The hunt has taken Nikolai so far from home that he agrees to stop by his uncle’s house in a nearby village. Natasha and Petya join them. When the uncle’s servants see a lady on horseback, they unabashedly surround her and make awed comments about her sidesaddle riding, “like a Tartar woman.” Nikolai’s uncle leads the guests into his small, shabby house. Natasha and Nikolai sit on a sofa, along with the muddy dog, and laugh merrily for no particular reason. Their uncle’s housekeeper, a plump, graceful woman of 40 named Anisya Fyodorovna, brings in generously laden trays of food.
From the very Russian pastime of hunting, the setting moves to a village, giving a sense of authentic, non-aristocratic Russian life. The Tartars are a large ethnic minority native to the Russian steppes; to the frank gaze of the servants, Natasha is as wondrously foreign as they are. The modest yet inviting atmosphere is just as cheerfully strange for the Rostovs.
Natasha thinks she’s never eaten more delightful food, and she listens happily as Nikolai and the uncle talk about hunting and dogs. Nikolai has always heard good things about this relative, a trustworthy eccentric who refuses government service, preferring his fields and garden. Down the hall, the uncle’s coachman, Mitya, begins skillfully playing the balalaika. Natasha goes into the hall to hear better. Mitya plays the popular song “Barinya” over and over, but his listeners don’t tire of it.
Natasha and Nikolai relish the comforts of a “traditional” Russian home. The food, company, and atmosphere are warm, sincere, earnest, and delightful—contrasting with the pretense of society drawing rooms and balls. Tolstoy makes the scene as traditional as possible, including balalaika music (a traditional Russian stringed instrument).
Natasha asks the uncle if he can play, and Anisya happily brings a dusty guitar. The uncle begins to play a familiar song, his face taking on a merry expression. When the song ends, Natasha hugs him and begs for more. When he begins the song for the third time, Natasha stands in front of him and begins to dance with instinctive Russian movements. Everyone wonders how a girl brought up by an émigré Frenchwoman could know how to dance like this, but her natural grace makes even Anisya weep with recognition.
Natasha was raised in Moscow to participate in aristocratic society, yet she instinctively knows how to dance with the abandon and grace of a Russian village girl. In this way Tolstoy portrays her as an archetypal Russian woman—given the opportunity, she can shed the outward trappings of “society,” revealing a simple, heartfelt zest for life.
When the uncle praises Natasha’s dancing, he remarks that all she needs is a fine young husband. Nikolai says that a husband has already been chosen. Natasha wonders about her brother’s choice of words—does he imply that Andrei wouldn’t understand the kind of joy they’re sharing here? She dismisses the thought from her mind and turns back to the singing, even trying out her uncle’s guitar. When the siblings climb into the Rostovs’ droshky to go home, the uncle bids Natasha goodbye with special tenderness. During the ride, Natasha tells her brother that she’ll never feel as happy and peaceful as she does right now.
Nikolai’s tone implies—in Natasha’s mind, at least—that he thinks Andrei is a poor match for her. Since the scene at the uncle’s house reveals Natasha’s authentic self, Natasha’s thoughts suggest that she harbors misgivings about Andrei herself. She seems to doubt that Andrei would understand her dance, and that any future happiness with him couldn’t surpass the easy, natural joy of this day.
Count Rostov resigns from his post as marshal of the nobility due to the expenses involved. His own finances haven’t improved. Life at Otradnoe is a little quieter, yet their way of life remains mostly unchanged, because it’s all the Rostovs know. Nikolai maintains a huge stable of horses, the family has lavish name-day celebrations, and Count Rostov loses generous amounts at card tables. Count Rostov is aware that he’s financially trapped, yet he lacks the will to disentangle himself. Countess Rostov believes the family’s only hope is for Nikolai to marry a rich bride. She decides this bride should be Julie Karagin, who’s now a wealthy heiress because of her brother’s death.
