In this part, we see the three principal young men of the novel – Pierre, Andrei & Nikolai – all undergoing crises of some sort. First, we see Pierre. He is in mental turmoil. His life is falling apart, and he keeps asking himself questions about the nature and purpose of his life – questions he can neither answer, nor prevent himself from asking. As so often, Tolstoy finds exactly the right image: it is as if the screw holding Pierre’s life together has worn smooth and lost its thread, and though it turns, it cannot catch on to anything. And it can go neither in nor out, and nor can it stop turning.
It is in this state that, on a journey to Petersburg, Pierre meets Osip Alexeyevich Bazdeyev, a leading freemason. Pierre is mentally in a vulnerable state, and he has no answer to what Bazdeyev says to him. Pierre’s life is, indeed, in a mess; he is, indeed, searching for something better. Bazdeyev is obviously a sincere man, and a good speaker; and Pierre, as we know, is easily led. He is also easily impressed. Bazdeyevs wisdom seems to him a revelation. He accepts Bazdeyevs invitation, and becomes a freemason.
Fired by his newly found enthusiasm, he seeks to carry out reforms on his estates, to better the lives of his serfs. But he is no good at these administrative matters, and he does not realize that his attempts actually leave the peasants even worse than before. Pierre is too naïve and too trusting, and, frankly, too incompetent in these matters to be effective.
However, his determination to lead a new life does give him the strength to reject the attempts of his father-in-law to reconcile him to his wife. More than anything else, Pierre hates saying anything disagreeable to anyone; but quite unexpectedly, he finds the strength to ask Vasily Kuragin to leave.
We see another of Anna Pavlovnas soirées – the same vacuous talk, the same affectations, the same stupidity putting on airs and passing itself off as sophistication. Pierre is regarded as a sort of insanely jealous half-wit, and Hélène as an unfortunate woman who bears her cross with dignity and fortitude.
A newcomer to this world is Boris, who, through careful application of flattery to the right people (whom he has trained himself to recognize), has risen in life. The ability he has always had to make himself liked has paid dividends. Not only is he at Anna Pavlovnas soirée, but he is the star attraction there. And he has turned his back on his old acquaintances such as the Rostovs who are no longer in a position to further his career. And Hélène, that unfortunate woman who bears her cross with such dignity, chooses him as her new lover. Boris does not appear unwilling.
Now, we travel once again to the very different world of Bald Hills. Andrei has removed himself from the outside world, and is building for himself a house in the nearby estate of Bogucharovo, which his father has settled on him. The marble his father had ordered to be a memorial for his son is now instead a memorial for Lise. And the statue of the memorial appears to Andrei’s imagination to have his wife’s face; and it appears also to have that same reproachful look – “Why have you all done this to me?” Andrei is still haunted by that sense of guilt.
Prince Bolkonsky has weakened considerably during the days when he had thought his son dead; and physically, he is not what he was. Nonetheless, he has taken responsibility for military recruitment in his area, and Andrei helps him. Andrei is the only person who can control his father’s extreme behaviour: old Prince Bolkonskys uncompromising strictness is often indistinguishable from cruelty.
We see Andrei and Maria tending to Andrei’s son, young Nikolai, who is ill; and, for one terrible moment, Andrei thinks he is dead. Andrei also receives a letter from his diplomat friend, Bilibin, relating all the goings-on in the military and diplomatic spheres; and Andrei is disconcerted to find that he can still take an interest in such matters.
Then, his old friend Pierre visits. Despite his hermit-like existence, Andrei is happy to see Pierre, and these two deeply wounded men talk. Pierre is fired up by his newly found idealism, and speaks of them enthusiastically. But Andrei responds with a sort of world-weary pessimism. Hospitals for peasants? What is the point of patching them up so that they can get back again to their back-breaking, soul-destroying labour? When Pierre expresses relief at not having killed Dolohov, Andrei asks if it is a crime to kill a vicious dog. Andrei knows how much the Dolohovs of the world are worth – though, presumably, he has no idea what this same Dolohov means to his aged mother and hunchbacked sister. Pierre insists that one must live for others; but to Andrei, living for ones own self – and for one’s family, which is a sort of extension of ones own self – is enough. But even as he says this, he knows how deeply unhappy he is.
The two men go to Bald Hills together and cross the river in a ferry. The sun is setting. Pierre is hesitant about talking about freemasonry, because he thinks Andrei would scoff at it. And Pierre is also intimidated by what he reckons to be Andrei’s superior intellect. But eventually, Pierre blurts it out. And he gives expression to the idealist thoughts that are welling up inside him. To his surprise, Andrei does not scoff. Everything Pierre says seems to bring home to him his own unhappiness, and the absence of Lise, whom, despite everything, he had loved. And Andrei remembers also the vast expanse of sky he had seen while wounded on the field at Austerlitz, and how it seemed to him to point to a greater truth beyond what we may perceive. Andrei is too proud to join the masons as Pierre has done (after all, how can others have found the answers that have so eluded him?) but Pierre’s idealism strikes a chord.
