The Sonya Question: On the Forgotten Intelligent Woman of Tolstoy’s War and Peace

This paper was written for RUS 294: Russia and Ukraine (War and Peace) as my final research paper on War and Peace.

Tolstoy’s relationships to his female characters are complex, evolving over the course of his career. Despite his willingness to discuss the lives of women in his work, which was not often done by his male contemporaries, Edwina Cruise notes that “His bluntness on the subject of women became a Tolstoy trademark. There is no shortage of evidence in the ninety-volume edition of Tolstoy’s works to persuade even the most dispassionate reader that he espoused a tightly corseted view of appropriate roles for women.”1 This noted bluntness becomes apparent late in War and Peace when Tolstoy explains his dichotomy between “real” and “intelligent” women: “intelligent women, […] when they listen, try either to memorize what they are told in order to enrich their minds and on occasion retell the same thing, or else to adjust what is being told to themselves and quickly say something intelligent of their own, worked out in their small intellectual domain,” whereas “real women [are] endowed with the ability to select and absorb all the best of what a man has to show.”2 Due to Tolstoy’s framing of these definitions as opposites, readers can assume that a woman cannot be both real and intelligent simultaneously in his world.

For the purposes of this paper, I will interpret these definitions to mean the following: An intelligent woman seeks to engage in discourse with men and pursue the intellectual expansion of her mind, but is unable to do so effectively due to her “small intellectual domain.” A real woman, on the other hand, recognizes “all the best” of a man’s opinion and does not seek to participate, but merely to “select and absorb” as a diligent wife and mother without an interest in intellectual pursuits.3 Most of the female characters in the book fall neatly into one of these categories—Natasha and Marya are real women who end up married with families and pursue only domestic and spiritual lives, while Helene and Vera are intelligent and seek to participate in intellectual society with men—but Sonya seems to lie somewhere in the middle. She is closely associated with and essentially a member of the Rostov family, who Tolstoy upholds as the ideal “good characters” in the story, but she does not entirely fit into their world.4 I propose that the character of Sonya in War and Peace is an intelligent woman in Tolstoy’s moral universe, despite her association with the Rostovs, as she challenges male authority, boldly asserts her opinions, and remains unmarried without a family of her own.

In much of the scholarly work surrounding War and Peace, Sonya is entirely absent or discussed solely as a foil to the Rostov family and its members, but she is rarely discussed alone. In Morson’s introductory chapter to and summary of the work in The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, he does not mention Sonya a single time.5 Hagan only mentions Sonya in direct relation to Nikolai and how their relationship shapes Nikolai’s character development.6 Cruise considers Sonya exclusively as a parallel to Natasha and states that “unlike Natasha’s impassioned altruism, […] there is calculation in Sonia’s sacrifices; she accumulates good deeds as if she were using the installment plan to buy her wedding bells,” and that Sonya’s “fidelity to the past (such as the love [she] will always feel for Nikolai) is also contrary to Natasha’s deeply pragmatic nature.”7 From this analysis, Cruise appears to include pragmatism as an additional important trait for Tolstoy’s moral paragon of a real women.

Scholars also seem to view Sonya as a primarily stagnant character who does not grow significantly throughout the book. On her stagnation, Cruise claims that Sonya is one of the “inflexible and non-developing women who surround [Natasha]” and “illuminate the limitations of the kinds of love through which she passes,” thus classifying Sonya as a static character who is useful as a comparative tool, but not in her own right.8 Curtis explains that “Sonya’s concern with things, not people [is] her basic difference from the Rostovs,” again placing her at odds with the Rostov family and refusing to acknowledge that Sonya has depth beyond materialism.9 Feuer even asserts that Sonya lacks “the potential for heroism” and that “the very language in which Tolstoy writes of Son’ia tends to imply that her lack of fortune is an outward sign of inner deficiency,” which is one of the most condemning remarks concerning Sonya in this scholarship and does not allow for the redemption of her character within Tolstoy’s realm.10

This lack of acknowledgement of Sonya’s presence, individual significance, or development in much of the critical conversation surrounding War and Peace is unfair to her character, who is present throughout the text in many significant moments and certainly grows from the fifteen-year-old girl that Tolstoy presents early in the book. In my reading, though Sonya functions outside of Tolstoy’s narrow window of acceptable female domesticity and “is sentenced to live out her days on the margins of the family happiness she has so craved,” she evolves and interacts with the male-dominated world with ambition and intelligence.11 Even if morally condemned by Tolstoy, I seek to analyze her as an individual and intelligent character on her own terms—something that has been largely ignored by critics and scholars of this work.

