Like the book's men, the women of War and Peace represent a broad array of possibilities for their gender. But what makes the book unique is Tolstoy's commitment to nonjudgmental realism when describing the way a teenage girl grows into an adult woman. Without glossing over personality flaws, or desires run amuck, or the kind of self-indulgence most young people display, Tolstoy writes his female characters with kindness and empathy. In hindsight, we can see how he and his contemporaries were wrong to dismiss female intellectualism, but we would be hard-pressed to find more nuanced portraits of real, believable women in 19th-century literature.
Questions About Women and Femininity
What are the socioeconomic roles of women in the novel? What is appropriate and inappropriate female behavior?
How do different men view women in the novel? Take one woman – for example Natasha or Helene – and study the way several men view her. What does this reveal about her? About them?
This novel is unusual for its time because it depicts female friendships rather than only showing women competing with each other for male attention. Compare a few of these friendships. How is Sonya and Natasha's relationship different from Marya and Julie's, for example? Is there a friendship in which there is a true communion? Why or why not?
Chew on This
Natasha and Marya's greatest feat is shown to be their excellence in mothering their children. But rather than displaying a traditionally warm, nurturing, instinctual maternity, what separates Natasha and Marya from the herd is their orderly and intellectual approach to childrearing. In a way, we move here from observing governance on a countrywide scale to governance on a family scale. By showing women as capable of being methodical and rule-bound, the book is actually extremely progressive.
War and Peace places an enormous value on daughters' access to their mothers. Those who do not have this access need to find replacement mother figures or risk a dysfunctional adulthood.