It is now 1809. Russia is allied with France against Austria, and the government is conducting a number of internal reforms. Pierre has not made much headway in improving the lives of his peasants, but by using his tenacity and intelligence, Prince Andrei has emancipated the workers on his estates and made real improvements for them. He visits the Ryazan estates, which are being held in trust for his son, and recommits himself to a quiet life taking care of his family and property.
Prince Andrei visits Count Rostov, who is now serving as a marshal on the Ryazan estates. He overhears Sonya and Natasha chatting girlishly and feels conflicted about the choices he has made in life.
On his way home, Andrei sees a gnarled old oak which inspires him to think that “everyone must know me, so that my life is not only for myself” (423). At Bald Hills, Prince Andrei is consumed with ‘irrational’ longing to get back out into the world, so he decides to go to St. Petersburg.
Prince Andrei writes a memorandum suggesting some new military regulations. The minister of war, Count Arakcheev, rejects Andrei’s suggestions, but offers him an unpaid position on the commission of military regulations.
Excited by the energy of being around Petersburg, Andrei begins to renew old acquaintances. He attends a party and meets Mikhail Mikhailovich Speransky, the Russian secretary of state. They discuss the liberal reforms that the government is trying to institute: liberating the peasants, and making government jobs more meritocratic by requiring applicants to pass an exam (rather than simply giving positions to members of the nobility). Andrei finds himself disagreeing with Speransky as much from a desire not to be sycophantic as from his true principles.
Andrei finds himself turned off by the petty details of life in the city, where he often discovers he repeats the same topics and phrases day after day.
Later, Speransky visits Andrei at the latter's home to discuss the legislative commission. Andrei is impressed by Speransky’s logical way of thinking, and the feeling is apparently mutual – Speranksy appoints Andrei to develop the ‘Personal Rights’ section of the new Russian civil code.
The narrative flashes back two years, to early 1808.
Pierre becomes the head of the Petersburg Freemasons. Although he devotes lots of time and money to running the organization, he still maintains the same licentious lifestyle. He’s not the only one who does this – many of the brothers seem to care only about the outer trappings of Freemasonry and do not follow the virtues it espouses. Pierre tries to resolve these doubts by going “abroad to be initiated into the highest mysteries of the order” (434). When he returns in 1809, he brings back controversial ideas about renewing and expanding the Petersburg chapter. These ideas are received badly by the group.
Hélène writes to Pierre and asks him to take her back. Under pressure from his mother-in-law, Bazdeev, and the Masons, Pierre agrees.
Hélène has acquired a reputation as an intelligent and witty woman, and her salons are a hit among the St. Petersburg intelligentsia. This shocks Pierre, who has always considered his wife rather stupid. He is neither interested in nor valued by the society of these salons. He begins to suspect that his wife is having an affair with Boris Drubetskoy, who continues to visit often.
Although he still hates Boris, Pierre inducts him into the Freemasons. He suffers a spiritual crisis because his genuine dedication to Masonic ideas nevertheless does not bring him a feeling of virtue.
The Rostovs visit St. Petersburg, where Lieutenant Berg proposes to Vera. Although he is of low rank and has no fortune, they accept because Vera loves him and the family finances are in complete disarray. Count Rostov struggles to scrape together a dowry.
Boris visits the Rostovs, intending to clarify to Natasha that he no longer wants to marry her (because she has no money). However, he is struck by the sixteen-year-old girl’s beauty and cannot bring himself to break things off with her. He begins to spend less time at Hélène Bezukhov’s salons and more time with the Rostovs.
Countess Rostov asks Natasha to stop associating with Boris, since it is clear that Boris loves her and Natasha doesn’t reciprocate. Natasha is reluctant to stop spending time with him, even though she agrees that he would make a bad husband. Against Natasha’s wishes, Countess Rostov asks Boris to stop visiting their house.
The Rostovs hurriedly prepare to attend a grand New Year’s Eve ball, Natasha’s first. They are attending with Countess Rostov’s old friend, Marya Ignatievna Peronsky.
At the ball, Mme Peronsky identifies for the Rostovs all the important people of St. Petersburg: Pierre, Prince Andrei, Princess Marya, Boris Drubetskoy, and others.
The dancing begins and Natasha nearly cries when no one asks her to dance to the first few songs. Pierre notices her unhappiness and asks Prince Andrei to dance with her, which he does. Although Natasha is not as glamorous as the older women at the ball, Andrei is charmed by her grace and beauty.
After Natasha dances with Andrei, she has a surplus of partners and dances for the rest of the night. She and Andrei have a delightful conversation when she takes a break, and Andrei daydreams about marrying her. Meanwhile, Pierre sulks because Hélène is such a success at the ball and no one is paying attention to him. Natasha speaks with Pierre briefly about his sour mood.
Later, Prince Andrei attends a business dinner at Speransky’s house, but no business is attended to. Instead, the men joke and chat for the whole evening. Prince Andrei is disenchanted with Speransky and disgusted with the inefficiency of government work.
One night, Prince Andrei goes to the Rostov house for dinner and falls even more in love with Natasha, whose simplicity is so rare in Petersburg high society. It is her singing that most strikes him. But when he gets home, he recommits himself to a serious life and contemplates going abroad.
At their new home, Lieutenant Berg (now a colonel) and Vera Rostov hold a soirée in imitation of those they have attended before. Although the newlyweds have a competitive relationship and tend to bicker, the evening starts out well.
