This part starts with the re-awakening of Andrei. He has to visit the Rostovs on business matters, and in his usual world-weary way, doesn’t much relish the prospect. On the way, he sees an old oak tree waving its bare branches, and identifies with it strongly. But on the drive to the Rostovs house, he sees a young girl so unlike himself, so full of the spontaneous pleasures of life, that he can’t help but notice.
At the Rostovs’, Count Rostov, with his usual geniality, invites Andrei to spend the night. And from his window that night, Andrei overhears the same girl he had seen earlier – whom we know to be Natasha – enchanted by the beauty of the moonlit night. And Andrei feels something stirring within him – a hope for something other than what he is. Andrei is often attracted by those very qualities he knows he lacks: now, we begin to realise what it was that had attracted him to Lise. On the way back from the Rostovs, Andrei sees the same oak tree; but now, it bears the signs of new leaves.
The oak tree is what Andrei sees: the author merely tells us Andrei’s perception. The symbolism of the oak tree would have been heavy-handed if Tolstoy himself had insisted upon it: but it is Andrei himself who thinks of it in symbolic terms, and his doing so tells us much about him. Similarly, it is not Tolstoy, but Natasha, to whom the moonlit night appears enchanting. And what enchants Andrei is not that moonlit night, but Natasha’s reaction to it.
Andrei now starts to come out of his self-imposed exile. He had previously been disconcerted in discovering that Bilibins letter on military and political affairs could still arouse his interest. But now, he feels prepared to accept it, and enter into public life. He has devised a new military code of behaviour which, in this time of reform, he is keen to have considered. (Tsar Alexander I tried hard to reform government, and Speransky – who appears in this novel – was the principal reformer.) Andrei has a bad experience with the boorish and semi-educated Arakcheyev (another historical character), but is soon on friendly terms with Speransky.
Andrei has already unobtrusively achieved what Pierre had been unable to do: he has emancipated the serfs on his estate. Because of this, he is regarded in many areas as a dangerous liberal.
Pierre is a deeply unhappy and lonely man. He tries to immerse himself into the mysteries of freemasonry, ascribing his dissatisfactions (and there are many) to his own shortcomings. He prays for self-betterment, but cannot rid himself of his unhappiness. And he feels deeply uneasy about introducing Boris to the freemasons. Of course, he has no reason not to introduce him: but Boris’ apparent lack of commitment to the ideals of freemasonry, and his obvious desire to use freemasonry to further his career and social status, seem to make a mockery of all the questions Pierre finds still tormenting him.
The Rostovs marry their eldest daughter Vera to the smug and shallow – but otherwise quite decent – Berg. In a chapter of high comedy, Berg manages to extract from Count Rostov – already financially embarrassed – a very handsome dowry. Berg’s monetary shrewdness, his general sense of self-satisfaction, and his inability to question or to think deeply contrast sharply with Pierre’s state of mind. The Bergs have a house-warming party, and are quietly pleased at what they now take to be their modest but comfortable position in society.
Of course, a modest place in society wouldn’t have been good enough for Hélène. She has now had a sort of reconciliation with Pierre, and they live under the same roof, though not as husband and wife. She is now the hostess of a glittering salon, and her soirées are attended by the most brilliant of people. And this same Hélène, whom we all know as an airhead, acquires the reputation of great wit and intellect. The greatest lights of society attend her soirées, and save up their best witticisms for her. And they wonder how someone as boorish and as mediocre as Pierre could have ended up with someone so brilliant as Hélène.
Pierre’s position, of course, is more miserable than ever. His wife is having a string of affairs. Her latest lover is a royal prince, and Pierre has just been awarded a special position in the royal court. The two circumstances are clearly related, and Pierre feels his humiliation deeply.
Boris appears to have ended his affair with Hélène. The Rostovs are now in Petersburg, and Boris, without meaning to, again falls under the spell of Natasha. He does not intend to marry her, of course: that would hardly advance his career. But he still cannot resist her, and although he had cut himself off from the Rostovs some time ago, he finds himself going to their house frequently. It is only after Countess Rostov speaks to him personally that he stops coming.
Then, we have the famous scene of Natasha’s first ball. That Tolstoy could so pierce the minds of Pierre or of Andrei, or of Maria and her father, is remarkable; but that he could so convincingly enter the mind of a teenage girl at her first society ball is miraculous. These celebrated chapters barely need comment: Natasha’s hopes and fears at attending her first ball are given as much importance as the hopes and fears of Andrei going into battle. Nothing human is alien to Tolstoy’s sensibilities.
It is at Pierre’s suggestion that the brilliant Prince Andrei, who would normally look down upon the Rostovs, dances with Natasha.
Afterwards, Andrei finds himself quite a regular visitor at the Rostovs’. The Rostovs themselves are somewhat apprehensive: they seem to regard the Bolkonskys as being, somehow, above their league. Of course, Andrei is a brilliant match, but when he does formally propose, there seems little of the joy one would expect from the Rostovs. The proposal is accepted, of course: Andrei is a worthy and fine man. But there seems a sense of unease, all the same.
But the unease amongst the Rostovs is nothing compared to the reaction of old Prince Bolkonsky. The Rostovs are the kind of people he had always looked down upon. Is Natasha really the sort of person to be step-mother to his grandson? He feels he is himself close to death, and can’t see why everyone else should feel that they have a life of their own to attend to. Can’t they at least wait till he has died?
And in fairness to the old prince, it has to be said that Andrei is possibly making the same mistake all over again. If he had been so unhappy with Lise, it seems unlikely that his marriage with Natasha would fare any better. But Andrei feels he is now a new person.
The old prince recommends a year’s delay while his son travels around Europe. And Andrei, knowing that ignoring this request would lead to irreparable damage in terms of family relations, agrees. The Rostovs, naturally, aren’t very happy with this condition, but have no option but to agree. Natasha, particularly, is very unhappy with this.
Andrei insists that the engagement should not be made public; and that although he regards himself as bound, he gives Natasha complete freedom to change her mind. He makes sure that everything he does is strictly honourable. But he does not tell Maria of the engagement right away. And when rumours start leaking out, Maria feels sure that her brother could not be betrothed to someone like Natasha. Only afterwards, does Andrei tell his sister in a letter. Why does he delay this announcement? He says in his letter that he did not want his sister to intercede on his behalf with his father: he can already see that his father’s tyranny over his sister is becoming worse. This reason sounds plausible enough. But one wonders whether he might also have felt some hidden shame at having to confess in person to his sister that he intends to marry a mere Rostov.
But Andrei had been right about his father. The old man’s once mighty brain appears to be failing, and he is more tyrannical and overbearing than ever. He jokes that if his son wants to marry Natasha, then he will marry Mademoiselle Bourienne. And this tasteless and unfunny joke is repeated so often, that it becomes particularly unsavoury.
[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]