black-eyed, wide-mouthed girl, not pretty but full of life . . .
ran to hide her flushed face in the lace of her mother’s mantilla—not
paying the least attention to her severe remark—and began to laugh.
She laughed, and in fragmentary sentences tried to explain about
a doll which she produced from the folds of her frock.
This passage from Book One, Chapter 5,
introduces the major female character in War and Peace, the
twelve-year-old Natasha Rostova, in a manner that reveals to us
much of the symbolic importance she has in the novel as a whole.
Significantly, while almost all the other main characters are introduced
by name before they are physically described, Natasha is left nameless
for some time. She appears at first less an individual human being
than a mythic presence, an embodiment of vital girlhood “full of
life.” Her wide mouth suggests a readiness to feed on experiences
and an eagerness to express herself fully, though not necessarily
in any rational way. Natasha’s inability to “explain” about her
doll suggests that her soul is emotional rather than analytical.
She may express herself through laughter, or other nonverbal means,
better than she can by reasoning things out. Indeed, this emotional
extravagance and rational limitation on Natasha’s part continue
to be evident long after she grows up, as we see when she submits
to the seductive Anatole and plans a madcap elopement with him.
We also see Natasha’s bold and even rebellious spirit
clearly here in her indifference to the stern remarks from her mother.
Parental threats mean nothing to Natasha: she will do what she will
do, with little care for what the authorities or elders say. The
Rostov family friend Marya Dmitrievna sees this rebellious spirit
in Natasha when she nicknames her “the Cossack,” a name that, in
its fondness, suggests that Natasha’s rebelliousness is a quality
to be appreciated and perhaps even admired. This rebellion, however,
leads to unhappiness later, as when Natasha braves Sonya’s criticism
and her family’s disapproval in planning to elope with the roguish
Anatole. But in the end, we feel that this trait leads Natasha to
a deeper wisdom than a scrupulous rule-abider like Sonya could ever
attain. Finally, Natasha’s clutching of a beloved baby doll in these
lines foreshadows her ultimate role as mother of four. She hides
in her mother’s mantilla holding her imagined child, suggesting
a strong bond between grandmother, mother, and child that underscores
the values of the Rostov family and the continuity of their line.