In St. Petersburg, Anna Pavlovna Scherer holds another soirée. The guests trade rumors about Hélène Bezukhov’s sudden illness, said to be angina pectoris. According to the rumors, Hélène refuses to see anyone and uses an Italian doctor instead of a Russian one.
St. Petersburg rejoices prematurely when they hear that Russia has won the battle of Borodino, and everyone is upset when this turns out to be untrue. Hélène Bezukhov dies of her illness, although rumors spread that she killed herself because of her romantic problems.
An envoy brings Tsar Alexander the news that Moscow has been lost. Alexander emotionally vows never to surrender.
Nikolai Rostov is stationed in the provinces, and enjoys the attention he gets as a dashing officer from the big city. He is invited to a soirée at the provincial governor’s house, where he impresses everyone. He flirts with an official’s wife, to the husband’s irritation.
At the soirée, the hostess introduces Nikolai to Princess Marya’s aunt, who has heard about his gallant rescue of her niece. The hostess offers to arrange a marriage between Nikolai and Princess Marya. Although he is initially reluctant because of his promise to Sonya, Nikolai tacitly agrees to let the hostess start the process.
Nikolai visits Marya, who is living in the same province with her family. He feels an irresistible chemistry with her. Although he still has misgivings because of Sonya, he allows the hostess to move forward in arranging the marriage. He finds that, in his everyday life, his only pleasures come from his thoughts of her.
Nikolai sees Marya again at church. He prays to be released from his promise to Sonya, and just then, a letter arrives from her doing just that. He also gets a letter from his mother, which mentions that Prince Andrei is with the Rostovs and recovering from his wound. Nikolai relates this news to Princess Marya, who was otherwise preparing to set off to determine what had become of him.
Tolstoy reveals that Sonya sent the letter to Nikolai because Countess Rostov asked her to.
Pierre is being held prisoner by the French, who are interrogating him. He waits to hear whether he will be court-martialed.
Pierre is brought in for a second interrogation. The officer, Davout, seems willing to believe his story about rescuing Captain Ramballe, but when an adjutant interrupts the interrogation, Davout absent-mindedly orders Pierre to be taken away – apparently to be executed.
As it turns out, Pierre is not sentenced to death – he is just part of a group of prisoners that watches as some other prisoners are executed.
The French hold Pierre overnight in a ruined church, where he talks with Platon Karataev – a humble, religious fellow prisoner. Platon’s simplicity and kindness inspires Pierre.
Pierre is held prisoner for four weeks. He continues to admire Platon, with whom he has long talks.
Princess Marya visits the Rostovs, who are still taking care of her brother. When she arrives, Natasha tearfully informs her that Prince Andrei has gotten worse.
Prince Andrei is on his deathbed. Although he has lost interest in worldly life, he advises Marya to marry Nikolai Rostov.
Prince Andrei tells Natasha that he loves her, and then dies shortly thereafter.
This relatively short section focuses on how people experience death. At the beginning of the section, Tolstoy shows how death affects the living by exploring Petersburg society’s reaction to Hélène Bezukhov’s sudden illness. We never see Hélène’s point of view; we only learn about her illness by sifting through the conflicting rumors about her abrupt disappearance from society.
These rumors demonstrate two important reactions that people often have to death: panic and victim-blaming. The people at Anna Pavlovna’s soirée overreact to minor details of Hélène’s case, such as the fact that she is using an Italian doctor. Although they try to seem nonplussed, it is clear that Hélène’s imminent death has sown tension and fear among her friends. When it is clear that Hélène will not recover, her friends assume that her illness and death are a consequence of her machinations to get out of her marriage – a logical jump that makes her sudden demise more comprehensible.
In Pierre’s plot, Tolstoy explores the human response to death in much more detail. Pierre’s lengthy internal monologue in the execution yard reveals the death penalty to be a travesty that helps no one. Tolstoy emphasizes that the act of killing another person is nearly as horrible for the killer as it is for the victim. Despite his panic, Pierre finds peace in this realization, and refrains from blaming anyone for what he believes will be his impending execution. Instead, he sadly wonders who has caused this tragic state of affairs.
Pierre only finds renewal when he meets Platon Karataev in prison. Platon impresses Pierre with his simplicity, his wholehearted faith in God, and most importantly, his meek acceptance of death. As Platon explains, if he were not forced to risk his life as a soldier, his brother would have to, and this would be more of his tragedy because his brother has four children. By accepting the possibility of his death and trying to see the good in it, Platon becomes a role model for Pierre. His way of living allows Pierre to forget his earlier need for a heroic death and instead to focus on helping those around him.
Tolstoy closes the section with one more image of how people respond to death. Prince Andrei’s detached internal monologue reveals his inner resignation and gradual acceptance of death. The reactions of his family and friends to his passing is perhaps more relevant. Tolstoy notes that each character mourns for a different reason, and none of them are mourning only because they have lost Andrei. Marya cries because Nikolushka will grow up without a father; Sonya and Countess Rostov cry for Natasha; Count Rostov cries because he will soon die too. This moment illustrates how even when faced with the enormity of death, people tend to respond to how the death affects themselves and those around them – and not necessarily to the loss of the individual. Even in extreme circumstances, people consider the needs of themselves and their family first.
Finally, the one element of this section not concerned with death is the growing love between Nikolai Rostov and Marya. Though these two would have been terribly-matched had they met in earlier volumes, Nikolai's personal growth has prepared him to admire her near-saintliness. The way that Marya suffers for others, gives of herself even when prompted not to, and attempts to live morally in all ways all appeal to Nikolai, whose earlier passions have been quashed by the realities not only of war (which is ugly) but also of society (which is depraved, a lesson he learned through his gambling problems). Marya's simplicity touches on what he experienced during his sojourn in nature with his siblings long before, and in this way, the couple is now perfectly matched.