The Rostovs’ life continues much as before, with a generous enjoyment of life that inevitably surpasses the family’s limited resources. Despite their inability to live within their means, Tolstoy suggests that the Rostovs’ way of life—at least the generosity behind it—is more authentically Russian than the lives of their wealthier society counterparts, for whom position is more important than happiness. Still, Countess Rostov knows that their lifestyle limits their children’s possibilities.
Countess Rostov encourages Nikolai to visit the Karagins in Moscow. Nikolai balks at the idea of marrying for money instead of love. For her part, Countess Rostov dislikes the idea of Nikolai having to sacrifice for her. Yet when she sees Nikolai’s growing devotion to Sonya, she feels angry. She feels even angrier because Sonya is so kind, selfless, and devoted to her benefactors. Around this time, Natasha receives another letter from Prince Andrei; a setback with his war wound prevents him from traveling home. Natasha still loves him, but she feels she is wasting away in his absence. The Rostov home has a gloomy atmosphere.
Though he’d do anything to help his family, idealistic Nikolai dislikes society’s standards for a “good” marriage. Countess Rostov is likewise torn: she wants her son to be happy, is committed to what she thinks is best for him, and also resents having to break the heart of someone as innocent as Sonya. Meanwhile, Natasha’s life stands still, her happiness postponed to some indefinite future.
One day, over Christmas, at a dull and dreary time of day, Natasha is practically in tears over Andrei’s absence and the fear that nothing in her life will change. The countess persuades Natasha to sing for them, but as she listens, she feels that there is “too much of something” in Natasha which will keep her from being happy.
The countess suspects that Natasha’s exuberant love of life will end up being an obstacle—that she won’t be able to bear life’s heartaches. Because Natasha is associated with the “Russian” soul, this suggests that this “too much of something” is characteristic of Russian people generally.
Soon Petya runs in announcing that the mummers have come. Costumed servants fill the reception room with songs, dances, and games. The young people dress up in their own costumes and decide to pay a visit to a neighbor, Mrs. Melyukov. Sonya, in a Circassian outfit with a painted mustache and eyebrows, looks especially striking, and her timid persona grows bolder while she’s in costume. They crowd into several troikas, the sleighs’ runners squeaking over the snow. Racing one another and laughing in the frosty night, they all have a magical feeling.
On festive occasions like the Christmas season, disguised figures called mummers would travel from house to house offering entertainment. Circassians were a Northern Caucasian people who were forced to migrate to the Middle East during a long war with Russia in the 1800s. In the story, Sonya’s costume isn’t seen as anything offensive. It’s just part of the feeling of stepping into a different world and being festively out of character.
Pelageya Danilovna Melyukov, a bespectacled widow, has been trying to keep her daughters entertained when the mummers arrive. Everyone is delighted with the costumes, dancing, and games. The Rostovs stay for supper, and Pelageya Danilovna tells the young people a method of fortune-telling: if a girl hears banging in a barn, it’s a bad sign, but if she hears the sound of pouring grain, it’s a good sign. Boldly, Sonya says she would try this.
The costumed atmosphere, as well as being in somebody else’s home, gives Sonya an unusual boldness. It’s a very different environment from a party in Moscow or Petersburg, complete with folk customs instead of political gossip.
Something about the costumes and merriment has made Sonya glow more than usual, and Nikolai notices. When Sonya puts on her coat to walk to the barn, Nikolai runs outside, thinking he’s been a fool and now determined to intercept her. He waits by the barn, and she notices him when she’s just a few steps away, running to him at once. He’s costumed in a woman’s dress. Nikolai embraces Sonya, and they kiss in the moonlight, murmuring each other’s names.
Because the atmosphere has taken the young people away from their everyday problems, the usual obstacles—like Sonya’s status as a poor, dependent cousin—seem to have vanished. Their costumed embrace highlights this even more and suggests that it won’t last—they’re not entirely themselves, and even if the affection is real, it can only be expressed within a fantasy.
