Count Ilya Rostov moves to Moscow with his family, except for the countess, who is still ill. Until his house is readied for the winter, the Rostovs stay with Marya Dmitryevna Ahrostimov (mentioned in Book I), who is Natasha's godmother. She oversees the selection of Natasha's trousseau and plans diversions for her guests. Marya Dmitryevna keeps telling Natasha what an excellent husband she has chosen and counsels her to visit her in-laws as soon as possible.
Natasha pays her call, certain the Bolkonskys will love her as everyone does, but is unprepared for the cold reception she receives from Princess Marya. She weeps for a long time when she returns home, blaming Prince Andrey for not having arrived soon enough to spare her this humiliation.
Count Rostov escorts Natasha and Sonya to the opera one evening and the girls attract a great deal of attention. While Natasha feels deeply pleased, she feels more strongly a sense of loss for someone to love and admire her. Recognizing her womanly attractiveness, she misses Andrey poignantly at this moment. In this serious mood, Natasha finds the conventions of the theater grotesque and unnatural, even to the point of being embarrassed for the foolish exaggerations of the actors.
Gradually accustomed to the half-naked women of the audience and the brilliantly elegant men, her mood becomes one of intoxication and she has the surrealist desire to leap upon the stage or to tickle Ellen Bezuhov's bare shoulders. At this moment, Anatole Kuragin makes his self-confident entry and his roving glance fixes upon Natasha; their eyes meet. His fearless and intimate look makes Natasha feel she knows him already.
Ellen Bezuhov invites Count Rostov to bring the girls to her box during the intermission. Her beautiful, unvarying smile nearly hypnotizes Natasha, and Ellen says flattering things to her and mentions Prince Andrey favorably. Now the opera no longer seems unnatural to Natasha and she thoroughly enjoys the stagecraft. At the next entr'acte, Ellen introduces her brother to Natasha. In their brief talk, the girl feels fearfully close to this bold, handsome stranger. She feels no barrier of reserve as usually exists between men and women. Thereafter during the opera Natasha is only conscious of Anatole's presence.
Something dreadful is happening, she thinks to herself later, and realizes with dread, she has lost the old purity of her love for Andrey.
Anatole is a man who believes utterly that the world exists for his pleasure. Besides amassing huge gambling debts, his past excesses once forced him to marry the daughter of a well-to-do farmer. He deserted his wife, paid off the father, and has lived as a bachelor ever since. He adores"little girls," he confides to Dolohov, and his friend warns him off Natasha.
But Ellen Bezuhov is amused by the idea of bringing her brother together with Natasha and tells the bewitched young girl that Anatole now pines away for love of her. At a party, Anatole's kiss confuses and excites Natasha and she wonders whom she really loves.
At the same time that she receives an apologetic note from Princess Marya, Natasha receives a love letter from Anatole. In her reply to Marya, Natasha writes that she is breaking her engagement to Prince Andrey. Sonya discovers Anatole's letter while Natasha is asleep. The cousins quarrel, with Natasha hotly defending the honorable intentions of Anatole. Shocked and grieved at the broken engagement, Sonya determines to watch her friend day and night.
Meanwhile Dolohov and Anatole carefully plan Natasha's abduction. Sixty versts from Moscow an unfrocked priest awaits to perform a fake marriage when they arrive. Their plans are foiled, however, for instead of Natasha, they discover Marya Dmitryevna's huge groom awaiting them at the gate. Anatole and Dolohov barely manage to escape to their sledge.
Dry-eyed and silent, Natasha lies on the sofa heeding no one. Marya Dmitryevna keeps the news from Count Rostov, only telling him his daughter's engagement is broken. She tells Pierre the whole story and Bezuhov is not only shocked about the abduction, but about his wife's encouragement of the affair. Gently Pierre tells Natasha about Anatole's previous marriage, which makes his proposal to her a mockery; she is too shaken to reply. Pierre next searches out Anatole, and his towering rage entirely cows Kuragin, who quickly agrees to leave Moscow immediately.
Prince Andrey returns soon afterward, immediately learning that Natasha broke her promise. When Pierre visits him, he begs his friend to never mention the matter again, but to deliver back to Natasha all her tokens and letters. Theoretically Andrey believes one must forgive a fallen woman, but actually, he knows he can never forgive Natasha.
