Nikolai Rostov returns to Moscow on leave, and brings Captain Denisov with him. The Rostovs are overjoyed at Nikolai’s surprise visit. While there, Nikolai decides that he still loves Sonya but that it is probably best not to marry her immediately. This causes awkwardness between them.
Nikolai is very much in demand as a young bachelor. This attention goes to his head and as he begins to consider himself a “dashing hussar” (304), he loses interest in Sonya.
Count Rostov prepares to hold a 300 person banquet in honor of Prince Bagration, who is considered a hero because of his role at Schöngraben. When word of the defeat at Austerlitz reaches Moscow, the nobility are stunned but continue to praise the courage of the troops. Count Rostov hears two additional rumors: 1) That Hélène Kuragin has cheated on Pierre with Dolokhov, and 2) that Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is dead.
The banquet begins. Prince Bagration is uncomfortable with all the attention, especially when a guest reads an original poem about him. There is a long series of emotional toasts.
Pierre, Nikolai Rostov, Dolokhov, Denisov, and Nesvitsky all sit together at the banquet. Pierre feels uncomfortable around Dolokhov because of the rumors of his wife’s affair, even though he does not believe she has been unfaithful. His anxiety is so great that after Dolokhov rudely grabs a pieces of sheet music out of his hands, Pierre challenges him to a duel the following day. Nikolai will serve as Dolokhov’s second, and Nesvitsky as Pierre’s. Nesvitsky and Denisov try to reconcile the two men, but Pierre insists on going through with the duel.
The duel takes place in the woods. Despite his inexperience with guns, Pierre gravely wounds Dolokhov, and immediately feels awful when he sees his adversary dying. Dolokhov reveals a less callous side of himself as he begins to feel genuine sadness over how his ailing mother will die of shock upon seeing his wounds.
Pierre is wracked by guilt, and thinks to himself that Hélène was not worth this trouble, since he does not really love her. Hélène enters his study and berates him, although she denies having the affair. Pierre swings a marble slab at her head but misses. The next day he gives her most of his property in exchange for a divorce and then leaves for St. Petersburg.
News reaches Bald Hills that Prince Andrei is missing. Prince Nikolai assumes his son is dead, but Princess Marya keeps hoping that he will return. They both keep the news from Lise because they fear it will make her miscarry.
Lise goes into labor. Prince Andrei returns from war just as the doctor arrives.
Lise dies giving birth to a boy, Prince Nikolai Andreich Bolkonsky (not to be confused with Prince Nikolai Andreevich Bolkonsky, the new baby’s grandfather and Prince Andrei’s father). He will go by Nikolushka.
Surprisingly, Dolokhov recovers from his wounds. He and Nikolai Rostov become close friends. (Nikolai has been promoted to an administrative position in Moscow for the time being.) Dolokhov spends more and more time at the Rostov house, where Natasha observes that he is in love with Sonya.
Nikolai insists on leaving Moscow and rejoining his regiment. The Rostovs throw a farewell dinner for him, during which Natasha informs him that Dolokhov has proposed to Sonya. Although this is a great match for Sonya, an orphan with no dowry, Nikolai is enraged. He is very pleased to hear that she turned Dolokhov down because she still loves Nikolai.
When Nikolai speaks to Sonya, he says he loves her but cannot promise to marry her, and that she ought to take Dolokhov’s proposal more seriously. Countess Rostov opposes a match between her son and Sonya, and likewise pushes the girl to accept Dolokhov’s offer.
Each year, the dance instructor Iogel holds a ball for his current and former students. The Rostov attends the current ball together, and Denisov tags along. At the ball, Denisov impresses everyone – especially Natasha – with his skill at the mazurka, a Polish dance. He and Natasha spend the rest of the ball at each other’s side.
Bent out of shape by Sonya’s rejection, Dolokhov decides to leave Moscow and return to his regiment. Before leaving, he throws a farewell party for himself. Although Dolokhov has a reputation for cheating at cards, Nikolai Rostov plays with him anyway and loses 1,600 roubles – almost all of his money.
Nikolai keeps gambling and eventually loses 43,000 roubles to a newly callous Dolokhov. As Nikolai is about to leave, Dolokhov implies that he will forgive the debt in exchange for Sonya.
Nikolai returns home to his mother, Natasha, Sonya, Pyotr, and Denisov, all of whom are merrily singing and dancing. Nikolai is devastated that he will soon have to confess his incredible gambling losses, but for just a moment, Natasha’s beautiful singing voice distracts him. Natasha and Denisov are very clearly in love.