Vera makes Prince Andrei uncomfortable by subtly probing him about his feelings for Natasha. She mentions that Natasha is flighty and may not be ready for true love. Pierre observes this and tries to help Prince Andrei out, but the other guests keep distracting him.
Countess Rostov and Natasha suspect that Andrei will propose imminently. They are both happy with and frightened by the prospect of this excellent marriage. Meanwhile, Andrei confides in Pierre that he intends to marry Natasha, a development that saddens Pierre even as he tries to support his friend.
Later, Prince Andrei travels to Bald Hills for three weeks to ask his father’s permission to marry. The elder Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky advises Andrei to wait a year before marrying Natasha to ensure that his feelings are real. Andrei agrees to a one-year engagement, which he will keep secret so that Natasha can change her mind without repercussions. Back in Petersburg, Prince Andrei proposes to Natasha, who eagerly accepts. Although the one-year engagement initially upsets her, she agrees to tolerate the delay.
Prince Andrei gets along amicably with the Rostovs, although his relationship with Natasha is sometimes awkward. He goes abroad, but encourages Natasha and Sonya to confide in Pierre if they need help with anything. Natasha grows quite ill upon his departure, which worries her family, but she recovers within a few weeks.
Princess Marya Bolkonsky writes to Julie Karagin, consoling her for over her brother’s recent death. Marya has always secretly hoped that Julie will marry her brother Andrei. She writes that there is no truth to the rumors Julie has heard about Andrei marrying Natasha. Meanwhile, Prince Nikolai's health is continuing to decline, which puts added pressure on Marya.
Andrei writes to Princess Marya, revealing his engagement and asking her to talk to their father about shortening the engagement by three months. The elder Prince Nikolai responds sarcastically and cruelly - the same tone he has used with Marya over the past few years. Marya wants to join the people of God, the itinerant beggars she hosted earlier in the novel. She buys the appropriate clothes, but can’t bring herself to leave her father and nephew.
In this section, the narrative is driven more explicitly than ever before by the question of how to live a good life. For most of the characters, the measures they have taken in the first third of the book to achieve success and happiness have not panned out. Pierre has made little progress in his quest for spiritual fulfillment, and his efforts to help his peasants remain insubstantial. Prince Andrei becomes disenchanted with his attempts at professional success, in both the military and the legislative branch of the government. And Princess Marya enjoys taking care of her nephew, the young Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, but still feels unfulfilled religiously.
Each of these characters takes drastic measures to improve his or her life, but Tolstoy always foreshadows, implicitly or explicitly, that these efforts will make little difference. Pierre tries to bring Masonic principles into his life by nurturing the romance between Prince Andrei and Natasha Rostov, even though he seems to have feelings of his own for the young woman. Andrei pursues a relationship with a woman half his age, hoping that her youthful naïveté will help rejuvenate his enthusiasm for life. Princess Marya contemplates joining the people of God.
However, these attempts each get off to a rocky start – Pierre cannot stifle his feelings for Natasha; Andrei is unwilling to accept his father’s very reasonable objections to the marriage; Marya ultimately cannot leave her grouchy father and young nephew. Through these botched attempts at change, Tolstoy suggests that real change is controlled by fate and cannot be influenced by human efforts. What is explored then, is not any proposed solution to these dilemmas, but rather the human struggle against our limitations.
Their inability to find true fulfillment can also be understood in terms of the recurring conflict between material and spiritual life. The issue in some ways is that we cannot be solely of one or other realm, but instead that each realm will counteract our attempts in the other. For instance, Pierre wants so desperately to find a happiness worthy of his spiritual longing, but cannot control his animal impulses towards women and drink. Therefore, he commits more and more fully towards the Masonic rituals, not because they themselves hold the answer, but instead because they allow him to renounce his material life. Andrei, likewise, has decided to rejoin the material world, which gives him important stimulus, but he is quickly turned off by its pettiness. He is torn either way, and even his noblest attempts - to help usher reform - are ceded by the reality of bureaucracy and government.
The one character who begins to indicate a middle ground is Natasha. Tolstoy does a marvelous job of introducing the character by degrees, so that she becomes more and more central to the narrative as it progresses, even though she has been around from the beginning. What she has that seems to enchant both of the central characters is an ability to find a spirit in life, to project spiritual fulfillment not by renouncing the material world but by diving headlong into it. One could argue that this ability is what draws Andrei towards her, since he himself is seeking just such a synthesis. Notice how her illness - brought about by her fiancee leaving her alone - cannot triumph over her indomitable spirit, which loves life too much to be kept down.
Throughout this section, the romantic drama plays out against a background of political reform. Although Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is a fictional character, the people he interacts with on the reform committee, and the issues they discuss, are historically accurate. In 1805, the Russian system of government had been unchanged since the rule of Peter the Great, one hundred years before. Most of the state functions were carried out by inefficient committees whose duties often overlapped.
Moreover, most government employees were members of the nobility, given jobs as a sign of the tsar’s favor rather than based on qualifications. Tsar Alexander attempted to make changes to the structure of government as well as the procedure by which government employees were hired – this is the examination that Andrei discusses with Speransky. However many of these changes were abandoned when Russia re-declared war on France in 1810. (Silvester) Tolstoy achieves a great effect in merging the fictional desires of his characters - their spiritual longing - into the realities of political reform, again stressing implicitly the way that every individual can have an influence on the world around him.