Recently, I read War and Peace with the book club of a friend of mine. When we discussed the book, we had a lot to say about many different aspects of the book. But on one topic, people did not agree with me. It was about my interpretation of the character Hélène.
Hélène is a side character, married to one of our main characters, Pierre. She’s a real society woman, very beautiful, always organising salons, having affairs and light conversation. Almost all the characters see her as a vain and superficial woman, even though this doesn’t stop the men from all trying to sleep with her. When discussing the book, many of my fellow readers agreed with this vision of Hélène: they thought her a cheating, superficial woman who only cares about her luxury life.
I disagree with that reading. I don’t know if Tolstoy meant her to be this, but to me, Hélène is a lonely, though strong woman, who knows exactly how vulnerable she is and who is willing to do the things she needs to do to provide for herself – even if that means to not be some idealistic version of a woman of that age. When married off to Pierre, she soon notices that she does not need to expect any care or support of him: he is utterly disinterested in her. So she decides to take matters into her own hands, and starts to organise salons where she can surround herself with powerful people. Being a very smart woman, she knows what to say (and what not to say) to make these men her friends – thus avoiding the topic of certain politics not out of superficiality, but to make sure she does not lose the protection she worked very hard for to attain. Yes, this eventually leads to her cheating on her husband, but meanwhile Pierre does exactly the same. The difference is Pierre sleeps with prostitutes out of lust, they are objects to him that aren’t even mentioned by name, it’s about an action he’s addicted to like gambling or drinking. Hélène cheats because there are men who genuinely seem to care about her, and that care might save her life if Pierre dies or is captured in the war, or decides he is done with her.
Hélène knows how to make her beauty work for her in a time when women were incredibly unsafe. She also has an very high social intelligence which makes it possible for her to function in the Russian elites and make powerful friends. In a man, this quality would make him an excellent diplomat, but when it comes to women these social gatherings are suddenly seen as just frivolous. Condemning her for her extra-marital relations while seeing Pierre as one of the heroes of the story, even though he has screwed around a lot more, is purely misogynistic. Pierre is so busy looking for some kind a transcendental truth that he is not able to see he has a highly intelligent, strong woman by his side with whom he could have done wonderful things if he had just been open-minded enough to see her strengths.