In July, 1805, Anna Pavlovna Scherer throws a Petersburg soirée where several members of the nobility—including the Kuragin family, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, and awkward newcomer Pierre Bezukhov—debate Russia’s looming war with Napoleonic France. Prince Andrei has enlisted in the army because he’s unhappy with married life. Pierre, meanwhile, can’t decide what to do with his life. When Pierre’s wealthy father, Count Bezukhov, is on his deathbed, Prince Vassily Kuragin plots to wrest the Count’s fortune from Pierre. Though Pierre gets the inheritance, he’s listless in the struggle and indifferent to his sudden change in social status. Meanwhile, in Moscow, young Nikolai Rostov prepares to join the army as a hussar cadet.
Before heading off to war, Prince Andrei visits his father Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky’s estate of Bald Hills, leaving his pregnant wife Princess Liza there and saying goodbye to his beloved sister, Princess Marya. Princess Marya urges Andrei to show sympathy to his lonely wife and to have faith in God, but Andrei warns Marya that their harsh father mistreats her.
In October, Prince Andrei is with General Kutuzov’s army in Austria, while Nikolai Rostov is stationed with a hussar regiment; both men see battle for the first time. The first major engagement occurs at Schöngraben where, facing chaos in the field and superiors’ indifference, both Andrei and Nikolai become somewhat disillusioned about the thrill and honor of warfare. At the battle of Austerlitz, despite General Kutuzov’s warnings, the Russians make an ill-advised attack and instead are routed by Napoleon. Prince Andrei briefly rallies the scattered Russians, then he gets wounded and realizes the insignificance of Napoleon and the war as he lies contemplating the infinite sky.
Back in Russia, Prince Vassily manipulates newly wealthy Pierre into marrying his beautiful but debauched daughter Hélène Kuragin. In the winter of 1805–1806, during a pause in the war, Pierre duels with a coldhearted soldier named Dolokhov over Dolokhov’s rumored affair with Hélène. Though Pierre unexpectedly wins the duel, he separates from Hélène in anger. Meanwhile, at Bald Hills, Princess Liza dies in childbirth just as Prince Andrei—believed to have died at Austerlitz—unexpectedly arrives home. Nikolai returns to his regiment in 1806 after incurring massive gambling debts to Dolokhov, who hoped to marry Sonya Rostov and resents her love for her cousin Nikolai.
After his falling out with Hélène, Pierre leaves Moscow. On the way, he meets an old man named Bazdeev, who convinces Pierre to believe in God and seek self-improvement through Masonic mystical practices. After initiation, Pierre tries to live out his new beliefs by liberating his peasants, but he totally lacks the practical wisdom to follow through. In contrast to Pierre’s idealism, his close friend Prince Andrei emerges from the war and his wife’s death thoroughly disillusioned and determined to live only for himself.
Meanwhile, Napoleon has invaded Prussia, and the Russian army is fighting the French in Poland. In 1807, after witnessing horrible conditions in a field hospital, Nikolai Rostov sees Napoleon and Emperor Alexander signing peace treaties at Tilsit and feels disillusioned by the stark contrast between soldiers’ sufferings and imperial pomp.
In 1809, Prince Andrei visits the Rostovs’ country estate, Otradnoe, where he meets Nikolai’s enchanting sister Natasha for the first time, finding renewed hope in life. He moves to Petersburg and takes a government position, revising Russia’s civil code. The Rostovs also move to Petersburg, and after dancing with Natasha at a ball, Prince Andrei proposes. Prince Nikolai, disapproving, sends his son abroad for a year. Andrei promises Natasha that if her feelings change while he’s gone, he’ll release her from the engagement. Meanwhile, despite disillusionment with Freemasonry, Pierre rededicates himself to his own marriage.
In 1810, Nikolai Rostov reluctantly leaves his regiment and returns to Otradnoe to help settle his father’s messy finances. At Christmas, Nikolai and his cousin Sonya’s romance rekindles, but Countess Rostov angrily objects because Sonya is poor. That winter Count Rostov and the girls visit Moscow. During a night at the opera, Natasha falls for Anatole Kuragin and agrees to elope with him (unaware that he’s secretly married to someone else). After their plan is foiled at the last minute, Natasha, sick with despair over her betrayal of Prince Andrei, confides in Pierre, who admits that he loves her.
In June, 1812, Napoleon’s army invades Russia. Prince Andrei rejoins the army and hopes at first to find a pretext for a duel with Anatole, but he soon falls comfortably into the day-to-day rhythms of military life. He refuses the opportunity to serve at headquarters because he believes the best, bravest men are found in the ranks. In the battle of Ostrovna, Nikolai Rostov takes a French captive and gets promoted for his courage, yet he feels conflicted about his supposed “heroism.”
