Sonya and Princess Marya give until it hurts—but which one will give some more?

Yesterday, in telling the story of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, I mentioned his sister Princess Marya. Marya is a bit unfortunate: she is dull and plain-looking, gets flustered easily, lives in worshipful fear of her father, and is bullied by her own companion, Mlle Bourienne. Marya is also extremely religious and devoted to the holy fools who regularly show up at her door (at the back door, that is, in secret from Prince Nikolai, who would make fun of them). She’s also an extremely nice and kind person—far too nice and too kind, if you ask me. I mentioned she was a spinster; Prince Anatole Kuragin does come knocking at her door, at the behest of his father (Princess Marya is a very wealthy heiress), but her face turns red and blotchy and there is simply no chance.

She has something of a counterpart in Sonya, a poor relation of the Rostovs (it’s unclear whether she shares their surname). As Princess Marya lives to serve her father, brother, sister-in-law, and later nephew, Sonya is constantly behind the scenes in the Rostov household making sure everything is moving along as it should. She helps Natasha, the old Count and Countess, little Petya—she’s a real “angel in the house” type. And she’s in love with the elder Rostov son, Nikolai, who shares her affections and promises, when he leaves for the hussars, to marry her one day.

Sonya is the perfect picture of constancy. Natasha, so often her companion, can’t understand how easily Sonya takes it all. And when one of Nikolai’s leaves ends in their falling still further in love, she only becomes more certain, more sure, more able to wait. Well, if Sonya refuses to suffer, surely Tolstoy will find a way to make her do so.

First, there is the unfairness of Countess Rostov. The Countess knows Sonya is blameless in all things, and in fact a very good person, but she wants Nikolai to marry a rich woman. This is important because the Countess’s own husband is in the process of leaving them all destitute—and instead of stopping him, or herself, or accepting the blame for ruining the family, she has determined that Nikolai will marry well, and thus Sonya needs to get out of the way. Nikolai is disgusted by the idea of marrying for money, in principle.

Tolstoy can fix all that by introducing Nikolai to Princess Marya (via the war, naturally), and although they don’t understand each other at all (a feeling Nikolai maintains for the rest of his life), they fall in love. Though he still considers marrying for money wrong, Nikolai is happy to be released from his engagement to Sonya (at his mother’s behest, of course) because he’s been easily convinced that with no money the two of them will face only hardship. So Sonya, the constant, loving Sonya, writer of hundreds of letters to her man in the hussars, is practically forgotten beside the saintly (and super-rich) Princess Marya.

I suppose you could just guess that Tolstoy liked to break up happy couples, but there must be some reason to break up this one and leave that one intact, or vice versa. It’s not just random entertainment here. So why can’t Nikolai and Sonya be together—what is Tolstoy able to do now that they’re broken up that he couldn’t do before?

There’s not much question of Nikolai being redeemed in the way Prince Andrei is. He’s a simple hussar without Andrei’s discontent to begin with, and even marrying Princess Marya isn’t enough for him to really understand her religiosity. The main effects of the Nikolai–Marya marriage vs. the potential Nikolai–Sonya marriage seem to be: the Rostov family is rescued from total financial ruin (which was not Nikolai’s, much less Sonya’s, fault to begin with), and the Countess never has to face her own responsibility for enabling her husband to ruin them; Sonya is pushed aside and becomes an invisible member of the Rostov household, never to marry; and Princess Marya, who ended up an old maid because of her own completely pathetic nature (stand up to your ridiculous father! and Mlle Bourienne!), does marry and have a family. These effects do not seem very far-reaching: swap one woman for another, and end up with some money. I’m forced to conclude the problem lies with Sonya.

Tolstoy helps me conclude this, as he likes to tell more than show, and when he tells of Countess Rostov demanding a letter from Sonya renouncing her engagement, this is what he (I mean, his narrator) says:

Sonya burst into hysterical sobs, answered through her sobs that she would do everything, that she was ready for everything, but promised nothing directly, and in her soul could not resolve to do what was demanded of her. She was to sacrifice herself for the happiness of the family that had nourished and raised her. To sacrifice herself for others was Sonya’s habit. Her position in the house was such that it was only on the path of sacrifice that she could show her worth, and she was accustomed to sacrificing herself and loved it. But formerly, in all her acts of self-sacrifice, she had been joyfully aware that in sacrificing herself she thereby raised her value in her own and other people’s eyes, and became more worthy of Nicolas, whom she loved more than anything in her life; but now her sacrifice was to consist in renouncing that which for her had made up the whole reward for her sacrifice, the whole meaning of her life. And for the first time in her life she felt bitter towards the people who had been her benefactors only so as to torment her the more; she felt envy of Natasha, who had never experienced anything like that…. And for the first time Sonya felt her quiet, pure love for Nicolas suddenly begin to grow into a passionate feeling, which stood above the rules, and virtue, and religion; and, under the influence of that feeling, Sonya, having been taught by her life of dependence to be secretive, involuntarily answered the countess in general, indefinite terms….

Sonya, that horrible, horrible bitch, wanted something for herself—and as soon as she realized it, she contaminated her “quiet, pure love” with passion. Even though everything she had ever done up to this point was good (and Tolstoy isn’t even really claiming here that it was all based on ulterior motives; Sonya really is good), the fact that her self-sacrifice was less than 100% pure makes it worthless. She was only sacrificing so she could gain something later! She was only sacrificing so that the people who supported her would continue to support and love and appreciate her! Horrors!

Princess Marya, on the other hand, was a true, pure self-sacrificer, who thought her life would amount to nothing because she had spent it all on sacrifices to others. That is to say: Princess Marya consciously chose to waste her life on devotion to an old man who didn’t appreciate her and a child she should never have been responsible for, making choice after choice knowing that she would likely not marry and not have a family of her own because of these decisions. Father Tolstoy is here to right this wrong for her, of course, because holy fools do take care of their own. And what of Sonya? By the end of the novel, she’s barely even seen as human. Everyone knows her feelings don’t matter, because she’s taken it and liked it for decades, and what else is new?

2 comments to Sonya and Princess Marya give until it hurts—but which one will give some more?

  • anonymous

    I know this is an old post, but thanks for writing this. I finished War and Peace a while ago, had similar issues with the resolution of the Sonya/Marya/Nicolai plot, and couldn’t find any literary criticism that dealt directly with it. Sonya’s punishment seemed harsh given her character and your blog post clarified some things.

  • Glad it helped! I just re-read it and quite enjoyed it myself.