Denisov and Petya overlook the French camp from a spot in the forest. Below, a large number of troops occupy a village and broken-down manor. Denisov calls for the drummer boy, but the boy, despite his eagerness to please Denisov, becomes confused and can’t answer his questions. Before long, shots ring out, and a man in red runs through the camp below. It’s Tikhon Shcherbaty, the scout.. Though just a muzhik and often teased as a buffoon, the other soldiers respect Tikhon as the bravest man in the party.
Tolstoy highlights the role of peasants as well as enlisted nobility and officers in the war. Unconventional partisan warfare, with its reliance on spirit and instinct, has a distinctly “Russian” flavor in the story, made stronger by the peasant Tikhon.
Though everyone laughs at Tikhon’s comical acting-out of his encounters with the French, Denisov is annoyed that the scout didn’t bring back any prisoners. Petya joins in the laughter, but when he hears that Tikhon killed a Frenchman, he looks at the young drummer boy in concern. He tries to shake this off, wanting to seem mature enough for Denisov. When Denisov hears good news about Dolokhov, he cheers up and asks Petya to tell him about himself.
Still new to war, sensitive Petya struggles with the realities of partisan fighting, even caring about those, like the drummer boy, that others might overlook or view as dispensable.
After the Rostovs left Moscow, Petya was attached as orderly to a general. After being promoted to officer and fighting in the battle of Vyazma, Petya has been euphoric, feeling grown up and never wanting to miss out on an opportunity for heroism. That’s why, when his general wanted to send somebody to Denisov’s detachment, he begged for the job. But, having seen Petya’s tendency to behave wildly in battle, the general forbade Petya to participate in Denisov’s actions. When Petya heard Denisov’s plans for an attack, though, he quickly decided that Denisov was a hero and that he must stay, no matter what his general said.
Despite his sensitivity, Petya also has a passion for heroism, likely influenced by stories of his older brother Nikolai’s service in the earlier Napoleonic Wars. He desperately wants an opportunity to be a “hero” himself, seeming to equate this with reckless actions.
At the guardhouse, Petya excitedly joins the officers’ dinner. He keeps pulling gifts like raisins and flints out of his baggage and offering them to the other men. He suddenly thinks of the pitiful drummer boy and wants to ask about his welfare, but he fears he’s already embarrassed himself with his gift-giving. Nevertheless, Denisov allows the boy to be brought in. Petya tries to comfort the timid boy and wishes he could do something for him. Denisov orders that the drummer boy be well fed and dressed.
Petya has a naïve, boyish eagerness to please. He also worries about those he fears are forgotten, like the captive drummer boy. Out of friendship with the Rostovs, Denisov indulges Petya’s kindly whims. There’s a sense that Petya is too tender-hearted to last in this rough environment.
When Dolokhov arrives and plans to scope out the French encampment, Petya defies Denisov and goes along. They dress in French uniforms and bluster their way into the camp. Questioning officers around a campfire, Petya feels certain that they’ll be discovered as spies. But they ride out of the camp without incident, and before they part ways, Petya kisses Dolokhov, calling him a hero. Dolokhov laughs indulgently and rides off into the night.
Petya gets the taste of “heroism” he’d hoped for. Unlike his older brother, who came to question the whole premise of such heroism (whether the individual French were indeed “enemies,” etc.), Petya naïvely relishes the thrill and adventure.
Back at the guardhouse, Denisov is relieved that Petya returns safely. Unable to sleep, Petya chats with a Cossack who sharpens Petya’s saber for him. As the sky lightens, Petya feels he could touch it with his hand. The rhythm of the saber being sharpened lulls him into a musical dream, an original melody played by violins and trumpets. Petya wishes he could share this music with someone. He wakes when he hears Denisov calling him.
Knowing the symbolism of the sky earlier in the story (it tends to show up at pivotal moments in characters’ lives, often foretelling a brush with death), Petya’s feeling here, the night before battle, is ominous.
Denisov gives last-minute orders for the attack. Petya stands with his horse, trembling. As they mount up, Denisov sternly warns Petya to listen to him. After a Cossack gives the signal of a single shot, Petya suddenly gallops ahead, disregarding Denisov. As he rides through the camp, he sees Frenchmen falling and feels that he keeps missing the exciting action. As he rides into the manor courtyard, he stops holding the reins and slips out of the saddle. When he falls to the ground, his limbs jerk. He’s been shot through the head.
As his general had warned, Petya behaves rashly, charging heedlessly into the battle out of fear that he’ll miss the heroics. He dies almost instantly; his idealism ends up costing him his life
After receiving word that the French will surrender, Dolokhov looks at Petya’s body and tells Denisov that the boy is “finished.” The Cossacks look at Denisov in surprise as he holds Petya’s pale, bloodied head and begins to cry. Denisov remembers Petya saying, “I’m used to something sweet. Excellent raisins, take them all.” Later, Denisov and Dolokhov succeed in retaking Russian prisoners from the French. Among the prisoners is Pierre Bezukhov.
Denisov is moved by Petya’s youthful generosity and innocence and also knows how the boy’s death will grieve the Rostov family. With Pierre’s release from captivity, the central families’ participation in the war (the Bolkonskys, Rostovs, and Bezukhovs) is brought to an end.