Early in 1806, Nikolai Rostov comes home on leave, bringing Denisov with him. As the carriage gets closer to the house, Rostov—now sporting a new mustache—feels increasingly eager. When he creeps into the silent house, intending to surprise everyone, his family members suddenly pounce on him from all directions, weeping, kissing him, and all talking at once. Sonya, now turned 16, beams at him. The Countess weeps on Nikolai’s new Hungarian jacket. Denisov comes in unnoticed, until Natasha shrieks and hugs him, embarrassing everyone. Rostov spends the evening happily basking in his family’s love, and yet nothing matches the joy of his first moments in the house.
A few months have passed since Nikolai’s experiences at the battle of Austerlitz, and he returns home triumphant, looking like a sophisticated man of the world with his mustache and foreign clothes. He clearly wants to make an impression on everyone, yet the family’s characteristically sincere, overwhelming affection comes through most of all. Some things haven’t changed: Sonya still cares for him, and Natasha hasn’t outgrown her impulsive exuberance.
The next morning, Nikolai and Denisov oversleep, and Nikolai’s little brother Petya bursts into their bedroom, leaving Natasha and Sonya laughing at the brief, forbidden glimpse of the men. Nikolai comes out in his dressing gown and sits with Natasha for another comfortable, familial chat. Eventually Natasha tells Nikolai that Sonya doesn’t want him to feel bound by his former promises to her; if he did, it would look as though he felt forced to marry her. Nikolai thinks Sonya is lovely, but he agrees that it’s better for him to be free. Natasha claims she doesn’t want to marry anyone and is going to become a ballet dancer instead. She questions him about Denisov.
The warm, intimate family environment contrasts with the battlefield violence and existential dread that marked the end of Volume 1. In her self-sacrificing nature, Sonya has offered Nikolai a way out of their informal engagement, which Nikolai—ostensibly, at least—appreciates. For her part, Natasha is still young enough that love and marriage aren’t at the forefront of her mind.
Joining the household in the drawing room, Nikolai can tell that everyone is watching him to see how he behaves toward Sonya. He greets her formally as “Miss Sonya,” yet they exchange a tender look which assures both of them of their mutual love. Vera comments aloud on their formality, making everyone blush. Meanwhile, Denisov enters the drawing room in a new uniform and fresh hairstyle and perfume.
Nikolai’s conflicted feelings about Sonya are evident—he still loves her, yet he feels the need to outwardly deny any special attachment, setting aside the appearance of anything childish and unsuitable for his new social position.
Nikolai’s family welcomes him home as a hero and Moscow as a whole treats him as a desirable suitor. For his part, Nikolai feels he’s matured beyond childish activities, including secret kisses with Sonya. He’s now a hussar lieutenant with adult acquaintances, including a lady he visits in the evenings. He feels he’s enjoying his freedom too much to have time for love.
Nikolai’s experiences abroad have caused him to think differently about his relationship with Sonya. He assigns it to a period of his life that’s closed. As a war veteran honored by his society, he now seeks out “adult” relationships which, ironically, are more casual and open-ended.
In March, Count Rostov arranges a dinner at the English Club in honor of Prince Bagration. In the flurry of last-minute preparations, the Count orders Nikolai to Count Bezukhov’s to get fresh fruit and from there to find Ilyushka the Gypsy. Just then Anna Mikhailovna comes in with her usual longsuffering expression and offers to go to Bezukhov’s instead, since he has a letter from Boris. In pitying tones, she gossips about the countess Hélène’s rumored affair with Dolokhov, whom Pierre had invited to his Petersburg estate.
The English Club was a social club for high nobility, modeled on similar clubs in England.Ilyushka the Gypsy, or Ilya Sokolov, conducted an acclaimed Gypsy choir which Moscow’s elite favored. The elaborate dinner is an example of the generous entertainments Count Rostov loves to give but can’t really afford (undermining his family’s long-term standing in the process).
On March 3rd, Prince Bagration’s dinner at the English club takes place with 300 guests. When news had first come back about the defeat at Austerlitz, Moscow society didn’t know what to believe. There was a general feeling that it was better to keep silent about bad news. Eventually, opinions began to circulate regarding Austrian treachery, poor provisioning, Kutuzov’s failings, and the youthful emperor’s inexperience.
Generally, historians accept that the reasons given—with the exception of poor provisioning (inadequate supplies)—are incorrect. But the flurry of opinions in the aftermath of Austerlitz demonstrates high society’s unwillingness to recognize a Russian defeat.
