Synopsis of “War and Peace”: Book 2, Part 4

This part is relatively short, and offers us something of a lull before the dramatic events of the next part, which forms the culminating section of the first half of the novel. In this part, we are with the Rostovs at their country estate outside Moscow.

Things are not going well for the Rostovs. Owing to reckless extravagance and the Count’s complete inability to administer his estates, they are facing serious financial trouble. Nikolai is called back from the army to try to help sort things out.

Nikolai is as uneasy as his mother about Natasha’s engagement to Andrei. There is no doubt that Andrei is a fine and honourable man, but it seems clear that his father opposes the marriage; and it is further clear that this is because he looks down upon the Rostovs, and does not think that a daughter of the Rostov family is good enough to be allied to the Bolkonskys. Though nothing is said directly on this point, the Rostovs feel insulted, and are hurt that their beloved daughter could be thought of in this way.

Nikolai’s way of trying to deal with family finances is to accuse their steward of being a thief, and threaten to thrash him. He may or may not be right about this; but the Count feels uneasy about such matters, and Nikolai is not asked again to look into the accounts (which he does not really understand anyway).

There are also some promissory notes signed by Anna Mihalovna. The Countess does not know what to do with them. Now that Boris has moved up in the world, he and his mother have not kept touch with the Rostovs, their former benefactors. Should the Rostovs now ask Anna Mihalovna to honour these notes? Nikolai decides the issue by tearing up these notes, and declaring that he likes neither Anna Mihalovna nor Boris.

Next comes one of Tolstoys great set-pieces – the wolf hunt. Natasha and Petya insist on joining in, much to Nikolai’s annoyance. The hunt is described in some detail, and Tolstoy is quite happy to enter the minds of the wolf and the hounds. As with the great battle scenes, we seem to enter into the characters minds, and share not only their thoughts and sensations, but also their physical excitement.

During the hunt, they team up with a distant relative, whom they call Uncle, who lives in a small house near the Rostov’s estate. They also team up with a neighbour, Ilagin, with whom they had had some disputes in the past, and whom Nikolai – without ever having known him – is prepared to dislike; but he turns out, to Nikolai’s surprise, to be gentle and courteous.

After the hunt, they go to Uncles house. The surroundings are very Russian, quite unlike the Westernised surroundings of the Rostovs’ household. Uncle’s housekeeper is also, quite obviously, his common-law wife. There seems to be an openness and simplicity about everything here. And when one of Uncle’s servants is heard playing the balalaika, Natasha is enchanted. She breaks into a spontaneous Russian dance which seems very much at odds with her fashionably Westernised upbringing.

Back home, as far as the Countess can see, the only way out of their troubles is for Nikolai to marry an heiress. Julia Karagin is an obvious choice, and Countess Rostov has ascertained from Julia’s mother that she would favour a match between her daughter and Nikolai. But Nikolai still feels honour bound to Sonya. He asks his mother if she would want him to act against his feelings, not realising how cruel such a question is for her. And his father, as ever, is ineffective: he feels guilty for the state of the family’s finances, and realizes that his son would not have been faced with making such a choice had he been capable of managing his affairs better. Nikolai, to his parents’ disappointment, turns down the proposed marriage with Julia Karagin.

Nikolai is back with the family again for the Christmas holidays. He and Natasha reminisce about childhood, and Sonya feels curiously left out of the close relationship between brother and sister. Natasha has been restless. It is not that she is in love with Andrei: she barely knows him. But he is handsome, attractive, and in every way a fine match. And she longs for him. She feels herself wasting away, and her nerves are on edge. Natasha’s mind wanders from one thing to another, bored, restless and unable to settle: only Andrei, she feels, could cure her of this restlessness. Natasha and Sonya, out of sheer boredom, try fortune-telling. Sonya cannot see anything in the mirror, but as she is expected to, pretends to have seen someone. Natasha is convinced this is Andrei.

During the Christmas holidays, Natasha, Sonya and Nikolai dress up in fancy clothes, and pay a visit to a neighbour. The ground is covered with snow, which sparkles in the moonlight. There is an air of enchantment in the air. And suddenly, Nikolai notices how very attractive Sonya is, especially with her painted moustache and sideburns. He thinks to himself what a fool he had been to keep away from her, and convinces himself that he loves her deeply.

The idyll ends with a rupture. The Countess had been fearing this for years: Nikolai expresses his love for his cousin Sonya, and his desire to marry her. The Count is deeply embarrassed: had he only been able to manage his finances, there could have been no better match for Nikolai. The Countess is not having any of this. She makes a tart comment about Nikolai being free to marry against his parents’ wishes – just as Andrei is marrying against his father’s wishes. The disapproval of Andrei’s father is obviously something that is continuously preying on the Countess, and she can’t seem to banish it from her mind, even when talking about other matters.

Since she cannot vent her rage on her son, the brunt of it falls on Sonya, who – though deeply grateful to the family that has adopted her – is accused of ingratitude. The Countess, despite her kindly nature, finds herself disliking Sonya, and enrages Nikolai by calling Sonya a scheming creature. Nikolai flares up in anger, and the Countess is stricken by terror at realizing how close she is to becoming alienated from her beloved son. Natasha makes peace for the moment, but Nikolai returns to the army with nothing resolved. The Rostov family is in crisis.

That winter, the count goes to Moscow with Natasha and Sonya: they must prepare for the wedding, and meet with Andrei on his return. The Countess, her nerves shattered, stays on at the country estate.

[All excerpts quoted are taken from the translation by Rosemary Edmonds, published by Penguin Classics]

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks a lot for posting these very useful summaries!

    Reply

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