Monday, July 13, 2015

Natasha Rostova

Natasha is one of the main characters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, first published 1869. She was based on a real person, one of his wife’s sisters, and remains one of the most lifelike characters in literature. Partly this is because of the method Tolstoy uses. We discover life along with and through Natasha as we watch her grow up.

We first meet Natasha at 13 in 1805 at a dinner given on her name day. “The young girl with her black eyes and wide mouth was not pretty but she was full of life.” Though an aristocrat, her loving family doesn’t really have the money to keep up appearances and the Countess, Natasha’s mother, begs her children to marry well. Natasha, with high spirits, falls for several attractive young men before meeting Prince Andrei at a ball and responding to his admiration for her “shy grace.”

Natasha as played by Ludmila Savelyeva
Once after spending the day hunting with her brother Nikolas and others, they are invited home to the wooden dacha of an uncle. “A smell of fresh apples pervaded the entrance, and the walls were hung with the skins of wolves and foxes.” A wonderful meal is spread out by the uncle’s peasant wife and a balalaika plays. Uncle takes up his guitar and motions to Natasha. “Natasha flung off the shawl that had been wrapped around her, ran forward facing Uncle, and setting her arms akimbo made a motion with her shoulders and waited.” Natasha’s performance is so perfect, everyone wonders how she could have known (with her French education), how she could understand “all that was in every Russian man and woman.”

Natasha becomes engaged to Prince Andrei, but secretly, because Andrei’s father requires that the marriage not take place for a year. When Natasha meets Andrei’s sister Maria and his father they show their disdain for her. At the opera she is introduced to Anatole, who plots with a friend to spirit her away. Natasha loses her heart, agrees to elope and breaks off her engagement to Andrei. But her cousin Sonja, terrified, gives away the plot. Pierre, another rich friend of the family, drives Anatole, who was already married, away. Natasha, full of shame upon learning of this, tries to kill herself.

Napoleon’s advance into Russia in 1812 began to involve all of the aristocracy. Prince Andrei leaves for the front. Natasha is very ill for a long time. She is somewhat buoyed by the visits of Pierre. Prince Andrei’s father dies and Princess Maria, detained on an estate where the French are about to arrive, is rescued by Nicholas, Natasha’s brother.

As Napoleon enters Moscow, everyone who can leaves and Moscow burns. The Rostovs are slow to leave, packing all their goods. But Natasha sees that there are many wounded who need to get away too. She has a fit and insists that the furniture be unloaded and the wounded men be put onto their carts. “Are we a lot of wretched Germans?” Natasha asks. She finds that Prince Andrei is among the wounded.

The Rostov family retreats to Yaroslavl and Natasha nurses Prince Andrei. When his sister Maria hears he is there, she comes to help. By the time she gets there, however, Prince Andrei is ready to “awaken” from life. Maria and Natasha become close. Andrei’s death makes Natasha intensely sad, until the need to console her mother for the death of a younger brother brings her back to family responsibility. Finally she and Pierre meet in Moscow and understand that they are meant for each other.

In an Epilogue, Tolstoy shows us the happy married life of Natasha and Pierre. Natasha gives herself completely to her family and is jealous when Pierre is not at home. She lets herself go and nurses her children herself. “As soon as Natasha and Pierre were alone they too began to talk as only husband and wife can talk – that is, exchanging ideas with extraordinary swiftness and perspicuity, by a method contrary to all the rules of logic, without the aid of premises, deductions or conclusions, and in a quite peculiar way.”

I could not help loving Natasha when I listened to War and Peace read by Alexander Scourby on 69 long-playing records which my father ordered from the state of Iowa at a time when I was unable to see well. I can still hear the respect and love in Scourby’s voice as he gave the proper weight to every sentence. It was a wonderful experience to live with the Rostov family, which was actually that of Tolstoy himself during the happiest years of his marriage.

As Tolstoy saw it, “in 1812 simplicity, goodness and truth overcame power, which ignored simplicity and was rooted in evil and falsity” [Rosemary Edmonds, translator]. Natasha, like the peasant Platon Karatayev, never sees her life as a separate entity, but as a part of a whole of which she never loses consciousness. It is for her rushing life, and for this consciousness, that everyone loves her.