But the Russian troops are universally regarded as heroic, especially Prince Bagration, who kept his column in order during the battle and twice beat back the French. He serves as a convenient figurehead for the Russian troops in general, as well as a foil for Kutuzov. Heroic stories circulate about other soldiers and officers. Nobody talks about Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, though—only that he died regrettably early, leaving a pregnant wife behind.
Even though the Russians lost the battle of Austerlitz, they still celebrate Prince Bagration’s heroism as an indirect rebuke of Kutuzov, their scapegoat for the loss because of his retreat. For the first time, Prince Andrei’s supposed death is acknowledged.
At the dinner, Pierre walks absentmindedly through the rooms, used to being treated obsequiously because of his wealth. Thanks to his wife’s influence, he’s more fashionably dressed these days, yet his air is gloomy. He alternates between the young guests, with whom he more naturally belongs, and the older ones who share his wealth and status. Nikolai talks with Dolokhov, whom he’s recently befriended. When Prince Bagration is announced, he comes in wearing a new uniform decorated with medals, yet looking as if he’d much rather be on the battlefield. Someone presents him a set of verses on a silver platter and reads them aloud. The verses refer to Bagration as “Ripheus” and “the Russian Alcides.” Before the verses’ author can finish reading, dinner is served.
Despite his newly established position in society, Pierre still feels like a misfit, not fully fitting in anywhere. The verses given are by the 18th-century Russian poet Nikolev. Tolstoy discovered these in a book called Diary of a Student by Zhikharev; among other references, they draw on Virgil’s Aeneid (Ripheus was Aeneas’s companion), and Greek mythology (Alcides was Hercules’s surname). In other words, Bagration was being boldly mythologized. The banquet honoring Bagration was a real historical event.
Before dinner, Count Rostov makes sure to introduce Nikolai to Bagration, who recognizes him from the war. The meal itself is a great success, and soon it’s time for the champagne toasts. When the Count toasts the Emperor, Nikolai almost weeps. After drinking, he throws his empty glass on the floor, and many others follow suit. Toast after toast is given, concluding with one for the host, Count Rostov, whereupon the Count bursts into tears.
Count Rostov isn’t throwing a banquet out of simple patriotism—it’s also an opportunity to make important social connections for his son. Still, his patriotism is heartfelt—Nikolai and his father both respond with their characteristically Russian emotion, as smashing an empty glass is a Russian custom to punctuate a sincere toast.
Though Pierre eats and drinks as much as ever, he seems distracted and depressed. It’s about the rumors of Dolokhov’s affair with his wife; he’d even received an anonymous letter that morning warning him about it. He doesn’t believe it, but sitting across from Dolokhov at the banquet unnerves him. After the campaign, Dolokhov came to live with Pierre and Hélène, borrowed money from Pierre, and often praised Pierre’s wife’s beauty. Now Pierre watches Dolokhov talking merrily and thinks of his fierce reputation as a duelist.
Dolokhov, whose past behaviors (especially the infamous bear incident) have established his lack of regard for others’ feelings, has been grossly abusing his “friend” Pierre’s hospitality, and Pierre has apparently let himself be used this way. Being out in society and keenly aware of what others are thinking about him, Pierre now questions Dolokhov.
Pierre is so lost in thought that he fails to toast the Emperor. Then, Dolokhov provokes Pierre by raising a toast to pretty women. At this, Pierre lunges across the table and challenges Dolokhov to a duel. Nesvitsky agrees to be Pierre’s second, and Rostov agrees to be Dolokhov’s. Pierre goes home, feeling devastatingly certain that Hélène cheated on him.
Pierre’s challenge is a very bold move—Dolokhov is a steady, cold-hearted duelist, while Pierre has no such experience and isn’t renowned for his bravery. Because Dolokhov has brazenly insulted Pierre’s honor, failing to challenge Dolokhov would make Pierre’s sense of being a social misfit even more acute. Though outlawed, dueling was quite popular among aristocrats looking to settle matters of honor in 19th century Russia. A “second” was a close friend who represented the combatant and tried to resolve the matter peacefully.
