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War and Peace opens
in the Russian city of St. Petersburg in 1805,
as Napoleon’s conquest of western Europe is just beginning to stir
fears in Russia. Many of the novel’s characters are introduced at
a society hostess’s party, among them Pierre Bezukhov, the socially
awkward but likeable illegitimate son of a rich count, and Andrew
Bolkonski, the intelligent and ambitious son of a retired military
commander. We also meet the sneaky and shallow Kuragin family, including
the wily father Vasili, the fortune-hunter son Anatole, and the
ravishing daughter Helene. We are introduced to the Rostovs, a noble
Moscow family, including the lively daughter Natasha, the quiet
cousin Sonya, and the impetuous son Nicholas, who has just joined
the army led by the old General Kutuzov.
The Russian troops are mobilized in alliance with the
Austrian empire, which is currently resisting Napoleon’s onslaught.
Both Andrew and Nicholas go to the front. Andrew is wounded at the Battle
of Austerlitz, and though he survives, he is long presumed dead.
Pierre is made sole heir of his father’s fortune and marries Helene
Kuragina in a daze. Helene cheats on Pierre, and he challenges her
seducer to a duel in which Pierre nearly kills the man.
Andrew’s wife, Lise, gives birth to a son just as Andrew
arrives home to his estate, much to the shock of his family. Lise
dies in childbirth, leaving Andrew’s devout sister Mary to raise
the son. Meanwhile, Pierre, disillusioned by married life, leaves
his wife and becomes involved with the spiritual practice of Freemasonry.
He attempts to apply the practice’s teachings to his estate management, and
share these teachings with his skeptical friend Andrew, who is doing
work to help reform the Russian government.
Meanwhile, the Rostov family’s fortunes are failing, thanks
in part to Nicholas’s gambling debts. The Rostovs consider selling their
beloved family estate, Otradnoe. Nicholas is encouraged to marry
a rich heiress, despite his earlier promise to marry Sonya. Nicholas’s
army career continues, and he witnesses the great peace between
Napoleon and Tsar Alexander. Natasha grows up, attends her first
ball, and falls in love with various men before becoming seriously
attached to Andrew. Andrew’s father objects to the marriage, and
requires Andrew to wait a year before wedding Natasha. Natasha reluctantly
submits to this demand, and Andrew goes off to travel.
After Andrew departs, his father becomes irritable and
cruel toward Mary, who accepts the cruelty with Christian forgiveness. Natasha
is attracted to Anatole Kuragin, who confesses his love. She eventually
decides that she loves Anatole and plans to elope with him, but
the plan fails. Andrew comes home and rejects Natasha for her involvement
with Anatole. Pierre consoles Natasha and feels an attraction toward
her. Natasha falls ill.
In 1812, Napoleon invades Russia,
and Tsar Alexander reluctantly declares war. Andrew returns to active
military service. Pierre observes Moscow’s response to Napoleon’s
threat and develops a crazy sense that he has a mission to assassinate
Napoleon. The French approach the Bolkonski estate, and Mary and
the old Prince Bolkonski (Andrew’s father) are advised to leave.
The prince dies just as the French troops arrive. Mary, finally
forced to leave her estate, finds the local peasants hostile. Nicholas
happens to ride up and save Mary. Mary and Nicholas feel the stirrings
The Russians and French fight a decisive battle at Borodino, where
the smaller Russian army inexplicably defeats the French forces,
much to Napoleon’s dismay. In St. Petersburg, life in the higher
social circles continues almost unaffected by the occupation of
Moscow. Helene seeks an annulment of her marriage with Pierre in
order to marry a foreign prince. Distressed by this news, Pierre
becomes deranged and flees his companions, wandering alone through
Meanwhile, the Rostovs pack up their belongings, preparing
to evacuate, but they abandon their possessions to convey wounded soldiers
instead. Natasha’s younger brother Petya enters the army. On the
way out of the city, the Rostovs take along the wounded Andrew with
them. Pierre, still wandering half-crazed in Moscow, sees widespread
anarchy, looting, fire, and murder. Still obsessed with his mission
of killing Napoleon, he saves a girl from a fire but is apprehended
by the French authorities. Pierre witnesses the execution of several
of his prison mates, and bonds with a wise peasant named Platon
Nicholas’s aunt tries to arrange a marriage between Nicholas and
Mary, but Nicholas resists, remembering his commitment to Sonya.
Mary visits the Rostovs to see the wounded Andrew, and Natasha and
Mary grow closer. Andrew forgives Natasha, declaring his love for
her before he dies. General Kutuzov leads the Russian troops back
toward Moscow, which the French have finally abandoned after their
defeat at Borodino. The French force the Russian prisoners of war,
including Pierre, to march with them. On the way, Platon falls ill
and is shot as a straggler. The Russians follow the retreating French,
and small partisan fighting ensues. Petya is shot and killed.
Pierre, after being liberated from the French, falls ill
for three months. Upon recovering, he realizes his love for Natasha,
which she reciprocates. Pierre and Natasha are married in 1813 and
eventually have four children. Natasha grows into a solid, frumpy
Russian matron. Nicholas weds Mary, resolving his family’s financial problems.
He also rebuilds Mary’s family’s estate, which had been damaged
in the war. Despite some tensions, Nicholas and Mary enjoy a happy
Ace your assignments with our guide to War and Peace!