After many months of reading War and Peace, I finally finished it. Did I enjoy it? Absolutely, for most of the book. I loved the way Tolstoy developed his characters. I had a lot more trouble with the pages and pages of military strategy that involved none of the main characters. I didn’t mind Tolstoy’s philosophizing so much; in fact I enjoyed his insights about how historians over-simplify wars as being driven by the brilliance or failure of a single man. In Tolstoy’s view, war can’t be reduced to the influence a single man (e.g. Napoleon) it’s about the dynamics of a mass of people, and it’s also about chance, to some degree.
But in terms of its characters War and Peace was brilliant. Tolstoy creates a large number of characters, but at the heart of the book there are brother and sister Andrei and Marya Bolkonsky, brother and sister Natasha and Nicholas Rostov, and Pierre Bezukhov Over the course of the war and its aftermath, we see each of these characters grow and develop in ways we don’t expect.
How has the character changed? Has your opinion of them altered? Are there aspects of their character you aspire to? or hope never to be? What are their strengths and faults? Do you find them believable? If not, how could they have been molded so? Would you want to meet them?
My favorite character in the book turned out to be Marya, although at the beginning, when I gravitated more to Natasha. These two women are polar opposites. Natasha is immature, frivolous but charming, where Marya is serious and religious. Natasha is beautiful and vibrant, while Marya is plain and dull. Both are born into privilege, although Natasha’s family loses most of their money and must keep the family afloat by marrying rich families.
Marya loves her family but is basically a slave to her emotionally abusive father. Prince Nikolay belittles her at every turn, and the more she does for him the less she is appreciated. She is constantly thinking of others, from her father and brother to religious pilgrims to servants and friends.
SPOILER ALERT: It’s difficult to talk about the development of Marya’s character without revealing aspects of the story, so be warned. However, I’ve tried to keep the details minimal and the plot points described here aren’t necessarily the major events in the story.
There are a few instances in the book that really demonstrate Marya’s character. The first occurs when she meets and is about to become engaged to a handsome but very shallow man. Even though he’s completely wrong for her, she’s seduced by his charm and good looks, and thinks herself in love. He of course only wants to marry her for her money, but at the same time the deal is being struck, he makes a secret encounter with Marya’s less-well-off but more attractive companion Madame Bourienne. It’s fortunate that Marya catches them together; it’s left up to her to decide whether to cancel the engagement. She desperately wants to marry this man and desperately wants a way out of the life she has serving her father. The interesting thing is that she decides to cancel the engagement, not out of anger or betrayal, but out of concern for her friend Madame Bourienne, who might be heartbroken if she were to marry him (she misunderstands the nature of their liaison as something romantic).
Another incident occurs when her family must flee from the oncoming French, who are about to invade Smolensk and then Moscow. All the wealthy families are moving, which means their servants pack up all their things for them and they flee to their country estates. Marya alone shows a real concern for the plight of her servants, although when she tries to see that they have food, they misunderstand her and become angry instead. In the end, Marya has to flee from the servants she was trying to help.
But my respect for Marya really develops when she finally becomes involved in a relationship (to remain nameless). For most of the book, she is fairly timid and doesn’t stand up for herself. But in this relationship she sees herself as more of an equal. At first she is uncertain and afraid to say how she feels, but eventually, more than any other character in the novel, she says exactly how she feels, and at the times it matters most. At one point, the man she loves becomes so traumatized by the losses of the war that he cuts her out of his life. He visits her just to be polite, and says almost nothing. When he’s about to leave, she gathers all her courage and stops him and really looks him in the eye. And it is that look, that honesty, that brings them back together.
Whether it’s the 19th century or the 21st, that is a really hard thing to do. There have been plenty of times in my life where you know someone is brushing you off, and you walk away and never confront or resolve the problem. Marya is courageous enough that even when she is the most hurt, she tells the truth and expects others to do the same.
Tolstoy follows Marya and the other characters for about 8 years after the war, and Marya retains this aspect of her character. When her husband doesn’t want to talk about something, she makes him talk anyway. When he doesn’t want to be involved in the lives of their children, she makes him see the things he’s missing by forcing him to read her journal.
As with most characters, I liked Marya for being so strong and at times, unconventional, but I really liked her because she’s not perfect. She makes mistakes, she lets herself be used, and she can be far too critical of herself, but she’s always a fundamentally good person. I admired her devotion to her family and her faith, but I admired more the way she grew into someone who could stand up for herself and demand honesty and respect from others.