In July 1805, Anna Pavlovna Scherer throws a party. In French, she greets her first guest, Prince Vassily, begging him to tell her that Russia is now at war with “that Antichrist,” “Buonaparte.” Unruffled, Prince Vassily replies in refined French, showing he’s grown up in society.
The novel begins with a soirée (or party) at which several of the novel’s aristocratic characters are introduced. Anna Pavlovna Scherer is a maid of honor to the Emperor’s mother, so her parties are popular among the socially ambitious. Politics are a prime topic of conversation there. A few months earlier, in April, 1805, Russia had joined the Third Coalition, an alliance with Britain and Austria against French aggressions. Napoleon Bonaparte was born on the formerly Italian island of Corsica. Anna Pavlovna mockingly refers to Napoleon by the Corsican form of his name, implying that he’s not even properly French. (Over the past century, French had become the language of the Russian aristocracy, part of efforts to “westernize” Russian culture.) By writing the novel’s opening exchange (criticizing France!) in French, Tolstoy mocks the aristocratic obsession with that culture.
Anna Pavlovna and Prince Vassily chat about society events and about the emissary Novosiltsov. The prince tells Anna Pavlovna that Napoleon has “burned his boats” and that Russia is in the process of doing the same. Prince Vassily has a lazy way of speaking, while 40-year-old Anna Pavlovna’s is more animated. Known as an enthusiast, Anna Pavlovna always tries to live up to society’s expectations of her.
Emperor Alexander I sent special emissary Novosiltsov to Berlin to attempt to negotiate peace between France and the members of the Third Coalition. He was not successful (the parties have “burned [their] boats,” or have no options left), and because of this, Prince Vassily predicts that war is coming
Anna Pavlovna says that Russia must be Europe’s “savior.” No other country, especially not England, understands the motivations of their virtuous Emperor. As they have tea, Prince Vassily asks Anna Pavlovna, with pretend nonchalance, about a political appointment in Vienna which he’s been wanting for his son. Anna Pavlovna explains that the dowager empress wants Baron Funke in the role. Anna Pavlovna finds the prince’s question indelicate but also feels sorry for him, so she changes the subject to the prince’s beautiful daughter, who has recently entered society.
Anna Pavlovna has an idealized view of Emperor Alexander and Russia’s role in Europe. Because of her connections to the court, Anna Pavlovna is an advantageous person for social climbers like Prince Vassily to know. Roles in government offices were typically filled by means of such social connections. Prince Vassily shamelessly exploits such relationships, and there’s a sense that while doing this is expected, it’s tactless to be obvious about it.
They discuss Prince Vassily’s other children, especially his two problematic sons, foolish Ippolit and troublesome Anatole. Anna Pavlovna suggests marrying off Anatole, perhaps to their mutual relation Princess Marya Bolkonsky. The Princess is rich and unhappy, and her brother Prince Andrei will be here tonight. Anna Pavlovna decides she will speak to the Princess’s sister-in-law, Lise (known as “the little princess”), tonight to try to arrange things.
Anna Pavlovna schemes with Prince Vassily to secure advantageous social positions for one of his sons. In the Russian aristocracy, marriage was an important way of gaining such positions, regardless of the feelings of the people involved.
More members of the Petersburg nobility arrive for the party, including Princess Lise Bolkonsky and Prince Vassily’s son Ippolit. Princess Bolkonsky, beautiful and aglow with her pregnancy, charms everyone, especially the men. There’s also Pierre, the illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov (a dying courtier from Catherine the Great’s time). Pierre is a fat, fashionable young man who’s just returned from his education abroad. As Anna Pavlovna makes the rounds of her guests, she worries about Pierre, who is socially inexperienced and has never attended a Petersburg soirée before.
In addition to the Kuragins (Prince Vassily’s family), the Bolkonsky and Bezukhov families will play major roles in the novel. Pierre Bezukhov, with his foreign education, stands out from the rest and is ill at ease in Petersburg high society, despite his father’s longstanding connection to the Russian court
The soirée breaks up into three circles, a mostly masculine one, a youthful one, and Anna Pavlovna with the Viscount of Mortemart, a popular French émigre whom Anna Pavlovna intends to be the center of the party. They discuss the murder of the duc d’Enghien. Anna Pavlovna summons the other guests to hear the Viscount’s perspective. The beautiful Princess Hélène, Prince Vassily’s daughter, draws everyone’s admiration as she sits before the Viscount. Princess Bolkonsky and Prince Ippolit join the Viscount’s audience, too. Prince Ippolit resembles his sister Princess Hélène, except that he looks foolish and weak.
