Nikolai Rostov is promoted to the position of adjutant to the governor general of Moscow. While the rest of the Rostovs spend the summer in the country, Nikolai becomes good friends with Dolokhov, who’s recovering from his dueling wound. Dolokhov’s doting mother, Marya Ivanovna, tells Nikolai that her son is too “pure-hearted” for this wicked world, and that it was unjust of Pierre to challenge him to a duel—doesn’t everybody have love affairs these days? Dolokhov seems to have softened, too. He tells Rostov that what’s keeping him alive is the hope of someday meeting a woman with integrity, who will purify him in turn.
While home from war, Nikolai grows closer to fellow veteran Dolokhov. It’s a surprising friendship, given Dolokhov’s reckless and cruel tendencies, but Nikolai is naïve; he is won over by the kinder, gentler Dolokhov who’s been chastened by his dueling loss and claims to want to improve himself.
In the fall, the Rostovs return to Moscow. Denisov visits again, too. The winter of 1806 is one of the happiest in Nikolai’s life. Because of so many young, eligible girls—Vera, Sonya, and Natasha—there’s a romantic atmosphere in their home. When Nikolai brings Dolokhov home for a visit, Natasha takes a passionate dislike to him, finding him wicked and calculating. But Nikolai is convinced that Dolokhov is a great soul. Dolokhov develops a crush on Sonya and begins spending a lot of time there. Meanwhile, people begin talking about war with Napoleon again. Nikolai decides to return to his regiment after the holidays, along with Denisov.
Life at the Rostovs’ is different than it was before the war. The family’s social circle has expanded beyond their old Moscow friends, and the young women are old enough for romance. On the cusp of another war campaign, this combination makes way for new drama in the household—especially the fact that Nikolai unreservedly welcomes Dolokhov.
On the third day of Christmas, the Rostovs have a farewell dinner for Nikolai; Denisov and Dolokhov are there. When Nikolai gets home that evening, he notices an unsettled atmosphere around Sonya and Dolokhov and realizes something must have happened between them. After dinner, he takes Natasha aside to find out. Natasha triumphantly tells him that Dolokhov proposed to Sonya. Though Nikolai has paid Sonya little attention over the past year, he feels crushed by this news. He’s relieved to learn that Sonya flatly refused Dolokhov. He tells Sonya that he doesn’t feel such friendship toward anyone else, but he can’t promise he’ll be able to marry her. Sonya insists that she loves him like a brother and doesn’t want to marry him.
Because Sonya is a poor orphan who’s completely dependent on her Rostov cousins’ kindness, a good marriage is the only possibility of a different life for her. Marrying Dolokhov would be a much better match than she had hoped for. But her devotion to Nikolai traps her as much as her poverty does. While Nikolai still has feelings for Sonya, he’s also constrained by the family’s financial situation, and he tries to convey this gently. Sonya claims she’s fine with that.
That night, Iogel, the dancing-master, throws a ball, which is an extremely popular event with teenage girls. It’s Natasha’s first time wearing a long gown, and she enraptures everyone she meets. Eventually Natasha dances with Denisov, who’s a gifted dancer himself, and they make a graceful pair.
At Iogel’s ball, Natasha’s beauty is on display at a public event for the first time, and her maturity is clear for everyone to see.
Dolokhov stops coming to the Rostovs’ house. A few days later, Nikolai receives a note inviting him to a farewell party at a hotel. When Nikolai arrives at the party, Dolokhov looks at him coldly and invites him to gamble. Nikolai recognizes one of Dolokhov’s crueler moods, but he joins in. Even as Nikolai starts losing large sums of money, Dolokhov dares him to keep going. Count Rostov is low on funds and told Nikolai he can’t give him a further allowance until May. Nikolai had promised to live within these means, but to his horror, his debts mount to 43,000 roubles. Nikolai keeps wondering how this sudden, dramatic reversal of fortune has happened in such a short time, thinking longingly of the comforts of home.
Dolokhov is obviously still upset about Sonya’s refusal and wants some kind of revenge for Sonya’s feelings for Nikolai. Knowing this, Nikolai still gets sucked into a game with the expert gambler. It’s hard to guess why he lets this happen, but if he is still naïve about Dolokhov’s true nature, his innocence is shattered over the course of the evening. Nikolai knows his family can’t afford such a huge debt, but he continues to rack up debt as if events are beyond his control. As he realizes what he’s done, Nikolai feels like comfortable family life is lost to him forever.
Nikolai wonders what Dolokhov’s motivations can be. After losing again, Nikolai takes Dolokhov aside and asks if he’ll accept a promissory note. Dolokhov mentions Sonya, saying he knows she’s in love with Nikolai. Nikolai feels totally under Dolokhov’s power and insists that he’ll get his money tomorrow.
Dolokhov makes it clear that he’s trying to get even with Nikolai, and Nikolai’s pretensions about the supposed friendship are decisively shattered. Dolokhov basically has no moral code; Tolstoy suggests that naïve notions of honor, like those Nikolai holds, will be manipulated by people like Dolokhov.
Nikolai comes home in dread. He finds the young people of the household gathered around the piano; Denisov is playing and singing an original song to Natasha, who looks scared and happy. Though briefly distracted by his sister’s beautiful singing, Nikolai forces himself to confess his losses to the Count. Ashamed, he breezily remarks that this kind of loss happens to everybody. He expects his father to scold him, but instead, the Count just looks away uncomfortably and agrees that such things happen to everybody. Nikolai bursts into tears and begs his father’s forgiveness.
When Nikolai gets home, he sees a heart-wrenching scene of family happiness and feels cut off from it because of his actions. When telling his father what happened, Nikolai affects the appearance of a smooth young man of society, but he’s unable to maintain the pretension, which shows his true character. He also feels shamed by his father’s financial troubles, knowing he’s just made things worse.
Meanwhile, Natasha runs to the countess and announces that Denisov has proposed to her. The countess can’t think of Natasha as a grownup, and she starts to refuse Denisov on Natasha’s behalf, but Natasha runs to him first and haltingly turns him down. Denisov leaves town in disgrace the next day. Nikolai stays in Moscow for two more weeks until his father is able to raise the 43,000 to cover his son’s gambling debt.
Hopeful scenes of family happiness and budding romance have given way to a scattered, financially strained household and the fizzling of marital hopes. As Nikolai prepares to return to war, even the illusion of peace at home is broken.