War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace Women and Femininity Quotes
How we cite our quotes: (Volume.Part.Chapter.Paragraph). We used Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's translation.
Helene leaned forward so as to make room and, smiling, glanced around. As always at soirees, she was wearing a gown in the fashion of the time, quite open in front and back. Her bust, which had always looked like marble to Pierre, was now such a short distance from him that he could involuntarily make out with his nearsighted eyes the living loveliness of her shoulders and neck, and so close to his lips that he had only to lean forward a little to touch her. He sensed the warmth of her body, the smell of her perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she breathed. He saw not her marble beauty, which made one with her gown, he saw and sensed all the loveliness of her body, which was merely covered by clothes. And once he had seen it, he could not see otherwise, as we cannot return to a once-exposed deception. [...] "But she's stupid, I've said myself that she's stupid," he thought. "This isn't love. On the contrary, there's something vile in the feeling she aroused in me, something forbidden. I've been told that her brother Anatole was in love with her and she with him, and there was a whole story, and that's why Anatole was sent away. Ippolit is her brother. Prince Vassily is her father. It's not good," he thought; but while he was arguing like that (these arguments were left unfinished), he caught himself smiling and was aware that a whole series of arguments had floated up from behind the others, that he was at the same time thinking about her worthlessness and dreaming of how she would be his wife, how she might come to love him, how she might be quite different, and how everything he had thought and heard about her might be untrue. And again he saw her not as some daughter of Prince Vassily, but saw her whole body, merely covered by a gray dress. (188.8.131.52-37)
So there goes Pierre, thinking with something other than his brain. What's interesting is that Helene's main problem doesn't seem to be that she's superhot. It isn't really even the fact that she's maybe having an incestuous thing with her brother. Basically, we come to realize that her problem is that she is kind of an idiot. She's never been taught to think; she's always just used her looks to get what she wants. But looks without brains is a dangerous combination, as she finds out at the end of her story. But even if she had reached old age (um, spoiler, we guess), what would she have turned into?
The little princess [Lise] got up from the armchair, rang for the maid, and began hurriedly and cheerfully devising a costume for Princess Marya and carrying it out. Princess Marya felt insulted in her sense of her own dignity, because the arrival of the promised suitor excited her, and she was still more insulted that her two friends did not suppose it could be otherwise. To tell them how ashamed she was of herself and of them would mean to betray her excitement; besides, to refuse the dressing up they suggested would lead to prolonged bantering and insistence. She flushed, her beautiful eyes faded, her face became covered with blotches, and, with that unattractive expression of a victim which most often lingered on her face, she gave herself into the power of Mlle. Bourienne and Liza. The two women concerned themselves in all sincerity with making her beautiful. She was so plain that the thought of rivalry with her did not occur to either of them; they therefore undertook to dress her up in all sincerity, with that naïve and firm conviction of women that clothes can make a face beautiful. (184.108.40.206)
It's impressive that Marya is never revealed to be secretly beautiful; she just goes through the whole book being plain-faced. Even Nikolai doesn't see her as beautiful. What other female protagonists can you name that don't get beauty slapped on them as par for the course? We can only think of Jane Eyre, really.
There was tormenting doubt in Princess Marya's soul. Was the joy of love, of earthly love for a man, possible for her? Thinking of marriage, Princess Marya dreamed of family happiness and children, but her chiefest, strongest, and most secret dream was of earthly love. This feeling was all the stronger the more she tried to conceal it from others and even from herself. (220.127.116.11)
Check out the realism here! This book realizes and isn't afraid to point out that even Marya – pious, uptight, quiet, beaten-down Marya – has sexual desires and fantasies. That might make War and Peace ridiculously ahead of its time.