Louis-Antoine, duc d’Enghien, was falsely accused of participating in an assassination plot against Bonaparte and was summarily tried and executed in 1804. The execution was condemned across Europe, and the event helped spur Emperor Alexander to war against Napoleon. The Viscount of Mortemart supposedly knew the duke, so his perspective gives the party a provocative centerpiece.
Now that everyone is settled, the Viscount of Mortemart tells the popular anecdote of the duc d’Enghien going secretly to Paris, where he shared a mistress with Bonaparte. When Bonaparte fainted in the duke’s presence, the duke refused to take advantage of the moment, and Bonaparte later had the duke killed for his “magnanimity.” Anna Pavlovna intervenes in Pierre and the abbé Morio’s animated political discussion—the abbé is presenting his pet project, a scheme for European peace—by drawing them both into the circle, too. Just then Princess Lise’s husband, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, enters the room. He looks bored.
There’s no historical evidence that the duc d’Enghien and Napoleon had the same mistress or that she played a role in the duke’s later execution. This anecdote is probably just an example of society gossip at the time. Abbé Morio is based on an actual Italian priest, Scipione Piattoli, who influenced Emperor Alexander’s court with his scheme for a union of nations against Napoleon. In contrast to Prince Vassily, Prince Andrei doesn’t have much patience with society’s pretensions.
Anna Pavlovna asks Prince Andrei Bolkonsky about his war enlistment. Bolkonsky explains that General Kutuzov wanted him as an adjutant, and that Lise will stay with his family in the country while he serves. Pierre talks with Bolkonsky, and they admire Princess Hélène as she and her father Prince Vassily excuse themselves to leave. Before he goes, Prince Vassily asks Anna Pavlovna to “educate this bear,” Pierre, who’s a visiting relative and who needs, like all young men, the company of intelligent women.
Mikhail Illarionovich Kutuzov, a highly decorated Russian military officer, is one of the many real historical figures whom Tolstoy fictionalizes in his novel. He will figure prominently in Tolstoy’s account of the wars of 1805 and 1812. An adjutant is an officer who assists a superior, typically a general, in administrative matters.
Before Prince Vassily can leave, an older lady, Princess Drubetskoy, grabs his arm in the hall and pleads for his help with her son Boris. She is desperate to get Boris a position with the guards, and she has no other society connections. Prince Vassily uses his influence sparingly, but he owes his own entrance into the service to Princess Drubetskoy’s father, so he promises to do as she asks. However, he can’t promise her that he’ll recommend Boris as General Kutuzov’s adjutant—all the mothers in Russia are pushing for that.
The Drubetskoys are another aristocratic family who—alongside the Bolkonskys, Bezukhovs, and Kuragins—will feature prominently in the story. Like Prince Vassily himself, Princess Drubetskoy is obsessed with her children’s social position and leverages her social connections to get Boris an ideal role.
Back in the drawing room, the conversation has shifted to Bonaparte. The viscount argues that, if Bonaparte remains on the French throne for another year, French society will fall apart. He maintains that since the duke’s murder, the French have ceased to see Bonaparte as a hero. But then, to Anna Pavlovna’s horror, Pierre bursts into the conversation praising Bonaparte for executing the duc d’Enghien. He sees Bonaparte as the deliverer of the French from the Bourbons; Bonaparte, he claims, champions liberty and equality.
Pierre’s outburst is awkward because of its poor timing and lack of restraint, but also because it contradicts society’s opinion about Bonaparte at the moment. It establishes Pierre’s naïve idealism and highlights his outsider status; he sounds more like a Frenchman than a Russian and doesn’t know how (or seem to care) to conduct himself appropriately in Petersburg society.
The moment is awkward, and Prince Andrei gets up to leave. However, Prince Ippolit jumps up and gestures for everyone to stay. He starts telling a humorous anecdote in a French accent. The others appreciate his tact. Then the group breaks up into smaller conversations again.
Pierre’s social awkwardness almost ruins Anna Pavlovna’s party; as an enlistee in the Russian army, Prince Andrei, despite being Pierre’s friend, is particularly offended by praise of Napoleon.