Idleness (writes Tolstoy) — the absence of work — was a condition of man's first blessedness before the Fall. Now we are cursed by guilt feelings when we are not working, and rarely can we feel we do our duty and be idle at the same time. Tolstoy observes that only during military duties can we approximate this state of"primitive blessedness," and this irreproachable idleness is one source of Nikolay Rostov's contentment as he serves in the now-inactive Pavlograd hussars, a captain of the regiment Denisov used to command. Upsetting and urgent letters from home mar Nikolay's happiness at this time. His mother pressures him to return to Otradnoe to straighten out their pressing financial problems. Finally, when he hears that their properties are to be auctioned off, Nikolay returns home.
He finds his favorite sister basically unchanged despite her engagement, and Sonya, in the full bloom of her 20 years, is as lovely as she will ever be. Nikolay devotes himself to a serious examination of the family's business accounts but cannot make head or tail out of the complicated entries. Helplessly, he contents himself with abusing the crafty steward and then ignores the whole matter, devoting himself instead to the pleasures of hunting, which are carried out on a grand scale at his father's estates.
Tolstoy now indulges in a long, joyous description (six chapters) of a wolf hunt, in which even Natasha and their younger brother Petya participate. Altogether there are more than 20 horsemen and 130 dogs. Nikolay finds nothing more delightful and absorbing than to gallop across the fields chasing his prey. When evening falls, the hunting party puts up at the estate of their distant relative whom they call"Uncle." After a splendid dinner Uncle plays his guitar and Natasha abandons herself to a gypsy dance. Still later, the Rostov children, bundled in furs, drive home through the starry night. Sitting side by side, Natasha and Nikolay talk over the day's events. She suddenly gives a musical, causeless laugh. Suddenly serious, Natasha says"I know I shall never be as happy, as peaceful, as I am now." Aloud, Nikolay says,"Nonsense!" but he wishes to himself she would never marry and thinks he will never find another friend like Natasha.
Meanwhile, financial troubles force Count Rostov to resign as marshal of the province, a position that demands extravagant entertaining. As debts continue to pile up, the parents only hope to prevent the ruin of their children's fortunes by having Nikolay marry an heiress. Countess Rostov and Julie Kuragin's mother agree to match their children, but nothing comes of it. Natasha meantime becomes visibly depressed, although Prince Andrey is not expected back for another six months. Life at the Rostovs loses its gaiety.
Christmas week restores some of the festive spirit, but Natasha is bored by the third day."I want him," she grimly tells her mother, and nothing interests her. Nikolay, Sonya, and Natasha spend an evening in their favorite corner reminiscing on their childhood. When Natasha begins to sing for the family, the countess cries. She feels there"is too much of something" in her daughter, and it will prevent her being happy.
The arrival of holiday mummers interrupts the singing. Inspired, the children dress themselves in costumes and decide to call on their neighbors. During the drive, Nikolay finds Sonya more attractive than ever, and he seeks a private moment to embrace her and renew his promises.
When they return home, Sonya and Natasha discuss their future husbands. They set up mirrors in the traditional manner for divining the future, but Natasha sees nothing. Sonya says she sees Prince Andrey. He is lying down, she reports to the now pale-faced Natasha. Confused as to the truth of her vision, Sonya says he is not ill, that he looks cheerful. Natasha, however, is too frightened to sleep that night and lies motionless for a long time, staring into the dark.
Nikolay tells his parents he will marry no one but Sonya. The count feels guilty that he cannot afford this happy match for his son, while the countess blames her niece and calls her an"intriguing creature." Sonya has torn loyalties: She wants to make Nikolay happy but realizes she owes a debt to the Rostovs. Natasha's diplomacy finally calms them down, although the countess is quite ill from mental anguish. Nikolay returns to his regiment in January, while his father plans to move to Moscow to sell his estates. Natasha at this time is filled with self-pity and she is angry that her fiancé can enjoy the pleasures of being abroad while she must languish at home.
Book VII describes the high point of youth and happiness and a falling-away into adulthood in the lives of the Rostovs. The hunt scene, the joyousness of the Christmas mummery express the joyful radiance overflowing in Natasha, Nikolay, Sonya — a radiance which will soon slip from them. At this high point in their lives, Nikolay loves Sonya, who is now at the peak of her attractiveness. Natasha savors these moments of abandon and innocence with the intuitive foreboding that these are the last she will enjoy.
Particularly in this section we see how Tolstoy integrates nature with human life. The autumn abandon is the autumn of their youth, and Sonya, Nikolay, and Natasha try to draw all the power of their common childhood to arm themselves for the wintry future. They even call on supernatural powers to help them, but Sonya's fortune-telling only predicts death for Prince Andrey, despair for Natasha.
As this symbolic autumn passes into"winter," Natasha becomes desperate for Andrey to claim her; she feels as if her spirit is in enforced hibernation. Now that she is ready to give up her claims to childhood, there is no one to claim her, and her restless love can be expected to seek an object for itself. Sonya is also caught in a stormy dilemma: Her desire for self-sacrifice to repay her debts to the Rostovs conflicts with her love for Nikolay. The Count and Countess Rostov, who prepare to break up their ancestral properties, feel likewise lost in the harsh climate of circumstances which makes their futures insecure.
In effect, Book VII carries the Rostovs through the paradisiacal innocence of their youth into the alienation and confusion of a grace-denied Fall. Tolstoy provides a pagan atmosphere to celebrate the end of youth. The hunt, the rites of Christmas mummery, the divining session to foretell the future are human activities left over from pre-Christian times. The author invokes the entire childhood of man to show that the Rostovs are giving up their innocence. From a state of"primitive blessedness" they now face the afflictions of adulthood and civilization.