It’s five o’clock in the morning on the day of battle, dark and cold. The Russian left flank is beginning to stir. Their job will be to attack the French right flank in hopes of driving them back to the Bohemian Mountains. Soldiers hurriedly eat, pack up, cross themselves, and struggle into formation in the smoky, foggy darkness. The columns march a long way, uncertain where they’re going or where the enemy might be.
The morning of November 20th, 1805, dawns. The foggy atmosphere symbolizes war’s lack of clarity: even as they follow orders, their minds fixed on concrete ideals, people generally have little clue what’s happening at any given moment.
After an hour’s march, a general sense of confusion and disorder runs through the ranks, which the Russians are quick to blame on the “sausage makers” (the Germans). As the demoralized troops move downhill, they unexpectedly run into the enemy, and shooting begins. Those above still can’t see what’s happening due to the fog, and orders are slow to come. Meanwhile, Napoleon sits on his gray horse on the heights, at the village of Schlapanitz. The French troops are positioned much closer than the Russians had believed. From his vantage point, Napoleon can see that the Russians think the French are far ahead. He also sees where the center of the Russian army is located, near Pratz, and decides to attack there just as the sun breaks through the fog. The French begin moving toward the Pratzen heights from which the Russians have just descended.
The French have successfully tricked the Russians into thinking they’re far away, but they’re actually close at hand, monitoring Russian movements, while the Russians blunder through the fog in the valley. Now the Russians can easily be trapped on the heights.
At eight o’clock, Kutuzov rides to Pratz, intending to lead the regiment himself. Prince Andrei is with him, feeling that today is going to be a momentous day for him. He gazes down into the sea of fog and imagines how he might distinguish himself. Kutuzov is in a bad mood, snapping at his inferiors. Seeing Prince Andrei, his expression softens, and he orders his adjutant to check on the third division and tell them to send out riflemen. Believing that the French are six miles ahead, the regimental commander is surprised by Andrei’s message.
Prince Andrei has a premonition of the day’s importance and continues to believe its significance will consist in his personal glory. Meanwhile, showing his superior instincts, Kutuzov senses that the French aren’t as far away as Russian conventional wisdom believes.
The emperors and their suite approach. Kutuzov, who’d just been yawning, jerks to attention. The Emperor wonders why Kutuzov hasn’t yet moved his men; after all, they’re not on parade, so it’s not as if they have to wait for all the regiments to assemble. Kutuzov responds that he hasn’t moved because they’re not on parade. The two engage in a silent standoff for a minute until Kutuzov finally breaks it and orders the columns to advance.
Kutuzov is hesitant to order his troops to advance, apparently sensing the gravity of the moment despite his drowsiness. But he also knows that resisting the Emperor’s will is a losing proposition, no matter what his instincts tell him about the French position and the wisdom of attack. European strategy overpowers Russian instinct once again.
Kutuzov and his adjutants ride down the hill behind the carabineers. As the fog clears below, the French become visible—not a mile and a half away, as they’d believed, but just down the hill in front of them. Prince Andrei rides toward Kutuzov to speak to him, but suddenly a burst of gunfire fills the air with smoke, and everyone begins to run. Kutuzov, whose cheek is bleeding, yells to Andrei to stop the fleeing men, but the Prince gets swept backwards in the crowd. Kutuzov’s suite is rapidly cut down to four men, and the French target Kutuzov. Nearly weeping with shame and anger, Prince Andrei jumps off his horse, grabs the standard, and runs, shouting “Hurrah!” and trusting that the battalion will follow him. Little by little, soldiers follow him, though men constantly fall around him.
The French ruse works. The French are nearby and beginning to attack at close range, catching the Russians off guard. When Kutuzov’s suite is attacked, Prince Andrei gets the chance for glory he’d been dreaming of, quickly assuming leadership and rallying the scattering soldiers.
Suddenly, as Prince Andrei runs toward the embattled Russian artillerists above, he’s struck on the head. He collapses onto his back and stares at the sky, with clouds drifting across it. He observes the sky’s vastness and thinks that the sky is all that’s real, then he thinks that there’s nothing except for silence and tranquility.
Just as Prince Andrei distinguishes himself in the way he’s dreamed of, however, he’s suddenly cut down, and his perspective abruptly changes. He suddenly feels small and insignificant against the sky, and his self-important dreams dissolve on the spot. The meaning of life isn’t what he thought: glory in war passes as unexpectedly as it comes.
Meanwhile, on the army’s right flank, Prince Bagration is reluctant to get started. To delay things, he tells Dolgorukov to send a messenger to Kutuzov to ask what they should do. With six miles’ distance between the army’s flanks, Bagration figures that a message won’t make it back to them until evening. Bagration picks Rostov, who’s watching him eagerly, as messenger. Rostov feels joyful—all his wishes are coming true, as he might even cross paths with the Emperor during this mission.
On the right flank, Bagration doesn’t know what’s happening on the Pratzen heights and still believes there’s no imminent possibility of fighting with the French. Tapped as messenger, Rostov is about to get his chance at glory, too.
Hearing musketfire and cannons booming above, Rostov pauses to see what’s going on, but he can’t make out the chaotic movements on the hills beneath Pratz. Suddenly Rostov narrowly avoids getting swept up in a mass of Russian cavalrymen preparing to attack the French. As smoke engulfs the field, he pushes onward. He sees Boris, who’s exhilarated after coming under fire for the first time—the guards unexpectedly found themselves on the front lines. Rostov keeps riding, trying to give a wide berth to the hottest action, when he hears musketfire from an unexpected direction. For the first time, he feels afraid.
