The proverbs, of which his talk was full, were . . . those folk sayings which taken without a context seem so insignificant, but when used appositely suddenly acquire a significance of profound wisdom.
St. Petersburg high society continues its glittering life, almost unaware of the nation’s sufferings. Helene has fallen ill and is being treated by an Italian doctor, though everyone knows her trouble results from her marital dilemma. At one of Anna Pavlovna’s parties, Vasili Kuragin reads a solemn greeting to the tsar from a bishop, praying for military victory. Anna predicts that good news will arrive the next day, the tsar’s birthday.
Indeed, the next day, a great deal of news breaks: the victory at Borodino, the deaths of several generals, and the sudden death of Helene, the result of a drug overdose. The tsar receives a letter from Rastopchin, recounting Kutuzov’s decision to leave Moscow. The tsar writes to Kutuzov, expressing his great regret at this decision. Kutuzov responds with a messenger, Colonel Michaud, to tell the tsar of the burning of Moscow. The tsar tearfully vows to do everything possible to save his country and defeat Napoleon.
The narrator reminds us that even in such dire times, patriotism and heroism were still less important in people’s lives than their own trivial, everyday, private interests. Nicholas, getting by like everyone else, travels to Voronezh to buy remounts for his regiments. After conducting his business, Nicholas attends a local governor’s ball and flirts with another man’s attractive wife. Then, Mary’s aunt Malvintseva, who is also present, invites Nicholas to visit her and Mary. The governor’s wife offers to arrange a marriage between Nicholas and Mary. Nicholas admits he is attracted to Mary, but says that he loves and is engaged to Sonya. The governor’s wife counters that marrying Sonya would not be beneficial in the long run. The governor’s wife’s plan disturbs Mary, who is still overcome with grief about her father. Though Mary is worried about how to speak to Nicholas, she is nonetheless charming to him when he visits, and seems illuminated by love. Nicholas is attracted to Mary, but is confused by his promises to Sonya and by his inability to imagine being married to Mary. He is impressed by her moral seriousness, but also a bit scared of her.
Nicholas receives a letter from Sonya graciously ending her engagement with him and informing him that Natasha is nursing the wounded Andrew. Sonya has written the letter under pressure from Countess Rostova, who has demanded that Sonya repay her debts to the family by giving up Nicholas so he can marry Mary. Secretly, however, Sonya feels that Nicholas is destined to be hers. She reminds Natasha of her supposed vision of Andrew lying down, saying that the prophecy has come true, and implying that Natasha and Andrew are destined to be together.
Meanwhile, the French treat Pierre with hostile respect while they hold him captive on suspicions of espionage. Pierre feels sad when his captors make fun of him. The authorities try his case with a guilty verdict as a foregone conclusion. Pierre refuses to state his name, which annoys the French. They lead Pierre through the burning streets of Moscow to the office of the marshal, Davout. Pierre establishes a human connection with Davout, but is nonetheless led out to his execution. Pierre reflects that some kind of system beyond his understanding has condemned him to death. Pierre and five other prisoners are led into a field. The other prisoners are shot and buried by riflemen, some of whom are sickened by their crimes. Pierre is unexpectedly pardoned and taken as a prisoner to a dirty shed. Stupefied by the experience, Pierre does not understand what has happened. One of the other prisoners, Platon Karataev, impresses Pierre with his sincerity, simplicity, good sense, faith, and kindness to his dog. The middle-aged Platon never complains, and he treats everyone with unfailing good cheer.
Princess Mary, receiving news that the Rostovs are at Yaroslavl, sets off immediately to see her brother Andrew, who is with them. She arrives at the home where the Rostovs are staying, and the Countess greets her warmly. Natasha tearfully speaks to Mary about Andrew’s condition. Natasha takes Mary into the room where Andrew is lying, and Mary is shocked to see her brother looking soft and gentle. Mary knows this appearance to be a sign of his approaching death. Andrew quietly tells Mary that fate has brought him together with Natasha after all. Andrew also speaks to Mary about Nicholas, giving his approval of their marriage. Mary prays to God for Andrew’s soul. Andrew, aware he is dying, contemplates life and death. He confesses his love to Natasha, who cares for him tirelessly. Wavering between consciousness and oblivion, Andrew thinks of love as a unifying force, but he is aware that his ideas are cerebral and lack something. Under Natasha’s and Mary’s loving watch, Andrew dies.
Kutuzov leads the Russian troops back toward Moscow, restraining them from attacking the vestiges of the French army. Napoleon writes an arrogant letter to Kutuzov from Moscow, which Kutuzov interprets as asking for settlements. The Russian army is rested and stronger than before, and is superior to the French forces in Moscow.
Kutuzov, with his characteristic genius of profiting from randomness, is aware that he cannot restrain his troops, so he orders an advance. Furious to discover that his orders are not received, he is forced to wait an extra day. During the battle, the Russian regiments are divided and confused as usual, and many men are killed pointlessly. One regiment fights well, however. Kutuzov, who is able to restrain his column from attacking, is decorated for the battle.
