Natasha married Pierre Bezukhov in 1813. It was the Rostovs’ last happy family event; the Count died in the same year, and at that point, the family broke up. The events of the previous year—the burning of Moscow, Prince Andrei’s death and Natasha’s sorrow, Petya’s death and the Countess’s grief—seemed too much for the Count. Even as he helped prepare for Natasha’s wedding, it was clear that he was not his old self. On his deathbed, he sobbed and asked his wife’s forgiveness for ruining her property.
Tolstoy once again moves from general reflections on history to the particular lives of characters. The aftermath of the War of 1812 is sorrowful for the Rostovs, as the Count’s recklessly generous life ends in poverty and regret. However, Natasha and Pierre’s marriage promises a new beginning.
When the Count dies, Nikolai is with the Russian troops in Paris. He immediately resigns and returns to Moscow, where he, along with everyone else, is shocked to learn the extent of the Count’s debts—their sum twice that of the Rostovs’ property. Though many urge Nikolai to renounce his inheritance so he won’t be saddled with the debts, he refuses to shame his father’s memory and commits to paying everything off. None of Nikolai’s plans to repay the debts work out, so after accepting 30,000 from his brother-in-law Pierre, he takes a civil service post to pay off the rest. He moves into a small apartment with his mother and Sonya.
In keeping with his strong sense of honor, Nikolai refuses to take the easy way out and does what’s necessary to pay off Count Rostov’s massive debts, though this means living in reduced circumstances.
Natasha and Pierre don’t realize how bad Nikolai’s situation is. He not only has to support the Countess and Sonya on a small salary, but to do so in such a way that his mother doesn’t notice how poor they are—she’s never lived without luxury. Sonya runs the household and conspires with Nikolai in deceiving her aunt. Nikolai appreciates Sonya and feels he can never repay his debt of gratitude, yet he cannot love her. He sees no hope for his situation—he refuses to take friends’ advice by marrying a wealthy heiress—and simply endures it as stoically as possible.
Since they can no longer afford to live beyond their means, Nikolai and Sonya strive together to shield the Countess from further sorrow. Yet Sonya continues to sacrifice more than anyone, since she has no longer has any hope of marrying Nikolai.
That winter, when Princess Marya hears how Nikolai is sacrificing for his mother, she feels confirmed in her love for him. When Marya visits, however, Nikolai is cold and standoffish. When he returns the visit, he initially rebuffs her sympathy, but when she leaves the room in tears, Nikolai calls to her. They exchange a meaningful glance which suddenly makes the impossible become possible.
Princess Marya recognizes and loves Nikolai’s generosity. But Nikolai, long resistant to the idea of marrying for money, only gradually realizes that in fact, he does genuinely reciprocate her feelings.
In 1814, Nikolai and Princess Marya get married, and Countess Rostov and Sonya join the couple at Bald Hills. The marriage allows Nikolai to repay his father’s debts and to pay back Pierre as well. By 1820, he’s negotiating to buy back his father’s beloved Otradnoe estate. In the meantime, he becomes a passionate and successful farmer. He also develops a deep, instinctive understanding of the muzhiks and how to manage them effectively. Though he doesn’t see himself as especially virtuous, Nikolai gains the peasants’ affection and loyalty.
Countess Rostov ultimately gets her way—Nikolai marries a rich heiress—but Nikolai gets his, too, since he only married Marya after mutual love grew between them. Nikolai has always been a down-to-earth, sensible character, and his experience as a respected military officer apparently prepares him for the discipline and management he needs to run an estate—skills his father never had.