Returning to Natasha to fulfill Andrey's request, Pierre talks with her. She is confused now, no longer certain about her love for Anatole. Out of her tears, she casts him a glance so full of tenderness and gratitude that Pierre is stirred to his depths. His heart is full as he departs; he considers all men's actions pitiful compared with the tenderness of Natasha's glance. The famous comet of 1812 lights up the sky: a portent, it is said, of all horrors and the end of the world. To Pierre the glorious spectacle coincides with his feelings of harmony and joy in the universe. In his softened and emboldened heart,it betokens the new vigor that has blossomed into his life.
Her poor affair with Anatole Kuragin is Natasha's uneasy entrance into maturity and she becomes aware, for the first time, that the actions of an adult bear moral consequences. But Tolstoy says a great deal more than this through the vehicle of his heroine's false love affair. In showing what it means to lose one's childhood in civilized society, Tolstoy points out the paradoxical nature of the social order; that society encourages false moral values and then punishes those that transgress.
The beauty of Natasha's nature is her belief in her own emotions and her ability to respond to natural impulses. And, with her characteristic intensity and directness, she discovers that not only is it wrong to give way to her natural impulses but that she can no longer trust them. At once, her entire self is destroyed and there is no way possible for her to replace the loss. Pierre, however, holds out future hope for Natasha as she intuitively recognizes him as the only one she can trust.
The way Tolstoy depicts Natasha's coming-of-age and loss of innocence during the course of an opera is a brilliant exercise in irony. Natasha is fulfilled with a sense of her womanly attractiveness by the attention she receives as she enters her box. At the same time she poignantly realizes her femininity is an empty gesture as long as Prince Andrey is not here to claim it. In this serious mood, the first act of the opera seems to her grotesque and unnatural. But the bare décolleté of the women around her, especially that of the dazzling Ellen Bezuhov whom she meets during the first intermission, and the sensual stimulation of the stagecraft itself soon have an effect on Natasha. By the second act she is intoxicated by the unreality of her surroundings, and the opera now seems natural and normal to her. In other words, society has perverted Natasha's pure feelings of love into sexual terms and she is unable to distinguish between truth and illusion. The opera symbolizes this confusion.
Anatole's entrance into the theater and into Natasha's life deepens her confusion of love and sex, and illusion and reality. Just as the opera provides an imitation of life, Anatole provides an imitation of love, and Natasha falls victim to a socially created deception.
In her moral innocence, she believes in her own feelings, and with the integrity outstanding in her nature, she follows her inner promptings. When she discovers she has transgressed the moral code, she learns she can no longer trust her own emotions. Natasha's hopeless conclusion is a dead-end: The world is based on deception.
This is exactly what Prince Andrey has always believed. Maintaining his retirement at Bogutcharovo to avoid the deceptive nature of human relations, he has only emerged because of his faith in the purity and naturalness of Natasha's joyous life-force. Natasha's"fall" merely proves his original belief and he cannot forgive her for deceiving him. Losing this last meaningful attachment to life, Prince Andrey will seek to escape into death.
At its lowest ebb, Natasha's spirit must gather its forces before it can surge upward to a new self-understanding. At odds with society which has wronged her, Natasha feels herself imprisoned by inimical forces she has not yet the strength to overcome. In this way she is in the same situation as Russia, which suffers invasion by the superior forces of Napoleon. With her powers temporarily shattered, Russia must gather herself together, discover her own deep-rooted strengths, and then throw off the alien forces to surge onward to a new and stronger sense of self. This audacious transition from Natasha's story to that of Russia is a remarkable tour de force. That Tolstoy can carry off such an unlikely parallel between a situation in the life of one human being and an entire chapter in the history of a nation and yet maintain the verisimilitude of both accounts indicates the unique power of his craftsmanship.
Pierre bridges the gap between these two levels in the novel. When Natasha reaches out to him and Pierre is stirred so deeply, we see that Tolstoy is preparing him for a more central role in the story and uses him as a transition figure to carry the personal theme into the realm of the universal. Pierre's identification with the free-wheeling comet lighting up the night sky in 1812 shows us that he is to become the personal focus of Tolstoy's examination of the historical life-and-death struggle between France and Russia which begins in Book IX.