Rostov receives a letter from his parents, explaining that Natasha has broken with Prince Andrei and fallen ill, and asking him to come home. Rostov tells them he’ll do his best. Separately, he writes to Sonya and tells her that duty calls him to war. However, if he survives the war and she still loves him, he will return to her without delay. His time at Otradnoe over the winter had made him long for a gentleman’s life, but he is nevertheless content with regimental life. He’s promoted to captain and given his old squadron.
Tolstoy contrasts Prince Andrei’s experience of war with Rostov’s. Unlike Prince Andrei, Rostov is content with his home life and its future possibilities, yet everyday regimental life is just as fulfilling for him, if not more so. He finds happiness in the daily routine instead of troubling himself about war’s meaning.
Stationed in Poland, the Pavlogradsky regiment retreats from Vilno. It’s a happy time: nobody in the army questions where they’re going or why. On July 13th, they’re to participate in serious action for the first time. The night before, there’s a heavy thunderstorm. Rostov camps in a haphazard tent in a rye field with his 16-year-old officer Ilyin, who looks up to Rostov as Rostov once idolized Denisov. He listens to another officer recounting some battle heroics elsewhere in the war. Nowadays, Rostov knows that everybody lies about such things.
While Prince Andrei is troubled by the contradictory chaos at headquarters, Nikolai, serving among the ranks, couldn’t care less about such things. To him, camping in the open, anticipating battle, and exaggerated stories (he’s becoming disillusioned on that point) are second nature by now, and the life suits him.
Ilyin goes in search of better shelter, and he soon returns excitedly telling Rostov about a nearby abandoned tavern; Marya Genrikhovna, the young German wife of the regimental doctor, is there. Rostov hurries along with Ilyin through the mud. Everyone changes into dry clothes and then gathers around a makeshift table where Marya Genrikhovna is making tea. While the regimental doctor sleeps, the other men flirt gallantly with Marya Genrikhovna. When the doctor wakes up, he’s displeased by the scene and takes his wife to bed in their carriage outside. The other men settle down to sleep in the tavern, occasionally spying on the carriage and breaking into laughter.
For Rostov and his friends in the regiment, army life is best captured by almost cozily domestic scenes like this one—finding unexpectedly good shelter on a rainy night, enjoying a woman’s company, and sharing laughs with his comrades. Tolstoy contrasts scenes like this with scenes at headquarters to show that war is much more than the plans envisioned by generals; it’s also the lives of the ordinary soldiers on whom the burden of battle falls most heavily—and battle is, in some ways, a small part of their lives.
In the middle of the night, the squadron receives orders to march to the village of Ostrovna. As he rides through the damp, chilly dawn with Ilyin, Rostov thinks about the pleasant evening in the tavern and about his fine horse; he doesn’t think about the coming battle. Over the years, he’s learned to control himself in the face of danger.
By this time, Rostov has been a soldier for several years. He’s no longer the inexperienced cadet who froze with fear in his early encounters with the enemy. He puts the war in the context of other good things in his life, like fellowship and horsemanship.
The hussars receive orders to occupy the left flank position behind the uhlans on the front line. The crackling noise of gunfire cheers Rostov. When the uhlans are ordered to attack, Rostov’s squadron takes their place. A few minutes later, the uhlans come back up the hill, pursued by the French dragoons. Rostov watches them all like a hunter and considers what would happen if the hussars attacked now. Barely taking the time to consult with another captain, Rostov suddenly moves his horse ahead, and the squadron wordlessly falls in behind him. Instinctively, he feels this is his only chance.
This battle scene shows how far Nikolai has come since his early days as a hussar. Watching the French and the uhlans (Prussian cavalrymen), Rostov draws on his love of hunting to make sense of what’s happening on the battlefield (a hint that a Russian hunter’s instincts are just as effective in battle as a high-ranking strategist’s). And now, instead of shrinking in fear, Rostov’s instincts propel him to take daring chances.
As the hussar squadron moves downhill, their trot shifts into a gallop. Rostov feels as if he’s chasing a wolf in the hunt. Seeing the hussars, the dragoons begin to fall apart. Rostov picks a gray horse as his target and runs it down; his horse bumps into the dragoon’s horse, and Rostov hits the French officer with his saber. The wincing officer tumbles awkwardly from his horse, and Rostov’s joy suddenly dissipates—the young man doesn’t look like an enemy. “I surrender!” the Frenchman cries. As Rostov and the other hussars ride back with their captives, Rostov feels troubled.
By all military measures, Rostov’s attack is very successful. His hunter’s instincts lead him accurately; he even claims his own enemy captive. Yet when he encounters his captive face to face, Rostov’s idea of an abstract “enemy” is shattered. The young Frenchman doesn’t look like someone Rostov would want to hurt or kill.
Rostov’s general praises his daring and says he’s going to request the St. George Cross for him. Though he should be delighted, Rostov feels nauseated and remorseful. He goes to look for his captive, and the dimpled young Frenchman gives him a weak smile. Over the coming days, Rostov can’t stop thinking about his “brave” action. He realizes that the French are just as afraid as the Russians. He feels confused about his motives. Is heroism nothing more than this? Regardless, Rostov now has a reputation for courage and is promoted to leading a battalion.
Unlike his experience at the battle of Schöngraben, Nikolai actually does achieve a brave deed at Ostrovna. But his reaction isn’t at all what he’d expected. Now that he’s come face to face with the “enemy,” Rostov sees firsthand how similar they are. It makes him wonder if heroism and his promotion really mean anything—if war really means anything, or is ultimately meaningless.