Both because of his friend Andrei's engagement and because of the vacuous parties his wife throws, Pierre feels he hasn’t accomplished anything meaningful in life. Moreover, he is disturbed by the state of the world, in which people are driven by self-interest. He begins to turn to alcohol and low company to relieve his depression. He also moves alone to Moscow on the advice of a acquaintance who thinks his loose lifestyle might embarrass his wife.
Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, Princess Marya, Mlle Bourienne, and baby Prince Nikolai all head to Moscow to prepare for Andrei’s wedding. Marya is miserable. She has no friends and never gets invited anywhere, and she finds that she no longer has much in common with Julie Karagin. Prince Nikolai begins to flirt rather seriously with Mlle Bourienne, something that he has joked about in the past. He does this partly because he is senile and partly to spite Marya.
The elder Prince Nikolai refuses to cooperate with his doctor. Later, he holds a small name-day party, where the guests discuss politics. It becomes clear that the nobility is becoming dissatisfied with Tsar Alexander and has mixed feelings about the French.
Princess Marya is so preoccupied with her deteriorating relationship with her father that she doesn’t notice that Boris Drubetskoy is trying to court her. Pierre warns her that Boris is only interested in money and is also courting Julie Karagin. Marya confides in him her anxieties about Andrei’s marriage and about her own matrimonial prospects.
Boris genuinely likes and prefers Marya Bolkonsky, but he feels more at ease with Julie Karagin. At twenty-seven, Julie is something of an old maid. Between this and the loss of her brother, she is deeply depressed. Boris tries to relate to her but has trouble because of her melancholy attitude. When he hears that Anatole Kuragin is pursuing Julie, he proposes to her out of a competitive impulse, although he knows he doesn’t love her. She accepts.
When they arrive in Moscow, Count Rostov, Sonya, and Natasha stay with Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimov, the blunt noblewoman from Part I. Count Rostov also needs to sell some property he has in Moscow in order to provide a dowry for his daughter. Marya Dmitrievna advises Natasha to deal with her father-in-law “nicely and cleverly” (554), and to likewise be kind to Princess Marya. Natasha would rather not think about these issues, preferring to daydream about Prince Andrei.
Natasha’s first meeting with her future in-laws is a disaster. Marya is put off by Natasha’s youthful and flighty appearance, and Natasha, sensing this, responds with her own disdain. To make matters worse, the elder Prince Nikolai accidentally comes out in his pajamas because he forgot that Natasha was there. When he returns nicely dressed, she leaves rather quickly and spends the night distraught.
Count Rostov, Natasha, Sonya, and Marya Dmitrievna attend to the opera together. There, they learn about Boris Drubetskoy’s engagement and about Dolokhov’s recent doings – he has deserted his regiment and became involved in court intrigues in Persia.
After her time in the country, Natasha finds the opera “pretentiously false and unnatural” (561). She meets Anatole Kuragin for the first time. Hélène Bezukhov invites Natasha and Sonya to sit in her box.
Anatole joins the women in his sister’s box. Natasha feels uncontrollably attracted to him.
As it turns out, Anatole secretly married a peasant girl while he was in Poland, and paid off her father for permission to pass himself off as a bachelor. Anatole confides in Dolokhov about his attraction to Natasha.
Marya Dmitrievna visits Count Rostov to discuss Natasha, but neither will reveal the subject to the young girl, who is annoyed in addition to depressed about her fiance's absence. Hélène Bezukhov visits Natasha and invites her to a soirée she is holding. She also genially reveals that Anatole is in love with Natasha.
At Hélène’s soirée, Anatole dances with Natasha and desperately reveals his love for her. Natasha says nothing and leaves with her father, but that night she decides that she loves both Anatole and Prince Andrei.
Marya Dmitrievna suggests that the Rostovs return to their country estate so that the Bolkonsky family can sort out their feelings about the marriage. Princess Marya Bolkonsky sends Natasha a letter apologizing for having received her poorly. Natasha is torn between Prince Andrei and Anatole Kuragin. When she receives a love letter from Anatole (actually composed by Dolokhov), she decides that she must be with him.
Sonya discovers Anatole’s love letter and confronts Natasha about it. Natasha insists that the love between her and Anatole is real. Sonya is horrified. Natasha responds to Princess Marya’s letter by explaining that she is taking advantage of Andrei's promise of full freedom, and breaking the engagement. The next time they visit Hélène, Sonya notices Natasha having a private conversation with Anatole. She deduces that Natasha is about to elope and vows to stop her.
Meanwhile, Anatole has been plotting to elope with Natasha and to go abroad. Dolokhov has made all the practical arrangements for this, although he warns Anatole that it’s a terrible idea. Anatole insists on proceeding, and the men ride a troika to Marya Dmitrievna’s house, where Natasha is staying. She has made plans to meet them on the back porch.
When they arrive at the house, two of Marya Dmitrievna’s man-servants are waiting. They try to force Anatole to come in and face the lady of the house. Anatole and Dolokhov narrowly escape.
As it turns out, Marya Dmitrievna heard about the elopement plans from Sonya, and then confirmed them by intercepting a note from Natasha to Anatole. When she hears that the men have escaped, she reprimands Natasha. She decides the best course of action is to keep the news from Count Rostov, who would be crushed and would likely challenge Anatole to a duel. When he gets home from his business on another estate, Count Rostov suspects something is amiss but doesn’t question the women’s story about Natasha being ill.