Nikolai asks his father to pay the 43,000 roubles. Although he is mortified at his own behavior, Nikolai acts callous and casual, remarking offhand that “it [i.e., gambling debts] happens to everybody” (344). Count Rostov meekly accepts this treatment. Meanwhile, Denisov proposes marriage to Natasha. Countess Rostov is offended because: 1) Denisov did not ask her first, and 2) Natasha is only fifteen. She encourages Natasha to reject the proposal, which the girl reluctantly agrees to do because she knows on some level that she does not love Denisov. Two weeks later, Nikolai pays off his debt to Dolokhov, and then returns to his regiment.
Although the previous sections of War and Peace have included a broad scope of characters and settings, the first part of Volume II is very different. It focuses almost exclusively on the Rostov family, and is structured around Nikolai Rostov’s moral downfall. Tolstoy accompanies this tightened structure with a decrease in length. This section is half the length of the previous sections and its chapters are much shorter—especially at the end of the section. These changes in structure help create the illusion of time hurtling forward more quickly, a shift that reflects the chronology of the events in this section as well as the sense of inevitable doom that hangs over Nikolai’s actions.
In Volume I, Nikolai changes dramatically from the dreamy, innocent young man he seems to be at the Rostovs’ first dinner party. In his first battle, he is terrified and wants nothing to do with war’s carnage. Yet, by the second battle, Nikolai pursues glory as single-mindedly as Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, having been swept up in intense hero-worship of the tsar. However, none of these changes are obviously disgraceful, even if they do show a new aggression and self-aggrandizement.
This changes at the beginning of Volume II. Almost immediately upon coming home, Nikolai loses interest in Sonya, who is still passionately in love with him and oblivious to any change. His desire to give up her pure, innocent love in favor of exploring his options with other women is, in retrospect, the first sign of the moral weakness that will lead him to lose his fortune to Dolokhov. In both scenes, Nikolai’s inability to abstain from traditional male vices – gambling and casual sex – brings him low.
In the few glimpses that this section offers of the other main characters, the plot developments seem to parallel Nikolai’s downward spiral. Lise Meinen and Sonya have a lot in common. Both are attractive women who Tolstoy nevertheless avoids portraying as romantic leads – his repeated references to Lise’s mustache and Sonya’s mood swings ensure that they will never possess the same raw sexual power as Natasha Rostov. Their respective suitors both committed to them as young men and then regretted their decisions. And both have limited hope for a happy future – in Lise’s case, because she cannot leave Bald Hills, and in Sonya’s, because she is an orphan with no money for a dowry. Lise’s death, then, foreshadows the indignities that Sonya will suffer later in the novel, first as Nikolai’s unhappy wife and then as a servant in Nikolai’s home with Princess Marya Bolkonsky.
Although Tolstoy certainly has no qualms about describing his characters explicitly, in this section he relies less on direct description and more on using people’s responses to situations to reveal their characters. Consider, for example, Pierre and Dolokhov’s contrasting attitudes at the beginning of the duel. Dolokhov intentionally projects steely confidence and does not worry much about taking Pierre’s life, a response that shows his callous cruelty as well as his calculating, manipulative streak. Pierre, on the other hand, is shocked by the reality that one person will not come away from the fight alive, and even more so when he sees that he has gravely hurt Dolokhov. Despite the low self-worth that led Pierre to suggest the duel in the first place, he has a sense of human decency that Dolokhov lacks. Likewise, Prince Nikolai and Princess Marya Bolkonsky’s responses to the news that Andrei is missing showcase their different personalities. Prince Nikolai is pessimistic and risk-averse (traits that we also saw in Anatole’s proposal scene), whereas Marya is willing to undergo more suffering later if she can enjoy a glimmer of hope in the moment.
Pierre has grown more and more to be the moral center of the novel. His situation with Hélène parallels the basic conflict he has confronted from the beginning: a spiritual life vs. a material one. He chose poorly when he chose to marry a beautiful, 'respectable' bride, and here pays for it. Part of his disgust at having triumphed in the duel is attributable to his realization that he does not love the woman who ostensibly caused the fight. Further, there is little in the novel to suggest he is overly-concerned about reputation. In other words, in confronting Dolokhov to a duel, he has fallen into a system of expectations, even if the cause, his loveless marriage, is irrelevant. Therefore, it is quite telling that he gives up a significant amount of money in order to purchase his freedom. In doing so, he is acknowledging that spiritual fulfillment is superior to material concerns. He has grown up from the rowdy young man of Volume I, but what both the young and old Pierre have in common is that they are searching for happiness, and attempting to discover how to achieve that - through the world or through the spirit.