Pierre is correct. Boris Drubetskoy did indeed come to Moscow in search of a rich bride; he’d failed to find one in Petersburg, and now he struggles to choose between Princess Marya and Julie Karagin. Feeling rebuffed by Marya, he focuses his attentions on Julie who, at 27, is plain and rather melancholy. Most of the young men don’t understand Julie’s temperament, but Boris writes sad poems in Julie’s album and reads her affecting passages from a novel. At Julie’s gatherings, they look at each other as if nobody else understands them.
Boris looks at all situations in terms of their potential for his personal advancement, and courtship is no exception; he is more than willing to take on a persona in order to win a desirable woman’s affection.
Anna Mikhailovna attends the Karagins’ parties and gathers information about Julie’s properties, which she passes to Boris. Every day, Boris tells himself he’ll propose to Julie, but even though he pictures himself as the owner of her estates, he can’t give up on the idea of true love. Meanwhile, Julie becomes impatient and begins to act uncharacteristically cheerful towards a new guest, Anatole Kuragin. His mother warns Boris that Prince Vassily has sent Anatole to Moscow to marry Julie, so Boris hurries to Julie’s to propose.
Even though Boris cares most about social advancement, just as Anna Mikhailovna raised him to do, he desires an authentic, loving marriage deep down. But with schemers like his mother and Prince Vassily constantly working behind the scenes, it’s necessary for an ambitious young man to move quickly.
At the Karagins’, Boris starts arguing with Julie about women’s inconstancy, but seeing her irritation, he rapidly shifts to declaring his love for her. She beams and forces him keep talking, making all the conventional romantic statements; Boris is getting her estates, after all. The newly engaged couple starts preparing for their wedding and a home in Petersburg.
Humorously, Boris changes his mood as rapidly as he accuses Julie of doing. Julie, too, obviously accepts that their marriage is a financial transaction more than anything else. They are a conventional “society” couple, seemingly made for each other.
At the end of January, Count Rostov arrives in Petersburg with Natasha and Sonya. They must sell the Moscow estate and prepare for Natasha’s wedding; Prince Andrei is expected back in town any day. They stay with Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimov, an industrious, opinionated widow. After buying Natasha’s wedding trousseau, Marya Dmitrievna takes her goddaughter aside and tells her she must win over her crotchety future father-in-law, since he’s still against Andrei’s marriage. To that end, she’s arranged a meeting between Natasha and Princess Marya. Natasha resents this.
According to Marya Dmitrievna, it’s part of Natasha’s role to win over Andrei’s father, but Natasha takes a more idealistic view of the marriage. She hasn’t grasped the unavoidable realities of the situation, like the fact that she’ll have responsibilities to the other Bolkonskys and will be expected to care about more than her own happiness.
The next day, Count Rostov and Natasha go to see Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky. The Count is nervous, but Natasha feels confident that the Bolkonskys will love her—everybody else does, after all. When they arrive at the Bolkonskys, there’s a commotion, and the Prince refuses to receive them. When Princess Marya comes out, her face is blotchy from nervousness, and she struggles to appear casual and friendly. She dislikes Natasha from the start, thinking her flighty and vain. Deep down, though, she’s been prejudiced against Natasha all along, envying her youth and Andrei’s love for her. She’s also afraid that her agitated father will make a scene.
Natasha has always been indulged as a favorite, and she’s not used to not getting her own way or working hard to win anyone over. Princess Marya, in her own way, is used to coming first in her family—at least, she’s proud of her role in mediating for her father and being Andrei’s confidant. Each sees the other as an interloper.
After a few uncomfortable minutes, to Marya’s horror, Prince Nikolai walks in wearing a dressing gown and nightcap. He awkwardly repeats, “As God is my witness, I didn’t know [you were here],” then leaves. Mlle Bourienne tries to smooth over the awkwardness, while Natasha and the Princess look at each other uneasily. Before she leaves with her father, Natasha is further offended by Marya’s fumbled attempt to speak kindly to her; she says that now isn’t the time. Back at Marya Dmitrievna’s, however, she sobs in her room, longing for Andrei, while Sonya tries to comfort her.
In his growing senility, Prince Nikolai makes things as awkward as possible, topped only by Natasha’s total bungling of an opportunity to smooth things over with Marya. With her passionate forthrightness, Natasha isn’t prepared for delicate scenes like this. Tolstoy suggests, in fact, that like many Russians, she’s too irrepressibly spontaneous to navigate such situations with the necessary subtlety.
