In St. Petersburg in 1805, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a maid of honor to the empress Maria Feodorovna, hosts a soirée in her apartments. Her parties are known as hubs for gossip. The first guest to arrive is Prince Vassily Kuragin, who listens patiently as Anna Pavlovna rants about Russia's war against Napoleon, which is going badly. Eventually, their conversation turns away from politics and towards Vassily’s children. Although Vassily’s daughter, Hélène, is beautiful and delightful, his two sons, Ippolit and Anatole, are foolish good-for-nothings who cost their father huge amounts of money. Anna Pavlovna suggests that Vassily marry off his youngest and most troublesome son, Anatole, to Princess Marya Bolkonsky, who will hopefully be capable of keeping the young man under control. The Bolkonsky family is wealthy, although its patriarch (Nikolai) is famous for his stinginess and his eccentricity. Vassily jumps at this opportunity and begs Anna Pavlovna to arrange a marriage between Anatole and Princess Marya. She agrees to try.
The rest of the guests arrive at the soirée. Anna Pavlovna introduces each of them to her elderly aunt. Among the guests are: Lise Meinen, the pretty, pregnant daughter-in-law of Prince Bolkonsky (she is married to Andrei); and Vassily’s beautiful daughter Hélène. After everyone else has arrived, Pierre Bezukhov shows up. He is a young, fat man, the illegitimate son of a famous courtesan. He has just returned from studying abroad and this is his first time in high society. He makes several faux pas when he first enters – he does not feign interest in Anna Pavlovna’s boring aunt, and he talks to the hostess too long even after she indicates that she needs to be elsewhere. Unaware of his etiquette mistakes, Pierre's only concern is to find intelligent conversation.
Mortemart tells an entertaining story about Napoleon’s affair with a famous French actress. Meanwhile, Pierre and the Abbé Morio discuss how world peace might be achieved. Lise’s husband, the ill-tempered Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, enters and announces that he will soon depart to serve in the war as an adjutant to General Kutuzov. He briefly speaks with Pierre – apparently, the two men somehow know each other. They agree that Pierre will join the Bolkonskys for dinner before Andrei departs for war.
Still at the party, the elderly, impoverished Princess Drubetskoy begs Prince Vassily to obtain for her son, Boris, a transfer to the guards, a relatively safe military assignment. Out of a sense of obligation to the Drubetskoy family (a long-time acquaintance), Vassily reluctantly agrees. However, she immediately presses further, requesting that Vassily also obtain Boris a position as an adjutant to General Kutuzov. Vassily cannot promise this.
Meanwhile, the party guests discuss politics, particularly the war against Napoleon. They are especially appalled at the recent assassination of the Duc d’Enghien. However, Pierre speaks out in favor of both Napoleon and the assassination. He believes that the Bourbons were irresponsible leaders, and that Napoleon was the only person able to rescue France from the chaos that followed its revolution. If Napoleon hadn’t ordered the duke’s assassination, Pierre argues, he would have put the entire country in jeopardy for the sake of one life. Pierre’s radical opinions offend many of the party guests. After Pierre finishes expounding, Prince Andrei and Ippolit both attempt to smooth over the awkward situation.
The party ends, and the guests depart. On the way out, Prince Ippolit flirtatiously says good-bye to Lise, much to Prince Andrei’s annoyance. In their carriage after they leave, Ippolit and Mortemart talk about Lise; Ippolit suggests that he and Lise are having an affair. Back at the party, Lise promises Anna Pavlovna that she will look into arranging the wedding between Anatole and Princess Marya.
Pierre goes home with Prince Andrei. When they arrive, Prince Andrei asks Pierre how much longer it will take for him to choose a career. This impending decision is what led Pierre’s father to send him to St. Petersburg three months before, but Pierre has yet to make any choice. When Prince Andrei suggests that Pierre join the military, Pierre rejects this idea because he does not want to fight about Napoleon, who he considers a great man. Prince Andrei admits that he intends to fight in the war not from patriotism, but from a desire to escape the dull world of high society.
