After returning to his regiment in 1807, Nikolai Rostov spends the next three years there, avoiding home because life is simpler in the military. He eventually returns home in 1810 when Countess Rostov writes him a letter begging him to come help get the family’s financial affairs in order. He also learns from the letter about Natasha’s engagement to Prince Andrei, and is dubious about whether their marriage will succeed.
When Nikolai arrives home, he berates the family steward, Mitenka, whom he suspects of embezzling the family’s money. However, Mitenka seems to be innocent. Despite his bluster, Nikolai fails to do anything substantial to help the family finance and instead devotes his energy to hunting.
Nikolai decides to go hunting for wolves. Natasha and young Pyotr insist on joining him.
Natasha impresses everyone with her hunting ability. The aging Count Rostov makes an error that costs the hunting party a large wolf.
After Count Rostov lets the wolf escape, it heads toward Nikolai, whose dogs kill it after a long and vicious struggle.
The party discovers a poacher, who turns out to be employed by Ilagin, a neighboring nobleman who has a tendency to hunt on the Rostovs’ land. When confronted, Ilagin graciously apologizes and invites everyone to hunt in his park. The male hunters grow competitive and chase a hare, hoping to see who has the fastest dog. A poor, eccentric uncle of the Rostov children has the winning dog.
The unnamed uncle invites the Rostov children to spend the night at his house. They agree, and have a wonderful time at the uncle’s small, spartan estate. They sing, dance, and play the balalaika with the uncle’s housekeeper and manservant. Count and Countess Rostov send a messenger to bring the children home (they hadn’t told their parents they were spending the night). On their way out, Nikolai and Natasha agree that this was one of the happiest and most peaceful nights of their lives.
The Rostov finances grow worse and worse, but they do nothing to alter their lifestyle. Countess Rostov realizes that the only way to save the family from bankruptcy is for Nikolai to marry the wealthy Julie Karagin. When the Countess makes overtures about this to Nikolai, he sharply rebuffs her, suggesting that he might still love Sonya. Meanwhile, Natasha grows depressed after Andrei writes that he will return later than expected.
It is Christmastime at the Rostov house. Natasha is moody and bored, and cannot wait for Prince Andrei’s return.
Natasha, Nikolai, and Sonya chat about boredom, depression, and the origins of life. Later, they attend a masquerade ball where the guests are expected to dress as mummers (i.e., in drag). Oddly, Sonya looks more beautiful than ever in her outfit, and Nikolai once again thinks to himself that he loves her. They ride to the party in sleighs and get lost in the forest, a moment which brings them pure joy.
At the party, Sonya heads out to the barn to get her fortune told. Nikolai goes with her and kisses her on the lips on the way there.
Nikolai confides in Natasha that he plans to propose to Sonya. That night, Natasha and Sonya try to see visions in their mirror, an old fortune-telling practice. Natasha sees nothing, but Sonya sees a vision of Prince Andrei lying down and smiling cheerfully. The girls are frightened and have no idea what it means.
Nikolai tells his parents that he plans to marry Sonya. They disapprove, especially the countess. He leaves for his regiment, but his announcement has sown tension and discord amongst the family. Natasha begins to resent Prince Andrei for his long absence. The family travels to Moscow to prepare for Natasha’s wedding.
This section provides the longest and most focused examination of youthful attitudes in the transitional period that the novel details. Focused on the young Rostov children, it explores the same themes as earlier - search for spiritual fulfillment, the simplicity of life vs. the complications of society, and the difficulties of relationships - though now through characters who possess less sophistication and complications than their older counterparts in the previous sections.
The hunting chapters in this section come as a peaceful interlude to the tense interpersonal drama that comes before and after. Tolstoy was heavily influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French philosopher who argued that people are happiest in a “state of nature”––that is, far from civilization and obeying their natural instincts. Tolstoy alludes to Rousseau explicitly earlier in the novel, when Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky compares his daughter’s correspondence with Julie Karagin to Julie: ou la nouvelle Héloïse, an epistolary novel by that author.
In some ways, the simplicity that the younger people find in nature, and particularly at the uncle's estate, is an argument for the simplicity that makes Natasha so attractive to Andrei and Pierre in the previous section. It is possible to love one's life without renouncing civilization, provided the person can find spirituality in simplicity. Nikolai has thus far manifested a less sophisticated version of the conflict that plagues Andrei and Pierre: he is frightened and disgusted by the ways of society, and so retreats to the order of the military, which he sees as somewhat like a game. He cannot find happiness, as reflected by his ever-changing feelings about whom he loves. And yet he finds great joy in the simplicity of singing, dancing and nature, a lesson that Tolstoy seems to support.
Intriguer or not, the way Sonya attracts Nikolai’s attention is unusual and deserves further analysis. For the Melyukovs’ masquerade party, Sonya dresses up as a Circassian soldier, complete with thick eyebrows and a fake mustache. However, she looks more beautiful than ever in this silly, masculine outfit, which inspires Nikolai to fall for her all over again. This isn’t the first time that Tolstoy toys with gender in Sonya and Nikolai’s relationship. At the beginning of the novel, Nikolai is described as pale, delicate, and even frail – all traditionally feminine qualities. His personality reinforces this; he tends to romanticize the military and be swept away by his emotions — for example, during the patriotic toast and when he misses a chance to help the tsar. Fairly or not, dreaminess and vulnerability to emotions were traits commonly associated with women in the nineteenth century.
Likewise, Tolstoy often masculinizes Sonya. He repeatedly emphasizes her lack of sex appeal in comparison with Natasha, even as they are dressing for this party, Sonya reflects sadly on the fact that she will never be as radiant as her younger cousin. Instead of Natasha’s over-the-top femininity, Sonya is characterized by her steadfast fidelity to Nikolai and her tendency to stay cloistered on the Rostov estate. While these qualities aren’t necessarily masculine, they are associated with the monastic lifestyle, which is aggressively asexual.
In this section, Tolstoy continues to critique love and marriage. Compared to the courtships we have seen thus far, the union of Nikolai and Sonya seems superior. Unlike Marya and Anatole, or Vera and Lieutenant Berg, money is never a consideration in their relationship. Nor is it especially impulsive, like Natasha’s engagement to Prince Andrei. Although Nikolai rekindles his feelings rather suddenly, he has been in a relationship with Sonya for years and knows her as well as his closer family.
Yet, Tolstoy suggests that Nikolai is only in love “as it seemed to him” (533). He also suggests that the marriage is inauspicious by pointing out the tension it causes in the Rostov family, even among people — like Natasha and Count Rostov — who aren’t against the marriage. It is possible to interpret Nikolai's insistence on pursuing Sonya as a type of rebellion against his family and the society they wish to be a part of, and which he has no taste for. In this way, it could be argued to be ironically driven by financial concerns as well. For Tolstoy, all romantic relationships are nerve-wracking commitments fraught with opportunities for failure, especially when they must interact with strict social expectations and attitudes about marriage.