We are introduced to the major families through the vehicle of a soiree at the Anna Pavlovna's home, a name-day celebration at the Rostovs, and a description of the isolated existence of the Bolkonskys at their country seat. Prince Andrey and Pierre discuss their futures and what they seek in life, both young men idealizing the"man of destiny" who is soon to invade Russia. Old Count Bezuhov dies, leaving Pierre wealthy, titled, and the most eligible bachelor in Petersburg.
Nikolay Rostov and Prince Andrey undergo their first war experience at the battle of Schöngraben. They each discover the ineffectuality of the individual in a mass situation. Nikolay accepts being a"cog in a machine" and Andrey rejects being part of the administering forces, choosing, instead, to fight at the front.
Pierre marries Ellen; Anatole unsuccessfully courts Marya. Andrey attends the war council on the eve of Austerlitz and wishes to be a hero.
He is wounded during the battle. Compared to the limitless sky, which symbolizes death, Napoleon seems to Andrey petty and insignificant.
Nikolay, with Denisov, is home on leave and he ignores his sweetheart Sonya. Pierre wounds Dolohov in a duel over Ellen's alleged infidelity. Liza Bolkonsky dies giving birth to a son, leaving Andrey with a deep sense of unassuageable guilt. Dolohov falls in love with Sonya and avenges her rejection of him by fleecing Nikolay during a card game."Intensity" is the keynote of this section, shown by incidents of love and hate, life and death.
Separated from his wife, Pierre devotes himself to"goodness," by joining the masons and by an inept reforming of his estates. He and the retired Andrey have a discussion about the meaning of life and death and Andrey is inspired with new hope. The significance of their exchange points out the contrast between Pierre and Andrey. Meanwhile Nikolay has rejoined his starving regiment and Denisov faces court-martial for stealing food for his men. Nikolay asks the tsar for Denisov's pardon and witnesses the meeting between Napoleon and Alexander, a meeting between the old and new orders of government. His petition rejected, Nikolay decides the sovereign knows best and submits to"higher authority."
This is an account of"real life," as opposed to politics, where the"inner man" is more significant than the"outer man." Andrey becomes involved with Speransky's circle of reformers, but when he falls in love with Natasha these activities pall for him. Pierre becomes disillusioned with masonry, while Princess Marya is made more unhappy by her father. The Rostovs' financial problems increase, and Andrey goes to Switzerland.
With the wolf hunt, the sleigh ride, Christmas celebrations, and family harmony, the Rostovs enjoy the last period of their"youth." Natasha's restlessness increases during Andrey's absence, the family is almost bankrupt, and there is foreboding of hard times to come as the children enter adulthood.
Natasha meets Anatole during the opera and is almost abducted by him. During her near-nervous breakdown, Pierre emerges as her comforter and their love is implied.
The life-and-death struggle against France begins, with Napoleon depicted as a glory-seeking fool. Andrey turns away from his past and commits himself to the men in his regiment, who adore him. Nikolay refrains from killing a Frenchman and is decorated for bravery because he took a prisoner. Natasha slowly recovers, aided by religious faith. Petya joins the army out of a youthful patriotism which Pierre also shares. The Russians respond massively to the national threat, and Pierre feels within him an"ultimate mission" involving his love, the comet, Napoleon, and the war itself.
The French who are penetrating Russia march toward their doom in the"irresistible tide" of destiny. The old prince dies and Marya moves her household to Moscow, but the war looms closer. Despite the national upheaval, the Petersburg salons remain the same. Marya and Nikolay have a romantic first meeting, while Pierre visits the deathmarked Andrey on the eve of Borodino. The battle is described as a death duel, with the Russians winning morally, if not physically. This marks the turning point from defeat to victory for Russia.
Tolstoy discusses mass activity as a combination of"infinitesimal units of activity" and provides a short summary of past and future events. Moscow's abandonment and burning is the great deed that saves Russia and the moment-by-moment details of the event are discussed, including Rastoptchin's last-minute bid for glory at the expense of the cause he pretends to further. The Rostovs leave Moscow, their caravan including the mortally wounded Prince Andrey. He is reunited with Natasha, who nurses him. So close to death, Andrey understands the quality of divine love. Truth results from a life-death confrontation. Pierre conceives the plan to assassinate Napoleon, but other incidents show he is destined to fail.
Nikolay and Marya meet again in the provinces, and Marya travels to see her brother. She and Natasha are with him when he dies. Pierre is nearly executed by the French, who accuse him of incendiarism. He experiences a"rebirth" in prison through Karataev, an almost mythic figure symbolizing the unity of love and hate, life and death.
The end of the war is in sight as the French retreat more and more rapidly. Their retreat is the"fruit" of"unconscious activity" rather than the will of Napoleon. Pierre discovers an intense freedom in prison.
This period of guerilla fighting involves Denisov, Dolohov, and Petya, who gets killed. A surprise attack led by Denisov and Dolohov frees Pierre and other prisoners. In a flashback we learn how Karataev died, and what Pierre suffered and overcame during the death march. Death and decay are part of the processes of life and growth.
Natasha and Marya are recalled from their mourning into active life: Marya by her household responsibilities, Natasha by exercising love to comfort her bereaved mother. As the war history is over, Kutuzov's career ends. A new era begins to disclose itself with Russia's entrance into international leadership. Tolstoy apotheosizes Kutuzov. Pierre and Natasha meet again.
Tolstoy details the"happy ending" of the careers of his fictional characters in scenes to show the domestic happiness of Nikolay and Marya Rostov, Natasha and Pierre Bezuhov. The cycle of life begins anew as Nikolinka, Andrey's son, comes of age and desires to be like Pierre and like his father.
This is the philosophical exegesis wherein Tolstoy shows that"free will" is a mere construct which historians use to explain the movements of nations and people. Causality is impossible to descry when we regard the pattern of historical events, and the concept of"free will" prevents deep understanding of the nature of history. The paradox, however, is inescapable: We need to maintain the illusion of free will in order to carry on our daily lives, for our hopes, our basic beliefs depend on this notion of an inner consciousness; at the same time we are victims of innumerable and infinitesimal constraints of necessity which spell out our destiny and we are not"free" at all.