Lise enters to ask Prince Andrei why he insists on going to war and leaving her alone in the countryside. She also wants to know why his demeanor towards her has changed in the past few months. This line of questioning discomforts both Pierre and Andrei. At supper, the two men hold a heartfelt discussion about their lives. Prince Andrei advises Pierre never to marry, and suggests that he stop spending so much time at Prince Vassily Kuragin’s house, since it is leading Pierre to imitate Anatole's lazy ways.
However, as soon as Pierre leaves Andrei’s estate, he rationalizes to himself a visit to Anatole. When he arrives at the Kuragin house, Anatole and several other young men are drunkenly baiting a bear cub. Pierre proceeds to drink with them. He and a young officer named Dolokhov compete in a contest wherein they are to drink an entire bottle of rum while teetering on a windowsill high above the ground. The others dissuade Pierre from completing the task, but he persists in dancing around with the bear cub.
This chapter jumps forward in time and is set in Moscow.
Princess Drubetskoy returns to Moscow, pleased with the news that Vassily has succeeded in obtaining the transfer to the guards for her son Boris (although Boris was not given the promotion to adjutant which she had also requested). Boris will soon join the army, which has already left.
She attends a party at the Rostovs’ house. The Rostov count and countess are celebrating the feast day of St. Natalya, since they have two Natalyas in their family — the countess herself and one of her daughters. (Note that Natalya is another form of the name Natasha.) From the conversation at this party, we learn two important pieces of information. Firstly, Pierre has been banished to Moscow because of his disorderly conduct in St. Petersburg. He and his friends from Anatole’s house got into trouble for tying a police officer to the back of the bear after the events of Chapter 6. Secondly, Pierre and Prince Vassily are competing for a massive inheritance from Pierre’s ailing father, Count Kirill Vladimirovich Bezukhov. Normally, Kirill’s estate would go to his next-of-kin, provided that next-of-kin is a proper member of society – in this case, that would mean Prince Vassily. As a bastard son, Pierre would usually not be entitled to the inheritance. However, Kirill loves his illegitimate son Pierre so much that many suspect he will leave his estate to Pierre instead of the prince.
The teenaged Rostov children (accompanied by Boris) burst into the party, unaware that they are interrupting the adults. Pretty, thirteen-year-old Natasha captures everyone’s attention.
The party guests question eighteen-year-old Nikolai Rostov about his ambition to join the hussars. He becomes self-conscious when they suggest he is only entering the military to ‘keep up’ with his friend Boris. Meanwhile, Nikolai’s cousin Sonya, who is in love with him, becomes jealous when Nikolai momentarily pays attention to another girl, Julie Karagin. Sonya storms out and Nikolai follows her. After they leave, the adults comment knowingly about the younger generation’s romantic entanglements.
In the dark conservatory, Natasha spies on Sonya and Nikolai as they argue, and then kiss and make up. After Sonya and Nikolai leave together, Natasha finds Boris and kisses him on the lips. She asks Boris if he loves her. Although Boris does indeed love Natasha, he is uncomfortable with their age difference and asks her to wait four years, after which they can be married. Natasha happily agrees.
Countess Rostov bluntly asks her eldest daughter, Vera, to leave the party so that the countess can share some private time with her old friend, Princess Drubetskoy. Although Vera is pretty and well brought-up, no one likes her because of her unpleasant personality. When Vera enters the conservatory and sees the two young couples (Sonya and Nikolai, and Natasha and Boris) cuddling, she reprimands them for having burst improperly into the party earlier. The younger siblings laugh it off, and Vera storms to her room.
Back in the drawing room, Countess Rostov talks with the Princess. Despite her appearance of wealth, the Princess is actually bankrupt and depends on the charity of friends to set Boris up in the military. Unless Prince Vassily agrees to chip in, the Princess will be unable to buy Boris all the equipment he needs for his appointment. Countess Rostov comforts her friend by suggesting that Vassily will be happy to help out once he receives his inheritance from Count Kirill.
Princess Drubetskoy and Boris visit Count Kirill’s house. When they arrive, they encounter Prince Vassily, whom they thank for his help with Boris’s military assignment. Despite the count’s failing health, the Princess insists on visiting his bedside, presumably in hopes of soliciting some money for Boris. Boris is somewhat embarrassed by his mother’s behavior, but does nothing to stop her.
