After Prince Andrei and Natasha get engaged, Pierre feels like he can’t go on with life as it is. His mentor Iosif Alexeevich has died, and though Pierre remains convinced of the truths of Masonry, he now finds it pointless. He starts drinking and partying with bachelors again, and when Hélène reprimands him, he moves to Moscow in order to avoid these vices.
At this point, it’s unclear whether Pierre has feelings for Natasha or simply despairs over the inescapable unhappiness of his marriage. Either way, when he feels aimless, Pierre falls into bad habits, suggesting it’s difficult to live a good life in the absence of a clear belief in life’s meaning.
Arriving in Moscow, Pierre feels he’s come home again. He fits in here, embraced as a good-natured, generous eccentric. He supports every cause (though he’s broke), he’s the life of every party, and he charms ladies without flirting. Seven years ago, when he first came home to Russia, he would never have believed that life would turn out like this. He’d wanted to become a Napoleon-like figure, to perfect himself, and to liberate the peasants. Now he’s exactly the type of retired Moscow gentleman he once loved to denounce.
When he was younger, Pierre wanted his life to mean something. Yet, years later, he’s living in idleness. He’s kind and generous, but he doesn’t know how to direct these virtues in a productive way. He seems to believe that unless he achieves greatness (being like Napoleon), he can’t be useful to society. Tolstoy hints that Pierre is missing the point and that cultivating personal virtue is valuable for its own sake.
When he stops to think about it, Pierre senses that everybody else is aware of life’s fundamental hypocrisy, yet they refuse to acknowledge it. He suffers from a characteristically Russian belief in the existence of goodness and truth while simultaneously seeing evil and feeling powerless before it. So he passes his days in “chatter, reading, and wine.” After a couple bottles of wine, life’s questions no longer feel so terrifying.
The tragedy of Pierre’s situation is that he is actually more sensitive to life’s mysteries, especially its pain, than almost anyone else, yet he suppresses his questions through meaningless activities, no longer sure where to look for the answers. Outwardly, he now fits smoothly into society, but he’s not content there.
That winter Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky comes to Moscow with Princess Marya. Emperor Alexander has fallen out of favor, and Prince Nikolai becomes a central figure in Moscow’s government opposition. He has aged significantly and lately shows signs of senility. Though outsiders still hold the Prince in awe, Princess Marya suffers under his rule. City life holds no joys for her, she attends no parties, and she has no suitors or friends. Even Mlle Bourienne has become disagreeable to her, and despite their long correspondence, Julie Karagin seems a stranger to her. (Julie is now a wealthy, eligible woman who spends most of her time on society pleasures.)
Outside the familiar environment of Bald Hills, Princess Marya, too, struggles to fit in. Society life isn’t meaningful for her, she’s outgrown her few friendships, and home isn’t a refuge for her, as Prince Nikolai’s’ cruelty intensifies with his age.
Prince Nikolai is always in a bad mood, and whenever Princess Marya tries to fulfill her promise to Andrei to prepare her father for Andrei’s marriage to Natasha, it goes poorly. Worse, as she tutors six-year-old Nikolushka, she sees her father’s angry traits in herself—she becomes impatient and punishes her nephew for the least failing. But the worst thing is her father’s cruelty. Because she knows that her father loves her, it makes his deliberate insults even worse. He also flirts with Mlle Bourienne in Marya’s presence to provoke her. All these sufferings cause “the pride of sacrifice” to develop in Marya. Yet, at the same time, when she sees her father’s frailty, she reproaches herself for judging him.
Tolstoy shows the complexity of Marya’s personality. She’s unfailingly loyal to her family, yet realistically, she treats her young nephew much as she was treated as a child, though she’s ashamed of it. Always self-sacrificing, Marya begins to take pride in her own ability to forebear under oppression. And through all this, she genuinely loves her father. Like Pierre, she hasn’t completely figured out the meaning of her life, and there’s a sense that refusing her own happiness is backfiring, suppressing her growth.
On the Prince’s name-day, he only wishes to receive a few specified guests. The list doesn’t include Métivier, a fashionable French doctor he’s lately befriended. But the doctor pushes past Princess Marya to visit the Prince, leading the Prince to an outburst of rage. He calls Métivier a French spy. After Métivier leaves, Prince Nikolai storms at Princess Marya. He says he can’t have a moment’s peace with her and that she must move out— “if only some fool would marry her!”
Prince Nikolai irrationally projects all his anger onto his daughter and claims to want to be rid of her, despite his earlier reluctance to marry her off. His paranoid behavior reflects his opposition to the Emperor’s pro-French policies.
The nearly silent meal includes some political talk, with Prince Nikolai offering an occasional grunt in response. As the evening goes on, however, Prince Nikolai grows more animated on the subject of Bonaparte. He says there’s no need to meddle in European politics, but simply to maintain armed borders against Napoleon. Count Rastopchin agrees, adding that nobody dares oppose the French these days— “the French are [Russia’s] gods, and our kingdom of heaven is Paris.” Prince Nikolai approves of his friend’s words.
An outsider to court politics, Prince Nikolai resists pro-French enthusiasm. Count Rastopchin, a statesman who later becomes a fervent anti-French propagandist, voices similar frustration with the Russian court’s favoring of all things French.
Princess Marya doesn’t pay much attention to the conversation. After the other guests have gone, Pierre sits and talks with Marya. He warns her that Boris has come to Moscow with the express goal of marrying a rich wife, and he’s torn between pursuing her or Julie Karagin. Marya doesn’t really care about that, but she longs to confide her unhappiness in Pierre because he’s so kind to her. They talk about her father’s ultimatum to Prince Andrei, and Marya asks Pierre what Natasha Rostov is like. Pierre can only say she’s “enchanting.” Marya plans to get to know Natasha in hopes of reconciling her father to this future daughter-in-law.
Princess Marya is both oblivious and indifferent to aristocratic society’s obsessions with romance and war. Her father’s tyranny, and finding a way to make peace in her family, are her main preoccupations in life.