Through the summer, Moscow is filled with anxious rumors about French invasion. In a passion, young Petya Rostov enlists in the army, and Pierre, living idly in Moscow, longs to contribute more than his wealth to the war effort. When the French burn Smolensk, Prince Andrei’s feelings about the war turn fiercely personal. At Bald Hills, Prince Nikolai is slow to respond to the threat of invasion, though the French are just 40 miles away. After deciding to personally lead the village militia, he suffers a stroke and later dies on the Bolkonskys’ Bogucharovo estate. Later, when mutinous peasants interfere with Princess Marya’s evacuation, Nikolai Rostov, whose hussars happen to be nearby, comes to her rescue. Nikolai and Marya feel a mutual attraction. Meanwhile, Pierre abruptly leaves Moscow for the front lines at Borodino.
The night before the battle of Borodino, Pierre and Prince Andrei talk for the last time. The next day, Pierre observes the brutal fighting from the Raevsky redoubt. On a different part of the battlefield, Andrei is severely injured by an exploding shell. When he returns to consciousness in the field hospital, Andrei sees Anatole Kuragin being treated for a leg amputation and feels nothing but compassion for his enemy. The outcome of the battle is murky. Both armies are devastated, and Kutuzov insists Russia has won, but the French have enough momentum to push onward to Moscow, forcing a Russian retreat. Still, the French are demoralized for the first time, while the Russians take heart.
Moscow is in disarray, as wounded veterans are brought in and citizens flee the city on overladen carts. When the Rostovs evacuate, many soldiers catch rides in their caravan. Unbeknownst to Natasha, one of them is Andrei Bolkonsky. By the time Napoleon arrives on the outskirts of the city, eager to possess and civilize Moscow, almost nobody is left.
Meanwhile, Pierre, back from Borodino, remains behind, convinced it’s his calling to kill Napoleon. However, as Moscow burns, he gets arrested for defending a woman from French looters. Two days’ distance away, Natasha has found out that Prince Andrei is among their party. In the middle of the night, she sneaks to his bedside, and they share a tearful reunion.
During Borodino, Nikolai Rostov is in Voronezh, getting horses for his division. While there, someone tries to match him with Princess Marya, who’s staying with an aunt nearby. Though the two feel a natural understanding, Nikolai is torn because of his past vow to Sonya. Around the same time, Sonya writes to Nikolai, self-sacrificially releasing him from their promise.
While in French custody, Pierre narrowly avoids execution. Just as he’s feeling totally broken by this experience, he meets a fellow prisoner, a gentle peasant named Platon Karataev, whose wisdom and joy restore Pierre’s will to live.
When Princess Marya learns Prince Andrei’s whereabouts, she hurries to join the Rostovs; Natasha has been caring for Andrei night and day. Marya finds her brother strangely detached, his mind already fixed on the afterlife. Andrei no longer fears death, and having forgiven Natasha, he spends his last days contemplating eternal love.
Following the battle of Tarutino, the French army begins to panic and retreat. Meanwhile, Pierre finds peace and contentment in prison and on the march. Platon is shot for straggling the day before Denisov’s partisan fighters free the prisoners. During the same battle that frees Pierre, Petya Rostov acts recklessly and gets fatally shot. In caring for her grieving mother, Natasha, who’s been despondent since Andrei’s death, finds renewed life.
Pierre returns to Moscow in January, 1813, and when he confides his experiences in the newly mature Natasha, she responds with sensitivity and compassion. Their love becomes mutual, and they marry (Hélène having died the previous year). After Count Rostov dies, Nikolai moves back to Moscow to work off his father’s extensive debts. In 1814, he and Princess Marya get married, and by 1820, he’s become a successful farmer devoted to peasant reforms. That year, Pierre, Natasha, and their four children visit Bald Hills. Both families are happy. Pierre debates politics with Nikolai, who resists his ideas about government reform, and inspires nephew Nikolenka Bolkonsky, now 15, to follow him in hopes of pleasing his late father Andrei.
Tolstoy concludes by reflecting that although human beings feel that they act freely, history cannot study this freedom; its task is to examine laws that, like the earth’s movement, cannot be felt. In the novel, Tolstoy has sought to focus on this law of predetermination, as well as the psychological law by which unfree people convince themselves they are free. In reality, freedom is the unknowable “remainder of what we know about the laws of human life.”