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A Sterile Flower

by Leo Tolstoy


Rosanna M. Taormina Darmouth University
Due: March 4, 1996

Professor Sheehan
English 5, Section 7


A Sterile Flower



"To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away." (1275) Natasha's explanation of her cousin Sonya's life could not have been better exemplified. While Natasha, Prince Andrew, and Pierre are the characters upon whom most readers of War and Peace focus, this young Rostov cousin should not be ignored. Sonya's role in War and Peace is so often overshadowed by the other characters with whom she comes into contact. The people she loves most take her life of commitment and sacrifice for granted. The reader is thus also inclined to give little emphasis to her role in their lives and in the novel as a whole. As someone who has essentially nothing, Sonya is willing to give everything she has to those she loves. She gives of herself willingly and thanklessly. This life of sacrifice truly embodies Sonya's altruistic character. This genuine nature of her character allows her to reveal so much about those with whom she interacts throughout the novel. With Sonya's seeming "simplicity" in the background, Tolstoy fully develops the characters of Natasha and Nicholas. He uses Sonya as a foil for his heroine, Natasha, and also as a chart of growth for Natasha's brother, Nicholas. Tolstoy even uses Sonya as a contrast to Princess Mary. Here, if one looks further, one will find that there is very little contrast at all between the two women. Most importantly, Sonya is an illustration of society's effects on a poor and selfless young girl who puts her needs below those of all others. Tolstoy employs Sonya's character in a variety of situations. Without Sonya, a great deal of his novel's depth and richness would be lost.

Sonya is first introduced as Count Rostov's fifteen-year-old niece who has been orphaned and, as a result, is living with the Rostov family. She and her cousin Natasha are the best of friends. The two are virtually inseparable. The bond between these two characters allows Tolstoy to set up many controlled, revealing situations. Tolstoy often puts these two women in the same situation and allows the depths of the characters to benefit from this comparison.

At the beginning of the novel, both Natasha and Sonya are "in love." Natasha is in love with Boris, and Sonya with Nicholas. Though the playful love of teenage girls, the feelings present the first situation employed by Tolstoy to compare the two friends. Both Boris and Nicholas are leaving for the war with the promise of one day marrying the two young girls who they now leave behind. The departure of Nicholas devastates Sonya. She vows to always love him even though she knows in her heart how hard it would be for the two cousins to marry. Sonya feels this love so strongly that she pledges to Nicholas her undying devotion. This devotion never ceases despite several temptations. The same, however, cannot be seen for Natasha.  

Natasha's love for Boris is short-lived, which leaves the reader to question whether it was true love at all. Natasha later becomes fancied with Pierre, Denisov, Prince Andrew, and Anatole Kuragin. Only when her person has fully matured does she finally realize her true love for Prince Andrew and then for Pierre. Both women are presented with alternatives to the men to whom they have pledged their love, and both women react differently, again revealing a parallel.

After Natasha and Prince Andrew become engaged, they must be apart for a years time. Natasha then falls into a slight depression. "She felt sorry for herself: sorry that she was being wasted all this time and of no use to anyone - while she felt herself so capable of loving and being loved." (569) Natasha loves to be admired, and, with Prince Andrew gone, she feels as though she is not appreciated. The first person after Prince Andrew's departure to show interest in Natasha is Anatole Kuragin. Though manipulated by the insurmountable forces of his sister Helene and the vast nexus of society, Natasha gives in to the man who pays her the most attention and who shows appreciation for her beauty. Natasha even convinces herself that she is in love with Anatole because he claims to be in love with her. "Yes, yes! I love him," (637) she tells herself as she decides to run away with him. The only one who can save her is Sonya, and she does. She says to herself, "Now or never I must prove that I remember the family's goodness to me and that I love Nicholas. Yes! If I don't sleep for three nights I'll not leave this passage and will hold her back by force and not let the family be disgraced." (642) Sonya would risk everything for Natasha and the Rostov family. For this, however, she would receive virtually no thanks. By opposing Natasha's relationship with Anatole, Sonya risks their friendship. "I hate you, I hate you! You're my enemy forever," says Natasha to Sonya. (641) "You don't know what love is. . . ." (638) Here, Natasha is most assuredly in err.

