Nikolai Rostov finds Marya Bolkonska, newly bereaved, alone and unsupported. The more generous she is to the muzhiks, the more rebellious they are. Their head-man rebels with them, her steward cannot control them. He goes and shouts at them, though he and one soldier are alone in the crowd and they could overwhelm him. They become obedient, and Princess Marya can escape the French, to Moscow.
She finds herself with tender feelings for him, and his comrades josh him about this plain, old maid- in her late twenties! Her luminous gaze makes one forget the plainness of her face, and she is extremely wealthy. Yet he thinks with guilt of Sonia, his parents’ penniless ward, who has loved him since childhood, and to whom he has promised himself. Dolokhov the duellist loved her, but Nikolai encouraged her love enough to make her reject him: so he beguiles Nikolai into a cheating card game, and wins 42,000 roubles from him. Nikolai’s father pays up, enmeshing him further in debt.
Marya’s brother Andrei loved Nikolai’s sister Natasha. She is not intelligent, but she is sweet. Andrei’s father opposed the match, and sends away for a year, for a German cure. Andrei was wounded at Austerlitz, feared dead, but taken to a French hospital. On the battlefield he looked up at the lofty, infinite sky. Everything is a deception, there is nothing except that sky. That changes a man. Theirs is a pure sweet love; but she falls into the clutches of Elena, countess Bezukhov. Elena’s brother Anatole fancies Natasha, so Elena overawes her with her social prowess, patronises her, adopts her and throws her together with Anatole. His contemptuous awareness of his own superiority arouses a woman’s curiosity, fear, and even love.
She sees him at the opera, and he stares at her. She is delighted that he is captivated. He speaks boldly and simply, and she loves his smile. He stares at her breasts. She would prefer him to look into her eyes, but when he does, she felt with fear and horror that between him and her that barrier of modesty which she had always felt between herself and other men was not there at all.
He wants to elope, and she consents. Dolokhov realises this is foolish: Anatole will run through his few thousand roubles in cash in no time, and is married to a Pole. Anatole has no thought for the future. He takes his carriage to her house at night. But her hostess, a princess and courtier, is wise to him, and thwarts him.
Though they have not kissed, Natasha is shamed forever. Pierre Bolkonsky pities her, and loves her; yet, trapped in his loveless marriage, he decides not to see her, though he is her only moral bulwark. Andrei feels terrible rage, and only desires a duel with Anatole. They meet at the field of Borodino.
And at Austerlitz, Nikolai loved the Sovereign, wanting only to see him, to be seen as a hero and catch his momentary attention, to die for him.