When Rostov returns to his regiment from leave, he realizes that his bond with them is very strong. As he takes up his usual duties, he feels free from the chaos and mistakes of the outside world. Life in the regiment makes things clear and straightforward. He’s determined to become a good person, in a way that doesn’t feel attainable in the outside world. He’s also determined to pay back his debt to his parents.
Like Pierre and Prince Andrei, Nikolai seeks to better himself after facing personal difficulties. Like Pierre in the Masons and Andrei on his rural estate, Rostov hopes that the regiment, a world unto itself, will provide a shelter from the pain and confusion of the outside world.
The Russian army is preparing for a new campaign. Currently, the Pavlogradsky regiment is camped near Bartenstein, an abandoned German village. The roads are impassable with mud, so the men are forced to scavenge through the villages for meager potatoes. Nearly half the regiment are lost to famine or disease. Otherwise, regimental life continues much as normal. Nobody talks much about the war.
Life in the regiment doesn’t revolve around the ups and downs of the war itself. The rank-and-file soldiers are just focused on daily survival, not on the campaign. This is somewhat ironic because, in Tolstoy’s view, such men’s actions determine much of the war’s outcome.
Rostov’s and Denisov’s friendship is stronger than ever. Denisov looks out for Rostov and tries to keep him from dangerous duty as much as possible. During one mission, Rostov finds an elderly Pole, his daughter, and baby granddaughter, and he brings them home to shelter in his quarters. When an officer makes vile comments about Rostov’s relationship with the daughter, the two men almost come to a duel. When Denisov reprimands Rostov for this later, he’s moved by Rostov’s goodness; there are tears in his eyes.
In his efforts to become a better person, Rostov extends hospitality to those who are worse off than himself. He also continues to uphold his strong sense of personal honor, retaliating against insults. Nikolai’s ethics are admirable to those who know him well.
One morning in April, Rostov returns from duty to find Denisov shouting at a sergeant major. He disappears for the day and returns with some wagons in tow. An infantry officer argues with Denisov, saying he’s seized his own army’s transport of provisions. Denisov snarls that he’s the one who’ll answer for the seizure, so the officer should leave him alone. As the officer trots off, Denisov laughs and tells Rostov that he forcefully appropriated the entire infantry transport; it was unescorted. The next day, the commander sends Denisov to the regimental staff to explain himself, and he comes home distraught. Denisov explains that he got into a fight with Telyanin, accusing him of withholding provisions from his men.
In contrast to Rostov, Denisov doesn’t behave honorably. Though the men are hungry, stealing provisions is a serious offense, and the accusation against Telyanin (with whom Denisov and Rostov previously clashed over a theft in Austria) could likewise have grave consequences for Denisov.
The next day, however, the regimental adjutant arrives, looking serious. He warns Denisov that a court-martial has been assigned to his case, and that the best-case scenario is demotion. The offended side is arguing that Denisov showed up drunk at the quartermaster’s, called him a thief, and started beating people up. Denisov laughs at this, calling it nonsense. Rostov knows him well, however, and can see that his friend is deeply worried. On the first of May, he’s ordered to turn over the squadron command to the next in seniority. The day before he’s supposed to appear at the division headquarters, however, he receives a slight wound in the leg during a skirmish with the French. He uses this excuse to go to the hospital instead.
Though it’s not clear exactly what happened in this incident, Denisov appears to have lost his temper at superior officers. Unlike Rostov, who tries to right the wrongs he’s committed, Denisov avoids facing up to the consequences of his actions.
In June, during a truce, Rostov gets permission to visit Denisov in the hospital. When he arrives, the doctor tells him that the hospital is a typhus hotspot; patients and doctors succumb one after another. In the soldiers’ ward, Rostov is horrified by the stench and the sight of a suffering Cossack on the floor, his eyes rolled back and begging for a drink. A gray-bearded amputee begs Rostov to have a dead comrade removed from the ward. The doctor’s assistant hustles Rostov out of the room.
Rostov’s visit to the field hospital is a disillusioning moment for him, as he sees lower-ranked soldiers suffering in squalid, neglected conditions. So far, regimental life has sheltered him from such realities of war.
In the officers’ ward, Rostov sees Tushin, the artillerist he’d met at the battle of Schöngraben. It turns out that Tushin, who’s had an arm amputated, is Denisov’s roommate. As Tushin leads Rostov into another room, Rostov is shocked by the sound of laughter. Denisov greets Rostov warmly, but Rostov notices a dark undertone beneath his merry words. Denisov only seems interested in talking about his court martial case, and he eagerly reads Rostov the draft of his reply to the commission. Tushin urges Denisov to just sign the petition admitting his guilt and send it to the staff with Rostov; it’s the best outcome he could hope for. That evening, to Rostov’s surprise, Denisov signs the petition begging for the Sovereign’s mercy and gives it to Rostov with a grimace.
Conditions are different in the officers’ ward; officers are better cared for and able to live in some comfort, suggesting that class distinctions make a difference in the quality of medical care. Denisov is obsessed with his pending trial, wanting to hang onto a sense of principle (insofar as he has a defensible argument, which isn’t really clear). In any case, he finally gives up, as if realizing that in the greater scheme of things, principle doesn’t have much of a place in war.