Pierre visits his father, but Prince Vassily, who is acting as caretaker to Count Kirill, refuses to let Pierre see the old man, claiming the latter's health is too fragile. Boris comes to visit Pierre, and reassures him that he and his mother have no intention of seeking money from Count Kirill (which is true, of Boris if not his mother). Although this unsolicited comment initially makes Pierre uncomfortable, he admires Boris’s forthrightness and decides to befriend the younger man. Boris invites Pierre to dinner at the Rostov house.
Countess Rostov gets seven hundred roubles from her husband and gives them to Princess Drubetskoy so she can buy Boris’s uniform.
At the Rostovs’ party, Pyotr Nikolaevich Shinshin and Lieutenant Alphonse Karlych Berg argue over whether it is better to serve in the infantry or in the cavalry. Lieutenant Berg is a young officer in Boris Drubetskoy’s regiment. Just before dinner, Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimov arrives. She is an older woman infamous for her blunt manners, but everyone respects and fears her. She reprimands Pierre for “having fun” (61) in St. Petersburg while his father is so ill. At dinner, Natasha and Boris seem smitten with each other, although, while under the influence of wine, Natasha also gazes at Pierre.
Over dinner, the men discuss Russia’s recent declaration of war against France. Not everyone agrees that the war is a good idea – Shinshin questions the wisdom of fighting against Napoleon. Nikolai Rostov shyly comes out in support of the war. Natasha interrupts everything by asking loudly when dessert will be served, a breach of etiquette which everyone tolerates because the girl is so charming.
The young people (Natasha, Nikolai, Sonya, and Boris) decide to sing “The Spring” for the party guests. Sonya is missing, so Natasha seeks her out, and discovers her crying because Nikolai has been paying attention to pretty Julie Karagin again. Natasha cries in sympathy for her cousin and friend, but she is soon able to reassure Sonya of Nikolai’s affections and thereby convince her to come out and sing. After “The Spring,” Natasha asks Pierre to dance. He agrees, and Natasha surprises everyone with how graceful and grown-up she looks. Next, the band plays “Daniel Cooper,” an English dance. Natasha dances with Pierre again, and Count Rostov dances with Marya Dmitrievna.
Meanwhile, at his home, Count Kirill Bezukhov has a second stroke. Prince Vassily talks with his cousin, Princess Katerina Semyonovna Mamontov (also known as Catiche) about the count’s will. Catiche and her two sisters have cared for the count during his long illness, and they are genuinely distraught about his imminent death. Although the inheritance is the last thing Catiche wants to discuss, Vassily explains to her that in the latest version of his will, Count Kirill has left his entire estate to Pierre. Normally, Pierre would not be able to inherit (even with the will) because he is illegitimate. However, Count Kirill wrote a letter to the sovereign the previous year asking to adopt Pierre (which would make him legitimate, and thereby enable him to inherit the count’s property and title). Vassily wants to make sure that the letter and the updated will are destroyed so that his family will get the estate instead of Pierre. Vassily inquires as to where the will is hidden, and though Catiche is initially reluctant to help, she is convinced when Vassily appeals to her hatred of Princess Drubetskoy (who attempted to turn Count Kirill against Catiche and her sisters the previous year).
Princess Drubetskoy brings Pierre to visit the dying Count Kirill. When they arrive at the count’s estate, Pierre is surprised by the deference he receives as the count’s son. Prince Vassily informs Pierre that the count has just had another stroke. Everyone goes to the count’s bedroom for the ceremony of extreme unction, an Orthodox rite that involves anointing and blessing someone who is seriously ill.
The extreme unction ceremony is performed with great reverence and solemnity. It is only at the end that Pierre realizes how close his father is to death, and he cries quietly.
Pierre, Princess Drubetskoy, Prince Vassily, the cousins, and the other family members all gather for tea in the drawing room. Catiche tries to sneak into the count’s bedrooms, in hopes of getting his permission to destroy the will that leaves everything to Pierre. However, Princess Drubetskoy blocks her from leaving, which results in a scuffle. Catiche and Vassily eventually get into the count’s rooms, but when they come out, their stunned faces suggest that they were too late to speak to the count about the will – the old man has died. Pierre is not sure how to react. The next morning, Princess Drubetskoy visits the Rostovs. She speaks highly of Pierre to them, and tells them about Vassily and Catiche’s scuffle over the will.
