There was something that bothered me about War and Peace that was obscured for me, somehow, by all of the other things I wrote about previously. There is certainly a lot one could say about War and Peace, so that’s not really surprising. And this one thing: it’s something that’s probably pretty easy to simply ignore, because the character doesn’t matter very much. I know this is true because Tolstoy told me so, in a variety of ways. The only problem is, he’s wrong. And he’s also a pig for saying it.
The character in question is Sónya Rostova–a poor, orphaned girl who is raised alongside her cousins Natasha and Nikolai Rostova, who are two of the main characters. In part because they were raised together, Sónya and Nikolai fall in love. It seems, for a while, as if Tolstoy means for them to get together—though, in fairness, it’s clear from the start that Nikolai’s parents have other ideas. Still, Sónya has hope. Over the course of the novel, Sónya has other opportunities to marry, but she refuses them, remaining true to Nikolai. He, on the other hand…well, his father is terrible with money, and marrying Sónya would be financially inconvenient. Plus, you know, boys will be boys. (Tolstoy is a pig.)
While it didn’t strike me on first read, going back I realized that from her first introduction, Tolstoy describes Sónya as being like an animal: “By the grace of her movements, by the softness and flexibility of her small limbs, and by a certain coyness and reserve of manner, she reminded one of a pretty, half-grown kitten which promises to become a beautiful little cat.” And he continues the comparison. Poor Sónya also does quite a lot of crying, but she is, after all, only fifteen, and her true love is going off to war. Still, not long after this, Tolstoy passes judgement via Natasha and Nikolai’s younger brother: “You [girls] are all blubberers and understand nothing.”
In the interests of avoiding boring the both of us—and because I don’t want to do a whole lot of re-reading—I’m going to jump to the part in the second epilogue that annoys and offends me the most. In the title of that chapter, Tolstoy says simply: “Sónya a sterile flower.” Of course, she is no such thing—he has merely chosen to portray her in this manner. This is in part, I believe, because she was too insignificant (being poor) to bother disposing of properly; in part because she was so weak as to wait for Nikolai, even knowing their union was unlikely, and with evidence that Nikolai wasn’t being faithful; and in part because Tolstoy didn’t much seem to respect any of his female characters.
But, you know, it’s not Tolstoy’s fault. Natasha says, as if standing in for Tolstoy: “Formerly I very much wanted Nicholas to marry her, but I always had a sort of presentiment that it would not come off. She is a sterile flower, you know.” Precisely nothing is presented to explain or support this comment. It seems merely to be a sort of excuse for deciding that it’s acceptable for Nikolai to have thrown her over for another woman simply because she had money. But, cheer up—it’s OK! “Sometimes I think she doesn’t feel it as you or I would.” Why? Because she’s not really human—she’s just a sterile flower, of no use to anyone except to be pretty.
Countess Mary (now Natasha’s sister in law—Nikolai’s wife) agrees with Natasha: “It really seemed that Sónya did not feel her position trying, and had grown quite reconciled to her lot as a sterile flower.” Perhaps the repetition in the mouth of a character known for her kindness and Christian morals is expected to make the comparison seem more valid, or less distasteful. It doesn’t. To emphasize Sónya’s inhuman, unfeeling nature, Mary further reflects: “She seemed to be fond not so much of individuals as of the family as a whole. Like a cat, she had attached herself not to the people but to the home. She waited on the old countess, petted and spoiled the children, was always ready to render the small services for which she had a gift.” At least Tolstoy vaguely recognizes some of this injustice, noting that “all this was unconsciously accepted from her with insufficient gratitude,” but that’s hardly redeeming. He seems to find it unfortunate, but not actually a problem or a tragedy.
There is more that can be said on this subject, but really, it’s too depressing. Poor Sónya is dehumanized, and we see yet again that wealth makes right, and a lack of wealth, regardless of one’s upbringing or inherent value, makes one truly valueless—unappreciated and even unwanted by those whom one serves with love. And of course, Sónya continued to serve the family diligently, in part because she simply had nowhere else to go. Her situation guaranteed that she would never be loved or married or have children of her own. And as Tolstoy himself notes, she would never be appreciated during her life—or, probably, remembered long after it.
In conclusion: Tolstoy is a pig.