Nikolai has a hot temper and is quick to fight. In the second year of his marriage, Nikolai beats the Bogucharovo headman, Dron’s replacement, for various misdeeds. Princess Marya cries when Nikolai brings this up. Nikolai paces the room, deep in thought. To him, it’s normal to treat peasants this way—but could she be right? He looks at Marya’s grieved expression and tenderly promises never to act this way again. When he punched the man, he broke his cameo ring. In the future, whenever he gets angry at a muzhik, he looks at the ring to calm down.
Though Nikolai is usually kind to the peasants, he’s never lost his fervor for justice, and this sometimes expresses itself in violence. Nikolai was taught that this is the right way to deal with peasants, but Marya helps him reconsider. He doesn’t just do it out of love for her; her goodness genuinely brings something better out of him, too—an example of how a mature, loving marriage can elevate a person.
In the province, Nikolai isn’t especially liked among the gentry. He doesn’t concern himself with their interests—he’s always absorbed in farming, hunting, reading, or family life. He treasures Princess Marya more and more. Marya knows of Nikolai’s past feelings for Sonya and tries to treat her kindly, but she secretly resents her. One day, after Marya confides this, Natasha reminds her that everything has been taken away from Sonya. Marya can see that she’s right, and that they take Sonya for granted at Bald Hills.
Sonya largely fades from the story. Because of her position as a poor orphan, the prospect of a good marriage has always been unlikely for her, and she continues to depend on the goodness of others. Despite her envy, Marya is able to see this and show Sonya more compassion.
In December, 1820, Natasha and her children are visiting Bald Hills while Pierre is doing business in Petersburg. Nikolai’s old friend Denisov also comes to visit. On the feast of St. Nicholas, Nikolai’s name-day, 20 people gather at the dinner table, including his wife and three children, Natasha and her three children, Sonya, Marya’s nephew Nikolenka, and the late Prince Nikolai’s old architect Mikhail Ivanovich. From his gestures, Princess Marya can tell that Nikolai is in a bad mood. Sometimes, especially during Marya’s pregnancies, they don’t get along well. She assumes it’s because he finds her repulsive.
Nikolai and Marya thrive at Bald Hills. Nikolai has a respectable estate and a full household, bringing together the Rostov and Bolkonsky families in a union that would have been quite unlikely if not for the war. (The former being a Count’s family and the Bolkonskys being part of the imperial line.) Still, like all families, they contend with everyday challenges.
After dinner, however, Nikolai and Marya talk comfortably, three-year-old Natasha, Nikolai’s favorite daughter, perched on his shoulders. When Marya leaves the room to check on Pierre’s arrival, Nikolai allows himself to gallop around the room with his little daughter. He imagines dancing the mazurka with her at society balls when he’s an old man. When Marya returns, she watches the two and thinks that she never believed she could be so happy. Yet, in the same moment, she’s aware of a subtle sadness, as if she knows there’s another happiness she can’t attain in this life.
Always attentive to human complexity, Tolstoy observes that Marya’s joy in family life necessarily means that other aspects of her personality—like her passionate spirituality—won’t be fully realized. At the same time, Marya’s self-sacrificing nature has balanced out as she’s learned to embrace everyday joys.
Natasha and Pierre married in the early spring of 1813, and by 1820, she has three daughters and a much-desired son whom she’s nursing herself. She is stronger and sturdier, and her youthful passion has been replaced by a soft, peaceful look. The old fire appears when Pierre returns home from a journey, a child recovers from a sickness, when she talks with Marya about Prince Andrei (she doesn’t speak of him to Pierre), or on the rare occasions that she sings.
Tolstoy characterizes the older Natasha as an idealized Russian mother—strong, peaceful, yet passionate. The irrepressible young woman isn’t gone, but her energy is channeled into marriage, motherhood, and friendship.
Since they married, Pierre and Natasha have lived in both Petersburg and Moscow and with Nikolai. Society isn’t very fond of Natasha; she is so occupied with her children and her husband that she doesn’t pay much attention to anything else, and most people don’t know what to make of the change in her. Only Countess Rostov understands it—she’d always sensed that Natasha would make a devoted wife and mother. Since marriage, Natasha has “let herself go,” defying social expectations. She has given herself wholly to her husband from the start, so she doesn’t feel the need to make an effort at charming him. And she doesn’t have time to worry about anyone else’s opinion.