The novel switches location again, and jumps forward in time.
Prince Nikolai Andreevich Bolkonsky (Prince Andrei’s father) lives at his estate, Bald Hills, because he was banished from Moscow many years before. He prizes “intelligence and activity” (87) and structures his life around those values. He is a stern but tender father to his daughter, Princess Marya. Marya corresponds regularly with Julie Karagin, an old childhood friend. Julie’s latest letter, though flowery, contains lots of news. Julie is in love with Nikolai Rostov, but she fears he is too young for her and in any case, he has volunteered for military duty and is about to leave. Pierre Bezukhov has inherited all of Count Kirill’s estate, and has also been legitimized – he is now a count, and one of the richest men in Russia. Prince Vassily and his cousins got nothing. There are rumors that a marriage will be arranged between Pierre and Julie, but Julie dislikes Pierre and doesn’t want to marry him despite his wealth. There are also rumors that Prince Vassily and his wife want to marry their troublesome son, Anatole, off to Princess Marya (as was mentioned in the novel’s opening chapters). Julie also sends a copy of A Key to the Mysteries of Nature, an occult religious text that was popular in Moscow at the time.
Marya writes back to Julie immediately. She has a more ascetic personality than her vivacious friend, and she explains that she will meekly accept a marriage to Anatole if that is what God has planned for her. Marya disagrees with Julie’s assessment of Pierre – she thinks he has an “excellent heart” (94), but worries that his sudden wealth will leave him susceptible to temptation. She closes her letter with a description of the men from Bald Hills marching off to war. Marya laments that modern society “finds its greatest merit in the art of mutual killing” (96).
Prince Andrei and Lise return to Bald Hills from St. Petersburg. Prince Nikolai and Princess Marya are overjoyed to see them, especially after Lise announces her pregnancy. However, both Nikolai and Marya are dubious about Andrei’s plan to leave Lise at Bald Hills while he fights at war. However, Andrei is excited about the Russian military strategy and cannot be deterred.
Prince Andrei and Prince Nikolai discuss Napoleon Bonaparte over dinner. Nikolai does not think much of Napoleon, but Prince Andrei respects the French emperor as a strategist and as a general.
As Prince Andrei prepares for deployment, Princess Marya gives him an icon of Jesus to take with him into battle. Andrei confesses that he and Lise are both very unhappy, and implies that this is why he is going to war. After Marya leaves, Andrei talks with his father, and entrusts Prince Nikolai with hiring an accoucheur (a male midwife) when Lise goes into labor. He also expresses his wish that the child be brought up by Nikolai at Bald Hills, particularly if it is a son. Nikolai comments on Andrei’s poor relationship with Lise, and reassures his son that all marriages are difficult. The next evening, Andrei coldly says goodbye to Lise and departs.
The opening chapters of War and Peace establish the novel’s expansive scope and characteristic style. The third-person narrator frequently shifts focus between several noble families and between three locations: St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Bald Hills (the Bolkonsky family estate). In addition to the large shifts in focus that occur between chapters, Tolstoy also employs the same device on a smaller scale within the individual scenes. One example of this is the Rostov dinner party. At the end of Chapter 15, Tolstoy includes a long list of the minute social interactions between the characters at the party, only some of which directly advance the plot. This collage of detail is but one small indicator of the vast scope the novel will take. It is also an example of ‘reality effects’––a strategy that some novelists use which involves including small details that are not significant in themselves, but when taken together, make the text seem more realistic.
This emphasis on realism ties into Tolstoy's interest in composing a historical novel. Throughout the work, many characters are versions of real figures - one example in this section is General Kutuzov, only mentioned. Later, Tolstoy will sketch out his historical philosophy in explicit detail, but even here, the focus on both grand gestures and minutia suggests an interest not in crafting a dramatically tight story, but instead on exploring how history is made, how causes lead to effects.
