Distanced chronologically from the events of 1812, it’s easy for us to imagine that every last Russian was preoccupied in those days with grief, heroism, and self-sacrifice. But that’s not how it really was. From our perspective, we don’t see the human, everyday interests that filled people’s lives. Yet in the end, those things were more important than sweeping historical events. And the people who took part in them were the most “useful” people of their day.
Tolstoy offers some general historical reflections again. He points out that, in the end, major events like the War of 1812 aren’t the most important things in history. For most people at the time, daily life went on much as it always had, and it’s those lives—which would never fill history books—that were more important in the long run.
At the same time, the people who sought out heroism were the most “useless” of the day, seeing “everything inside out.” In such times, only actions that aren’t self-conscious turn out to be fruitful. That’s because a person can’t understand the significance of a historical event while they’re taking part in it. If they try to understand it, they become fruitless.
Tolstoy argues that people who tried to be heroes approached things backwards. They were too close to the unfolding of events to understand their significance, so their attempts at heroism backfired. In contrast, people who continued going about their daily lives contributed more meaningfully to the world.
At the time of Moscow’s abandonment, people in Petersburg or far-off towns weep over the capital, while the retreating soldiers think and speak of almost anything else—getting paid, getting to rest, and such things. For his part, Nikolai Rostov takes a direct role in the defense of Russia, yet he doesn’t think much about the bigger picture at the time. Several days before Borodino, Nikolai is sent to Voronezh to get horses for his division.
Tolstoy illustrates his point—most soldiers weren’t self-aware about their role in history. That includes Nikolai, who just went about his duties without thinking about their broader impact. In fact, he wasn’t even on the field at Borodino, but he still contributed in a concrete way to the war effort.
When Nikolai gets a break from active duty, he’s overjoyed to travel through the countryside and see ordinary life untouched by war. He meets with the provincial governor and gets directions to an outlying stud farm where he buys 17 stallions. Then he gallops back to Voronezh for a soirée at the governor’s. Though the best of local society is there, including Moscow exiles, Nikolai feels conscious that he, the well-liked hussar officer and war hero, is the star of the gathering. He feels drunk on the attention, especially from women. He’s especially attracted to a plump, blonde officer’s wife.
Unlike a character like Pierre, Nikolai isn’t used to being the center of society’s attention, and unlike Prince Andrei, he relishes the unfamiliar glory. In wartime, he’s valorized as a hero—something he wouldn’t experience in peacetime, given his status in a financially struggling noble family.
While Nikolai is flirting suggestively with the officer’s wife, to her husband’s dismay, the governor’s wife pulls him aside. There’s somebody she wants him to meet—Anna Ignatyevna Malvintsev, the aunt of Princess Marya Bolkonsky. She teases Nikolai for blushing at that name. When Nikolai meets Mrs. Malvintsev, an imposing, rich old widow, she invites him to visit her. After Nikolai accepts, the governor’s wife takes him aside and offers to arrange a match between him and Marya Bolkonsky. Unthinkingly, Nikolai agrees.
One effect of Nikolai’s newly elevated status is that he feels entitled to flirt with whomever he wants, believing that nobody will object to a “war hero” enjoying himself. Evidently, Nikolai’s ambivalence about war and heroism don’t apply when there are appealing ladies involved. Even when he’s reminded of his recent meeting with Princess Marya, he forgets about Sonya for the time being.
Over supper, Nikolai remembers Sonya and panics, so before leaving the party, he takes the governor’s wife aside and, on an impulse, confides in her. He says that he admires Marya and that their meeting seemed like fate; yet he promised to marry his cousin. The governor’s wife argues that marrying Sonya is unthinkable—it would kill the Countess, and the Count’s financial affairs are in disorder. This means that Sonya wouldn’t be happy, either. Nikolai is pleased with these arguments and stops resisting the idea of the match with Marya.
In the end, Nikolai does remember his promises to Sonya, but it seems he’s ready to accept a way out of that promise if it’s offered. He readily concedes to the hostess’s conventional arguments about Sonya’s lack of social status. At home, in a fairytale atmosphere, he could overlook these; in the supposedly more real atmosphere of society, he finds them compelling.
After meeting Rostov, Princess Marya had gone to Moscow and found a letter from Prince Andrei, telling her and Nikolushka to go to their aunt, Mrs. Malvintsev, in Voronezh. In mourning for her father, worried about Prince Andrei, and fearing Russia’s fate, Princess Marya is sad and anxious. Yet, deep down, she feels peace, believing she’s suppressed the stirrings of love she’d felt upon meeting Rostov. So when the governor’s wife, in league with Mrs. Malvintsev, mentions Rostov again, Marya is thrown off guard.
Unexpectedly, Princess Marya is nearby in Voronezh while Nikolai is there. Marya has always been ambivalent about romantic love, reflexively denying herself when such feelings come up. But when there’s a sudden possibility of seeing Nikolai again, the feelings are harder to suppress.
Before Rostov’s visit, Princess Marya frets endlessly. She is sure that she’ll embarrass herself. But when Rostov is announced, Marya’s eyes light up, and she feels completely calm. From the moment she sees Rostov, Marya feels transformed from within, like a different person. Her inner spiritual beauty shines in her face. Nikolai sees and understands all this instinctively, as if he’s known Marya his whole life. He thinks she’s unique, and he feels he can be himself around her.
Marya and Nikolai understand one another instinctively. In contrast to Marya’s brief, disastrous setup with Anatole Kuragin, she glows effortlessly when Nikolai is there, and Nikolai sees Marya’s beauty without even trying. They see one another clearly, which Tolstoy suggests is a stronger basis than passion for enduring love.