Sonya is also presented with a suitor while Nicholas is away, again demonstrating Tolstoy's use of parallelism. Though Nicholas is away at war for over a year, Sonya patiently awaits his return and thinks continuously of her potential marriage to him. When Nicholas comes home on leave, his friend, Dolokhov, frequents the Rostov household. ". . . the question for whose sake he came (though no one spoke of it) was soon settled. He came for Sonya." (356) Tolstoy continues, "It was evident that this strange, strong man was under the irresistible influence of the dark, graceful girl who loved another." (356) Despite the attention paid to Sonya by Dolokhov, and despite society's deeming the two a perfect match, Sonya does not corrupt her love for Nicholas. Says Nicholas to Sonya, "You are an angel: I am not worthy of you." (359) There are few such men worthy of this genuine love and timeless devotion.

Sonya's steadfast love for Nicholas thus leads her to refuse Dolokov's hand in marriage. This rejection serves as the catalyst for an truly important event in Nicholas Rostov's life. Once again, without Sonya, this event would not have occurred. Dolokhov invites Nicholas to a "friendly" game of cards a few days after his proposal to Sonya. This game of cards proves not to be friendly, but provides the reader with a broader and deeper insight into the character of Nicholas Rostov. Nicholas looks up to Dolokhov and considers him a close friend. After Sonya refuses Dolokhov for her love of Nicholas, Dolokhov's pride and inherently corrupt morals lead him to seek revenge. Nicholas loses forty-three thousand rubles to Dolokhov, who sets the number at forty-three for it is the sum of his and Sonya's ages. Nicholas could do nothing to resist or even realize what was happening to him. He then sees that he has trusted and defended a man who could hurt him without cumpunction, indeed even with pleasure.

In addition to illuminating the genuine character of both Natasha and Nicholas Rostov, Tolstoy's depiction of Sonya reveals much about the society in which she lives. This society takes advantage of the young girl who wants nothing more than the happiness of those she loves. Tolstoy describes Sonya as having a smile that "could not for a single instant impose upon anyone." (41) She never asks anything of anyone and only gives of herself. Of this, she never complains, but is only too happy to be of use. Society, however, calls on her to make the ultimate sacrifice. As a result of the mismanagement of Count Rostov's affairs, the Rostov household finds itself in great debt. Nicholas's marrying of Sonya would be the greatest joy in her life, yet it would bring disaster upon the Rostov family. Countess Rostova wants so much for Nicholas to marry an heiress, in particular Princess Mary Bolkonskya, to save the family from financial ruin. "She knew that Sonya was the chief obstacle to this happening, and Sonya's life in the countess' house had grown harder and harder. . ." (1060) Sonya had not done anything disagreeable to the countess, yet she was being punished for the purest aspect of her character, her love. Because she cannot bare to wrong the family that has done so much for her, she writes a letter to Nicholas releasing him of his pledge to marry her. "It would be too painful to me to think that I might be a cause of sorrow or discord in the family that has been so good to me and my love has no aim but the happiness of those I love." (1059) She asks Nicholas to consider himself free and assures him that "in spite of everything, no one can love you more than does your Sonya." (1059) She does not seek to love another, but encourages Nicholas to marry Princess Mary. Tolstoy seems to be saying that there exists something stronger than the pureness of her love: the nexus of society that does not support the marriage of cousins for love, but instaed supports marriages promoting financial advancement.

