Pierre arrives in Moscow at the end of January. The capital is full of life. Everyone is glad to see Pierre, but he is a bit guarded with everyone, reluctant to commit to any definite plans. A few days after his arrival, he goes to visit Princess Marya. The last time he saw Prince Andrei, Andrei was in a bitter mood. Pierre wonders if Andrei died in the same state.
Though Pierre returns to Moscow a different man, he doesn’t yet know what normal life will look like for him in his changed state. Pierre and Andrei last spoke on the field at Borodino; Pierre doesn’t know the story of Andrei’s sufferings and death since then.
Princess Marya admits Pierre to her room. A lady in a black dress is also there, but Pierre doesn’t pay much attention to her. Princess Marya greets him warmly as they talk of Pierre’s rescue and Andrei’s death. Marya keeps shifting her gaze to her companion, and when Pierre doesn’t acknowledge the other woman, Marya asks, “Don’t you recognize her?” Pierre sees something sweetly familiar in the woman’s expression, but her pale, aged face puzzles him. Marya says, “Natasha,” and, “like a rusty door opening,” the woman smiles. A forgotten happiness envelops Pierre, and he knows that he loves Natasha. His happy blush and stumbling words tell both women how he feels. He feels that his freedom is gone, but he doesn’t mind.
Since Andrei’s and Petya’s deaths and her mother’s grief, Natasha has physically altered to the point that she’s not recognizable at first. Once Natasha’s smile reappears—it has lately been hidden—Pierre sees her instantly. Their respective sufferings seem to have refined them, making them able to “see” each other in a new way. Pierre’s loss of freedom is tied to this, as his life now feels tethered to Natasha’s.
Grateful to hear that Prince Andrei “softened” before he died, Pierre tells Natasha that her reunion with Andrei was a happy thing. She frowns but agrees, and then suddenly pours out all her feelings about the evacuation from Moscow and the weeks in Yaroslavl. Pierre watches her with tear-filled eyes, feeling compassion for her suffering. When she finishes the story and rushes out of the room, Pierre feels bereft. Marya invites him to stay for a late supper and adds, “It’s the first time she’s spoken of him like that.”
Pierre has long been a confidant for Natasha, but now he has a unique ability to help her open up. Having endured suffering himself, Pierre has a deep, inviting compassion that she instinctively recognizes. Even Princess Marya doesn’t reach Natasha in the same way.
When Natasha enters the dining room, she’s calm. After the heartfelt conversation, everyone feels a little awkward, but gradually Pierre begins talking about his return to Moscow. He wryly notes that he’s become an “interesting person” and that others seem to know more about his adventures than he does. He also talks about Hélène’s death and his sorrow about her lonely end, despite the fact that they weren’t “exemplary spouses.” The women coax the story of his captivity out of him, and though he begins speaking in a self-deprecating way, he gradually becomes more earnest. Natasha is riveted by the account, and it seems to Pierre that she understands everything he can’t convey in words.
Where it was once an obstacle to him, Pierre now has a sense of humor about his sought-after role in society. He also has a more mature perspective on his failed marriage, even showing compassion to his troubled late wife. Tellingly, Natasha’s response to Pierre mirrors his when she talked about Prince Andrei’s death—she understands his deeper meaning without even needing to hear it.
Pierre continues talking about rescuing the little girl and witnessing the executions; Natasha urges him not to leave any details out. When he describes Karataev, Pierre’s voice trembles. As he tells his story and Natasha listens, sensitively taking in each word and gesture, Pierre feels that the details acquire a new significance. Pierre finishes the story at three o’clock in the morning. He tells Natasha that suffering makes a person think all is lost, but that as long as there’s life, happiness is possible. Natasha starts to cry but smiles as she bids Pierre goodnight.
Like Pierre, Natasha now has a special ability to draw the best out of others. And both of them seem to have arrived at a similar understanding of life’s meaning: that where there’s life, hope and happiness can still be found.
When Natasha and Princess Marya go to bed, they talk about Pierre. Natasha says it feels good to have talked about everything, and that Pierre seems somehow morally renewed, as if fresh from the bathhouse. A mischievous smile lights her face—one Marya hasn’t seen for a long time. At home, Pierre paces up and down. By morning, he’s convinced that he and Natasha must marry.
Talking with Pierre has brought out Natasha’s old spark. Their respective sufferings have had a purifying effect on them both, clearing away superfluous things and enabling them to see each other with compassion and clarity.
Arriving at Princess Marya’s, Pierre feels a momentary doubt about what happened yesterday, but he soon senses Natasha’s presence, like an “instant loss of freedom.” Now, though she’s dressed the same as yesterday, she looks youthful, her eyes bright and her smile mischievous. In the coming days, Pierre visits often, and he finally asks the Princess for help. He knows he’s unworthy of Natasha, but may he hope nevertheless?
Even though Natasha has changed, her old, irrepressible spark is still there. Pierre continues to feel drawn to commit himself to her, but he hasn’t completely changed, either: there’s still a bit of awkward insecurity about him.
Princess Marya thinks for a minute and starts to say that it’s too soon to speak to Natasha of love, but she realizes that’s not true: for the past three days, Natasha has been completely different. She tells Pierre to leave things to her—she knows that Natasha loves him or will love him. Pierre jumps up with excitement and kisses Marya’s hands in gratitude. The next day, before he leaves for Petersburg, Natasha bids him farewell, adding in a whisper, “I’ll be waiting very much for you.”
Princess Marya realizes that though Natasha is still in mourning, there’s been a complete change in her and that she’s free to love in a way that she wasn’t before. Natasha’s farewell suggests the same.
During his time in Petersburg, Pierre relives his visits with Natasha over and over. He wonders at his joy and occasionally fears it’s all a dream. When other people speak of politics or the war, Pierre feels sorry for them, that for them happiness depends on such things. Pierre holds forever the views he forms during these weeks of “happy insanity,” later believing that during this time he truly understood all that’s worth knowing in the world. His “insanity” consists of the fact that, instead of loving people based on their merits, he loves without reason. In so doing, he discovers the reasons why people are worth loving.
These weeks of being newly in love make an indelible impression on Pierre’s worldview. His “insanity” is something like Platon Karataev’s indiscriminate love for others. Such love brings the best out of its objects. This kind of love made him the kind of person who could love Natasha, and in turn, Natasha’s love opens him up even more to love others.
Ever since her reunion with Pierre, something new has awakened in Natasha’s soul. She forgets her grief and no longer dreads the future. At first, the change in Natasha troubles Princess Marya—did Natasha love Andrei so little? But Marya can’t begrudge Natasha’s irrepressible happiness; she knows there is nothing to be done.
Princess Marya can’t help but feel a little defensive on her late brother’s behalf. But she accepts Natasha as she is and understands that love can’t be compartmentalized or restrained.
When Natasha hears that Pierre has gone to Petersburg, she begins to cry and begs Marya to teach her—she’s so afraid of being “bad.” Marya forgives her immediately. Natasha says they’ll both be so happy someday, when she marries Pierre and Marya marries Nikolai, but Marya doesn’t want to talk about that. Natasha wonders why Pierre went to Petersburg, but she concedes that it had to be so.
Pierre’s trip reminds Natasha of Andrei’s year abroad, and she immediately fears betraying Pierre as she did Andrei. Though the fear is natural, Natasha has grown in her understanding of love and isn’t in danger of confusing it with a fleeting passion. Tolstoy ends the main part of the novel with the words “It has to be so,” referring to the mystery of fate and necessity—something Natasha, too, has learned to embrace.