War and Peace is filled with romances that have varying degrees of success. In many of these relationships, under pressure from society or their own youthful inexperience, people substitute all sorts of things—reputation, passion, or abstract ideals—for genuine love. One of the most obvious examples is Pierre and Hélène’s sham marriage, which is beautiful only in the eyes of society. In a very different scenario, when the debauched Anatole Kuragin flirts with Natasha, she is swept away in the false belief that he’s a good person. Even in a relationship with genuine potential, like Natasha’s engagement to Prince Andrei, Natasha is more of a symbol of happiness for Andrei than a person in her own right, and their romance fades. Generally, it’s only after characters have survived great suffering—like failed engagements, deathly illness, or imprisonment—that their pretenses are stripped away enough for them to experience genuine love. Tolstoy suggests that mature, lasting love thrives because it sees others on a realistic basis, as flawed, unique people.
The novel gives several examples of immature love that don’t reach its potential. Pierre and Hélène’s marriage is a disastrous sham because they marry for social standing rather than love. Though Pierre knows Hélène is stupid and immoral, he consents to the marriage because “not for me alone, but for all of them, this inevitably had to come about. They all expect this so much […] that I simply cannot disappoint them.” But “this”—and the desire to conform to social expectations—prove a weak foundation for a lasting love, so their marriage is filled with infidelity, animosity, and ultimately failure. Similarly, Natasha and Prince Andrei’s marriage never happens because Natasha indulges in an immature passion with Anatole Kuragin. After meeting Anatole, she tells herself, “If […] I could respond to his smile with a smile […] it means that I loved him from the first moment. […] What am I to do, if I love him and love the other?” Natasha’s inability to distinguish between fleeting passion and real affection ends up costing her the real thing. And even in Andrei and Natasha’s case, Natasha was more of an ideal for Andrei than an actual person. When Andrei begins courting Natasha, he reflects that she contains “the presence of a special world […] filled with joys of a sort as yet unknown to him.” After years of unhappiness, Andrei idealizes Natasha as an opportunity for a fresh start in life instead of seeing her as a person in her own right.
In contrast, mature love consists of people’s ability to see one another as they really are and accept them on that basis, whether through selfless mutual care or actual marriage. When Prince Andrei is dying, he and Natasha experience true love even though they’ll never marry. Even Princess Marya can see in Natasha’s expression “boundless love for him […] an expression of pity, of suffering for others […] It was clear that […] there was not a single thought of herself” in Natasha. In devoting herself to Andrei’s care, Natasha isn’t concerned about the nature of her feelings or of any possible future with him, but only in self-giving for his sake. And this suffering actually prepares Natasha for a truly loving marriage. When Pierre returns from his time as a prisoner of war, she listens to him with great sensitivity and compassion. Before she survived her own grief, Natasha wasn’t open-hearted enough to see Pierre so clearly. Natasha and Pierre’s unspoken understanding finally provides a sound basis for a mature, mutually accepting love.
Fittingly, the last narrative section of War and Peace focuses on two happy marriages: Bezukhov (Pierre and Natasha) and Rostov (Nikolai and Marya). Though neither family is without its challenges and flaws, both couples appear to enjoy a stable, sincere bond unhampered by social expectation or unrealistic ideals.