The Role of Liza’s Character in War and Peace
Over 1300 pages long, Tolstoy’s War and Peace presents characters who disappear as quickly as they appeared. But every single one of them has a particular significance in the broader themes that War and Peace displays, whether that theme be love, society, personal identity, or truth. Though she fades from the narrative eventually, Liza Bolkonskaya, Prince Andrei’s wife, serves as a very important character in many aspects: she offers a foil for Pierre’s relationship with Helen, she is the bridge between rural and urban, and she develops the theme of forgiveness through Andrei. Especially important is her role as the wife of Andrei and the significance that this status has for War and Peace. Through her relationship with Andrei and her death, Liza helps to show why sexual love should not be chosen compared to other, “truer” forms of love. Indeed, Tolstoy portrays different types of relationships, from those that are purely physical, to those that appear completely fake, to those that seem to be perfect. Liza’s role, in all this, is to help us better understand why sexual love might be less preferable than spiritual love.
Liza, or the “youthful little Princess Bolkonskaya,” (8) appears as one of the first characters of the novel, before Andrei’s introduction in Chapter IV. Tolstoy labels her “the most seductive woman in Petersburg” (8) and makes every effort to make her seem like an innocent, unassuming, beautiful woman. Liza is the social butterfly of Petersburg, adored by everyone, except her husband. Andrei seems to be extremely bored by her, turning his face away from her, “with a grimace that distorted his handsome face” (15). There is no clear-cut explanation at first as to why Andrei is not extremely fond of her, other than the fact that she does not seem to be particularly intelligent or interesting, according to him. Later on, Tolstoy hints at the fact that he has changed since Liza has become pregnant and points out that this could be a reason for him distancing himself. Given this, the reader starts to sympathize with her, making her one of the only “like-able” characters, particularly compared to Prince Vasili or Anna Pavlovna.
Through her link with Andrei and her presence in the outside world, Liza acts as a bridge between different sets of worlds, making her one of the most important minor characters. The first of these is the world of the social elite, in contrast to that of those who want no part of it (Anna, Vasili versus Andrei, Pierre). Liza brings these two spheres together, as she is inherently part of the first and is in contact with the second through Andrei. She is one of the only characters who has this position: the two worlds do not have many overlapping characters beyond her. Indeed, if we consider the rest of Tolstoy’s characters, all members of the Rostov family are extremely social and people-oriented; Pierre, on the other hand, is part of the elite but cannot fit into it. Liza is also the connecting point between the rural and the urban scenery. Indeed, she loves the urban setting of Petersburg and feels very confident there, but as Andrei goes to war, he sends her to live at his family estate, outside of the city. She reproaches Andrei for locking her up alone in the country, but through sending her there, she brings together those two worlds. Other characters who are associated with a rural background stay there throughout the whole novel (Count Bolkonskaya, Maria) and those associated with the urban setting of Petersburg either stay there or shuttle between there and Moscow. It can be argued that Andrei also acts as such a connecting person, but the link is less clear since he moves around in between, as a result of his being enlisted in the war. Though Liza couples the two sets of opposing worlds together, she is unable to bridge the gap between sexual and non-sexual love as it relates to Andrei. Through this inability, Liza serves as an example of the consequences of primarily sexual love, consequences that might even be worse than those of fake social interactions.
Indeed, an essential theme of the novel is the intersection of women, love, and lust. Tolstoy takes after Plato to show the different types of love that exist, ranging from those that are purely physical to those that are much more spiritual. With the variety of characters that Tolstoy presents to us, he demonstrates how a relationship of lust, a relationship of love, or an arranged relationship can play out. Liza fits into this topic to show Tolstoy’s view on sexual relationships, which can be defined as relationships that have an element of physical intimacy to them, either from the start or after a period of development. Liza and Andrei’s relationship can fall into this category since there is no more psychological, love connection between them: thus, all that remains from their relationship is a child, the result of a physical intimacy. There are other relationships like this one, which can be qualified as only sexual, and Tolstoy uses these relationships to show what a “wrong” relationship is. Consider for example that of Natasha and Anatole. In their case, the relationship is clearly wrong as it causes Natasha extreme pain and guilt and reveals Anatole as a soulless person. For Pierre and Helene, it is not their own sexual relationship that causes trouble, but rather the fact that Helene is sexually attracted by other men and possibly cheats on Pierre. However, Liza and Andrei’s relationship is particularly important because Tolstoy pushes the idea further by showing how their sexual intimacy is not only wrong, but can also hinder something positive that was in place before. Indeed, their sexual intimacy that resulted in a child has made Andrei grow distant, making the princess think that he does not “feel for [her]” (29). She even adds that, during her pregnancy, Andrei has “very much changed” (29) and now treats her like a child (a fact underscored by the many uses of the word “childlike”). Liza feels that this is why he is deserting her by going to war. By doing so, Andrei is running away from his commitment as a father. Even after Liza’s death, that trend continues as Andrei fails to take care of his son.
Furthermore, Tolstoy depicts the wrongdoings of sexual intimacy through the princess’s death. Though death during childbirth was fairly common at the time depicted in the novel, the gloominess surrounding it (given Andrei’s discontentment with his marriage and the preemptive negative feelings that the princess was having towards having her child in the countryside) makes it that much more significant. Tolstoy gives us much detail when depicting the death of Liza, saying “She was lying dead, in the same position he had seen her in five minutes before and, despite the fixed eyes and the pallor of the cheeks, the same expression was on her charming childlike face with its upper lip covered with tiny black hair.” (351) The repetition of Andrei’s reaction that “he was guilty of a sin he could neither remedy nor forget” (351) seems to indicate a sort of daunting aspect to the way Liza died. By presenting Liza as this sort of martyr, Tolstoy wants to show the dangers of sexual intimacy as the main basis for a relationship. To the question that Liza’s face asks, “what have you done to me?” (351), the underlying answer is that she has been exposed to merely sexual love. In comparison, the true love path could be that of Nikolai and Maria, who is extremely religious and pure, or of Pierre and Natasha, who both had to go through moral dilemmas in order to find peace together.
War and Peace is a novel of characters struggling to find both themselves and a greater truth. A way to accomplish all this, it seems, is to access a form of pure, untarnished love, one that comes from a spiritual connection. Liza serves as a martyr to show the effects of sexual love: by detailing the guilt and the apologies that Andrei expresses, Tolstoy prepares the reader for the more satisfying love connections that evolve as this massive novel moves along.
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
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