At his vast estates near Kiev, Pierre attempts to reform his land management in accordance with his new Masonic moral principles. He orders his serfs to be freed, pregnant women to be exempt from work in the fields, and so on. His managers try to use Pierre’s goodwill to their own advantage, eventually persuading him that the peasants are better off in their current servitude. Seeing happy peasants on a visit to his lands, Pierre believes that he has done great good for them, unaware that most of his serfs endure even greater misery than before.
On his way back to St. Petersburg, Pierre visits Andrew, whom he finds much older and gloomier than he remembered. Andrew’s philosophy of stoic indifference to the plight of serfs, and to the fight of good against evil, provokes strong resistance in the new Masonic convert Pierre. While Pierre secretly fears he cannot refute Andrew’s grim philosophy, he tries to convince Andrew of the power of good in the universe beyond the fallen human world. Pierre’s enthusiasm makes an impact, and Andrew begins to emerge out of his melancholy state.
Andrew and Pierre drive to Bald Hills and greet Andrew’s sister, Mary, who is receiving some holy pilgrims. One pilgrim, Pelageya, tells a story of an icon that weeps holy oil. Andrew and Pierre gently ridicule the old woman, and Mary rebukes them. Old Prince Bolkonski returns home and welcomes Pierre, whom Mary and the whole household like.
Nicholas, back at the front with his hussar regiment, feels happy despite the hardships of wartime. The soldiers are starving and poorly clothed, but there is a feeling of camaraderie. Nicholas has resolved to repay his parents’ forty-three thousand rubles. One day, Nicholas’s friend Denisov seizes food from a provisions vehicle in order to feed his men. Forced to appear before the authorities to defend himself, Denisov finds that the officer who has been keeping food supplies from Denisov and Nicholas’s regiment is Telyanin, the one whom Nicholas once accused of theft. Denisov reponds violently, and soon faces a court-martial. Before the court-martial can take place, however, Denisov is wounded, and he takes the opportunity to go to the hospital instead of the military tribunal.
During the break provided by an armistice, Nicholas goes to visit Denisov in a Prussian military hospital, where he is horrified to find four hundred wounded soldiers. The patients are all neglected and threatened by typhus, and the army doctor cannot remember who Denisov is or whether he is still alive. Nicholas is shocked. Finally he finds Tushin, whom he had met at the battle of Schoen Graben, as well as Denisov, who seems strangely indifferent to Nicholas’s arrival. Nicholas tries to persuade Denisov to seek a pardon from the tsar, but Denisov initially refuses out of a sense of honor. Finally, Denisov signs a simple and unspecific request for a pardon. Nicholas leaves to deliver this letter to the tsar, who is meeting with Napoleon at Tilsit.
At Tilsit, Nicholas meets up with his old friend Boris, who socializes with important Russian and French personages during the Tilsit meeting. Boris seems annoyed by Nicholas’s arrival, but offers advice, recommending that Nicholas give Denisov’s letter to an army commander rather than to the stern tsar. Aware that Boris is unwilling to help him, Nicholas decides that his only chance to help Denisov is through direct appeal to the tsar, whom he goes to visit despite being illegally dressed in civilian clothes. A general hears Nicholas’s story and speaks to the tsar, but the tsar says he can do nothing, as the law is stronger than he is.
At a meeting between Napoleon and the tsar, Napoleon offers to give the Legion of Honor to the bravest of the Russian soldiers. An aide to the tsar chooses a soldier named Lazarev, almost at random. Nicholas is dismayed by the falsity of this award, especially in light of Denisov’s unfair plight.
Just as Books Two and Three explore disillusionment with ideals of war and leadership, Book Four explores disillusionment with marriage. In the previous section, Andrew enters battle with a lofty ideal of glory and greatness; here, Pierre enters marriage with some optimism about his future life with Helene. Just as Andrew’s idealistic notions are quickly debunked, Pierre’s illusions of marital sanctity and respect fade when it appears that Helene has been unfaithful, and is only too happy to separate from him—provided he share his wealth. Pierre’s disillusionment, like Andrew’s, haunts him for many years.
The depressed Pierre initially searches for solace in religion, recalling Tolstoy’s own intense religious fundamentalism later in life. Indeed, this religious or spiritual exploration, an important element of War and Peace, is perhaps most notable in Pierre’s sudden conversion to Freemasonry through his encounter with the mysterious stranger in the Torzhok station. Tolstoy’s portrait of the old Mason is otherworldly and even spooky, a great contrast to the author’s normally highly realistic portrayals of his characters. The stranger, with his curious ring and his servant who seems never to need to shave, stands out as an almost supernatural element. Pierre’s initiation ritual, in which he is undressed and blindfolded, is an equally surreal addition to the novel’s realistic tone. The strangeness of these passages reinforces exactly what the alienated Pierre is seeking—an alternative to the reality of his despised everyday life, a leap into a different and better world. In a life full of confusions and minor immoralities, the appeal of the Masons’ faith in a simple struggle between good and evil is powerful to Pierre and also to Andrew, who feels swayed by his friend’s discussion of Freemasonry despite his initial skepticism.
Tolstoy’s religious exploration also finds expression in Princess Mary’s profound Christian devotion to her father. Mary cares for her father to the extent of sacrificing her own wishes for his well being, as she has renounced hopes of marriage. Living at Bald Hills, solving geometry problems far from society, Mary is like a nun in a cloister. Whenever her father is harsh and irritable toward her, she turns the other cheek meekly. As we have seen in Book One, Mary’s letters to Julie recommend spirituality as the only defense against the cruel whims of fate. Here, we see that Mary’s favorite entertainment is receiving the holy pilgrims who wander the countryside in chains, seeking mortification of the flesh in order to better understand God. Mary is so moved by the pilgrims that she even feels guilty at her love for her family, a love that she fears should be more rightly directed toward heaven.
The pervasive disillusionment that we have seen thus far in War and Peace suggests, though, that both Pierre’s and Mary’s religious feelings may ultimately prove to be misdirected. Indeed, as we see soon in Book Five, Pierre’s well-meaning efforts to liberate and educate his serfs actually leave the serfs worse off, and leave Pierre self-deceived. Later, Pierre realizes the limitations of Freemasonry, growing impatient with its mysticism and passivity. His discontentment turns to open rebellion when he delivers a speech at the Masonic lodge, after which his religious faith fizzles away almost completely. Mary’s faith does not disappear, but it seems equally misdirected: her father’s mistreatment grows increasingly tyrannical, and Mary’s nun-like isolation from the world makes her more and more irritable, even affecting her relations with her beloved nephew. As with Pierre’s Freemasonry, Mary’s Christianity begins to seem less like a source of strength in life, and more like a liability. Tolstoy does not critique the whole idea of faith, but only shows the limitations of two particular versions of it, inviting us to anticipate better alternatives that appear later in the novel.