Early the next morning, Pierre, Nesvitsky, Dolokhov, Denisov, and Rostov meet at the Sokolniki woods. Pierre hasn’t slept. He feels painfully conscious of his wife’s guilt, yet he feels that if he were in Dolokhov’s position, he would probably have acted the same way. Before the duel, Nesvitsky urges Pierre to call it off. Pierre refuses and fiddles with the pistol, figuring out how to fire it (he’s never held one before). Nesvitsky and Denisov measure out 40 paces in the snow. Everyone stands there silently.
Pierre’s deeply conscientious soul is shown by the fact that, as much as he feels justified in challenging Dolokhov, he doesn’t see himself as being above Dolokhov’s behavior (as indeed he’s joined in Dolokhov’s antics in the past). The tension before the duel is profound, increased by the fact that Pierre literally doesn’t know what he’s doing; yet he feels duty-bound to follow through.
Now that the duel is underway, it seems like events are moving forward apart from any human will. Denisov counts to three, and the adversaries start marching toward each other. When Pierre fires in Dolokhov’s direction, the loud gunshot startles Pierre. There’s no return shot. As the smoke clears, he sees Dolokhov walking towards him. Dolokhov collapses on the snow and wipes a bloody hand on the ground. With an agonizing effort, he pulls himself together and aims at Pierre, who’s standing there defenseless, but he misses and falls down with the effort. Pierre walks away, incoherently muttering. Nesvitsky takes Pierre home.
Tolstoy alludes to his broader argument about the role of necessity, determinism, or fate, in driving human events. There’s a surreal feeling of inevitability about the scene—and Pierre’s unlikely defeat of the far more experienced Dolokhov is all the more surprising. Despite the feeling of being carried along by fate, Pierre takes responsibility for his own reputation in a way he hasn’t before.
As Rostov and Denisov take the wounded Dolokhov back to Moscow, Dolokhov begs Rostov to go to his house and prepare his mother for the news. Rostov is surprised to find out that Dolokhov is a loyal, affectionate son and brother to his elderly mother and hunchbacked sister.
Despite his depraved reputation, Dolokhov isn’t all he seems, either—he is capable of love and loyalty to his own family, like any good Russian son.
At home, Pierre paces the old Count Bezukhov’s study, unable to rest. He keeps picturing his wife’s face and Dolokhov’s beside it, alternately wearing a mocking or suffering expression. He tries to understand how this happened. He realizes it’s his fault for marrying Hélène in the first place—he’d always felt, ever since the night of their engagement, that it was wrong because he didn’t love her. And ever since their marriage, Pierre felt he couldn’t understand her, attributing it to the fact that she is “depraved.” She once mocked Pierre and told him that if she ever had children, she wouldn’t have his.
Though Pierre has always felt uneasy about his marriage, the duel opens his eyes to the sheer dysfunction in their relationship. Hélène openly rejects him; it’s suggested that the couple doesn’t have a sexual relationship (and that Hélène carries on countless affairs, reportedly even with her brother Anatole). Pierre’s emotions are complex, though—he sees he’s to blame for his inability to refuse an attractive bride and the social standing he gained by her.
Pierre alternates between blaming Hélène for her depravity and blaming himself for lying and saying he loved her. He knows his honor has been disgraced, but it’s merely a social convention that doesn’t really matter to him. Unable to face Hélène again, he tells his valet to pack for a return to the Petersburg estate tomorrow. He will leave his wife a letter explaining that he can no longer live with her.
For Pierre, aristocratic notions of “honor” aren’t what matters most. The whole situation comes down to Hélène’s infidelity and his own foolishness in consenting to the marriage. The duel with Dolokhov merely prompts him to acknowledge his marriage is a sham.
However, first thing the next morning, Hélène herself confronts Pierre, looking elegant and wrathful. She tells Pierre that he did this because he believes whatever he’s told, and that she’ll now become the laughingstock of Moscow. Feeling a tightness in his chest, Pierre says they must part, and when Hélène says he must grant her a fortune first, Pierre suddenly jumps up from his sofa, seizes a marble slab, and swings it at his wife, shouting, “I’ll kill you!” She springs out of the way, and instead he smashes the slab on the floor. A week later, Pierre gives Hélène power of attorney for his estates in Great Russia, and he moves back to Petersburg alone.
Gentle Pierre is capable of frightening outbursts of temper (taking after his hot-blooded father). Now that Hélène’s behavior is out in the open, Pierre is enraged at being pressed further. By giving Hélène control of his estates, Pierre essentially surrenders his position as Count Bezukhov, suggesting that he rejects the hollow satisfactions of social standing. His short-lived attempt to find meaning in this lifestyle has failed.