Karla's observations

A Missing Side of the Story: Portrayals of Women in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace


Leonid Pasternak’s illustration to War and Peace, 1893

After years of putting it off, I finally decided to read War and Peace. According to my kindle I’m currently 27% into the book, and what’s the thing that has struck me the most? It’s the utter disdain with which the female characters of the book are depicted. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not going to get any better over the next 73% of the book. Tolstoy’s men in War and Peace are soldiers, brawlers, wealthy counts, fathers. They’re nuanced, fascinating characters full of contradictions, vices and virtues. The women in War and Peace, on the other hand, are two-dimensional extras; necessary evils that couldn’t really be left out of the book, because if they were, where would all the interesting male characters go to for sex and babies? Tolstoy describes his female characters as childlike, beautiful, plain, silly, in love, devoted to god, depraved. They entertain guests, dance, fall in love with big brave soldiers and say some prayers for their courageous brothers.

Tolstoy is held up as one of the great, if not the greatest, portrayers of human experience, but this would only be if we assume that women aren’t human. In my opinion, Tolstoy really only earned this title in relation to men, and aristocratic men at that. But it’s not just an ignorance of women’s experiences that emerges in War and Peace, it’s contempt. As Akane points out, seeping from the pages of the book is “a kind of thinly veiled abhorrence, where women’s bodilyness is used to articulate this disgust”. In War and Peace Tolstoy couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go beyond the most simplistic tropes of women as beings ruled by passions and emotions, which are trapped inside their beautiful or ugly bodies. To demonstrate, I want to introduce you here to four female characters from War and Peace – Princess Helene Kuragin, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, Princess Lise Bolkonskaya and Princess Mary Bolkonskaya – and examine the ways in which Tolstoy portrayed them.

Princess Helene Kuragin

I’ll focus firstly on the section in which Princess Helene Kuragin’s husband, Count Pierre Bezukhov, tries to kill her with a marble slab because he suspects she’s cheated on him. Pierre has in fact just gotten home from shooting the suspected offender, Dolokhov, in a duel. Helene comes to see Pierre and tells him it was pretty foolish to shoot a man in a duel because of his suspicions, and this is when Pierre decides he’ll try to kill her:

[Pierre] knew that he must do something to put an end to this suffering, but what he wanted to do was too terrible.43463_original
“We had better separate,” he muttered in a broken voice.
“Separate? Very well, but only if you give me a fortune,” said Helene. “Separate! That’s a thing to frighten me with!”
Pierre leaped from up from the sofa and rushed staggering towards her.
“I’ll kill you!” he shouted, and seizing the marble top of a table with a strength he had never before felt, he made a step toward her brandishing the slab.

Helene’s face became terrible, she shrieked and sprang aside. His father’s nature showed itself in Pierre. He felt the fascination and delight of frenzy. He flung down the slab, broke it, and swooping down on her with outstretched hands should, “Get out!” in such a terrible voice that the whole house heard it with horror. God knows what he would have done at that moment had Helene not fled from the room.

You might think Tolstoy was just trying to depict the violence and abuse women of the time had to endure. But everything written about Helene up to this murder attempt revolves around her ‘questionable’ sexual history and her efforts to use her extreme beauty to get rich. The following passage, in which Pierre is thinking about Helene just a few hours before he tries to kill her, gives a good indication of the general sentiment towards Helene throughout the first 27% of the book:

“One day I asked her if she felt any symptoms of pregnancy. She laughed contemptuously and said she was not a fool to want to have children, and that she was not going to have any children by me.” Then he recalled the coarseness and bluntness of her thoughts and the vulgarity of the expressions that were natural to her, though she had been brought up in the most aristocratic circles … “Yes, I never loved her,” said he to himself; “I knew she was a depraved woman,” he repeated, “but dared not admit it to myself.”

Here Helene is depicted as “contemptuous”, “course”, “blunt”, “vulgar” and “depraved” and she doesn’t want children. She’s essentially depicted as the worst kind of woman, and I read this characterisation of her as Tolstoy’s ‘justification’ for Pierre’s violence towards her. More or less 19th century victim blaming.

Anna Pavlovna Scherer

Now let’s go right back to the beginning of the book, the opening scene in fact. Anna Pavlovna Scherer is hosting a reception. Of Anna, Tolstoy had this to say:

Anna Pavlovna Scherer … despite her forty years, overflowed with animation and impulsiveness. To be an enthusiast had become her social vocation and, sometimes even when she did not feel like it, she became enthusiastic in order not to disappoint the expectations of those who knew her. The subdued smile which, though it did not suit her faded features, always played round her lips expressed, as in a spoiled child, a continual consciousness of her charming defect, which she neither wished, nor could, nor considered it necessary, to correct.

Anna, with her faded forty year old features and her defect of some sort, can apparently only derive worth as a result of having mastered the womanly art of being enthusiastic. Note also the way in which Anna is infantilised here: she’s described as “animated” and “impulsive” and is compared to “a spoiled child”.

