The next day, Prince Andrei travels to Bald Hills to ask his father’s permission to marry. Prince Nikolai receives the news calmly, but inside, he can’t understand it—why anyone would seek to dramatically change their life. He argues with Andrei: the marriage isn’t a particularly brilliant match; Andrei is no longer youthful, while Natasha is very young, and finally, there’s his son to think of. He orders Andrei to go abroad for a year, and if the passion persists, then he can marry. Knowing his father hopes he’ll change his mind, Prince Andrei returns to Petersburg to propose.
Prince Nikolai dislikes change and isn’t much more receptive to Andrei’s possible marriage than he was to Princess Marya’s. As the head of the family, he has the final say over both his children’s futures. Prince Nikolai hopes time will wear down his son, but there’s a difference in how the two generations view happiness: the Bolkonsky reputation is his guiding principle, while happiness is Andrei’s.
Meanwhile, Natasha doesn’t know that Prince Andrei has left Petersburg, and she spends three weeks sulking. After that, she decides to resume her old routine. As she practices her singing exercises and admires her reflection in the mirror, Natasha feels hopeful again, telling herself she’s content with life as it is. When she hears Prince Andrei being admitted to the house, she panics. Andrei speaks to Countess Rostov in private, and the Countess warmly consents to the proposal, but she finds him “alien and frightening.”
Natasha is a passionate young woman, but the flipside of her quick emotions is that she is generally resilient. Just when she’s accepted that her romance with Andrei won’t continue, he comes back. His “alien” appearance suggests that, though Andrei doesn’t relish high society like some do, he belongs to that world in a way that the more provincial Rostovs don’t. Even though Natasha is young, the match is so good that the Countess can’t say no this time.
As Natasha nervously enters the drawing room, she thinks, “Can it be that this stranger has now become everything for me?” Prince Andrei approaches her shyly, saying that he’s loved her since he first set eyes on her and asking if she loves him, too. Natasha says yes, bursts into tears, and after only a moment’s hesitation, kisses him. Prince Andrei gazes at the weeping girl and doesn’t feel the former passion, but he feels pity and a binding sense of duty.
Though Natasha and Andrei have feelings for one another, most aristocratic marriages are, in some sense, between “strangers.” Both of them realize this to some degree, especially Andrei, who realizes that his initial feeling of joy isn’t sustainable indefinitely—Natasha isn’t just a vague promise of possible happiness, but is now a real, concrete obligation.
Natasha tries to grasp the idea that she’s now grown up. Prince Andrei explains the necessity of a year’s absence. If this year of testing shows Natasha that she doesn’t love him, he says, then he will set her free. Natasha bursts into tears, not understanding, but insists she can wait. From then on, Prince Andrei visits the Rostovs’ as Natasha’s fiancé, though their betrothal isn’t public. The Rostovs grow more accustomed to Andrei, finding him less foreign and strange.
Engagement makes heavy demands of Natasha from the beginning: she doesn’t get to enjoy the proximity of her future husband or the public accolades associated with engagement. Though Andrei becomes more a part of the family, the romance remains irregular and the couple’s future remains uncertain.
Natasha grows to understand Prince Andrei’s feelings and loosens up around him; her merry moods make him laugh wholeheartedly. However, his impending trip abroad hangs over them. The night before his departure, Pierre joins the Rostovs for dinner. Prince Andrei explains that Pierre knows about the engagement and urges Natasha to go to him for any advice, since Pierre has “a heart of gold.” Natasha says goodbye to Andrei with an anguished “Don’t leave!” which he long remembers. However, after two weeks of depression, Natasha goes about her normal life, looking a little older.
Andrei’s and Natasha’s relationship gets stronger, though their farewell has ominous overtones. Pierre, always watching other people’s happiness from the outside, gets saddled with the role of being Natasha’s confidant in Andrei’s absence.
Back at Bald Hills, Prince Nikolai’s health declines. The burden of this falls on Princess Marya. Princess Marya’s soft spots are her nephew Nikolushka and her religious faith, and the irritable Prince attacks these at every opportunity. However, none of this hurts Princess Marya; she doesn’t take any of it personally or hold it against him. Marya simply wants to live a life of love and self-denial, as Christ did. Other people’s mistreatment doesn’t bother her.
Princess Marya continues to find happiness in denying herself for others’ sake. She suppresses her own needs, wants, and feelings in order to care for those around her. For the time being, Tolstoy upholds this as exemplary.
When Prince Andrei comes to Bald Hills, he doesn’t tell Princess Marya about his engagement. After he goes abroad, she writes a letter to her friend Julie Karagin, who’s currently mourning the death of her brother in Turkey. (She’d always dreamed that Andrei would marry Julie.) She consoles Julie that only religion can deliver people from life’s incomprehensible trials. She learned this from Lise’s death; five years later, she believes that her sister-in-law’s death was somehow an expression of God’s love. Because God’s will is an expression of his love, everything that befalls people is ultimately good, even if they can’t understand it.
Princess Marya’s faith in God could be said to line up with Tolstoy’s belief that fate conquers the freedom of the human will. In this view, human beings are limited in their understanding and influence over human events; their perspective is merely partial. They cope with suffering and unknowing by acknowledging that some higher force—in Marya’s belief, God—controls outcomes. For Marya, God’s will is always loving, even if his actions are inscrutable to human understanding.
Marya continues writing that her brother Andrei has finally “revived morally.” For this reason, she discounts the rumor that he’s engaged to the “little Rostov girl.” She simply isn’t in the category of women who could please Andrei, and anyway, she believes he mourns Lise too deeply to think of remarrying. Over the summer, however, Princess Marya receives an unexpected letter from Switzerland—Prince Andrei announces his engagement. He didn’t confide in Marya sooner because he didn’t want to add to family tensions. He encloses a letter asking Prince Nikolai to shorten the postponement of marriage by a few months, and he asks Marya to give the letter to their father at a well-chosen moment. Bitterly, Prince Nikolai replies that Andrei must remarry after his father’s death.
Always worried about her brother’s spiritual condition, Princess Marya can see that his outlook on life has changed. However, people constantly try to reduce love to categories that make sense, and that prevents Marya from seeing how Andrei could be happy with Natasha. Even though Andrei tries to protect his sister from their father’s moods, Marya ends up in the middle again.
Princess Marya’s life continues much as before. However, the people of God have become her deepest joy. It’s obvious to her that most people suffer and strive for fleeting, earthly forms of happiness, instead of focusing their efforts on eternity. Only the poor, wandering pilgrims choose a different way of life.
Princess Marya has deeper insight into the nature of happiness than most characters do, seeing that there’s only so much contentment that worldly things can give. In fact, she thinks it’s better to forgo earthbound pleasures entirely.
Princess Marya especially loves a 50-year-old pilgrim named Fedosyushka, who has wandered barefoot and in chains for decades. One night, Fedosyushka’s stories inspire Marya to become a wanderer herself. Her confessor approves of this idea, so she begins quietly making preparations. But each time she gathers her resolve to leave, she feels renewed love for her father and her little nephew Coco, and she weeps over her sinful affections.
Princess Marya encounters an obstacle to her dream of becoming a wandering pilgrim—her affection for her family is too strong. Though Marya sees this love as sinful, Tolstoy hints that, as admirable as Marya is otherwise, her love has become too detached from human relationships.