A Book I
War and Peace is a massive, sprawling novel that chronicles events in Russia during the Napoleonic Wars, when the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte conquered much of Europe during the first few years of the 19th century. Bonaparte unsuccessfully tried to expand his dominion into Russia, only to be turned back in 1812. The novel opens in July of 1805, with Russia allied with England, Austria, and Sweden to stave off Bonaparte’s aggressive expansion.
A member of a dissolute, upper-class crowd, Pierre Bezukhov is a troublemaker who criticizes governmental policies. At night he frequents drunken card parties with a fast crowd, including Anatole Kurgagin and Fedya Dolokhov, whom Tolstoy describes as “an officer and a desperado.” Another member of the group, Prince Andrew, is a patriot who is determined to defend his country and aristocratic way of life. The novel soon introduces the Rostov family as they prepare a celebration for their youngest daughter Natasha.
The illegitimate son of a well-known, wealthy aristocrat, Pierre’s life changes when his father dies and recognizes him as his son. Therefore Pierre is heir to his large fortune. Prince Andrew leaves to fight in the war against the French, leaving his pregnant wife with his father and sister Mary. Natasha’s brother, Nicholas, gets into trouble in the army for threatening a superior officer whom he has caught cheating; later, in battle, Nicholas runs away from the enemy and realizes that he is the coward and cheat. Suddenly popular, Pierre marries Helene Kuragin. Her brother, Anatole, proposes to Mary, but her father will not allow her marriage. Prince Andrew is wounded in battle and left for dead at the end of Book I.
B Book II
Nicholas Rostov is in love with his cousin Sonya, and she loves him; unfortunately, the family needs him to marry somebody with money because their wealth is dwindling. Pierre, reacting to rumors about an affair between his wife and Dolokhov, challenges him to a duel. When Pierre wounds Dolokhov he runs away, questioning his own morals, and in an inn he meets an old acquaintance who introduces him to the Freemasons, a secret society that does good deeds. Pierre becomes an enthusiastic member, separating from Helene and arranging to give away his belongings to help humanity.
Prince Andrew returns from the war on the same day that his wife dies giving birth to their son. Nicholas encourages Sonya to accept Dolokhov’s marriage proposal, but she refuses. Soon after his father puts him on a budget of 2,000 rubles, Nicholas gambles with Dolokhov and loses 43,000 rubles, which the family has to sell more property to pay. While Pierre is busy freeing his serfs from their commitment to him, in accordance with his new Masonic beliefs, Prince Andrew is Setting up new economic policies that will allow them to be self-sustaining after they earn their freedom.
In 1808 a truce is called in the Napoleonic War. Prince Andrew becomes disheartened with the difficulties of dealing with the army bureaucracy and Pierre becomes disenchanted with being a Mason. In 1809, when Natasha is sixteen, Pierre falls in love with her. So does Andrew, and he proposes to the young lady. However, Andrew’s father will not give his consent and tells him to wait a year before marrying. Andrew returns to the army. Meanwhile, Nicholas’ mother convinces him that he cannot marry Sonya-he must marry someone rich.
Impatiently waiting for Andrew to return, Natasha lets Anatole court her, secretly giving in to his charm. He makes plans to run away with her, but fails to tell her that he is already married in secret to a girl in Poland. The elopement is broken off when he comes to f-e-t-c-h her and is met by a huge doorman; like a coward, he runs away. Word of this gets back to Andrew, and he breaks the engagement. Natasha tries to poison herself but is unsuccessful. Pierre visits her and confesses his love.
C Book III
The war begins again in 1812, when the French army moves into Russia. The novel narrates Napoleon’s thoughts and impressions of the campaign, and then switches to Tsar Alexander, going back and forth between them. During the fighting, Nicholas comes to realize that his earlier cowardice was just a normal reaction to war and he forgives himself. Recovering from her suicide attempt, Natasha starts to attend morning mass and gains peace and serenity. Her younger brother, Petya, joins the army, but cannot find a way to tell his family.
As the French army advances toward their estate in the country, Mary’s father has a stroke. After he dies, Mary rides into the town nearby to prepare to evacuate her household servants. When she sees the peasants starving she offers them all of the grain stored on the family estate, but they become suspicious and think it is some sort of trick to get them to leave their land. They are on the verge of rioting against her when Nicholas rides up, saves her, and falls in love with her.
People flee Moscow to avoid the oncoming French army. Pierre travels out to Borondino, which is the last place where the French can be stopped. Much of Part III is concerned with different views of the Battle of Borondino-from Napoleon, Andrew, Pierre, and Kutuzov.
After the Russian defeat, Moscow has to be evacuated. Natasha insists that the wagons taking her family’s belongings need to be emptied in order to bring some injured soldiers, too. One of the injured soldiers turns out to be Andrew, who, seeing Natasha for the first time since their engagement was broken off, forgives her.
In deserted Moscow, Pierre comes up with a crazed scheme to assassinate Napoleon. Taken into custody by a French captain, he saves the man’s life when Pierre’s servant is going to shoot him, and, after being given the comforts of good food and drink he forgets his assassination attempt. He races into a burning building to save a peasant’s child, then assaults a French soldier who is molesting a woman, for which he is arrested.
D Book IV
Pierre’s wife dies while he is a prisoner of the French army. During a long march, Pierre becomes even more at peace with himself. He meets Platon Karataev, a peasant who owns nothing but has a joyful outlook, and decides to be more like him.
Mary finds out that her brother, Andrew, is still alive. She travels to where Natasha and her family are caring for him, and the two women take turns nursing him until he dies.
Kutuzov, the Russian general, is pressured to overtake the fleeing French and kill them, but he knows his army does not have the energy. Petya Rostov admires Dolokhov’s daring when he accompanies him on a scouting party into the French camp. The next day, they attack the French: Pierre is freed when the French soldiers flee, but Petya is killed. As the French menace fades, Pierre rejoins the Rostov family and he and Natasha console each other over their grief: she has lost her brother, Petya, and her lover Andrew; he has lost many friends in the fighting. They fall in love.
E First Epilogue
Nicholas and Mary marry, as do Pierre and Natasha. They all live at Bald Hills, the estate left to Mary by her father. On December 6, 1820, Pierre arrives home from a trip to Moscow, where he has been meeting with a secret organization. Pierre and Nicholas disagree about a citizen’s responsibility to the state, but everyone is happy living together-especially Andrew’s son Nicholas, who idolizes Pierre.
F Second Epilogue
Tolstoy discusses his view of history and how the weaknesses of the historian’s methods fail to distinguish between those actions undertaken by free will and those which are caused by circumstance.