Updated: Jan 29
What makes a strong female character, well, strong?
Physical strength is only a small part of it; if that were true, strong female characters wouldn’t be such a source of debate. Even when we debate the semantics of the definition, however, we can still recognize when something goes right. Today, I wanted to highlight a piece that has strong female characters in a space you wouldn’t typically expect: Moscow high society during the Napoleonic Wars.
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 is a musical written by Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin. The entire musical is based on a 70-page section from Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace. During the Napoleonic Era, women received far fewer rights than women today. There was also a lack of media that told the stories that they could relate to. War and Peace was known to have remarkably well-rounded female characters for the time period, and Malloy expanded upon that by focusing Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 around a large cast of female characters while the male characters are off fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, and one character in particular: the titular Natasha. Most people looking at these women would not dub them “strong female characters”; on the surface, they care only about pretty dresses, finding a husband, and family matters. None of them fight against the system or decry their oppression. But when viewed through a modern lens, the actions these women take make it obvious that they understand their lack of autonomy, which is what implies their strength.
Let’s start with a quick summary of the plot: 17-year-old Natasha Rostova is engaged to be married to Andrei Bolkonsky. She arrives in Moscow to wait for Andrei to return from the war, and her Godmother Marya Dmitrievna introduces her to Moscow high society. One day at the opera, she runs into famed womanizer Anatole Kuragin, who immediately decides that he must have Natasha. Once Anatole gets Natasha alone at a ball, he kisses her and professes his love, and then spends the next few days bombarding her with love letters begging her to elope with him. Natasha finally caves in and agrees to elope, cutting off her engagement with Andrei, but the plans are foiled at the last second. She discovers that Anatole is already married, and he is run out of Moscow. Andrei returns from the war, but refuses to renew his engagement with Natasha, leaving her honor in tatters.
Now, if you know anything about Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, you would recognize that this summary is a gross simplification of a very complex story. I didn’t mention many supporting characters, including the titular Pierre. But, since this post is about Natasha, I’ve chosen to focus on just her story.
At the beginning of the musical, Natasha loves Andrei; she focuses on him with something close to desperation. After meeting his family and being rejected by them, Natasha sings a song called “No One Else”, in which she longs for Andrei to return to her, but it is more about her being alone than being in love. When she sings, she says, “I feel like putting my arms round my knees/And squeezing tight as possible/And flying away/Like this…” as if she is protecting herself from the rest of the world. And even when she is singing about Andrei, she admires “[his] childlike eyes/And [his] distant smile” rather than his deeper characteristics. She also repeats “I love you” over and over again, as if the words don’t mean anything to her or are what she feels she should say.
But, considering how easily she gives this up for Anatole, these probably aren't her real feelings. She states again and again how she blushes and feels happy when others compliment her, not only men, but other women as well, such as her Godmother Marya. This is a common occurrence in women of the time who had no control over their lives, so they took pride in their as the only thing they could control. Natasha was pursued by Andre, and told herself she was in love with him because they were engaged. Andre wasn't someone she cared about with a passion; he likely represented a safe place for her, where she could become a wife and escape the claws of other suitors, or more likely, gossip that she was unfit as a woman simply because she reached the age of 18 or 19 without being married.
I argue this because of how Natasha reacts when Anatole kisses her during the scene in the song, “The Ball”. She is frozen and clearly terrified, and her first thought is of Andrei, who she loves. But then her thoughts turn to Anatole, and she thinks, “But I love you/Of that there is no doubt/How else could all of this have happened?/How else could we have kissed?” Natasha doesn’t fall in love with Anatole; she makes the decision she loves him because she is unable to comprehend kissing someone she isn’t in love with.
Natasha is a clear victim in this situation from a modern standpoint, and Malloy makes that very clear during the scene: Anatole boxes her into a corner, grabs her so hard that she cries out that he's hurting her, and then kisses her without consent. Anatole justifies it by saying that it is her fault that she is beautiful and enticing him, not his fault for falling for her. Does this line of logic seem familiar? It’s a common form of victim blaming for sexual assault. Natasha's reaction can be interpreted as a kind of compartmentalizing that victims of sexual assault sometimes take. Because they don’t want to believe that they have been violated, the victim will convince themselves that they were willing participants in the assault. This is even easier to do when the assaulter is saying that they love them while the assault is taking place.
Natasha represents the women who so often get swallowed up by systems like that because they have no control over their own futures, and the few decisions they can make can put them between two equally horrible situations. Natasha agrees to go along with Anatole’s plan to elope because she “loves him” even when she knows it will result in the ruin of her honor. But imagine if Natasha had, instead of deciding that she loved Anatole after he kissed her, told someone that he had assaulted her. Worst case scenario, Anatole would have denied it and no one would have believed her word over a man's, and she would have been left her whole life feeling abused and dirtied. Even worse worst case scenario, people do believe her. Anatole would never be vilified, so the blame would fall on Natasha, and she would be considered a willing participant in infidelity.
In this story, Natasha is a damsel in distress, with Anatole as the serpentine dragon holding her hostage and Andrei as her supposed Prince Charming. But as is often the case in real life, the fairy tail ending promised her was nothing but a lie. She was manipulated and taken advantage of, and the people who should have taken care of her instead condemned her for it. But in a situation where she had no real options, she still kept walking forward, and that is the truest strength a woman of her time period could show.