They go to Bald Hills, where Maria, against her father’s instructions (this is the one point where she disobeys him) is receiving pilgrim travellers – God’s people, as she calls them. These pilgrims are ignorant and superstitious, and their uneducated naïvety is a sort of distortion of Pierre’s own idealism. Maria is apprehensive that Pierre and her brother will merely find these pilgrims comical. Andrei, out of consideration for his sister, restrains his mockery, but even so manages to offend the pilgrims with an innocuous remark. Pierre speaks unthinkingly at first, but on seeing the offence he is causing, addresses these God’s people with respect and courtesy. Maria is grateful to him.
The Bolkonskys all like Pierre – even the old prince enjoys talking to him. Pierre maintains to the old prince that a day will come when there will be no war, and the old man laughs at such naïvety. But he enjoys talking to him all the same, and asks him to return.
Now, we move to Nikolai, who is back with the army again. Here, he finds respite from all the complications of civilian life (and this includes the ongoing uncertainty concerning his relationship with Sonya). Here, everything is in its place, everything is simple, orders are to be obeyed, and there is no complexity. And that is the way Nikolai likes it.
He still has the generous Rostov nature: he looks after an indigent Polish family out of his own money without telling anyone, and bursts into fury when this is discovered, and it is suggested that he has an interest in the young daughter.
Denisov gets himself into trouble. His men have not been supplied with food, and when an unguarded wagon with provisions for the infantry passes, Denisov commandeers it, and distributes the provisions amongst his hungry men. He is called to account for this, and, faced with a petty official, Denisov loses his temper and gives him a good thrashing. There is no avoiding it: Denisov tries to make light of it, but he will be facing a court martial. So, when he receives a mild wound which he would normally have ignored, he enrols himself into military hospital.
Nikolai visits Denisov at the military hospital, but, before he finds the officers ward, he sees the state of the ordinary soldiers in this place. It is a hell-hole, rife with disease, filth and infection. The overworked doctors and orderlies are too harassed to see to things, and even the dead don’t always get removed from the living. The stench overwhelms Nikolai. The picture Tolstoy paints is horrifying.
Nikolai finds Denisov in the relative comfort of the officers’ ward. Tushin is there also: he has lost an arm, but somehow, remains cheerful and uncomplaining. Denisov still pretends that he doesn’t care about the impending court-martial, but, left alone with Nikolai, gives him a petition to present to the Tsar on his behalf.
Peace has now broken out between the Russians and the French. Napoleon and Tsar Alexander are about to sign a treaty at Tilsit. Needless to say, Boris is there in an official position, hobnobbing with those in power. Nikolai doesn’t like seeing so many in French uniform – people he is used to fighting.
Boris is not happy to see Nikolai: he is moving in different spheres now. He changes his expression as quickly as he can, but Nikolai had caught his initial look, and feels affronted. Boris can do nothing to help Denisov.
After much effort, Nikolai finds a high-ranking general whom he knows, and tells him about Denisov. The general takes the petition to the Tsar, but the Tsar refuses to help, saying loudly and ostentatiously for all to hear that he cannot stand in the way of the law, which is mightier than he.
The two emperors exchange medals and sign the treaty. Napoleon wants to award the Legion d’Honneur to a brave Russian soldier and one is selected virtually at random.
Nikolai leaves in a confused frame of mind. Why is this soldier honoured when Denisov is facing a court-martial? Why all the effort in the past to fight the French when they are now the best of friends? How can Napoleon, whom Nikolai and all the others had regarded as a criminal, be suddenly regarded as a great emperor? What was the point of all the bravery and sacrifice, of all the deaths, of all the suffering and the missing limbs he had seen at the hospital, if all they had been fighting for is suddenly stood on its head? Thoughts start to crowd his mind, a mind which cannot deal with complexity; and these thoughts threaten to tear down everything he had, till then, accepted unconditionally, everything upon which his very being depends. Nikolai, much disturbed, goes into an inn and has two bottles of wine; and he hears some others in the inn saying exactly the same things that were so disturbing him, and rounds on them with an unwonted fierceness. It is not their job to question, he asserts (both to them and to himself). As soldiers, their job is to obey commands, no matter what.
Nikolai’s mind is not designed for serious thought. Blind, unthinking acceptance is the only way he has out of those thoughts that threaten his very being.
[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]