Marya Dmitrievna asks Pierre for his help in convincing Anatole to leave Moscow, which she believes will prevent violence. Pierre tells her and Natasha about Anatole’s Polish wife. Although Count Rostov doesn’t know about Anatole, he does know that Natasha has refused Prince Andrei and is disappointed that she didn’t consult her parents first.
Pierre furiously orders Anatole to leave Moscow and never speak about his affair with Natasha. He gives Anatole money for the road and the next day, Anatole leaves for St. Petersburg.
After finding out that Anatole is married, Natasha tries to poison herself with arsenic, but quickly wishes she didn’t. Fortunately, she gets medical attention in time. Pierre tries to quell rumors about the attempted elopement, which have spread around Moscow. When Prince Andrei returns from Europe, Pierre visits him and tries to convince him to make a second proposal to Natasha. However, Andrei cannot forgive his former fiancée and refuses to entertain this idea. He asks Pierre to return the letters Natasha wrote him.
Pierre returns the letters and comforts the distraught Natasha, who begs for Andrei’s forgiveness although she knows they will never be together now. Satisfied that he was able to resist his own desire for Natasha and treat her with platonic tenderness, Pierre goes home in a somber but happy mood. On his way, he sees the Great Comet of 1811.
Tolstoy narrows the plot’s scope in this section, focusing almost exclusively on Natasha’s dalliance with Anatole Kuragin. However, the first and last chapters deal with Pierre’s moral crisis and its resolution, which suggests that Natasha’s brush with disaster isn’t the truly important part of this section. Rather, Natasha’s problems give Pierre an opportunity to prove to himself that he has the potential to be a moral man. Pierre’s lifestyle offers plenty of opportunities for gluttony and carousing, but few opportunities to be virtuous. By refusing to take advantage of Natasha’s vulnerable emotional state, Pierre denies himself something he wants for perhaps the first time in his life, and puts morality ahead of his individual desires.
Through Pierre, Anatole, and Dolokhov, Tolstoy shows that morality is not just about making good decisions. He also suggests that circumstances make it easier for some people to be moral than others. He explicitly describes Anatole as having good intentions; he is someone who simply does not understand the repercussions that his lifestyle has on other people. Because he is so good-natured and of such high birth, people indulge him and do not call him out on bad behavior. Anatole, then, does not understand that he is ruining Natasha’s life – he believes that eloping with her is morally neutral, and thus his skewed sense of morality is as much the fault of bystanders as it is his own.
Speaking of bystanders, Dolokhov plays an equally important role in this section’s moral calculus. Dolokhov’s actions seem contradictory. On the one hand, he facilitates the elopement and goes out of his way to ensure that Anatole and Natasha won’t be caught. He even shows Anatole how to put on Natasha’s coat quickly so she won’t be tempted to go back and get her own coat (and in doing so, have second thoughts). However, he also genuinely tries to discourage his friend from going through with the elopement. He points out the danger of retaliation from the Rostovs, as well as the likelihood that they will be bankrupt after a year or so. In other words, he understands the moral transgression that Anatole is committing, but does not endeavor actively to stop it. Although Dolokhov has the right idea, his belief that young men should do exactly as they want supersedes his moral (or practical) sensibilities.
The fact that Dolokhov plays such an ancillary role in the whole affair – he could easily have been left out by Tolstoy – suggests that he plays a crucial role in the section thematically. Through his involvement, Tolstoy demonstrates that recognizing the moral thing to do isn’t enough; people must actively intervene when they see others making wrong decisions. Dolokhov’s behavior contrasts with that of Marya Dmitrievna. Although she has no personal stake in the Rostovs’ fortunes, she takes charge and prevents the elopement in order to save Natasha and her family from humiliation and possible violence.
Natasha grows up significantly in this section. Her simple joys in life no longer dominate her; she has confronted the cruelty and pettiness of society, and is hurt all the worse for having never given them much credence before. Her attraction to Andrei is ironically ridiculous; we realize how little they have in common, and how poorly their meetings go, and yet she is desperate for him. Sensing the chance to be an adult is exciting to her, but in indulging in those emotions, she discovers their complications and is so unfit to counter those emotions that she commits suicide, a moral lapse for anyone but especially for a character so fond of life thus far in the novel. Through Natasha's fall in this section does Tolstoy make his most harsh denunciations about the cruelty that humans are capable of in "peace" as well as "war."
The end of this section includes one of the novel’s most famous scenes, in which Pierre sees the Great Comet of 1811. This comet was a real astronomical occurrence; it was extremely bright and was visible for 260 days in 1811 and early 1812 (Comet Primer). When Tolstoy mentions that the comet portended the end of the world, he is referring to the popular belief that the comet was a bad omen. In retrospect, many people believed that the comet was a sign of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (Olson et al. 138). In War and Peace, it becomes a symbol of the happiness and inner peace that Pierre finds after dedicating himself to platonic and selfless love for Natasha. It further serves as something of a metaphor for Tolstoy's expansive ambition - he wishes to relate both the movements of the heavens and the inner workings of individuals, and in Pierre's reflections, we get one of many indications of how every element of life is in interplay with other elements.