Princess Lise Bolkonsaya

We also meet Princess Lise Bolkonskaya at Anna’s party. Tolstoy’s depiction and use of Lise essentially never change from this initial encounter with her. She’s pretty, amiable and vain, she embroiders and Tolstoy is seemingly fascinated with her upper lip upon which “a delicate dark brown was just perceptible”. In later episdoes we do learn a few more things about her: she’s a terrible gossip who never stops talking, she’s very childlike, she’s a big airhead and her husband, Prince Andrew Bolkonski, is kind of bored of her. Lise spends the time that Andrew is at war being pregnant with their son before dying an agonising death in childbirth upon Andrew’s return. I presume her job in the book was to produce an heir, and now the reader doesn’t have to worry about her and her silly ways for the rest of the story. Here is the passage from just after Lise has died. It more or less sums up her entire character in a few lines; she even manages to talk too much when she’s dead:

[Andrew] went into his wife’s room. She was lying dead, in the same position he had seen her in five minutes before and, despite the fixed eyes and the pallor of the cheeks, the same expression was on her charming childlike face with its upper lip covered with tiny black hair.
“I love you all, and have done no harm to anyone; and what have you done to me?”- said her charming, pathetic, dead face.

Princess Mary Bolkonskaya

Maria_Volkonskaya3Lastly, let’s look at Princess Mary Bolkonskaya, Prince Andrew’s sister (the women of the Bokonski family basically only exist in one way or another in relation to Andrew). Mary is really religious and really ugly. When a suitor comes to visit her, Lise Bolkonskaya and Mademoiselle Bourienne, Mary’s companion, try to dress Mary up a bit, and here’s how Tolstoy describes the whole ugly debacle:

[Lise and Mademoiselle Bourienne] quite sincerely tried to make [Mary] look pretty. She was so plain that neither of them could think of her as a rival, so they began dressing her with perfect sincerity, and with the naïve and firm conviction women have that dress can make a face pretty … it was not the dress, but the face and whole figure of Princess Mary that was not pretty, but neither Mademoiselle Bourienne nor the little princess felt this … They forgot that the frightened face and the figure could not be altered, and that however they might change the setting and adornment of that face, it would still remain piteous and plain.

Here women are portrayed as ‘rivals’ for men’s affections, as naïve, as overly concerned with the frivolities of dress and makeup. Mary in particular is described primarily through her physical appearance: as ugly and plain. No amount of help from her friends can alter her external looks. She’s a “piteous”, “frightened” girl trapped in her deficient body.

A Missing Side of the Story

To conclude, as a study of male, aristocratic life in Russia during the Napoleonic era, perhaps War and Peace is rich, nuanced and moving. But all Tolstoy can offer for his female characters are stereotypes of deficient beings trapped within their abhorrent bodies, and in doing so the book exudes contempt for women. As Akane points out, we would be reading a completely different book if the women in War and Peace were able to tell their stories in the same way that the men do. As it stands, we miss out on an entire side of the story.


5 thoughts on “A Missing Side of the Story: Portrayals of Women in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace

  1. You’ve read 27% of the book – that does not make you qualified to write such a lengthy critique on what is regarded as one of the greatest novels of all time. Natasha, a female, is one of the book’s most important characters. Sure, she is not book smart like Andrew or Pierre, but she has a love of life that the male heroes acquire only through her.
    You’ve misunderstood the entire book, especially the subtle satire of aristocratic life that is developed through both male and female characters.

    a few corrections: Mary is modeled after tolstoy’s mother, whom he loved deeply. She becomes more beautiful as her character develops, and is the paradigm of selflessness. She is certainly not a stock character. You are right – Helene is bad, but then her brother and her father are worse. Also, Ana does not even turn out to be an important character (part of tolstoy’s strategy, which I will not go into here). Also, your feminist criticism upbraids customs that were in place at the time, and were obviously not products of tolstoy’s imagination.

    Tolstoy was, in the modern sense of the word, somewhat sexist, but not at all in the way you frame him. Just read the book – then feel free to criticize Tolstoy’s misogyny all you want. Ps, woman and a feminist writing


    • Thanks for your comment Madeline. I certainly am going to read the rest of the book agree that Tolstoy’s exploration of the aristocracy was important. Your comments on the development of Natasha and Mary are interesting and I look forward to seeing this unfold as the book progresses. I do question though whether ‘love of life’ and ‘selflessness’ redeem the portrayal of women in ‘War and Peace’. I certainly think these qualities should be more highly valued. But they are nevertheless ones that are typically ascribed to women to their detriment, particularly when they’re contrasted with the more valued attributes given to men. I think things like ‘love of life’ and ‘selflessness’ draw on notions of women’s connection to nature and the maternal, trapping them again into narrow, pre-conceived roles.
      Do you have a different reading of this? It would be great to get your perspective on it.


  2. Did you ever complete your reading of this book? And if so, are you willing to rephrase your critique of the same? At 27% the plot and the characters were still poorly developed and as it is with Tolstoy, you may find a detestable character at the beginning who has redeeming virtues by the end of the book and vice versa.


  3. I somewhat agree. I assume you’ve finished by now, and you probably, like me, found the ending really disappointing (in regards to Natasha). I think Tolstoy did a brilliant job of reflecting society as it was found, but he unfortunately editorialized in ways that I found really disconcerting. Helene is a realistic character, it’s Tolstoy’s depiction, through Pierre, of her as stupid and vain that disappoints. Reading solely the events of War and Peace (discounting the ending), the women could be viewed as heroic; while their husbands are off at war fighting for their countries with guns, the women are at home fighting for their families with dinner parties and soirees, ensuring that all their daughters are properly married, and so on. But the way Helene is viewed by those around her (a view that is very clearly endorsed by the author) and Natasha’s supposedly virtuous closure just ruins all of that.


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