Prince Vassily isn’t someone who thinks through his plans in advance, and he certainly doesn’t intend to harm others with them. He’s just a man with a habit of worldly success, who instinctively forms schemes as situations demand—befriending the wealthy and influential, for example. Lately he’s had Pierre appointed to a government position and moved him into Vassily’s Petersburg house. Without consciously thinking about it, Vassily does whatever’s necessary to ensure that Pierre marries his daughter Hélène. This will allow him to borrow a needed forty thousand from Pierre later.
The setting shifts from the war back to the home front, where Prince Vassily plots his future. He’s a scheming, manipulative man who values wealth and social position more than anything else and feels entitled to these. The newly wealthy Pierre is the current object of Vassily’s schemes.
As the new Count Bezukhov, Pierre’s life suddenly becomes much busier, taken up with duties he doesn’t understand and doesn’t care about much. People speak so flatteringly to Pierre that he begins to believe their remarks about his kindness and intelligence. Even the older princess, who’d been cruel to him before, humbly asks for his favor.
In wealth-obsessed Petersburg, Pierre’s new status transforms him from a laughable misfit to a desirable catch. Pierre naively buys into people’s newfound opinion of him, making him even more vulnerable to manipulation.
In the aftermath of Count Bezukhov’s death, Prince Vassily spends all his time guiding the hapless Pierre. Pierre’s harried new life is much the same, except that most of his old friends have gone off to war. So he spends most of his time with Prince Vassily, the Prince’s wife, the Prince’s daughter Hélène, and Anna Pavlovna Scherer, who—like everyone else—now seems to find him “charmant” instead of tactless and awkward. Early in the winter of 1805–1806, Pierre receives an invitation to another soirée at Anna Pavlovna’s. She mentions that Hélène will be there, and Pierre gathers that people have begun to associate him and Hélène in their minds.
Unlike others his age, Pierre doesn’t seek meaning in war service. Instead, he looks to others to fill his life with meaning, getting swept along in their schemes—particularly Prince Vassily’s and Anna Pavlovna’s desire to marry him off to Vassily’s daughter, now that his wealth makes his social awkwardness forgivable. Pierre is oblivious to the scheme until it’s well underway.
At the party, Anna Pavlovna pointedly pairs off the young couple to keep her elderly aunt company. Though uninterested in the conversation, Pierre notices for the first time how beautiful Hélène is and suddenly feels that she must become his wife. Later, at home, he thinks of Hélène and remembers that he thinks she is stupid, and that he’s heard unseemly rumors about her—they surely wouldn’t make a good match. Yet that doesn’t change his matrimonial dreams one bit.
Pierre feels a strong sexual attraction to Hélène which remains unabated even after he recalls that he doesn’t think she’s a good person or a suitable wife for him. He doesn’t reason about his future or make any real attempt to direct it for himself; he lets superficial emotions and others’ manipulations set his course.
In November, Prince Vassily has to go on a business trip, including a visit to Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, in hopes of marrying his son Anatole to the wealthy prince’s daughter Marya. But he’s concerned that Pierre, who still hasn’t proposed to Hélène, is wasting valuable time. Pierre, for his part, is convinced that marriage to Hélène would be a terrible mistake, yet he can’t bring himself to leave Prince Vassily’s house. He doesn’t want to disappoint everyone’s newfound expectations for him, and he keeps vacillating between admiration and disgust for Hélène.
Pierre knows what’s right in this situation, yet he completely lacks the courage of his convictions—he won’t do anything to change his trajectory for fear of losing his newly respectable reputation. At this point, Pierre is a morally weak and immature character, and he assumes his social position is the most important thing—accepting the default view of his society.
On Hélène’s name-day, a small group of friends and relatives—all of them expecting an imminent marriage proposal—gather at Prince Vassily’s. The company laughs and talks happily, all the while eyeing the bashfully smiling couple at the other end of the table. Happy to be the center of attention, Pierre is nevertheless puzzled by this turn of events and unsure how the proposal will come about. As the guests take their leave, Pierre and Hélène sit alone in the drawing room, and Pierre tries to gather his wits to say something about love for the first time. He keeps turning to harmless, irrelevant subjects instead. Prince Vassily and his wife take turns checking on the couple in the other room.
Pierre is laughably clueless about how to navigate this situation, though it’s also disturbingly clear that Prince Vassily has engineered everything and that, deep down, Pierre doesn’t really want to propose to Hélène. But he’s let himself be swept so far down this path that he can no longer summon the will to resist.