Nicholas's marriage of Princess Mary, instaed of to Sonya, leads the reader to draw an interesting parallel between the two women. When one frst meets Princess Mary, one envisions a woman whose life is based entirely on self-sacrifice. She does only for others and puts her father's happiness above her own. Never does Princess Mary complain, but finds joy in making others happy. These same characteristics are exhibited by Sonya throughout the novel. "She must sacrifice herself for the family that had reared and brought her up. To sacrifice herself for others was Sonya's habit. Her position in the house was such that only by sacrifice could she show her worth, and she was accustomed to this and loved doing it." (1060) Neither Princess Mary nor Sonya are ever thanked for their amazing munificence, yet they are happy performing their deeds nonetheless. As Princess Mary says, "we don't really love people so much for the good they have done us, as for the good we have done them." (109) Though it may seem a drastic change for Nicholas's love to switch from Sonya to Princess Mary, due to their self-sacrifical nature, the reader may realize this not to be a change at all.

One can say that Sonya's selflessness and pure love for one man, despite her plight in life, are characteristics that Tolstoy himself admires. Sonya is the fictional representation of Tolstoy's beloved Aunt Tatyana Aleksandrovna Yergolskaya. His favorite Aunt Tanya was one of the most important influences in his life, and Tolstoy recognized her as one of his greatest supporters in his vocation as an author. Tolstoy's Aunt Tanya, like Sonya, was a cousin of Nikolay Ilich Tolstoy, Leo Tolstoy's father and the character on which Nicholas Rostov is based. It is thought that Tanya and Nikolay would have married if it were not for the extravagant spending habits of Nikolay's father. For this reason, when his father died, Nickolay sought marriage to a wealthy heiress as a solution to his financial troubles. (Carpenter, February 1996)

Five months after the birth of her fifth child, Leo Tolstoy's mother died. Tanya lived with the Tolstoy family at the time and took the place of the children's mother. Years past and Nikolay proposed to Tanya. She said no, but promised to always love and care for the children as if they were her own. (Carpenter, February 1996)

When Leo Tolstoy was nine years old his father died. The guardianship of the children legally passed from their grandmother, to a sister of Nikolay's, and then to another of his sisters. This sister, Pelageya, lived in Kazan and moved the children there, away from Tanya. It is believed that Pelageya and Tanya had been enemies in their youth. For this reason, many think the moving of the children to Kazan was a spiteful blow at Tanya. Despite their distance, Leo Tolstoy remained close with his Aunt Tanya. His love and respect for her prompted her kind portrayal in the character of Sonya. (Carpenter, Febraury 1996)

By the end of the novel, this character who Tolstoy so much admires is better understood. Natasha describes Sonya as a "sterile flower." (1275) Her inner beauty and purity serve only to please others, never allowing her own desires to come to fruition. It seems as though the more people who see this beauty, the more people she is able to please with it, and the happier she becomes. "It really seemed that Sonya did not feel her position trying, and had grown quite reconciled to her lot as a sterile flower." (1276) Like Tolstoy's Aunt Tanya, she remains living with Nicholas and cares for his family. "She waited on the old countess, petted and spoiled the children, was always ready to rendeall services for which she had a gift, and all this was unconsciously accepted from her with insufficient gratitude." (1276)

Just as the characters in the novel never really appreciate all that Sonya does for them, the reader puts very little emphasis on all that Sonya does to enhance the entire novel. Sonya serves as a truly reflective foil to Natasha who "never needed to sacrifice herself, but made others sacrifice themselves for her and yet was beloved by everybody." (1061) Sonya's presence also fosters the growth of Nicholas and reveals a great deal about the society in which she lives. Her benevolent nature echoes the selflessness of Princess Mary and Tolstoy's own Aunt Tanya. The importance of Sonya's character to War and Peace is immense, yet overshadowed by characters deemed more "important" than she. Sonya tends to be put in the background of this novel as she is put in the background of the lives of those whom she loves. Without her, Leo Tolstoy's novel would be drastically diminished. "I would willingly sacrifice everything, only I have nothing. . . ." (69) Quite the contrary. Sonya has everything one needs and, with her every action, gives it all away.


Works Cited Carpenter, Carolyn. Letter to the Author. February 1996.
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. The Maude translation, Norton Critical Text
1966. G.Gibian editior.



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