As a young girl, Natasha didn’t mind breaching social etiquette, and in a way, she shows a similar disregard for norms as an adult. A young countess would be expected to strive for certain standards of physical beauty and show herself within society, but Natasha pours herself single-mindedly into the things she cares about, and that’s now her family, not society.
By this time, discussions about women’s rights and roles have become more common, but Natasha isn’t interested. Such questions mainly exist for those who don’t look beyond marriage’s romantic beginnings and don’t consider the significance of the family. These questions assume that pleasure is all-important. Natasha wanted a husband and family, these were given to her, and she dedicates herself whole-heartedly to serving them; she can’t imagine anything different.
Natasha feels that new debates about women’s rights don’t apply to her because they focus on the relatively superficial satisfactions of a young woman’s life Pouring herself into her family’s daily needs is the most meaningful life she can imagine.
When they got married, Pierre was surprised by Natasha’s demand that his life belong to her, but he happily submitted. He doesn’t spend time with other women or at clubs; he only travels for business. In exchange, whenever he’s home, Natasha regards herself as his willing servant, anticipating all his wishes—or what she thinks his wishes are (even when Pierre changes his mind). After seven years of marriage, Pierre feels that the best of himself is reflected in his wife.
Pierre always wanted to surrender himself to something—it turns out that what he couldn’t find in Masonry, war, or anything else is possible within a mutually loving marriage.
Two months earlier, Pierre had gone to Petersburg for several weeks. He stayed longer than they agreed, and Natasha grew sad and irritable in his absence. When Denisov came to visit, he found the once-enchanting Natasha perpetually distracted and dull. But when Pierre gets home and Natasha runs lightly out of the nursery with a beaming face, Denisov recognizes the old Natasha for the first time. When Natasha scolds Pierre for staying away too long, he dutifully cowers, even though he knows she isn’t truly angry.
Denisov’s observations highlight the dynamic of the Bezukhov marriage. Though Natasha has aged, her youthful fire still shines in her marriage, and Pierre in turn dedicates himself to her happiness. They exemplify a mature love marked by mutual acceptance.
The household at Bald Hills consists of several completely different worlds. Pierre’s homecoming has an effect on each of these. The servants are happy because this means Nikolai will be more cheerful, and they’ll all receive nice gifts for the feast day. The children are happy because Pierre draws the whole household together with fun. Nikolenka, 15, admires his uncle passionately and wants to be intelligent and kind like him. As Nikolenka grows up, he fits together bits and pieces of Natasha’s and Pierre’s stories and gathers that his father Prince Andrei once loved Natasha, of whom he’s also especially fond.
Pierre is truly the heart of the extended Rostov-Bezukhov clan, and he brings the best out of each element of the household, from the servants and children to his brother-in-law and orphaned nephew. The kind of love Pierre developed as a prisoner of war—loving the people right in front of him, not needing a justification—seems to be at work here.
Pierre has always been absentminded, but this time he’s carried out all the errands and brought back all the presents everyone requested. As a newlywed, he found it strange that Natasha expected him to do such things, but over time he’s come to enjoy it. Though Natasha sometimes scolds him for spending too much, Pierre actually spends far less than he used to—family life restricts his options and makes his expenses more predictable. He distributes gifts to Natasha, the children, and the countess.
Pierre enjoys the limiting demands of family life—in light of his wartime experiences, it’s almost as though marriage provides a benevolent sort of “prison” that forces him to focus his resources on only the most important things.
When Pierre and Natasha bring gifts to the Countess, —who’s often moody these days, mainly looking forward to the peace of death—she’s annoyed at the interruption to her card game. After finishing her game, she admires her gifts, and the household has tea together while Pierre patiently answers the Countess’s questions and repeats things he’s told her many times. When Denisov sidetracks Pierre with a question about the Biblical Society— “that madness, Gossner and the [Tatarinov] woman”—Pierre makes critical remarks about the conspiracy-minded government. Then the Countess gets offended and leaves the room.
