The main attraction of military service is its “obligatory and irreproachable idleness.” Nikolai Rostov discovers this for himself after 1807, when he takes over from Denisov as squadron commander of the Pavlogradsky regiment. His fellow hussars love him for his good nature, and he loves the predictability of military life. However, in 1810, his mother persuades him to come home because their affairs are a mess, and his father’s steward Mitenka takes advantage of him. Nikolai feels obligated to do so. He gets approval for a leave and, after the brigade throws a big party for him, he journeys to Otradnoe.
Nikolai doesn’t love the army because he loves fighting; rather, regimental life provides a built-in structure that gives daily life a meaningful order, even if the lifestyle is sometimes “idle.” But “real” life outside the regiment keeps impinging on his army career. Like Pierre’s struggle to adhere to Masonic principles in a messy world, Nikolai must also learn how to live well in the unpredictable outside world.
By the time he reaches Otradnoe, Nikolai is eager to see his family. He finds his parents much the same, but fretful about their affairs; Sonya, now 20, still exudes love for Nikolai. He chats with Natasha about her engagement and, seeing her unflappable calm, feels skeptical that the marriage will take place. Countess Rostov secretly agrees with Nikolai, believing that there’s nothing legitimately keeping Prince Andrei abroad and away from Natasha.
Back at home, some things, like Sonya, have stayed predictably the same; others have changed. Yet, given her calm, Nikolai finds it hard to believe that his passionate sister really cares for Prince Andrei.
A few days after his arrival, Nikolai loses his temper while dealing with Mitenka. Disgusted with worldly business, he takes up hunting instead. One misty September day, Nikolai and his kennelman Danilo decide to hunt for a family of wolves in the Otradnoe woods. Just before they set out, Natasha and Petya, who’s now 13, burst into Nikolai’s study, hoping to come along. Despite Nikolai’s protests, Natasha orders Danilo to saddle horses for them. The hunting party, with 130 dogs, sets out across the muddy fields.
At home, Nikolai finds it difficult to adjust to the expectations of civilian society. Hunting, though it’s an idle gentleman’s pursuit on one hand, becomes a way for him to channel his desire for a meaningful life in peacetime, in the absence of another occupation.
Before they reach the woods, Nikolai’s party comes across a distant relative and neighbor who’s hunting, too. They decide to combine their packs. Count Rostov also joins the hunt, though he’s most interested in chatting with his valet. Meanwhile, Nikolai stands in his appointed position, praying that the wolf will cross his path. Just as he’s resigned himself to his usual bad luck, he sees an old wolf trotting across the field towards him. The dogs corner the wolf in a ditch, and when Nikolai sees his favorite old dog, Karai, gripping the wolf by the throat, he feels it’s the happiest moment of his life.
Though his family feels differently, hunting is more than a sport for Nikolai. It’s an example of finding happiness in everyday life—not in some intangible, abstract meaning. His complete joy when his dog catches the wolf exemplifies this. Though the whole hunting scene can be likened to battle, the bigger point isn’t that hunting symbolizes something bigger, but that happiness comes in everyday, unchosen moments.
After Nikolai helps Danilo truss up the animal, the hunt continues. Nikolai sees an unfamiliar group chasing foxes in a nearby field. A fight breaks out between Ivan, one of Nikolai’s hunters, and Ilagin, a neighboring hunter with whom the Rostovs have a pending lawsuit. Ivan, sporting a black eye, breathlessly explains to Nikolai that one of the Rostovs’ dogs took down the fox, but that Ilagin, who had allowed his men to hunt on land traditionally hunted by the Rostovs, has claimed the fox as his quarry. Nikolai has never met Ilagin, but, “as usual, knowing no middle way” in his feelings, he regards the man as an enemy and rides toward him expecting to settle the matter with violence. But, struck by Ilagin’s profuse apology, Nikolai accepts an invitation to hunt the other man’s property.
The peaceful hunt almost deteriorates into a violent encounter, as Nikolai’s justice-loving nature is offended by the trespassing of traditional hunting rights (a serious matter for rural Russian estates). Nikolai is portrayed as a conventional Russian country gentleman—finding outlets for both joy and anger in the context of ordinary life and relationships.
Suddenly, a swift hare takes off, pursued by baying hounds and borzois. Ilagin, Nikolai, Natasha, and Nikolai’s uncle follow. Ilagin’s prized dog Yerza nearly catches the hare, then loses its footing and somersaults. Nikolai’s beloved dog Milka overtakes Yerza, to Nikolai’s delight, but she, too, comes up short. Then the uncle’s dog, Rugai, overtakes both dogs and chases down the hare. The uncle claims the rabbit, chattering with awkward excitement. As they all ride onward, Nikolai and Ilagin gradually regain their “sham indifference.”
The tense showdown between Nikolai’s and Ilagin’s hunting dogs—a proxy for “war”—ends up settling the conflict between the two men. Though both pretend not to be invested in the chase, they both want to win, and each knows that the other does, too. The result, with Nikolai’s relative winning, is effectively a truce, allowing the men to resume living side by side in peace.