At last Prince Vassily, frustrated, walks right up to Pierre and Hélène and congratulates them on their engagement, calling his wife to do the same. When they’re left alone again, Pierre feels that this was destined to happen and is relieved that it’s finally behind them. Hélène kisses Pierre on the lips, and he finally thinks of something to say: “I love you.” A month and a half later, the wealthy young couple is married and settled in the newly redecorated Bezukhov mansion in Petersburg.
Finally Prince Vassily gives up and forces Pierre’s hand by pretending he’s heard they’re already engaged. Pierre acquiesces to this as fate, allowing Vassily to get the rich son-in-law he desires. It’s an example of how, rather like war, cutthroat Petersburg society overrides people’s rational faculties, especially when they lack the moral strength to resist.
In December, Prince Vassily takes his son Anatole on a visit to Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky. Prince Nikolai has always held a low opinion of Prince Vassily, and it doesn’t improve when the little princess hints about Prince Vassily’s unstated purpose in visiting. So on the day of the guests’ arrival, he’s in a bad mood. On Prince Nikolai’s morning walk, his steward Alpatych mentions Vassily’s impending visit, and Prince Nikolai angrily swings his walking-stick at the steward and orders that the newly cleared avenue be covered with snow again. At dinner, the little princess senses Prince Nikolai’s bad mood and refuses to join the table, citing her fears for the baby. When Mlle Bourienne makes cheerful conversation about Prince Vassily’s visit with his son, the Prince huffs that he doesn’t understand why the son is being brought here. Princess Marya blushes.
Pierre’s experience at Prince Vassily’s mercy makes it look as if Princess Marya—who’s also an innocent, wealthy character who’s naïve about society—might suffer a similar fate. Prince Nikolai appears to sense this, too—hence his grumpiness and overt inhospitality to the guests.
Prince Vassily, Anatole, and their party arrive in the evening. Anatole looks at all of life as entertainment that somebody has arranged for his benefit, and the possibility of marrying an ugly, rich princess is no exception. Princess Marya waits nervously in her room until the little princess and Mlle Bourienne come in to check her appearance. Her friends subject Princess Marya to several dress changes and an unflattering hairdo, not realizing that nothing will make Marya’s face suitably attractive. But finally, on the edge of tears, Princess Marya begs the girls to let her alone. She sits there sadly, trying to imagine herself as a wife and mother, but she can’t picture this happening to someone as plain as she is.
Anatole is an amoral character, indifferent to his actions’ impact on others; in that way, he is a decadent version of his father, seeing other people as means to an end. Princess Marya couldn’t be more different—she’s a thoroughly “Russian” soul, which for Tolstoy means that she loves passionately and without restraint, even at cost to herself. Marya desires a meaningful family life, but she believes that her lack of conventional beauty keeps such a life out of her reach. Her friends’ well-intended help feels like a mockery of her situation.
When Princess Marya is summoned to tea, she first pauses in front of her icon of Christ to pray. She prays to be rid of her desire for earthly love, considering it sinful, and she perceives that God answers in her heart, telling her not to wonder about her fate, but to be ready to fulfill whatever God’s will may be, perhaps including marriage. Then she goes downstairs in peace.
For Princess Marya, religious faith is the core of life. That’s why she feels guilty about her desire for romantic love, deeming this a distraction from spiritual concerns, and she prays to align her will with God’s. Though she’s conflicted about her various desires, Marya has the most developed and consistent sense of life’s meaning so far of any character.
When Princess Marya comes into the room, she’s struck by Anatole’s beauty and comfortable self-assurance. Thanks to the talkative little princess and Mlle Bourienne, there’s lively conversation. Indeed, when the conversation turns to Paris, Anatole becomes interested in Mlle Bourienne and hopes she’ll be part of the household after he marries Princess Marya. Meanwhile, as Prince Nikolai dresses for dinner, he continues to resent Prince Vassily’s arrival. It renews his inner debate as to whether he can ever give Princess Marya away in marriage. He can’t imagine life without her.
Like Pierre, Princess Marya is naïve about others—in this case, seeming to take Anatole’s good looks as a reflection of a depth that he truly lacks. Anatole’s moral vacuousness is quickly made apparent by his thoughts on keeping Mlle Bourienne around for his own amusement (as well as his assumption that Marya will agree to marry him). Though Prince Nikolai is harsh with his daughter, his inner conflict shows that it’s actually a dysfunctional expression of his deep love and attachment.
