Napoleon’s armies draw closer to Moscow, an event that neither emperor expected. Prince Bagration continues to disagree with the country’s military strategy.
At Bald Hills, the elder Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky continues to treat Marya badly, although he also breaks away from Mlle Bourienne. A letter from Andrei warns them that the war is going badly and that the front may soon approach Bald Hills, but the elderly Prince Nikolai can’t believe it and only wants to focus on his construction plan for a new building.
The elder Prince Nikolai works on his will, reminisces about his life, and looks forward to death.
The Bolkonskys send a servant, Yakov Alpatych, to Smolensk to determine whether they will need to evacuate Bald Hills. Shortly after Alpatych arrives, the French begin ruthlessly bombing the city. In the ensuing panic, Alpatych runs into Prince Andrei, who is defending Smolensk with his regiment. Andrei gives him a note ordering Marya and his father to leave Bald Hills at once. Smolensk is lost.
The Bolkonskys leave for Bogucharovo (Prince Andrei’s country estate). Prince Andrei rides ahead of his regiment so that he can see Bald Hills, and he is depressed at the sight of the empty estate. This melancholy turns to revulsion when his regiment arrives and stays there. Meanwhile, Prince Bagration writes to central command expressing his displeasure that the troops retreated from Smolensk so easily.
In St. Petersburg, Prince Vassily continues to attend salons, hosted by both Anna Pavlovna Scherer and his daughter Hélène. General Kutuzov is named commander in chief of the military. Unlike most of the salon guests, Vassily supports the promotion.
Lavrushka (Captain Denisov’s servant from Volume I) has been taken prisoner by the French. He speaks to Napoleon, who doesn’t realize that Lavrushka recognizes him. Lavrushka misleads Napoleon by saying that the French will only take Moscow if they attack in the next three days.
The Bolkonskys flee to Bogucharovo with the hopes of eventually evacuating to Moscow. Prince Andrei’s son Nikolai is sent to Moscow immediately, but Marya and her father are delayed because the elder Prince Nikolai has a stroke. On his deathbed, he poignantly apologizes to Marya for treating her so badly. Marya forgives him and is devastated when he has a second stroke and dies.
The peasants at Bogucharovo plan to defect to the French when the enemy armies arrive, but Alpatych convinces them not to.
Mlle Bourienne urges Princess Marya to stay at Bogucharovo and beg protection from the French. Marya doesn’t want to do this, but when she tries to leave, she finds there are no horses. Dron, the estate headman, informs her that the peasants have no grain. Marya orders him to give the peasants her own grain, unaware that the peasants are at that very moment considering defection. Dron, who doesn’t want to defect, gets teary-eyed and asks Marya if he can resign.
Princess Marya announces to the peasants that she will give them her grain and anything else they need to stay comfortable – and that they should evacuate to Moscow for their own safety. The peasants angrily refuse, preferring “devastation” (728) by the French to serving as peasants any longer. Marya comes off as confused and out of touch with her peasants’ needs, despite her compassion.
Marya contemplates her father’s death late into the night and wonders if he said all he needed to before he died.
Nikolai Rostov and Ilyin are in the Russian rear guard near Bogucharovo. They head to that estate to see if there is any hay they can appropriate for their regiment. When they arrive, they discover that the peasants are holding Princess Marya prisoner and refuse to let her flee to Moscow. Nikolai is appalled and, through threats to the peasants, promises to escort her off her estate.
Nikolai takes charge and helps Marya escape from Bogucharovo. She thanks him tenderly and the two begin to fall in love, although Nikolai feels conflicted because of his promise to marry Sonya.
Prince Andrei and Captain Denisov visit General Kutuzov to discuss strategy. However, Kutuzov doesn’t listen to their advice because he prefers to make decisions by intuition. He is also extremely old and has trouble focusing on the details of their ideas.
Kutuzov invites Prince Andrei to join his detachment, but Prince Andrei once again declines a promotion in order to stay with his army regiment. Despite Kutuzov’s age and sentimentality, Andrei goes away with a favorable impression of the general.
The nobility wants to flee Moscow, but Julie Karagin (now Drubetskoy) holds one last soirée before they do. At the soirée, Julie teases Pierre about his love for Natasha and tells him that Natasha has been cheerful lately – she seems to have got over Anatole. The guests also gossip about Princess Marya’s potential romance with Nikolai Rostov.
By volunteering so many of his peasants for military service, Pierre has overextended his finances. He sees a French cook being flogged publicly for spying, and is moved by the pathetic spectacle. He leaves Moscow and is struck by a need for self-sacrifice.
Tolstoy interrupts the story to critique the French and Russian strategies in the battle of Borodino. He argues that both sides made colossal mistakes and should have avoided the battle.
As Pierre flees Moscow, he encounters a large detachment of troops, many of whom are wounded. A doctor tells him that they expect 20,000 more wounded men after the battle the next day. Pierre is upset by this suffering, and is even more affected when he sees a corps of peasant soldiers merrily marching to battle several hours later.
From a hill, Pierre watches the troops assemble for the battle of Borodino. He tags along as the officers attend a church service in preparation for the battle.
Pierre asks to participate in the battle, so Boris Drubetskoy gives him a tour of the camp. The men chat briefly with Kutuzov and Dolokhov.
Boris and Pierre visit the left flank. Kutuzov and Count Bennigsen have miscommunicated about the correct location of a particular regiment. Count Bennigsen moves the regiment because he does not realize it is there to ambush the French. Pierre is bored and does not understand what is going on.
Prince Andrei thinks he will die in the battle the next day, and bitterly contemplates his life. Pierre visits him, and Andrei treats him hostilely, even though he brings the news that the Bolkonskys have safely arrived at their Moscow estate.