That night Marya Dmitrievna takes the Rostovs to the opera. Studying her lovely appearance in the mirror, Natasha comforts herself with thoughts of Prince Andrei. When the Rostovs enter their opera box, the crowd stares at them curiously, knowing Natasha is engaged to one of Russia’s most eligible men. Natasha spots Boris and Julie in their own box, evidently talking about her, with Anna Mikhailovna sitting radiantly behind them, “given over to the will of God.” Suddenly, Natasha feels humiliated over the morning’s events once more.
Natasha, who normally relishes others’ attentions, feels painfully exposed at the opera; being known as Andrei’s fiancée (though it’s technically not public knowledge) is different from being a desirable single girl. Society is the place for people like Anna Mikhailovna, who know how to manipulate others to their liking (no matter how she smugly convinces herself it’s all God’s will).
Natasha also spots Dolokhov, surrounded by Moscow’s most popular young men. Recently, he’s served as a minister to some Persian prince, and Moscow’s ladies are now obsessed with him. Countess Bezukhov sits down in the next box, and Natasha admires her beauty. Then the overture ends, the conductor taps his baton, and everyone turns their attention to the stage.
When Dolokhov was last seen in the story, he had just manipulated Natasha’s brother Nikolai out of thousands, but she doesn’t know this. Likewise, she doesn’t know much more about Pierre’s wife except that she’s an exemplary lady of society. In other words, Natasha is dangerously innocent. The beginning of the opera performance suggests that a drama is about to unfold in the audience as well as onstage.
After spending a long time in the country, Natasha is astonished by the spectacle of the opera. But the longer she watches, the more ridiculously fake it all seems. She looks around at the audience, expecting others to share her mockery, but everyone is rapt. Then she begins to feel a bit drunk in the bright, warm, heady atmosphere. When Anatole Kuragin comes in late and speaks to his sister Hélène while looking at Natasha, she notices how handsome he is.
Relatively sheltered from society, Natasha sees through the absurdity of the spectacle before her at first. But the atmosphere begins to have an effect on her, suggesting that the trappings of society can manipulate those who are innocent of its ways.
During an intermission, Natasha notices Anatole Kuragin eyeing her and smiling affectionately in the next box. Even after the second act begins, Natasha notices Anatole watching her, and it doesn’t occur to her that there’s anything wrong with that. During the next intermission, Natasha is flattered that Countess Bezukhov asks to be introduced to her. Even though she can tell that Hélène is flattering her, she does it with such a natural air. She invites Natasha to come and sit in her box for the next act, so that they can get better acquainted. Natasha is thrilled. By the time the third act is over, she’s cheering as loudly as everyone else.
In keeping with her innocence, Natasha doesn’t pick up on any danger signs from Anatole, or from Anatole’s equally dangerous sister Helene. And now that she’s grown accustomed to the performance style of the opera, it’s also implied that she’s become more susceptible to the manipulations of those offstage, too.
During the next intermission, Anatole enters Hélène’s box. Hélène introduces him to Natasha. Natasha is struck by his simple good nature, which contrasts with his somewhat notorious reputation in society. She enjoys his frank admiration, yet she also fears the sudden intimacy she feels between them—she’s never felt that with any man before. She’s uneasy, yet the warmth of his smile wins her over. By the time she returns to the Rostovs’ box, Natasha feels that Prince Andrei, Princess Marya, and her country life are far away.
Natasha finds it easy to trust Anatole, who’s a master manipulator. The Rostovs’ sincerity contrasts starkly with the Kuragins’ amorality. Natasha’s experience with the Kuragins makes her feel initiated into a different part of society, even alienated from the comparatively innocent environment that’s natural to her.
In the opera’s fourth act, a devil sings. All this time, Natasha can’t help watching Anatole, and she feels excited and tormented by him. After the opera, he helps Natasha into her carriage, and the press of his hand thrills her. After the Rostovs get home, Natasha suddenly feels horrified and confused by her interactions with Anatole. At the opera, it had made sense, but now, it seems incomprehensible. She convinces herself that she didn’t provoke Anatole’s attentions and that her love for Prince Andrei remains intact, yet at the same time, she fears the purity of that love has been lost.
The devil’s song suggests a loss of innocence. Outside the suggestive atmosphere of the opera, where drama mixed confusedly with reality, Natasha feels that something irrevocable has happened that she can’t quite understand. In reality, nothing has happened, but doubts have been planted in Natasha’ mind, already unsettled by the Bolkonskys’ dislike.