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.