War and Peace begins in 1805 and follows five noble families as their fates intertwine during the Napoleonic wars. The families are:
1. The Bezukhovs – Count Kirill Bezukhov, a rich count who dies at the beginning of the novel, and his illegitimate son Pierre.
2. The Rostovs – Financially struggling. Led by Count Rostov and his wife, Countess Rostov. They have four children: snippy Vera, romantic Nikolai, beautiful Natasha, and boisterous Pyotr. They have also taken in Sonya Rostov, a young, orphaned cousin a few years older than Natasha.
3. The Bolkonskys – A wealthy family that lives at Bald Hills, their rural estate. They are led by the aging, eccentric Nikolai Bolkonsky. They include Prince Andrei, who is aloof and ambitious, his pious younger sister, Princess Marya, as well as Andrei’s wife Lise and Marya’s companion, Mlle Bourienne. Andrei and Lise have a son, Nikolai (or Nikolushka), at the beginning of the book.
4. The Kuragins – Led by the intelligent and calculating Prince Vassily and his three uncouth children: Ippolit, Anatole, and Hélène.
5. The Drubetskoys – Another financially insolvent family. They consist of the scheming, middle-aged Princess Drubetskoy and her son Boris, a relentless social climber.
It is 1805 and Russia is at war with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. Tolstoy introduces many of the characters at a soirée held by Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a St. Petersburg socialite. This party marks 20-year-old Pierre Bezukhov’s first entrance into society because he has studied abroad since he was a child, and was born an illegitimate son. Although he is smart, he fails to impress the party guests because he is so absent-minded and awkward. Prince Vassily Kuragin tries to broker a marriage between his son Anatole and Princess Marya Bolkonsky. Prince Andrei announces that he’s joining the army as a high-ranking adjutant (and leaving behind his pregnant wife).
The Rostov family holds a banquet. Everyone is impressed by young Natasha Rostov’s beauty and grace. 18-year-old Nikolai decides to join the hussars in a fit of patriotism. Natasha is in love with Boris Drubetskoy, and Nikolai is in love with his impoverished cousin Sonya. Both couples promise to marry each other when the men get back from the war.
Over the next few weeks, Pierre has a great time carousing in St. Petersburg with (among other people) the Kuragin sons. This ends when his father dies of a stroke. Because he is illegitimate, Pierre must struggle with Vassily Kuragin over who will inherit his father’s estate. Pierre eventually wins out and becomes one of the richest men in Russia. Princess Drubetskoy manages to ingratiate herself with both Pierre and the Kuragins. Meanwhile, Prince Andrei prepares to go to war, to the chagrin of his father, wife, and sister.
The next part of the volume takes place on the battlefield in Austria. Tolstoy introduces Dolokhov, a sadistic friend of Anatole Kuragin. Prince Andrei and Kutuzov must deal with their capricious allies, the Austrians, in addition to fighting the French. Nikolai Rostov bonds with a new friend, Captain Denisov, when a soldier steals from Denisov. Nikolai is terrified after fighting in his first battle, and both Nikolai and Andrei realize that war is not what they had hoped it would be.
Pierre marries Hélène Kuragin under pressure from Petersburg society. Anatole Kuragin visits Bald Hills to propose to Princess Marya, but this falls through after he has a short-lived liaison with Mlle Bourienne. Andrei’s wife, Lise, has a son, Nikolushka (also Nikolai, after his grandfather), and dies in childbirth.
Nikolai sees the tsar, and becomes obsessed with him and the fatherland he represents. At the epic battle of Austerlitz, Andrei is wounded and taken to a French hospital. Nikolai develops a taste for heroism, just as Andrei is becoming completely disillusioned with war.
Nikolai brings Captain Denisov home when they are on leave, and Denisov falls in love with Natasha. She rejects his marriage proposal. There is a rumor that Hélène Bezukhov has had an affair with Dolokhov, so Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel. Pierre wounds Dolokhov but can’t bring himself to kill the injured man. This causes a violent fight between Pierre and his wife, and they end up separating. Nikolai gambles with Dolokhov and loses much of his family’s fortune.
Pierre joins the Freemasons. Prince Andrei dedicates himself to spending time with his son while farming on his family’s rural estate. Pierre ostentatiously tries to improve the lives of his peasants, but fails because he doesn’t have the business sense to make real changes. It is now 1807, and Russia calls a truce with France. Hélène Bezukhov has an affair with Boris Drubetskoy, who has rapidly elevated himself in society through networking and hard work. Nikolai Rostov and Boris are both present when Tsar Alexander meets with Napoleon to sign the peace treaty.
Prince Andrei visits Count Rostov and begins to fall in love with Natasha. Shortly after this, he is hired as a commissioner for the government’s efforts at internal reform. He eventually becomes disillusioned with this job when he realizes the reform efforts are inefficient and insincere. Pierre takes his wife back and is surprised to find that Hélène has become a very successful socialite. Natasha and Boris no longer want to marry each other. Vera Rostov marries a Lieutenant. At a grand New Year’s Eve ball, Natasha meets Prince Andrei and stuns him with her youth and good looks. Andrei proposes to Natasha despite his father’s wishes. Because Natasha is so young, the families agree to a one-year engagement, during which Natasha will be free to break things off if she wishes.