Napoleon inexplicably withdraws from Moscow, avoiding further battle engagements. Napoleon issues proclamations to the Muscovites assuring them that churches, theaters, and marketplaces are operating again, and that tranquility is returning to city life. None of these proclamations have any real effect, and the French loot the city as they depart.
Pierre spends a month ragged and barefoot in prison, respected by his captors and on friendly terms with a nameless dog. His fellow inmate Platon Karataev sews a shirt for a French officer and is forced to hand over the leftover scraps of cloth. The officer then feels guilty and gives the scraps back to Platon, who wants to use them as leg bandages. Surprisingly, in prison Pierre feels happy for the first time in his life, appreciating simple pleasures like food and sleep. He remembers Andrew’s bitter comment that happiness is merely the absence of suffering. Pierre now agrees with Andrew’s words—without the bitterness.
The French release the Russian prisoners and force them to march with the French troops in the evacuation of Moscow. During the march, Pierre and the soldiers are happy despite cruelty and privations on the part of the French. Pierre is aware of a mysterious force that protects him from physical suffering. He knows that the French cannot touch his immortal soul, regardless of what they do to his body.
The Russian officers Dokhturov and Konovnitsyn receive word that Napoleon is in Forminsk, and they pass this information on to Kutuzov. Kutuzov, still wondering whether Borodino has dealt a mortal wound to the French, receives the news gratefully, understanding that Napoleon has left Moscow and that Russia is saved. As the French forces retreat back to Smolensk on their way to France, Kutuzov is unable to prevent Russian troops from attacking them.
The spiritual connection developing between Nicholas and Princess Mary in these chapters mirrors the deeply moving bond between Natasha and Andrew when they are reunited. In both cases Tolstoy emphasizes a profound spiritual union between a man and a woman that may have an erotic element, but that goes far beyond mere romantic love. Nicholas is unquestionably attracted to Mary, but his attraction is different from all his earlier dalliances with women, including his love for Sonya. With Mary, he feels more than simple pleasure or happiness, as he is struck by her moral earnestness and spiritual devotion. Similarly, Natasha’s connection with Andrew, though once merely a romantic crush, now consists of a deeper caring and devotion, as she looks after her dying former fiancé. For both Rostov siblings, involvement with the spiritually serious Bolkonski family proves to be an emotional education. Both Nicholas and Natasha move beyond their earlier pursuits of romantic happiness and enter a more spiritually committed state.
Pierre’s identity crisis as he wanders through occupied Moscow is a major turning point in the development of his character, and an important symbolic event in the novel overall. Pierre’s identity has always been a bit uncertain, even from the beginning when he is introduced as a bastard child without any ensured inheritance. Educated abroad, Pierre feels like an outsider: he has awkward ways, his sincerity distinguishes him from the polished fakes of the Russian upper classes, and even his body looks different. This sense of being an outcast reaches its culmination when Pierre, watching Moscow burn, asks who he is. This uncertain identity, however, is also a source of power for Pierre. His refusal to tell his French captors his name comes across as an act of heroism rather than of cowardice, and his nameless status earns him notoriety in the prison camp. Being nameless forces him to focus inwardly on questions of inner happiness, and indeed Pierre finds himself happier in prison than ever before—just as the prison dog, called by several different names, is happy being unidentified. Identity is social and external, while happiness is internal only.
Pierre, one of the novel’s more innocent characters, simply cannot understand the cruelty he witnesses. Taken as prisoner before the French marshal, he feels a momentary awareness of common human brotherhood with the man, and is reassured that this feeling will prove stronger than the dictates of war. But Pierre is wrong, as the Frenchman quickly regains his belief that the French and Russians are enemies, ordering Pierre to be executed. The execution of the five prisoners, which Pierre witnesses in a state of trauma, is utterly unexplainable and unjustifiable to his simple heart. The killing is objectionable even to the French executioners, who appear ashamed of their actions, especially the one of them who swoons when it is over.
Platon Karataev is one of the most celebrated characters in War and Peace. His qualities have been trumpeted not only by earlier Soviet critics who saw in him the best of the Russian peasant virtues, but also by foreigners who have seen him as a figure of unparalleled vitality. Platon’s fame is surprising, as he appears in only a dozen pages of this vast novel. But he appears at a critical moment, during Pierre’s lapse into misery, confusion, and existential anguish in prison. Platon shows up as a beacon of hope simply because he needs so little to be happy, demonstrating to Pierre that happiness is separate from all external factors, including health and freedom. Platon bustles busily around the prison, talking to the dog, sewing a shirt for a French officer, and quoting Russian proverbs at key moments. His first name is the Russian name for Plato, the Greek philosopher who counseled us to look beyond the material world to a realm of greater peace and certainty. Platon, though an illiterate man who has probably never heard of Plato, illustrates the philosopher’s life-affirming teachings.