As Rostov comes under fire, he begins to realize that the situation isn’t what Bagration had believed. It’s hard to tell what’s happening because of the engulfing confusion of battle which, as Tolstoy likes to point out, makes no inherent sense. Though orders are important, the moment-by-moment decisions in battle are made by confused, frightened soldiers like Rostov.
Rostov decides to keep going. The closer he gets to Pratz, the more confused and apprehensive he feels as soldiers in various uniforms run in all directions, and he can’t spot any superior officers, much less Kutuzov or the sovereign. Even when he sees French troops standing on the Pratzen heights, where Kutuzov is supposed to be, he can’t believe that the Russians are being defeated. When Rostov finally gets an orderly to stop and speak to him, the man claims that the wounded emperor was driven away by carriage an hour ago. Another directs Rostov to a nearby village where the superiors are assembled, but Rostov slows his horse to a walk, no longer sure of his mission.
The disarray near Pratz illustrates Tolstoy’s argument that in the thick of battle, a sovereign or commander’s orders are only so consequential—it’s every individual for himself. Rostov can’t reconcile what he’s seeing with his ardent belief in the sovereign’s supremacy. His certainty about the war, and his place in it, is already unraveling.
When he reaches the village of Hostieradek, Rostov still can’t find either the emperor or Kutuzov, but the Russians—calmer here—all agree that the battle has been lost. Riding a couple miles beyond the troops, Rostov gives up on finding anyone, when suddenly he spots two horsemen, one with a white-plumed hat, who seems oddly familiar. Suddenly Rostov realizes it’s the sovereign, unwounded. Like a baffled lover, Rostov is unsure how to approach the emperor—he’s dreamed of this moment so many times—and finally turns away, afraid to disturb him. He sees Captain Toll comforting the distraught emperor and longs to speak to him, but by the time he reaches the spot, no one is there. Despondent, he follows a wagon train to the nearby village.
Just as Prince Andrei’s values get shaken up by his experiences on the battlefield, so do Rostov’s. While Andrei began to question the all-importance of personal glory in his life, Rostov finds his beloved Emperor demystified, disarmingly human. Like Andrei, he has the chance he’s been waiting for—to show his devotion to Alexander—but he can’t think of what to say, and the moment slips away from him. His hero isn’t the godlike figure he’s imagined, and war is mass chaos.
By five o’clock that afternoon, the battle has been lost. Near the village of Augesd, cannonfire continues to fall in the midst of a dense, desperate crowd of fleeing soldiers. Dolokhov, wounded, leads what’s left of the regiment across a dam. He tests the frozen pond next to the dam and begins running across the cracking ice, calling for others to follow. After a commander is crushed by a cannonball, more and more desperate men flee by jumping onto the ice, which soon gives way altogether. A crush of soldiers drowns as cannonballs crash down all around them.
The dramatic scene on the shattering ice sums up the day’s chaotic destruction—senseless death piles on top of senseless death. Tolstoy implies that this is what war is, fundamentally—a meaningless waste of life.
Back on the hill below Pratz, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky lies bleeding and moaning. In the evening, when he revives from a faint, his first thought is of the sky. He opens his eyes and sees it’s still there— “the blue of infinity.” Gazing at it, he doesn’t realize that Napoleon has stopped beside him. “There’s a fine death,” Napoleon says of Bolkonsky. Andrei realizes it’s his hero Napoleon speaking, yet this no longer matters to him. In fact, Napoleon seems utterly insignificant compared to the sky above them.
As Nikolai Rostov comes to terms with his very human hero, Andrei encounters his as well. Yet, when he has the chance to impress the admired emperor, Andrei is mostly oblivious to the moment. The sky symbolizes eternity, something Andrei never cared about before. Yet now it’s earthly matters that pale in comparison to heavenly ones.
Andrei passes out and, the next time he’s aware of anything, he's resting in the hospital. Napoleon rides past and speaks kindly to the wounded Russians. But when he recognizes Andrei and asks how he feels, Andrei is unable to say anything. Napoleon orders that the gentlemen officers be tended by his own physician, then gallops off.
As if to drive home Andrei’s change of heart, he has a nearly identical encounter with Napoleon a short time later. Once again, Napoleon seems petty and insignificant to him beside the mysteries of life and death. Despite a once in a lifetime chance, Andrei doesn’t care to address the emperor.
Someone puts Marya’s little icon back around Prince Andrei’s neck. Looking at it, Andrei wishes everything could be as simple for him as it is for Marya. He thinks that if he could pray to God for mercy, he’d be at peace. But it seems to him that God is too incomprehensibly remote to be addressed. Soon he drifts into delirium, dreaming of a happy family life at Bald Hills, mixed with images of Napoleon and the peaceful sky. By morning, Napoleon’s doctor believes there’s no longer any hope for Prince Andrei, and he’s committed to the care of the locals.
For the first time, Prince Andrei feels open to the idea of God and the importance of the spiritual world. But at this moment—one that will be paralleled much later—Andrei feels that eternity is untouchably distant. His sense of the meaning of life remains muddled and unresolved, and the volume ends on a suspenseful note.