The Biblical Society, founded in 1812, printed and distributed Bibles in Russia; Emperor Alexander was a member. Gossner was a director of the Society whose Lutheran preaching grew popular in Petersburg; Elizaveta Tararinova, a supporter of the Society, founded a sect called the Spiritual Union. Pierre disdains these movements and believes they have a disproportionate effect on government.
In the awkward silence that follows, the group listens to the laughter of the children in the next room. Pierre jumps up to see what the children are up to. He comments that the “music” of their laughter always assures him that things will be all right.
The children anchor Pierre in the enjoyment of the present moment, both a tangible reminder of love and a promise that life will go on no matter what.
After the rest of the children go to bed, Nikolenka asks to stay behind so he can spend time with Pierre. Pierre tells Nikolenka he looks like his father Andrei. Nikolenka sits shyly in a corner and listens to the adults gossip about politics. Natasha notices that Pierre wants to discuss something else, so she redirects the conversation to Pierre’s meeting with Prince Fyodor. At this cue, the men, including Nikolenka, retreat to Nikolai’s study and the women go to the nursery. In his study, Pierre paces and gestures animatedly, criticizing the Emperor’s obsession with mysticism (he hates mysticism nowadays). The government stifles efforts at progress, and that, Pierre thinks, is why things are falling apart.
Though Pierre is now much more content with everyday life, that doesn’t mean his idealism has disappeared. He still retains politically progressive sympathies, though he also disdains a form of religious mysticism that doesn’t address daily problems.
Pierre says that independent thinkers must stand against corrupting trends in government. Nikolai is skeptical; he thinks a secret society would do more harm than good. Pierre suggests the Tugendbund as a counterexample—a group which embodied the preaching of Christ. Natasha comes into the room at this moment and though she doesn’t care about the discussion, she rejoices in her husband’s rapturous expression, which she knows so well. However, Nikolai resists, saying that if Pierre opposed the government, Nikolai would be duty-bound to oppose him. Natasha breaks the awkward silence by arguing feebly with her brother.
Pierre displays his idealism in his political argument with the more pragmatic Nikolai, who’s uninterested in rebellion. The Tugendbund was an illegal “Union of Virtue” founded in 1808 to free Prussia from Napoleon’s rule. Natasha encourages Pierre’s ideas, not so much for their own sake, but because she loves the excitement his idealism brings out of him.
As they get up for supper, Nikolenka goes up to Pierre and asks if his father Prince Andrei would have shared Pierre’s views. Pierre realizes how much Nikolenka has taken his words to heart and wishes he’d been more guarded in what he said. He says he thinks so and leaves. Embarrassed, Nikolenka notices that while he listened to the men talk, he fidgeted with Nikolai’s pens and broke them. He apologizes to his uncle, who says with suppressed anger that Nikolenka shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
Nikolenka is a timid, awkward, idealistic boy who’s never had a consistent father figure in his life and seeks such approval from Pierre. Though Nikolai disapproves of such politics and his nephew’s meddling in them, Nikolenka’s passion suggests that something of his father will carry on into the next generation.
Supper is friendlier, as Nikolai, Denisov, and Pierre reminisce about 1812. Afterward, when Nikolai goes to his bedroom, he finds Marya writing in a blue notebook which she explains is her diary. She shows Nikolai that day’s entry, which describes her dealings with the children. Though Marya’s thoughts about childrearing aren’t particularly profound, Nikolai feels moved by them. He puts down the diary and looks at his wife admiringly. Though he’s not aware of it, Nikolai has always been proud of Marya’s private inner world and moral striving. He feels he’s not on her spiritual level, but he is grateful that, as his wife, she’s part of him.
The 1812 veterans share memories in the kind of conversation that Tolstoy may have listened to growing up, as his father was an 1812 veteran as well. Nikolai admires Marya’s dedication to the mundane details of motherhood. Though Marya feels that motherhood has required her to sacrifice spiritually, Nikolai sees Marya’s spiritual beauty shining through her everyday activities, not in spite of them.