Sonya is first introduced at Natasha’s name day party as a fifteen-year-old girl who is passionately in love with her cousin Nikolai. Tolstoy initially compares “her somewhat sly and reserved manner” to that of “a pretty but not yet fully formed kitten, which would one day be a lovely little cat.”12 Tolstoy’s use of the word “sly” and the imagery of a “cat,” an animal typically associated with cunning, reinforces Cruise’s belief that Sonya is partially driven by “calculation” and “scheming,” even from this early age.13 She fulfills this potential for calculation and manipulation almost immediately after her introduction when Nikolai smiles at another girl at the party and “Sonya [gives] him a passionately angry look and, barely holding back the tears in her eyes, with a false smile on her lips, [gets] up and [leaves] the room.”14 Here, Sonya displays an obviously falsified pretense of pleasantry, as indicated by “barely holding back the tears” and “false smile,” with the intention of regaining Nikolai’s attention. Her display succeeds and “all of Nikolai’s animation vanishe[s].”15 The completeness of “all of” his former interest in another girl “vanish[ing]” with Sonya’s cunning expression of restraint illustrates her skill in out-smarting men from the beginning, positioning her to become a true intelligent woman as she develops.

When the Rostovs are packing to flee Moscow before the French troops invade, Sonya again asserts her influence—here, by attempting to rationally take charge of the packing. While Natasha hurries about and orders for everything to be unpacked and repacked in different ways, Sonya chastises her by saying “with reproach […] ‘Let it be, Natasha. Enough, now, we’ll pack,’” and later, “‘Enough, Natasha […] I see you’re right, just take out the one on top.’”16 The repetition of “enough” demonstrates her exasperation with Natasha’s lack of reason. Even when Sonya admits she is wrong about a packing method, she still insists on being reasonable and efficient, as illustrated by her clear commands “now, we’ll pack” and “just take out the one on top,” which are traits that emphasize her grounding in the intellectual realm of reason. Even after Natasha and Count Rostov decide to leave most everything behind in order to carry the wounded, Sonya is “putting away the things that had to be left behind; she made a list of them […] and trie[s] to take along as much as possible.”17 She understands the Rostovs’ poor financial situation and recognizes that losing all of their possessions might completely ruin them. Though these actions may support Curtis’s assertion that “Sonya’s concern with things, not people [is] her basic difference from the Rostovs,” they also highlight Sonya’s willingness to rebel against the male authority of Count Rostov and her prioritization of the rational over the emotional and impulsive.18 She has grown from the “sly” and “reserved” girl in love in the first scene to a more commanding woman, who is willing to act upon what she thinks is the most reasonable choice and actively disagrees with men in authority.19

Sonya continues in her scheming when the Countess asks her to release Nikolai of his vow to marry her so that he can marry the wealthy Princess Marya, instead. At first, “for the first time in her life she [feels] bitter towards the people who had been her benefactors so as to torment her the more,” as she is being forced to relinquish the man “whom she love[s] more than anything in her life.”20 Tolstoy’s language here is severe, and the words “bitter” and “torment” establish Sonya’s anger and her defiance of the expected compliant behavior of a ward of the Rostov family. However, as soon as she realizes that if she schemes to bring together Andrei and Natasha, “they would love each other again, and that then, because of the family relations between them, Nikolai would be unable to marry princess Marya” and would marry her instead, she is “happy.”21 The simple and optimistic “happy” presents a large departure in tone from the despairing, angry language of before and appears to be solely attainable through the complex plan that Sonya has constructed, thus necessitating manipulation and intellectual calculation for Sonya’s ultimate contentment. Tolstoy’s equivocation of Sonya’s pleasure with her self-centered, intellectual plots begins to more solidly align her with the category of intelligent women, despite the limitless passion that she experiences in her love for Nikolai.

Ultimately, Sonya is unmarried and living in the house of the man she swore to love forever, watching his married life with another woman, yet she retains her separateness and intellectual freedom. Natasha describes Sonya to Marya as follows: “‘She’s a sterile blossom, you know, like on strawberries? Sometimes I feel sorry for her, but sometimes I think she doesn’t feel it the way we would.’”22 In the original Russian, “sterile blossom” is “пустоцвет,” which can mean “netherbloom” or “barren flower” and refers to a flower that, for unknown reasons, does not reproduce.23 Tolstoy’s use of “пустоцвет” to describe Sonya does not necessarily mean that she is literally barren and physically unable to bear children, but does imply that she is somehow a faulty woman for failing to produce a family. Natasha also notes a difference in the capacity for “feel[ing]” between herself and Marya, and Sonya, who seems less emotionally affected by this lack of motherhood than they would, perhaps due to Sonya’s priority of reason over emotion. Even while fulfilling her household duty of serving tea, Sonya continues to engage with and challenge men, as she sits “sullenly and stubbornly at the samovar, and question[s] Pierre.”24 Tolstoy’s choice of “stubbornly” and “question[s]” positions Sonya as an equal to Pierre in this discourse and, potentially, even above him, as she is asking the questions. This inverted power dynamic defies the ideal of Tolstoy’s real woman, who merely listens to men’s opinions without contributing to or challenging them.