Pierre, Prince Andrei, and Timokhin argue about military strategy and whether Barclay de Tolly (Kutuzov’s predecessor) was a good army commander. After Pierre and Timokhin leave, Andrei reminisces about Natasha, which makes him feel sick.
An envoy from Paris brings Napoleon a portrait of his young son.
Napoleon inspects the terrain and writes up a battle plan. Tolstoy criticizes the plan for its impracticality.
Some historians argue that Russia won the battle of Borodino simply because Napoleon had a cold that day. Tolstoy disagrees with this theory because (as he’s said before) history is predestined and cannot be influenced by one individual, no matter how powerful.
Napoleon talks to an adjutant and the envoy from Paris. He shows genuine interest in his men’s welfare. The next morning, the battle begins.
When Pierre wakes up, he is overwhelmed by the sensory overload of the battle. He follows a general to the battlefield without quite realizing what he’s doing, to the amusement of the soldiers.
Pierre rides around the battlefield getting underfoot. Although this annoys the soldiers at first, they eventually come to see him as a kind of mascot. On an adjutant’s advice, Pierre wanders to a hill that will become the center of the battle. He is horrified when he sees soldiers getting killed. An explosion knocks him out.
Pierre accidentally captures a French officer, who promptly escapes. The Russians rally and chase the French away from Pierre’s area.
Tolstoy interrupts Pierre’s narrative to describe the course of the battle more broadly. He attributes the bloodshed to bad strategy on Napoleon’s part and the general chaos and disorganization of battle.
Napoleon becomes frustrated, and doesn’t understand why the Russians are winning the battle.
Even though the Russians are winning, General Kutuzov is disengaged from the battle. He responds angrily when told that the troops are in disarray.
The French destroy much of Prince Andrei’s regiment. He considers letting himself be killed but decides that despite everything, he still loves life. Just then, he is wounded in the stomach.
Andrei drifts in and out of consciousness in the hospital. He sees Anatole Kuragin, who has lost a leg. Touched by Anatole’s pain, Andrei forgives him for his affair with Natasha.
When he realizes how many Frenchmen have been killed in the battle, Napoleon is devastated. He feels responsible for the slaughter.
Tens of thousands of men lie dead on the battlefield. Tolstoy explains that neither side came away with moral superiority; even for the French, it was a Pyrrhic victory.
Pierre’s participation in the battle of Borodino is one of the novel’s most famous scenes, and it is in some ways its centerpiece. Unlike many of the novel’s subplots, Tolstoy is ambiguous about whether Pierre’s short-lived military career is comic or tragic. There are certainly elements of both modes here. Pierre evokes Don Quixote as he wanders confusedly around the battlefield and keeps stumbling inadvertently into the most violent areas. However, the episode takes a decidedly tragic turn when Pierre sees men being killed and recognizes the true horror of war.
Pierre is the third of the main characters to be disillusioned by the realities of war. In early volumes, we saw Prince Andrei and Nikolai Rostov have similar epiphanies. However, war’s perverse attraction still plays an important role in the novel’s middle section. For all the carnage, there are also opportunities for gallantry, as when Nikolai rescues Princess Marya. Similarly, Pierre notices a kind of beauty in Borodino’s sensory overload. Indeed, it is Pierre's lack of fear that ultimately endears him to the battlefield soldiers who are first annoyed with him.
These ambiguities are consistent with Tolstoy’s meditations about whether language and storytelling can really convey war accurately. Near the end of the section, he writes that victory at Borodino “was not the sort of victory that is determined by captured pieces of cloth on sticks, known as standards” (819). Here, he deconstructs traditional notions of patriotism and valor (represented by the standard) and suggests that the conventional terms used to describe war are inadequate.
Tolstoy pairs the battle’s extreme violence with a departure from the style he uses in the rest of the novel. Like many nineteenth-century novels, War and Peace proceeds at a stately pace and is mostly narrated in long, analytical sentences. Tolstoy forgoes this strategy in the Borodino chapters, reverting instead to staccato exclamations, set off in their own brief paragraphs. These unusual sentences tend to appear at the most graphic moments. In just one example, he writes: “The wounded man was shown his cut-off leg in a boot caked with blood!” This stylistic departure evokes the sheer panic of battle.
This section, which further illustrates the broad canvas of the novel and Tolstoy's great ambition to comment on history itself through his historical tale, employs some of the most omniscient narration yet used in the novel. Not only does he spend a significant amount of time not only observing Napoleon but also getting into the fabled emperor's mind, but he writes some sections as though he were a military historian. It is useful to keep remembering that this is best understood not as stylistic break, but rather another attempt to broaden the canvas, to attempt to capture in this novel more than a story or a history, but rather to illustrate the complex workings of the world and heavens altogether. Ironically, this expansively detailed battle serves as microcosm for the book, a fact Tolstoy emphasizes by focusing exclusively on it in this section and through his many authorial interjections.
By this section, War and Peace has now featured two close shaves with suicide. In addition to Natasha’s brush with arsenic poisoning, we now see Prince Andrei as he considers allowing himself to be shot. Both characters decide at the last minute that they want to live despite their current bad situations. The parallel situations suggest that Natasha and Andrei are kindred spirits, since they both respond to their botched engagement the same way. However, the two near-suicides also suggest that they will be able to move on, since neither has lost their fundamental appreciation for life. Another irony in this section is that Pierre is driven towards such destruction by his love and appreciation for life. In order to feel, he goes somewhere that will make him feel terribly. Perhaps this is not his conscious intention for going to the battlefield, but the impulse that draws him there is the same one that leads him to pursue beauty, and we are reminded again that understanding Pierre's spirituality is in many ways the key to understanding the novel.