A Paradoxical Feminism: Tolstoy on Marriage

From the First Epilogue of War and Peace:

 

“Natasha had married in the early spring of 1813, and in 1820 already had three daughters, besides a son for whom she had longed and whom she was now nursing. She had grown stouter and broader, so that it was difficult to recognize the slim lively Natasha of former days in this robust motherly woman. Her features were more defined and had a calm, soft and serene expression. In her face there was none of the ever-glowing animation that had formerly burned there and constituted its charm. Now her face and body were often all that one saw, and her soul was not visible at all. All that struck the eye was a strong, handsome and fertile woman. The old fire very rarely kindled in her face now. That happened only when, as was the case that day, her husband returned home, or a sick child was convalescent… At the rare moment when the old fire kindled in her handsome fully-developed body she was even more attractive than in former days.”

 

I’m not sure what Tolstoy means here about her soul not being visible, unless, as I felt in the earlier days of child-bearing, there was just no energy remaining for the exertion of being fascinating. What I like about his description is the idea that the zenith of a woman’s full physical development is not sexual maturity or the completion of puberty, but later, often after childbirth when the body broadens. It seems much wiser to honor this state of being as “full development” rather than the fleeting moment in late adolescence when the body may be its most aesthetically pleasing, but really is not fully mature.

 

 

“…The young Countess Bezukhova (Natasha) was not often seen in society, and those who met her there were not pleased with her and found her neither attractive nor amiable. Not that Natasha liked solitude–she did not know whether she liked it or not, she even thought that she did not–but with her pregnancies, her confinements, the nursing of her children, and sharing every moment of her husband’s life, she had demands on her time which could only be satisfied by renouncing society. All who had known Natasha before her marriage wondered at the change in her as at something extraordinary. Only the old countess (her mother), with her maternal instinct, had realized that all Natasha’s outbursts had been due to her need of children and a husband…and kept saying that she had always known that Natasha would make an exemplary wife and mother.”

 

Referring to a “need of children and a husband” is so politically incorrect at the moment, I initially found it jarring myself. Considered in the full context of the novel, as we have watched Natasha grow from a beautiful and impulsive young person who made some rather careless and damaging decisions in her youth to a woman who finds fulfillment in domestic life and the service of others, it does bring to light the fact that the fiery and impulsive characteristics of youth were always meant to be temporary, and that a more mature and subdued womanhood is the aim of one’s “full development.” There are different ways to reach one’s full development, and it’s not incorrect to assume that some women do “have need” of a family to get there. One’s satisfaction in life depends on finding the best way to give oneself away.

 

 

“Natasha did not follow the golden rule advocated by clever folk, especially the French, which says that a girl should not let herself go when she marries, should not neglect her accomplishments, should be even more careful of her appearance than when she was unmarried, and should fascinate her husband as much as she did before he became her husband. Natasha, on the contrary, had at once abandoned all her witchery, of which her singing had been an unusually powerful part. She gave it up just because it was so powerfully seductive. She took no pains with her manners, or with delicacy of speech, or with her toilet, or to show herself to her husband in her most becoming attitudes, or to avoid inconveniencing him by being too exacting. She acted in contradiction to all those rules. She felt that the allurements instinct had formerly taught her to use would now be merely ridiculous in the eyes of her husband, to whom she had from the first moment given herself up completely–that is, with her whole soul, leaving no corner of it hidden from him. She felt that her unity with her husband was not maintained by the poetic feelings that had attracted him to her, but by something else–indefinite but firm as the bond between her own body and soul…

To fluff out her curls, put on fashionable dresses, and sing romantic songs to fascinate her husband, would have seemed as strange as to adorn herself to attract herself.”

 

I love this paradox that the sexes do not obtain equality by self-assertion so much as by self-gift. The one-flesh union is so strong between Natasha and her husband that artifice is superfluous since (barring radical narcissism) one cannot really seduce oneself. When the self gift is total and interminable, there is no need for endless seduction in marriage, which is a huge relief for women, on whom the burden of artifice is usually placed.