Though Princess Marya is limiting her social visits because she’s in mourning, the governor’s wife arranges a meeting between the two after church one day. Nikolai doesn’t intend to propose, feeling this would be wrong because of his informal promise to Sonya, but he surrenders to (as it seems) irresistible circumstances, feeling that he’s being led somewhere important, and that this is good.
Nikolai is in an awkward position, due to his unofficial agreement with Sonya; however, he chooses not to do anything rash, sensing that circumstances are falling into place though he can’t yet understand how. Nikolai contrasts with Pierre and Natasha in his refusal to behave rashly while being swept along by others’ wishes.
Princess Marya reads about her brother’s wound in the newspaper and is ready to go searching for him. When Rostov hears about the surrendering of Moscow, he longs to be back in the regiment, where things make sense. A few days before Rostov’s departure from Voronezh, he sees Princess Marya at a church service and is struck by her expression all over again. After the service, he expresses sympathy and encourages her to hope that Andrei’s wound is slight.
Even though Nikolai is still drawn to Marya’s beauty, he longs for the clarity of army life—it lacks the confusion and ambiguity of life in society.
That evening, Rostov paces his room, thinking about his life. Princess Marya’s luminous beauty and grace will stick in his mind after he leaves Voronezh, he feels. Rostov has never liked spiritual men like Prince Andrei—they seem pretentious and dreamy—but in Princess Marya, the same temperament seems beautiful and angelic. He mentally compares her to Sonya, with whom he can picture a simple, predictable future life. But daydreams about Princess Marya frighten him because they’re so hard to picture. Baffled by his dilemma, Nikolai stands before the icon and prays for a long time.
Princess Marya has a mysterious pull on Nikolai. While lifelong familiarity makes a future with Sonya easy to picture, a life with Marya doesn’t match his expectations. Marya draws an unprecedented spirituality out of Nikolai and challenges him.
Lavrushka interrupts Nikolai’s prayers with some letters. The first letter is from Sonya. Nikolai immediately rips it open and, after reading it, stands wide-eyed with astonishment. Sonya has written to give Nikolai his freedom. She claims that in light of the Rostovs’ financial woes, the Countess’s hostility, and Nikolai’s recent silence, she no longer holds him to his promise. She can’t bear to be a source of unhappiness or tension in the family’s life. The other letter is from Countess Rostov, describing their departure from Moscow and Prince Andrei’s condition. Nikolai shows the letter to Princess Marya and leaves for the regiment a few days later.
Nikolai’s prayer for guidance is unexpectedly answered—at least, that’s how it looks. In reality, Sonya’s letter is a good example of Tolstoy’s view of the complexity of events. While multiple factors play into Sonya’s decision, human beings prefer to focus on a single explanatory cause, like a timely miracle. In a way, though, Sonya’s act isn’t surprising. Her whole life, she’s been sacrificing herself out of gratitude to the Rostovs.
Sonya wrote her letter from the Trinity monastery. Lately, Countess Rostov has been more and more determined to marry Nikolai to a rich woman. A few days before leaving Moscow, the Countess speaks to Sonya, tearfully begging her to give up Nikolai out of gratitude for all the Rostovs have done for her. Sonya burst into tears at this request. She’s used to sacrificing herself, but this is different. Before, Nikolai had always been the reward for her self-sacrifice. For the first time, Sonya feels bitter toward the Rostovs and envious of Natasha, who never has to sacrifice herself. She secretly resolves to bind herself to Nikolai forever.
The backstory of Sonya’s letter is a bit more complex. In her determination to save the family by marrying Nikolai “well” (that is, to a woman rich enough to offset the Rostovs’ debts, yet willing enough to marry “beneath” her), Countess Rostov pressures Sonya into giving up her claim. Sonya correctly observes that such things are never asked of Natasha, the indulged favorite.
When the wounded Prince Andrei is discovered among the Rostovs’ wagon train, Sonya feels relieved. She knows that Natasha still loves Prince Andrei and that they’ll probably still end up together. If that happens, she thinks, Nikolai will be unable to marry Princess Marya because they’ll be indirectly related.
Prince Andrei’s unexpected reappearance gives Sonya hope that Nikolai could still be hers, since if both Rostov siblings married Bolkonsky siblings, church law would frown upon it. Ironically, though, Sonya was undeterred by the fact that she and Nikolai are cousins (which would also require a special dispensation from the church)—she’s grasping for any hope she can find.
When the Rostovs stop for a stay at the Trinity monastery, Natasha has a long talk with Prince Andrei. She tells Sonya that she loves Andrei like before and can’t bear it if he dies. Sonya, too, is overcome with emotion. She reminds Natasha of the time they looked into a mirror at Otradnoe to tell each other’s fortunes. At the time, she told Natasha that she saw Prince Andrei in the mirror, even though she didn’t see anything. Now she claims that she saw more details, such as a pink quilt covering Andrei while he rested with his eyes closed. As she says this, she believes it’s what she really did see. Moved by this, Sonya feels self-sacrificial once again. She writes to Nikolai.
Tolstoy highlights people’s capacity to talk themselves into things that aren’t true. People are also complicated—Sonya loves Nikolai, but she also loves Natasha and wants her friend to be happy. She convinces herself that the girls’ fortune-telling game did predict a happy ending for Natasha and Andrei. At the same time, she uses this “evidence” to assure herself that she’s doing the right thing—even the fated thing—by giving up Nikolai.