faces everyone began shouting ‘Duport! Duport! Duport!’ Natasha no longer thought this strange. She looked about with pleasure, smiling joyfully. ‘Isn’t Duport delightful?’ Helene asked her. ‘Oh, yes,’ replied Natasha” (Tolstoy 501). Natasha is now merged with the crowd; she is no longer a unique personality.

But some parts of Natasha have not changed. She has always wanted to be loved, to love, and “to embrace the man she loved, and to speak and hear from him words of love such as filled her heart” (Tolstoy 496). But Andrei is not there, however, and these pressures influence Natasha’s mood before she goes to the opera. She is very impatient, as is shown before, when she rushes to her mother saying, “Him… I want him. . . now, this minute! I want him!” (Tolstoy 458). She is afraid that what he loved in her will be gone by the time he returns, and asks, “Why should I be wasted like this, Mamma?” (Tolstoy 458). So, even though she does not realize it, Natasha looks for someone to take his place. During the opera, Anatole “never removed his smiling eyes from her face, her neck, and her bare arms. Natasha knew for certain he was enraptured by her. This pleased her, yet his presence made her feel constrained and oppressed. When she was not looking at him she felt that he was looking at her shoulders, and she involuntarily caught his eye so that he should look into hers rather than this. . . she[realized] that there was not that barrier of modesty she had always felt between herself and other men. She did not know how it was that within five minutes she had come to feel herself terribly near to this man. . . She feared he might seize her from behind by her bare arm and kiss her… she felt that they were closer to one another than she had ever been to any man” (Tolstoy 502). Even though she has only known him for a short while, she is completely intoxicated with him, as Pierre was with Helene. She wants someone to love her now, and Anatole seems like the perfect someone.

Natasha painted by Dementy Shmarinov
Another way that Anatole and Natasha connect is that they both ignore conventions and do not care about what other people think of them. They both live in the present. After the “affair,” Pierre meets Anatole, who is out riding in a sleigh. Anatole is perfectly content: “His face was fresh and rosy, his white-plumed hat, tilted to one side, disclosed his curled and pomaded hair besprinkled with powdery snow” (Tolstoy 524). Pierre envies him, thinking, “He sees nothing beyond the pleasure of the moment, nothing troubles him. . . “(Tolstoy 524). The fact that he has almost had an affair with an engaged woman, and that his attempt to run away with Natasha has just failed, does not discourage Anatole.

Examples of Natasha living in the moment are numerous throughout War and Peace. One, as mentioned before, is when Natasha cannot wait for Andrei’s return, prompting her to the affair with Anatole. Another example is earlier in the book, when Andrei first arrives in Otradnoe and sees Natasha running and laughing outside. He, “depressed and preoccupied with. . . business,” is amazed at her complete contentment in life as it is (Tolstoy 389). “The day was so beautiful, the sun so bright, everything around so gay, but [Natasha] did not know, or wish to know, of his existence and was contented and cheerful in her own separate – probably foolish – but bright and happy life” (Tolstoy 389). This is the Natasha that spontaneously dances to “Uncle’s” guitar, and that is enraptured by the sound of the balalaika.

A sketch of Natasha by Nadya Rusheva
Comparing Natasha in the country with Natasha in Moscow at the opera, we can see some significant changes, and some similarities. In the country, she is vibrant, full of life, and very natural. At the opera, she is still vivacious, but in an artificial way. She does what others do, and loses some of the inner independence that prompted her to dance for “Uncle.” However, it is her own personality that causes her to be attracted to Anatole. Tolstoy wrote about real life, and this is the reason his characters are continually changing, being influenced by a multitude of outside forces. This altering of character happens in every one of us, and it is the way of life and reality.

  1. Benson, R.C. Women in Tolstoy: The Ideal and the Erotic. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1973.
  2. Knowles, A.V. Tolstoy: The Critical Heritage. London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.
  3. Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Maude ed. New York: Norton & Company, 1996.

Natasha and Prince Andrei dance
(Artist: Andrei Nikolaev)

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