It is now 1810. Nikolai, Natasha, and Pyotr Rostov go hunting on their country estate and admire the lifestyle of their uncle, who lives in the countryside. Despite some doubts, Nikolai Rostov decides he still wants to marry Sonya and reiterates his promise to her. Pierre Bezukhov suffers a spiritual crisis because the Masons leave him feeling unfulfilled. The elder Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky becomes senile and gets in the habit of verbally abusing his daughter Marya, who tries her best to care for him. Boris Drubetskoy courts both Marya and her best friend Julie Karagin. He marries Julie despite his better judgment.
Natasha makes a bad first impression with her future in-laws, Prince Nikolai and Princess Marya. She falls in love with Anatole Kuragin and breaks off her engagement to Prince Andrei. Just as she is about to elope with Anatole, a family friend, Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimov, stops her. Anatole runs away rather than facing Natasha’s family. Natasha tries to poison herself, but recovers. Pierre falls in love with Natasha, but becomes a reliable platonic friend instead of taking advantage of her vulnerability. He sees the Great Comet of 1811.
Russia and France go to war again. Prince Andrei is deeply hurt by Natasha’s betrayal, and refuses to take her back. The tsar offers him a high-ranking military job, but Andrei rejects it so he can lead an army regiment. Nikolai participates in battle and is horrified when he nearly kills a French dragoon. Natasha’s experience with Anatole sobers her and she becomes solemn and pious, although this change is short-lived. Pierre continues to love her from afar.
Fifteen-year-old Pyotr Rostov tries to see Tsar Alexander when the latter comes to Moscow. He is nearly crushed by the crowd. He is so determined to join the army that his family allows him to enlist. Pierre alienates society with his liberal, pacifist opinions. General Kutuzov becomes commander in chief of the military.
When the French approach, the Bolkonskys evacuate Bald Hills – with the exception of Andrei, who is with the army. When they get to their country estate, the elder Prince Nikolai dies of a stroke and the muzhiks (Russian peasants) revolt and imprison Princess Marya. Nikolai Rostov happens to be passing with his company, and he rescues her. They begin to fall in love, although Nikolai feels conflicted because he’s already promised to marry Sonya.
In one of the novel’s most famous scenes, Pierre tries to participate in the battle of Borodino but ends up walking aimlessly around the battlefield. Prince Andrei is gravely wounded in this battle. As the French advance on Moscow, most of the city’s population evacuates. Meanwhile, Hélène Bezukhov contemplates leaving Pierre for another man (although she doesn’t know which suitor to marry). While evacuating Moscow, the Rostovs lose many of their possessions when they agree to use their carts to transport wounded officers instead of their own belongings. Prince Andrei is among the wounded officers. Pierre is so inspired by the common soldiers he sees at Borodino that he disguises himself as a peasant and sneaks into Moscow, hoping to murder Napoleon. Instead, he becomes a good Samaritan and helps a number of people, including a French captain, a woman being assaulted, and a little girl lost in a burning house. The French misunderstand what he’s doing and arrest him. The French capture Moscow.
Hélène Bezukhov dies of illness. Nikolai Rostov meets Princess Marya again in the provinces and begins to negotiate a marriage with her, despite his promise to Sonya. Meanwhile, Countess Rostov persuades Sonya to free Nikolai from his promise, since she doesn’t want her son to marry a woman with no dowry.
The French imprison Pierre and force him to watch an execution. He meets a simple, religious peasant named Platon Karataev, who inspires him to live simply and value faith in God above all else. Natasha realizes that the wounded Prince Andrei is with her family and nurses him tenderly. Princess Marya also hears about this and rushes to see her injured brother. Andrei dies shortly after she arrives. At the battle of Tarutino, the tide of the war turns against the French and they begin to retreat.
The French leave Moscow, taking their 30,000 prisoners of war (including Pierre) with them. After the French surrender, Russian partisans continue to attack the retreating troops. Denisov leads one of these groups, which also includes Dolokhov and Pyotr Rostov. Denisov’s company raids a French camp and frees Pierre and their other prisoners of war. However, Pyotr is shot in the head and dies during the action.
In the wake of Andrei and Pyotr’s deaths, Natasha becomes close friends with Princess Marya. Pierre finally learns about his wife’s death and that of his friend Prince Andrei. He becomes gravely ill but recovers. Between his illness and his long imprisonment, he becomes a changed man – altruistic, level-headed, and spiritually content. He visits Princess Marya and the Rostovs to give them his condolences. He realizes he’s still in love with Natasha. He proposes to Natasha and they marry. They have a wonderful relationship and Natasha matures into a humble and dedicated mother. Nikolai Rostov marries Princess Marya, and Sonya lives with them as a kind of servant. Nikolai and Marya have a turbulent relationship.
Tolstoy concludes the novel with an epilogue in which he meditates about the relationship between individuals and history.