During the Rostovs’ two years in the country, their financial situation doesn’t improve. Though Nikolai keeps his promise not to drain his parents’ finances further, the family’s debts mount, and they eventually move to Petersburg so that Count Rostov can earn income from a government post. Soon after their move, Berg and Vera get engaged. In Moscow, the Rostovs had been members of high society. In Petersburg, however, the Rostovs seem like provincials to everyone else.
The Rostovs’ reduced social standing highlights the difference between Moscow and Petersburg. The Rostovs fit into the more traditional, Russian environment of Moscow; in sophisticated Petersburg, however, they’re beneath the notice of high society.
Boris, Pierre, and Berg all become regulars at the Rostovs’ suppers. Since surviving a couple of minor war injuries, Berg has become a captain of the guards and taken a profitable posting in Petersburg. Soon, he and Vera are engaged. Though Berg is the son of an obscure nobleman, it’s well known that the Rostovs’ affairs are in disarray, and also that Vera, now 24, has received no other proposals. Still, the Rostovs feel a bit ashamed of the couple’s engagement. Also, Count Rostov is painfully aware that he has no dowry to give his daughter. A few days before the wedding, Count Rostov has to give Berg a promissory note.
Vera and Berg’s engagement is a good example of the Rostovs’ awkward social status and the way this narrows a young person’s options, especially a young woman’s. For the daughter of a Count, Berg isn’t a particularly great catch, but since Count Rostov can’t contribute much for a young couple to live on, Vera cannot be too picky.
Natasha is now 16. Since she first kissed Boris four years ago, she hasn’t seen him once. She jokes about her childish promises with Boris, yet deep down, she’s tormented over them—were they sincere or not? Finally, when the Rostovs move to Petersburg, Boris visits them. Boris remembers Natasha with sincere affection, yet he considers himself a member of high society now, with excellent marriage prospects.
Count Rostov’s status is also an obstacle for Natasha’s hopes of marriage. From Boris’s point of view, the Rostovs’ circumstances give him an excuse to ignore his promise to propose when Natasha was younger. Natasha can’t serve Boris’s efforts to establish himself in high society, so old feelings don’t matter.
Boris still thinks of Natasha as a mischievous little girl, so when he sees how she’s matured, he’s pleasantly surprised. For her part, Natasha admires Boris’s newly refined manners and connections. Boris keeps resolving to have a talk with her, explaining that they have no future together, yet he can’t bring himself to do it. He visits more often and stops spending time at the Bezukhovs’.
Boris believes Natasha’s lack of fortune would wreck his career prospects, yet he lacks the courage of his convictions and continues leading her on with hopes of a possible marriage.
One evening, Natasha bursts into Countess Rostov’s room, interrupting her mother’s bedtime prayers. Unable to scold her daughter—they both treasure these nighttime chats—Countess Rostov agrees to talk about Boris. She can see that Natasha has “turned [Boris’s] head,” but she also knows that Natasha doesn’t love him. This won’t do—it might harm Natasha’s chances with other suitors, and besides, it torments Boris for nothing. In fact, the next day, she has a talk with Boris to discourage him from visiting so often. Natasha thinks that nobody understands how she feels deep inside.
Though Countess Rostov indulges Natasha, she also understands where the family stands in society and what that means for her children’s future. She still sees Natasha’s friendship with Boris as a childish infatuation that has no marriage potential, so she takes the matter into her own hands. Natasha must also consider her reputation in order to keep her options open.
On New Year’s Eve, an old dignitary throws a ball. The diplomatic corps and the Emperor are to attend. Despite their fears of being excluded, the Rostovs are invited, too, because the Countess is friends with a lady-in-waiting of the old court. It’s Natasha’s first grand ball, and all day long, she’s been feverishly perfecting her mother’s, Sonya’s, and her own outfits.
Because of a family tie to the previous Emperor’s court, the Rostovs make the cut to attend the grand ball (showing how they’re right on the cusp of acceptable Petersburg society). This event will be a prime opportunity for Natasha to be seen in society as an eligible young woman, so the stakes are high.
Arriving at the ball, Natasha is bursting with barely suppressed excitement and delighted to overhear guests discussing her. Mme Peronsky points out the distinguished guests, including Countess Hélène Bezukhov, various foreign ambassadors, and Andrei Bolkonsky. Natasha remembers him from his visit to Otradnoe and is pleased to see him, but Mme Peronsky sniffs that he’s become insufferably prideful since befriending Speransky.
The grand ball gives the provincial Rostovs a chance to rub shoulders with the likes of the Bezukhovs and Bolkonskys, both families that have moved up in the world while the Rostovs have remained stagnant.
The orchestra strikes up a specially composed polonaise, and Emperor Alexander walks in with the host and hostess. Ladies, suddenly heedless of their dresses, press forward for a closer look. But Natasha doesn’t care about the sovereign. As couples pair off for the first dance, she stands breathless, terrified that nobody will ask her. As acquaintances walk by without acknowledging her, she’s about to cry.
Though most guests relish the opportunity to get close to the Emperor, Natasha knows that this evening means something of greater consequence for her: whether she’ll be acknowledged as somebody worth noticing at a Petersburg ball. For several tense minutes, it looks like she’ll be passed by.
After the polonaise, a waltz begins. The Rostovs are asked to step aside to make room. Eventually, Pierre walks up to Prince Andrei, who’s chatting with someone about politics, and asks him to dance with Miss Rostov. When Prince Andrei turns to look at Natasha, his face lights up; he remembers her as the lively young girl from Otradnoe. Natasha beams in turn, her expression saying, “I’ve been waiting a long time for you.” The couple begins to dance, cheerfully and gracefully. Though Hélène is more attractive, Natasha has a fresher, more vulnerable look on the dance floor and Andrei quickly finds her intoxicating.
At first pushed to one side, beneath the notice of most of Petersburg, the Rostovs soon take center stage as one of the prominent guests acknowledges Natasha. Andrei’s visit to Otradnoe was a turning point for him—Natasha’s youthful joy renewed his own zest for living—and their dance seems to fulfill that promise. In this Petersburg setting, Natasha’s beauty is also conveyed as more authentic, even exotic, compared to Hélène’s tiredly conventional look.
After that, several young men ask Natasha to dance. Before supper, Prince Andrei dances with her again and tells her about the night at Otradnoe when he overheard her talking upstairs. He finds Natasha an enchanting departure from everyday society—her joy, shyness, and awkward French. Natasha says that she’s never enjoyed herself more in her life. Pierre, however, is having a gloomy evening, and Natasha, seeing his troubled expression, wishes she could give him some of her happiness.
Though Prince Andrei’s attentions grant Natasha the social standing she’d coveted just a few minutes earlier, Andrei is drawn to her because she stands out from typical Petersburg society with its contrived, cultured ways. Pierre, once again, doesn’t easily fit anywhere, and even in her happiness, Natasha feels generously drawn to him.