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War and Peace 2013: Entry 16--Reading Sixteen

N.B.: This post will discuss only the events through the end of Book III, Part 2, Chapter 17. Unlike with The Odyssey, the eventual resolution of the story is not necessarily common knowledge, so I will make every attempt to avoid spoilers as we go. Also, there seems to be some weird chapter numbering going on with some editions of the novel, Kindle and otherwise. I've updated the reading schedule to make it clearer where the readings end and will be more than happy to answer any questions if you're confused.

Again, this is another catch-up post, so it will be less polished than I might wish.

"Sometimes, when [Mary] recalled [Nicholas'] looks, his sympathy, and his words, happiness did not appear impossible to her."

There's a (very) short story I first read some time ago--"The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin (go and read it if you haven't--I'm not kidding about its brevity)--that I couldn't help but think of while reading this section. In Chopin's story, a woman is told her husband is dead, and her life instantly changes. It's a strongly feminist piece, and that fact made me wonder: is Tolstoy a feminist?

Now, because this is a giant, thorny issue that I can't really address properly here, dealing as it does with many other writings--most notably Anna Karenina--I'll pare it down to: is his depiction of Princess Mary in this section, the longest Mary has had in the book as the central character, a feminist one?

The strongest argument against the idea of Mary as a feminist character in this section might be the quotation above and the passage it's taken from, where we find a fairly helpless and defeated Mary rescued by a noble officer who we know, conveniently enough, as Count Nicholas Rostov. The reality and ultimate outcome of Mary's hopes and Nicholas' feelings aside, it does seem a strange thing to say that a woman for whom happiness only appears possible when a handsome soldier saves her from her own unruly serfs should be considered a feminist role model.

On the other hand, Mary's devotion to her faith, to her family, and to her own sense of sense are unshakable, and have made her, possibly, the most consistent character in the book. Her refusal to leave her father, his dedication to tending him as he is dying, and her refusal to seek assistance from the French army all show her to have her own mind and a strong spirit if what she is doing she feels she is doing not for herself, but for others.

So is it when she speaks to the serfs at Bogucharovo. Like a latter-day Elizabeth I addressing her troops at Tilbury, Mary goes out to speak to the assembled serfs, offering them what her inner voice dictates: food, safe passage, relocation, protection. Of course, this attempt fails, and possibly even backfires. It is not until Nicholas appears and physically punishes the ringleader, Karp, and humiliates the village Elder, Dron, that order is restored. It would be easy--and defensible--to read this as a judgment of a patriarchal author on a woman who attempts to overstep her place. Or, more generously, we could read it as a person of strong character but little experience attempting to do the right thing by what her heart and morals dictate--even if that isn't what the situation calls for. When young Nicholas made mistakes early in the novel, was Tolstoy being anti-male, or was he simply showing that, sometimes experience matters?

In the end, I come back to those passages that made me think of the Chopin story in the first place: the ones describing Mary's feelings as her father lay dying. While she tries to pray and focus on his happiness and health, she is continually having thoughts about the possibility of a life without her father. The word "free" is used repeatedly, emphasizing that her father's death would be, for Mary, a liberation. She would become, like her friend Julie, a wealthy and independent woman. Should she choose to, Mary could now become one of God's Folk and go from shrine to shrine, the dream she previously had. But there's a moment, before the old prince dies, where it's made clear that's unlikely to be her future:

"[Mary] felt that a different world had now taken possession of her -- the life of a world of strenuous and free activity, quite opposed to the spiritual world in which till now she had been confined and in which her greatest comfort had been prayer." (emphasis mine)

Religion has been Mary's comfort, allowing her to accept her impossible situation with resignation and grace. However, he situation has now changed, and she is free to choose her own path. Tolstoy seems to think this is a good development. And isn't the belief that woman should be as free to choose their lot in life as men the first principle of feminism?

What say you? Is Mary a proto-feminist? Or a weak milk-sop who follows the orders of men, both human and supernatural? Let me know--comment here or on Twitter: @WandP2013, #WandP2013

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