One of Tolstoy’s most important stylistic strategies is his tendency to explain the relationship between his characters’ particular habits and general human behavior. In just one example, the narrator describes Prince Andrei smiling to his sister “as we smile listening to people whom we think we can see through” (106). By tying one smile to human nature as a whole, Tolstoy reminds us that his novel is not just a fiction about specific people – it is meant to provide insight about all humanity.
Although the characters in this section put great effort into seeming genteel, their savage side emerges in Count Kirill Bezukhov’s final days. Prince Vassily, Catiche, and Princess Drubetskoy all stand to benefit directly from Count Kirill’s death, and their scuffle over the will reveals their mercenary self-interest. Even the characters who do not stand to benefit from the count’s death seem to think of the event in terms of its pecuniary consequences. Julie Karagin focuses on Pierre’s inheritance when she relates the news to Princess Marya, and the Rostovs also seem primarily interested in the material effect the inheritance will have on those around them. The only character who seems truly upset by Count Kirill’s death is the eccentric Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, a fact that indicates a certain level of callousness among the nobility.
The letters between Julie Karagin and Princess Marya reveal a dramatic contrast between the two characters. Although their writing styles initially seem similar – both open their letters with flowery declarations of affection – the two women have almost opposite personalities. While Julie is cheerful, vivacious, and rapidly shifts her attention between topics, Marya is “concentrated, sad, and dreary” (96). But although she is ostensibly less ‘likeable’ than characters like Julie or Pierre, Marya possesses a moral insightfulness that many of the other characters lack. At this point in the novel, she is the only one to recognize the human cost of going to war. Indeed, when she writes about the men of Bald Hills leaving for their deployment, she is the first character to acknowledge explicitly that men who go to war may die. For most of these aristocrats, fighting is war is simply a part of a long aristocratic tradition, and contains within it a certain honor. The brutality of the Napoleonic Wars, which were yet unseen by Russian society, will come as a shock later.
This fact touches upon one of Tolstoy's most pervasive interests: the nature of aristocracy. Almost all of the characters contained in this section are aristocrats, and behave within expected patterns and under certain rituals (parties, visits, etc.) However, as noted above, his interest is in plumbing the general human behaviors that exist beneath these rituals, as though to suggest they merely provide a form wherein the true content of humanity will be played out. And indeed, this 'humanity' strikes one as indebted as much to "war" as to "peace." These characters are ruthless in their desire for wealth, and seem to thrive on undercutting one another whether through rumors or through inheritance squabbling. Already, the connections between the two qualities in the title are being drawn.
One potentially confusing aspect of this section is its lack of an obvious protagonist. Although the narrative is structured loosely around Pierre’s youthful misadventures and his inheritance problems, he is only present in about half of the chapters. It is arguable that Princess Drubetskoy, Prince Andrei, or even Natasha Rostov is the real protagonist of these chapters. It is important to note that at this point in the novel, Pierre is the thread that ties the characters together; he is the only one that interacts with every family described. Further, in terms of the aristocratic focus mentioned above, Pierre is unique in that he can interact with these families while nevertheless remaining remarkably different from them: he is a bastard, and seems to both possess both noble ideas and engage in base behaviors. Further, in terms of the aristocracy, Pierre is rather naive. His idealization of Napoleon speaks to his spiritual and thoughtful nature, while showing a total lack of tact for what others in the situation might want to hear. In these ways, as a character entirely of his own world and belonging to neither the poor nor the rich society, his importance can already be glimpsed. Nevertheless, Tolstoy’s loose focus on Pierre allows readers to maintain a critical distance from him and to identify with the other characters as well.
It is worth mentioning how impressive Tolstoy's use of the omniscient perspective is in the novel. Already in this first section, he explores several characters and their motivations, and is willing to sometimes judge motivations, while other times abstain from judgment in favor of impartially relating the story. This perspective grows larger and larger in the novel until later, Tolstoy will go so far as to interrupt his narrative to discuss philosophies of individual actions and historiography. Already, however, this perspective communicates to us the scope of his ambition, to do more than tell a story or record a history, but instead to explore how everything has the potential to influence everything else.