Reading “War and Peace”: Natasha and Helene

The two of the most prominent female characters in War and Peace are Natasha and Helene. The two women couldn’t be more starkly contrasted with each other. And in their stark contrasts, the two move toward different destinies like the two unfolding cities in St. Augustine’s masterpiece The City of God.

Like Andrei and Pierre, Natasha and Helene are devised as paired characters to each. The dialectical contrasts between the two are great and readily apparent. Helene is beautiful, but bodily objectified, and somewhat dull in mannerisms and face. She has the same constant smile and bares her lovely shoulders and breasts to the crowds. She is never described as having a face filled with life and the concentration of Helene’s features never center on the eyes—which are the window to the soul and, as such, life:

Helene smiled. She rose with the same unchanging smile with which she had first entered the room—the smile of perfectly beautiful woman. With a slight rustle of her white dress trimmed with moss and ivy, with a gleam of white shoulders, glossy hair and sparkling diamonds, she passed between the men who made way for her, not looking at any of them but smiling on all, as if graciously allowing teach the privilege of admiring her beautiful figure and shapely shoulders, back, and bosom.

Natasha is the exact opposite of Helene. Not only is she yet a woman—at the time just a 12-year old girl, she is also described as not being particularly beautiful but has eyes filled with life. When introduced to Natasha, she is described as “black-eyed, wide-mouthed…not pretty but full of life, with childish bare shoulders.” Note how this is a stark contrast, at least carnally, with Helene. But Natasha, unlike Helene, is also “full of life”—a prophetic foreshadowing of their destinies.

To use modern English jingo, Helene is, in many ways, the typical “Valley Girl,” the “hot-blonde,” who is the ideal “trophy girlfriend” or “trophy wife.” She turns heads at all the venues. But she is more than that. She is cunning, rather than naïve. She has ambitions, and she executes these plans to deadly effect on Pierre and Natasha as the story unfolds. Helene is also the classical femme fatale, and that is perhaps the better model to view her as representing. She is the sexy and objectified woman whom lustful men would die for; but she is not a doltish and naïve sex-craved machine like the California Blonde of post-1980s American cultural mythology. She is a cunning and deceptive figure like Ishtar in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Aphrodite, Hera, or Athena in the Iliad, or Juno in the Aeneid.

And so Helene is a cunning but equally beautiful woman who can seduce men to their doom. Natasha is the opposite. Yet a woman, she is deeply naïve as reflective in her romance with Andrei but especially her falling prey to Anatole Kuragin at the behest of Helene who is implied to be the backroom mover of the breaking up of the betrothal between Natasha and Andrei. When Natasha is confronted by her best friend and cousin, Sonya, along with her maid, she accuses them of misdeeds and hate. She excoriates Sonya for not understanding true love and not knowing Anatole like she does despite they have only been together for a few hours and bases her knowledge of him by his flattering and deceitful letters. Natasha is not the image of picturesque beauty like Helene, and unlike Helene who is cunning, Natasha is childish and naïve. Yet, Natasha was the one filled with life and whose eyes always remain a major image in her scenes because eyes, as the window to the soul, are also the wombs of life.

Despite Natasha’s many naïve mistakes, she slowly develops to maturity; both physically and emotionally (or intellectually). In a touching scene with Andrei before his death, she begs his forgiveness for realizing the pain and torment she has caused by falling for Anatole’s predatory advances. Andrei, in his Christ-like moment of forgiveness, tells her that she has nothing to apologize for because he has already forgiven her. As she matures, she falls in love with and marries Pierre. Their marriage is not perfect, but it is loving. Natasha’s joy is found in the love of her husband and the joy of childbearing. Natasha, who was introduced as full of life, brings life into the world with her love of Pierre which manifests in the birth of a child.

Helene, by contrast, beautiful though she is, was never once described as teaming or boiling with life like Natasha. Helene’s marriage to Pierre was purely for material advancement—something that also enriched her family’s status in Russian high society. She doesn’t love Pierre and causes him much grief and pain. Helene eventually seeks divorce and pays for her sins. Literally.

Helene’s conversion to Catholicism is motivated by self-centered greed. She pays her Jesuit teacher, to give to the Pope, a large sum of money to secure the annulment. But her sins must be paid for as all sins must. Helene dies, it is implied, through a botched abortion. Her beauty was deadly; it killed her. It nearly killed Pierre too.

Tolstoy presents two models of womanhood but one model of femininity. Natasha becomes a woman and embraces her nature through her femininity which is receptive to life and family. She grows in her love and becomes a blossoming flower of joy. Helene, by contrast, is a woman but never exudes femininity in the traditional sense. Far from being open to love and life, she shuts herself off from it; as such, she moves down the path destined for women who advance themselves like men in the cut-throat world of materialism (represented by Helene’s material beauty and concern for wealth and societal status). Unreceptive to life, her moment of bringing life into the world is the very thing that kills her. Natasha, being the living conduit of life, in her marriage with Pierre, ends up bringing life into the world as already mentioned.

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