Summary and Analysis
Book II: Chapters 1–8
As an adjutant in Kutuzov's suite, Prince Andrey is lighthearted and stimulated by his work. His alert expression bears no trace of his former ennui. At this time in October 1805, he is privy to the discussions between Kutuzov and his Austrian allies. The Russian general orders an inspection of his men, haggard from a thousand-mile march, to prove to his ally how unfit his troops are for fighting. However, circumstances operate against Kutuzov; the Austrian general Mack suddenly arrives, reporting the utter defeat of his army at Ulm. This means that half the defensive campaign of Austria is lost and the Russians must fight sooner than anyone had planned.
Nikolay Rostov, now an ensign in Vaska Denisov's squadron of hussars, is billeted near Branau, the scene of the next battle. Nikolay and Denisov have become good friends from sharing quarters, the younger man regarding his brave captain as a hero. At this time, Nikolay suffers a conflict of loyalties between his personal honor and that of the squadron. In the presence of other officers, Rostov inappropriately reported a fellow hussar to his colonel for theft. The officer accused Nikolay of lying and Rostov hotly called the colonel a liar. While Nikolay now agrees he was wrong to compromise the regiment's honor in public, he refuses to apologize to the colonel, as his comrades ask him to.
Kutuzov falls back to Vienna, burning bridges as he crosses each river. As his troops now cross the Enns, they see the French encampment on the near side. The weather is mild, the soldiers bored but cheerful. At the moment of the first cannon boom the sun appears from beneath a cloud: the two impressions blend into one"inspiring note of gaiety." Soon only Denisov's squadron remains on the side of the river where the column of blue-clothed French steadily advances. The 600 yards between the two forces seems a barrier between life and death and each hussar is alert. Ignoring the grapeshot falling around him, Denisov gallops back and forth among his men, cheering them on. Rostov feels calmed, almost blissful. As soon as the squadron has safely crossed the bridge, Denisov receives the order to burn it. The men grab straw and go back, and Nikolay is under fire for the first time. Paralyzed with fright, Rostov regards the peaceful eternity of the sunlit sky. But the bridge is fired and Nikolay and his comrades return to the safe side. Their colonel is proud of a successfully accomplished mission. With only two men wounded and one dead, the losses"are not worth mentioning," he says.
Tolstoy arranges these chapters to illustrate the pyramidical structure of the military chain of command. First, reproducing some of the men's conversations, he shows us the broad base of the mass of common soldiers. Then he scales to the top as he depicts Kutuzov and the general staff of the Russo-Austrian alliance, including the now-alert Prince Andrey. We discover how the aging Russian general shows primary concern for the welfare of his men as he tries to avoid battle because the troops are exhausted and ill-equipped.
When the troops move toward the front we see how the closeness of death quickens their morale and how each man forgets himself during the critical moment. Tolstoy now individualizes Nikolay Rostov to show how one person becomes part of the whole and takes his place as a smooth-working cog in the military machine. The vehicle for this statement is the incident of the theft, where Nikolay asserts his personal honor and then must reconsider his action in terms of regimental honor. Under fire, the need to apologize to the colonel disappears. Having faced death in the line of duty, Nikolay has signified his commitment to the regiment. The pervasiveness of death is symbolized by the indifferent heavens whose sunny peace Rostov envies in that helpless moment on the bridge.