At first Prince Nikolai pretends to listen to Prince Vassily’s conversation, but then he abruptly gets up and confronts Princess Marya, scolding her in front of the guests for changing her hairstyle without his permission. He ignores Princess Marya’s tears and questions Anatole about his military service, then just as abruptly sends him to rejoin the ladies. He takes Prince Vassily into his study, and Prince Vassily openly explains his hopes for the young people. Prince Nikolai shrilly declares that it’s all the same to him if Princess Marya marries.
Unlike Petersburg-bred Prince Vassily, characteristically Russian Prince Nikolai displays no social pretensions—he doesn’t even pretend to take an interest in the polite conversation. He again shows his concern for his daughter in a dysfunctional way by demeaning her in front of everyone else. In private, his shrill tone betrays the fact that he doesn’t want Marya to marry at all, though he’s terrible at showing it.
With the arrival of Anatole, all the young women of the house feel that their lives have new meaning. Princess Marya is drawn to Anatole, imagining him to be kind, brave, and good. She tries and fails to show him warmth; all he can think is that she’s an ugly girl. At the same time, Mlle Bourienne’s long-cherished fantasy of being swept away by a Russian prince begins to revolve around Anatole. The little princess, despite her pregnancy, instinctively begins to flirt. Anatole enjoys all this immensely. As Princess Marya plays the piano after dinner, she is excited to notice Anatole gazing at her.
The mere appearance of Anatole gives the women an illusory impression that they’ve found new meaning— they nurture fantasies (all detached from reality in various ways). Anatole is more than happy to have these illusions projected onto him (a trait that will create greater heartache later on).
That night, nobody but Anatole sleeps easily. Even Prince Nikolai paces and grunts resentfully. He sees that Anatole cares nothing for his daughter and only has eyes for Mlle Bourienne, whom he resolves to throw out. Then he’ll no longer have to worry about parting with Marya. Meanwhile, Mlle Bourienne and Anatole have come to a wordless understanding, and they look for each other the next morning. They meet in the winter garden while Princess Marya is with her father.
Anatole has no moral conscience; he’s so self-indulgent that he doesn’t even care about jeopardizing his own best interests by flirting with Mlle Bourienne on the eve of his engagement. Unlike his daughter, Prince Nikolai is shrewd enough to see this. It also provides an excuse to keep Marya under his control.
That morning Prince Nikolai is unusually gentle with his daughter. He explains that Prince Vassily seeks Marya’s hand in marriage for Anatole. He sends her to her room to consider this offer. However, he also jokes that Anatole will take her and her dowry while also claiming Mlle Bourienne as a wife. Though she’s happy with the proposal, the comment strikes Marya as an ominous hint. When she’s walking through the garden a little later, she sees Anatole embracing Mlle Bourienne. When Anatole sees her, he just smiles and shrugs, though Mlle Bourienne runs off.
When Princess Marya sees her father’s ominous hint confirmed, she recognizes Anatole’s true nature—he’s totally shameless as well as morally depraved. Again Anatole represents the worst of “society” impulses gone to seed—he views others as playthings—while Marya represents a “Russian” innocence and integrity; though her emotions make her vulnerable, she also has a self-respecting pride.
An hour later, when Princess Marya is summoned to her meeting with Prince Nikolai and Prince Vassily, she’s embracing Mlle Bourienne, who is weeping. She assures Mlle Bourienne that she doesn’t hate her and that she’ll do anything for her happiness. When Marya enters her father’s study, she finds him snorting and shouting and Prince Vassily weeping sentimentally. She looks straight at them both and says she doesn’t wish to marry, because she never wants to separate from her father. Prince Nikolai, while squeezing Marya’s hand and pressing his forehead to hers, shouts that this is “rot.” When she returns to her room, Princess Marya reflects that her calling in life is love and self-sacrifice—a different kind of happiness.
Even when she’s been betrayed by her so-called companion, Princess Marya’s first instinct is to comfort her friend instead of resorting to self-pity. She also boldly asserts her wishes to her father and Prince Vassily. Both these things reveal a lot about Marya’s character. She might be naïve, but she—in stark contrast to Anatole—has a firm moral compass that drives her actions, one revolving around the happiness of her loved ones. (Though she may not be conscious of it, pride is a factor, too: she won’t be taken advantage of.) Characteristically, Prince Nikolai reacts to Marya’s decision by yelling to mask his relief and affection.