As they head home, Natasha picks up on something between Nikolai and Sonya and insists that they share a sleigh. Nikolai drives home more slowly, gazing at Sonya and remembering their kiss. At one point, he gives the reins to the coachman and jumps onto the runners of Natasha’s sleigh to tell her what happened. She heartily approves. He jumps back into his own sleigh and sits with the smiling, mustached Circassian who will become his wife.
Traveling home in the mummers’ costumes, free from everyday constraints, the young people continue to dwell in a fantasy for the time being. Nikolai even imagines he has the freedom to marry Sonya, which he knows to be untrue in everyday life.
At home, Dunyasha has set up mirrors in Natasha’s room. Natasha and Sonya peer into the mirrors for signs of their future. After a few minutes, Sonya moves away, covering her eyes. She didn’t see anything, but pressed by Natasha, she haltingly claims to have seen Andrei with a cheerful face. As she talks about it, Sonya begins to think she did see Andrei in the mirror. Feeling frightened that she’ll never see Andrei again, Natasha goes to bed and lies awake for a long time.
In a scene which will have significance much later, the Rostov girls try to tell their fortunes. They don’t really see anything in the mirrors; Sonya just tells Natasha what she wants to hear. With this, Tolstoy isn’t undermining his argument about fate, but rather suggesting that human desires are mysteriously entangled with what’s foreordained.
After Christmas, Nikolai tells his mother that he loves Sonya and intends to marry her. Though Countess Rostov has been expecting this, she tells Nikolai that she and the Count cannot bless this marriage. The Count tries to dissuade Nikolai, too, but he’s aware that the situation is his fault—if his affairs were in order, he couldn’t possibly object to Sonya as Nikolai’s bride.
The reactions of the Count and Countess highlight the constraining role of social expectations. A relatively impoverished noble family like the Rostovs is in an especially difficult position because Nikolai needs to marry “well,” yet few well-off families would be interested in a connection with the Rostovs.
A few days later, Countess Rostov speaks to Sonya with unexpected cruelty. She accuses Sonya of luring Nikolai and being ungrateful. Sonya feels ashamed and doesn’t know what to do—she loves the Rostovs and feels indebted to them, but she knows Nikolai’s happiness depends on her love for him. Nikolai speaks to his mother again, warning that he’ll elope with Sonya. The Countess replies that if he does so, she won’t acknowledge “this intriguer” as her daughter-in-law. Nikolai is furious, but Natasha, who’s been eavesdropping, interrupts the argument before Nikolai can say anything he’ll regret. She negotiates a truce whereby Nikolai agrees not to marry in secret, and the Countess agrees not to give Sonya a hard time.
The burden of the Rostovs’ position falls perhaps most cruelly on Sonya. She can’t help the situation—she’s in love with Nikolai, but she’s completely dependent on the family’s charity and for that reason has nothing to offer them from a social perspective. Countess Rostov projects her anxiety and guilt about the situation onto Sonya, and the mess creates tension between mother and son.
In January, Nikolai returns to his regiment, planning to put his affairs in order so that he can resign from the service and marry Sonya. Meanwhile, the Countess falls ill from the emotional strain. The Count needs to sell his Moscow estate in order to rectify his finances, but the Countess’s ill health prevents this. Sonya feels distraught about it all. Natasha, meanwhile, feels more tormented than ever by Andrei’s absence. From his letters, it seems he’s living an exciting life abroad while she languishes in the country. She sends him dull, dutiful letters in return. Finally, at the end of January, the Count takes Natasha and Sonya to Moscow with him, leaving the Countess at Otradnoe to recover.
The Rostovs’ winter began with happiness and hope—Nikolai’s hunting trip, Natasha’s dance at her uncle’s, the costume party at Christmas—but it ends on a subdued, doubtful note. Illness, separation, and uncertainty loom over the family—especially the question of whether either of the children’s marriages will come to pass, given the pressures of society and distance.