Throughout their march, Pierre has noticed the French becoming more and more disorderly. Supply wagons have been captured or abandoned. Of the 330 prisoners who departed from Moscow, fewer than 100 remain. The French resent having to guard the Russian prisoners, who are as cold and hungry as themselves, and they treat them more harshly. Pierre reunites with Karataev and his sidekick, a bowlegged dog. Three days after leaving Moscow, Karataev comes down with a fever and rapidly weakens. Pierre finds himself withdrawing from the sick man, who smells bad and moans a lot.
The action moves back in time slightly to Pierre’s final days on the march. The straggling French retreat is obviously falling apart. Despite his love for Karataev and his more accepting attitude about life in general, even Pierre finds that a suffering man’s company tests his patience.
During this long march, Pierre learns that there isn’t anything truly frightening in the world. He’s discovered that there’s no situation in which he can be completely unhappy or unfree. There’s only so bad suffering can get, he finds. Even when the sores on his feet become severe, he finds that it’s just a matter of getting up and walking until he forgets the pain. He thinks neither about the stragglers who are shot nor about his own fate; his joyful thoughts and memories transcend his circumstances.
The march teaches Pierre that outside circumstances can’t rob him of joy or freedom. The ability to cope with suffering, the strength to withstand oppression, is within him, and it’s stronger than he would have known otherwise.
On October 22nd, Pierre walks along with Gray the dog, thinking about a conversation with Platon Karataev the night before. When he walked up to Platon’s campfire, he felt uncomfortable seeing the sickly old man but forced himself to stay and listen to a story. The story was about a God-fearing old merchant who was falsely accused of murder and sentenced to hard labor. Ten years later, when the merchant told his story around a fire, the real murderer happened to hear it. He fell at the merchant’s feet in repentance, but the merchant said he didn’t need to forgive the killer; his sentence has been punishment for his own sins. After some time, the merchant’s situation was brought to the tsar, who ordered his release. But the merchant died in the meantime; God had already forgiven him. Upon finishing this story, Karataev’s face had glowed with joy. Pierre thinks about it for a long time.
This story was reworked and published separately in 1872 as the short story “God Sees the Truth but Waits” in Tolstoy’s collection A New Primer. The old man in the story suffers innocently, but when the real murderer repents, the innocent man has no bitterness toward him. The moral of the story is that each person is accountable for their own soul before God, leaving no room for hatred toward anyone else. Also, the divine perspective on events is different, wiser, and ultimately more compassionate than the limited human perspective. Tolstoy associates the innocent sufferer in the story with Platon himself.
There’s a commotion among the prisoners; they form up to let a well-dressed convoy pass by. About the same time, Pierre spots Karataev leaning against a tree, his face both tender and solemn. Karataev catches Pierre’s eye, and Pierre knows he should go over to him, but he’s too afraid, so he pretends he didn’t see. Not long after, Pierre hears the sound of a shot, and he sees a soldier run past him with a smoking gun, looking troubled. Gray the dog starts to howl, but nobody turns to look.
Platon gets shot for straggling behind, a fate he appears to accept. Afraid to be targeted himself, not yet at a point in life where he can accept death, Pierre tries to ignore what’s happened.
The prisoners reach the village of Shamshevo, and Pierre falls asleep by the fire. He dreams vividly of Karataev, knowing that the hardest and happiest thing is to love life while suffering guiltlessly. When he wakes up, his mind puts together the details from earlier that day, and he acknowledges to himself that Karataev is dead. But, at the same moment, he drifts into a dream of a summer evening spent with a beautiful woman in Kiev.
Pierre’s dream suggests that Karataev lived a complete and happy life, one that reflected the innocent sufferer in his campfire story. Though Pierre accepts the reality of what’s happened to his friend, his subsequent dream suggests that he’s not yet ready to let go of life’s pleasures himself.
The next time Pierre wakes, he hears joyful shouting. Cossacks surround the soldiers, offering them clothes and food. Pierre weeps with joy and kisses the first soldier he sees. Meanwhile, Dolokhov stands by the manor house, watching hundreds of French prisoners file past, a cruel gleam in his eye. Denisov follows some Cossacks to a pit where Petya Rostov will be buried.
The story catches up to Denisov’s and Dolokhov’s liberation of the prisoners and Petya’s death, a scene capturing many of war’s emotions: joy, hatred, and grief.