 

 

“There were then, as there are now, conversations and discussions about women’s rights, the relations of husband and wife, and their freedom and rights…; but these topics were not merely uninteresting to Natasha, she positively did not understand them.

Those questions, then as now, existed only for those who see nothing in marriage but the pleasure married people get from one another, that is, only the beginnings of marriage and not its whole significance, which lies in the family.

Discussions and questions of that kind, which are like the question of how to get the greatest gratification from one’s dinner, did not then, and do not now, exist for those for whom the purpose of a dinner is the nourishment it affords, and the purpose of marriage is the family.

If the purpose of dinner is to nourish the body, a man who eats two dinners at once may perhaps get more enjoyment, but will not attain his purpose for his stomach will not digest the two dinners.

If the purpose of marriage is the family, the person who wishes to have many wives or husbands may perhaps obtain much pleasure, but in that case will not have a family.

If the purpose of food is nourishment, and the purpose of marriage is the family, the whole question resolves itself into not eating more than one can digest, and not having more wives or husbands than are needed for the family–that is one wife or one husband.”

 

 

Interesting perspective on the modern marriage debate. What is marriage for? Is it for pleasure or family? If marriage is just for pleasure and not for family then no wonder women feel oppressed by the strain of child-bearing and domestic duty, paired with the pressure to remain ever youthful, fiery and seductive. No wonder so many marriages end in conflict due to gluttony for sex, division of duty, and the corners of the soul that individuals retain for their own self-satisfaction or preservation.

Only total self-gift makes the one-flesh union that alleviates questions of equality possible. No one ever wins at obtaining the most personal fulfillment out of a relationship like marriage, especially not the person who is biologically designed to bear children. Suggesting that marriage is for pleasure is hugely misleading, and predestines it for failure, since, on a superficial level, the pleasure scale is biologically tipped towards he who does not bear children.

 

 

Caveat: I realize that Tolstoy offers many varied depictions of marriage in War and Peace that are often not half as flattering as this one, and that by all accounts Tolstoy was not a happily married man himself, but this particular representation strikes me differently, and seems to get at something more true. Offered in the epilogue about his hero and heroine, it supposes an ideal in marriage that his other depictions do not.

About Elizabeth Duffy
  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Excellent blog. It’s probably been over 20 years since I read War and Peace, and at the time I was too young to be sensitive to the family themes of the novel. I do think this represents the Tolstoy vision of a good marriage. Now that i think of it, Anna Karenina, in my opinion an even better novel, devlops the marriage themes fully. If you have read Anna Karenina, it’s a must. The 19th century values of the great Russian writers are very much in line with Catholic values. It’s amazing how much our culture has changed, and not for the better.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/duffy/ Elizabeth Duffy

    Just a quick heads up, AW, you are at a Catholic blog, so there are a couple of presuppositions that inform the Catholic sexual ethic–which are that surrogacy and artificial insemination, being humanly engineered means of conceiving children, are against the natural law. I’m not going to debate those presuppositions here because there are so many printed materials on the subject.

    I’m also not going to debate the good intentions of homosexual couples who would like to marry, or the many failures of heterosexuals throughout history. The thrust of the debate is not WHO would like to marry, but what IS marriage?

    Is marriage for children and family, or is it for something else? And if it is for children and family, then biology dictates a lot about who marries.

  • Christy Isinger

    This was so great Betty! I haven’t read War and Peace since I’ve gotten married and “matured” so I missed these great insights of Tolstoy’s.

  • JoFro

    gay couples have been the families most likely to foster and adopt children with special needs and have given themselves over whole-heartedly to the project of building strong, stable families – yeah right! Someone needs to their head out of the MSM BS and go out into the real world!

  • Y. A. Warren

    This is beautiful, and i thank you for sharing it. It is tragic when the two people married are married for different reasons, as does often happen.

    Two people can be a family without procreation. In a sacred union of any two people: in brother/sisterhood, friendship, marriage, and even business partnerships, the responsible compassion energy produced by their union is so great as to spill over onto others. This creates where two are more are gathered in Jesus’ example. This, not archaic rules designed to create more soldiers for conquering kingdoms on earth, is the spirit by which I live and accept the relationships of others.