The beautiful, accomplished youngest daughter of the Rostov family, Natasha begins the novel as a willful and exuberant teenager and ends it as a happily married mother of four.
It's pretty obvious that Natasha is meant to be the most admirable woman in War and Peace. Honestly, if you're not getting that from her being beautiful, intelligent, musical, fun, funny, and engaging, you should probably go and reread the thing.
But she is a complex character, especially for the time Tolstoy was writing. This is 19th century we're talking about, after all, when women were mostly supposed to sit quietly in the background and sew while men discussed important things in the next room.
Sure, Russia was a little more relaxed (like France) than uptight (like England) as far as these things go, but it's pretty clear where Tolstoy falls on the whole women's-rights divide when he describes Natasha in later life ignoring all that equality nonsense as irrelevant to her life. (He's not exactly a feminist.)
Still, we don't get a portrait of a quiet and repressed woman here. We get a relatively realistic portrait of a girl growing up – first running around with her brother; then crushing on many, many boys; eventually falling in love only to fall in lust; and finally being mature enough to have a serious married relationship and become a devoted and excellent mother.
Natasha is allowed to make some really dumb decisions, and she is allowed to be sometimes insulting and offensive to people who don't deserve it, all while still remaining the book's ideal. Even though Natasha is generally a good person whose heart is in the right place, she can be vain, and she's given enough flaws to have realistic disagreements in her marriage. Basically, this is about the most intensely real woman you'll come across in anything written in the 19th century. At least in our opinion.
You know what else is pretty darned progressive about this character? Natasha is a woman who's actually shown to have a normally functioning sex drive. Maybe we've been reading too much Dickens around here, but boy, is it refreshing to see a young woman in fiction shown to like boys – and later, men – and not have that be some kind of horrible demonic thing that condemns her to a life of misery and prostitution. You think we're exaggerating? Have you read any Trollope recently?
This is not to say that the morals are any different in War and Peace. It's still a big no-no for Natasha to have sex outside of marriage, and women, like Helene, who sleep around aren't exactly looked on too fondly. But what the novel does say, pretty pointedly, is that Natasha's eventual success as a wife and mother comes from her learning about all the different aspects of love as a girl and a young woman.
Think about it. Natasha gets a helpful understanding of the power of sexual attraction from her near-elopement with Anatole, who makes her weak at the knees. And she gets a lesson in deep spiritual love and commitment from nursing Andrei while he's dying from his horrible wounds. Both of these experiences combine into the rich emotional commitment she feels for Pierre, as well as the clearly hot sex life they have together. (Hey, four kids in five years don't just come out of nowhere, you know.)Timeline