Their conversation shifts to Nikolenka’s intrusion into the debate in Pierre’s study. Nikolai particularly resents Natasha’s siding with Pierre, especially since she only parrots Pierre’s arguments. (He disregards the fact that with Marya, he is much the same way.) Nikolai asks Marya’s opinion, and she says that Pierre is right that we must help our neighbors, but also that our closest responsibilities are to our children. Nikolai says that Pierre just speaks vaguely about the Christian’s duty to love one’s neighbor, which probably influences Nikolenka.
Nikolai’s humorous oversight suggests that loving spouses tend to unconsciously support one another’s views, even when they don’t really understand them. Marya admires Pierre’s idealism, but she thinks it’s too detached from the specific duties of family and children.
Marya worries that Nikolenka is alone with his thoughts too much. She continues fretting over her nephew while Nikolai speaks of his estate business. Nikolai notices her troubled face and marvels at her lofty soul, feeling that someone like her won’t last long in the world. Princess Marya is always striving for the eternal and can never find peace in this world.
With his more earthbound concerns, Nikolai balances out Marya’s spirituality. Unlike him, Marya is much more attuned to the spiritual health of her loved ones.
Alone with Pierre, Natasha embraces her husband, and they begin talking in the allusive, intuitive way of a married couple who can finish one another’s thoughts. They talk about the argument in the study, and Pierre observes that, for Nikolai, thinking is an amusing pastime, while for him, everything else is a pastime. He can’t help thinking, and in Petersburg, he says, he succeeded in uniting his friends under the banner of virtue. Natasha struggles to grasp that such an important man is her husband.
Pierre is always preoccupied with ideals, whereas Nikolai is relentlessly practical. It’s hinted that Pierre is working on organizing the Decembrists in Petersburg. Decembrists favored serf liberation and other liberal reforms, and in 1825, they mounted a coup when Nicholas I seized the throne after Alexander I’s death.
Natasha asks Pierre if Platon Karataev would have approved of his activities. Pierre reflects that Platon would have approved of Pierre’s peaceful family life. Natasha agrees that their married life is happy, even happier now than on their honeymoon.
Eight years later, Pierre still looks back on Platon as his biggest influence. However, he doesn’t seem sure that Platon, unfailingly content with what he had, would understand Pierre’s recurrent desire to change the world.
The moment passes, and they both start talking at once. Pierre continues talking about his time in Petersburg—he feels it’s his duty to guide Russian society in a new direction. He reasons that if wicked people can band together to effect change, then honest people simply need to do the same. Pierre coaxes Natasha to say whatever she’d been about to say. She no longer wants to share the “trifle,” but she finally describes a sweet moment with baby Petya that morning. Then she leaves the room.
Pierre’s lofty goals for society contrast with Natasha’s motherly preoccupations. Though Natasha downplays the “trifle,” there’s a sense that their respective passions make their marriage stronger; Natasha keeps Pierre grounded, and Pierre’s aspirations make Natasha proud.
Downstairs, Nikolenka wakes up from a bad dream in which he and Pierre were marching in a huge army. The rest of the army consists of slanting white lines like spiderwebs. They are marching toward “glory.” As they get closer, the white lines entangle them. They see uncle Nikolai standing ahead of them, looking stern. Nikolai points at the broken pens and says that he’s been ordered to kill Nikolenka for this. Nikolenka turns to look at Pierre, but instead of Pierre, he is aware of his father Andrei’s formless, pitying presence. But Nikolai moves closer, and Nikolenka awakens in terror. He reflects that if his father approved of Pierre, then he’ll do whatever Pierre says. He wants to be like him and to do something admirable, like the men in Plutarch. In that way, he hopes his father will be pleased with him, too.
Tolstoy leaves the families behind on an ambiguous, even slightly ominous note. Nikolenka dreams of some kind of military glory; it’s already been implied that this might be connected to the Decembrist uprising a few years from now. Nikolai, who’s conservative on such political matters, angrily opposes him. But Nikolenka aspires to do something noteworthy that Pierre—and even his father Andrei—would be proud of. (The ancient Greek historian Plutarch wrote Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, which would have been included in Nikolenka’s studies.) But whether Nikolenka indeed finds “glory” or its opposite (like many who were killed or exiled after the uprising) is left a mystery. Either way, Tolstoy makes it clear that the travails of both war and peace will persist in the next generation.