At Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky’s estate, Bald Hills, the young Prince Andrei and his wife, the little princess, are expected to arrive any day. Meanwhile, life on the estate carries on peacefully. Prince Nikolai spends his time tutoring his daughter, Princess Marya, and ceaselessly improving the estate. Though the Prince isn’t cruel, everyone holds him in fearful respect as they try to live up to his exacting demands.
Having introduced aristocratic families based in Petersburg and Moscow, the story turns to the rural Bolkonskys. Though they’re an aristocratic family, too, Tolstoy portrays them as comparatively detached from big city society circles. Stern, industrious Prince Nikolai contrasts with the much more indulgent, more spendthrift, and less diligent Count Rostov.
On the morning of Prince Andrei’s arrival, Marya timidly enters her father’s study for their daily meeting. Prince Nikolai greets his daughter sternly yet tenderly. He marks a geometry assignment in a notebook and also gives her a letter “from Héloïse,” which is what he calls her friend Julie Karagin. As always, Princess Marya is too nervous to grasp the geometry lesson and gives the wrong answer. As usual, her father shouts and flings the notebook away in barely restrained anger. But before she goes, he pats her cheek and explains that he doesn’t want her to be like the “stupid” women here. He also gives her a religious book that Julie sent, called Key to the Mystery.
Prince Nikolai loves Marya, putting personal effort into her education, yet he’s also controlling and has a fearful temper. “Héloïse” is a sarcastic reference to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s popular 1761 epistolary novel Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse. Princess Marya’s and Julie’s letters are based on a collection of letters by two young ladies named Volkov and Lanskoy, which Tolstoy had read. A Key to the Mysteries of Nature was an occult work by Karl von Eckartshausen, popular in 18th-century Europe.
Princess Marya returns to her bedroom and opens the letter from Julie Karagin, her closest childhood friend. Julie opens the letter with warm, heaping praise for Marya, whom she hasn’t seen for three months and misses so much. Marya looks in the mirror at her sad, unattractive face and figures Julie is flattering her, but it’s not true; she’s just never noticed the luminous look that fills her eyes while she’s listening carefully to another person.
Julie (who flirted with Nikolai Rostov in previous chapters) doesn’t seem to have much in common with Princess Marya; where Marya represents a restrained, isolated country life, Julie occupies Moscow society and serves as Marya’s connection to that foreign world. In keeping with her more “Russian” characterization, Princess Marya possesses an inner beauty that isn’t always evident at first glance.
Marya returns to the letter. Julie writes that in Moscow, people talk of nothing but war; her own brothers have enlisted. She prays that the “Corsican monster” will be defeated by the “angel” of Russia. She also writes of her love for Nikolai Rostov, praising his nobility and poetic spirit. Julie also mentions the gossip surrounding Count Bezukhov’s death and Pierre’s controversial inheritance. In consequence, women’s attitudes toward Pierre have changed overnight. In the meantime, Princess Anna Mikhailovna is scheming to marry off Marya to Prince Vassily’s son Anatole. She closes by encouraging Marya to read the enclosed mystical book.
The “Corsican monster” is, of course, Napoleon, while Emperor Alexander is idealized as Russia’s “angel.” Julie is much more connected to war news than Marya is, but her view of the war is filtered through society lenses—her crush on Nikolai, the gossip about Pierre’s newfound status, and marriage prospects for Marya are even more important to her. Overall, Julie comes across as relatively flighty and superficial.
Marya replies at once. She assures Julie that she doesn’t disapprove of Julie’s feelings for Nikolai Rostov; it’s only that, never having experienced such feelings herself, Marya assumes that Christian love—the love for both neighbor and enemy—is sweeter still than romantic love. She speaks warmly of Pierre, whose warm heart she’s always admired, and pities him the burden of wealth he’ll now carry. She thanks Julie for the book, but admits that she thinks mystical writings only spur religious doubt and confusion. Finally, Marya adds that talk of war has even reached the countryside, and she doesn’t understand why Russia must take part in a “wretched” war.
Princess Marya’s character comes through in her response to Julie. She considers herself to be uninterested in romantic love or wealth, and she favors traditional Russian religious piety to popular mystical fads. The realities of war seem distant and unconnected to Marya’s life, a perception that will be challenged as the story develops.
Cheerful Mlle Bourienne, Marya’s companion, enters the room, warning Marya that Prince Nikolai has had an argument and is therefore in a grumpy mood. Marya says she doesn’t like to judge her father for his moods. Then she looks at her watch and is frightened to see she’s late: it’s the time of day when she must play the clavichord while her father rests, as she does every day between noon and two.
Princess Marya’s life is governed by her father’s moods and demands, to which she dutifully caters. Her understanding of life’s meaning comes from her devotion to others, even at her own expense.