Volume II, Part One is framed by Nikolai and Sonya’s love. It is there in Chapter I, when Nikolai and Natasha discuss it, and again in Chapter XVI when he pays forty-three thousand rubles to Dolokhov, who has skinned him at cards out of spite at Sonia’s refusal of his offer of marriage. A remarkable length of time elapses in these few chapters: Chapter I occurs at the beginning of 1806; the duel takes place in March; and Chapter XI on take place in the Christmas season.
I am struck by the examples of the women who are in it, or how they are imagined by the men around them.
There is Sonya, a beautiful girl of sixteen, whom Nikolai will not renounce. On the other hand he sees himself as too busy for love. (And what does it mean to say that he is “going there?”) Dolokhov apparently sees her as the exemplar of
that heavenly purity and faithfulness that I seek in a woman. If I had ever found such a woman, I would have given my life for her … And believe me, if I still value my life, it’s only because I still hope to meet the heavenly being who will resurrect, purify, and elevate me.
That the faithfulness applies to Nikolai Rostov does not improve Dolokhov’s temper. And there is nothing to indicate that Dolokhov has previously gone looking for such a woman where he might be in danger of finding her. Her moral character and her devotion of Nikolai are not put into doubt. We do not see her from the inside though: she has almost fewer lines to speak than Elena Bezhukov.
There is Elena Bezhukov. Is she Dolokhov’s mistress as the town gossip says, and a depraved woman as Pierre decides? Probably, given her form in the book. Yet she is one of the characters we see not at all from the inside.
There is the Princess Lise Bolkonsky. Chapters VII through IX take her from a silly, self-absorbed woman to a mother suffering in childbirth, and kill her. She ends as victim, really as an archetype, with the face that says
I love you all, I did no harm to anyone, why am I suffering?
Ah, what is that you have done to me and why?
The old prince, who received the news of his son’s presumed death with anger but no tears, bursts into sobs over the death of his daughter-in-law. Prince Andrei feels that
something snapped in his soul, that he was to blame for something he could neither set aright nor forget. He was unable to weep.
Natasha, the book’s darling, begins as just Nikolai’s little sister, in between little girl and young woman. Later in the year, she shows the sense to find Dolokhov bad company, and to see that he is in love with Sonya. By the second-last chapter, Denisov will have made a proposal of marriage to her. Yet she remains a girl, falling on back on her mother to manage the refusal of Denisov.