By the end of the book, Sonya has evolved into a fully intelligent woman, growing from a coquettish, cunning girl to a strong, reasoning woman to a stubborn, morally defiant woman. Tolstoy still aligns her with the image of “a cat […who] became accustomed not to the people, but to the house,” but this is not the same sly kitten as before. 25 Rather, this new cat is comfortable with her distance from the intensely emotional life of “people” and prefers the predictability and rationality of the “house.” The evolution of the cat symbol throughout the text demonstrates that Sonya is not, in fact, one of the “inflexible and non-developing women who surround [Natasha]” as many critics believe, but is a dynamic character in her own right.26 Additionally, her lack of spontaneity and emotion, along with her glaring absence of motherhood and her continued discourse with and power over men, are enough to thoroughly classify Sonya as an intelligent woman within the confines of Tolstoy’s moral universe, meaning that she is ultimately punished for her behavior through her lack of domestic fulfillment.

Sonya’s fate is potentially the best possible outcome for an intelligent woman in the book, however. Helene dies of a botched abortion, Liza dies in childbirth, and Vera disappears entirely from the second half of the book, all of which are harsher punishments for their status as intelligent women than Sonya’s fate. Sonya is alive, actively involved in the plot, and has some agency at the end of the story, even if only sullenly confined to the edge of others’ domestic bliss. Tolstoy generally shows little mercy on the characters that oppose his morality, yet he grants Sonya a full character arc and continued influence throughout War and Peace. Perhaps, her proximity and dedication to the Rostov family partially redeem her, or perhaps, the consistency and depth of her love for Nikolai are favorable in Tolstoy’s eyes. Regardless, Sonya stands as one of the most developed—and, unfortunately, one of the most forgotten and discounted—intelligent women in War and Peace, and her character serves to complicate Tolstoy’s relationships to his female characters even further.


Works Cited

Cruise, Edwina. “Women, Sexuality, and the Family in Tolstoy.” Chapter. In The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, edited by Donna Tussing Orwin, 191–205. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Curtis, James M. “The Function of Imagery in War and Peace.” Slavic Review 29, no. 3 (1970): 460-80.

Feuer, Kathryn B. Tolstoy and the Genesis of “War and Peace.” Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Hagan, John. “Patterns of Character Development in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”: Nicholas, Natasha, and Mary.” PMLA 84, no. 2 (1969): 235-44.

Morson, Gary Saul. “War and Peace.” Chapter. In The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, edited by Donna Tussing Orwin, 63–79. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Vintage Books, 2009.

Толстой, Лев Н. “Эпилог XIII, ВОЙНА И МИР.” Интернет Библиотека. Accessed May 15, 2017.



  1. Edwina Cruise, “Women, Sexuality, and the Family in Tolstoy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, edited by Donna Tussing Orwin, Cambridge Companions to Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 192.
  2. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (London: Vintage Books, 2009), 1117.
  3. Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1117.
  4. James M Curtis, “The Function of Imagery in War and Peace,” Slavic Review 29, no. 3 (1970): 478.
  5. Gary Saul Morson, “War and Peace,” in The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy, edited by Donna Tussing Orwin, Cambridge Companions to Literature, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 63–79.
  6. John Hagan, “Patterns of Character Development in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”: Nicholas, Natasha, and Mary,” PMLA 84, no. 2 (1969): 236-39.
  7. Cruise, “Women, Sexuality, and the Family in Tolstoy,” 198.
  8. Cruise, “Women, Sexuality, and the Family in Tolstoy,” 196.
  9. Curtis, “The Function of Imagery,” 463.
  10. Kathryn B. Feuer, Tolstoy and the Genesis of “War and Peace,” (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 165.
  11. Cruise, “Women, Sexuality, and the Family in Tolstoy,” 198.
  12. Tolstoy, War and Peace, 41.
  13. Cruise, “Women, Sexuality, and the Family in Tolstoy,” 198.
  14. Tolstoy, War and Peace, 42.
  15. Tolstoy, War and Peace, 42.
  16. Tolstoy, War and Peace, 856.
  17. Tolstoy, War and Peace, 864.
  18. Curtis, “The Function of Imagery,” 463.
  19. Tolstoy, War and Peace, 41.
  20. Tolstoy, War and Peace, 957.
  21. Tolstoy, War and Peace, 958.
  22. Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1149.
  23. Лев Н. Толстой, “Эпилог XIII, ВОЙНА И МИР,” Интернет Библиотека, Accessed May 15, 2017,
  24. Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1167.
  25. Tolstoy, War and Peace, 1149.
  26. Cruise, “Women, Sexuality, and the Family in Tolstoy,” 196.

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