The novel tells the story of five families—the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins, and the Drubetskoys. In addition several real-life historical characters such as Napoleon and Prince Mikhail Kutuzov play a prominent part in the book. Many of Tolstoy's characters were based on real people. His grandparents and their friends were the models for many of the main characters; his great-grandparents would have been of the generation of Prince Vassily or Count Ilya Rostov.
Many of the main characters are introduced as they enter the salon. Pierre Pyotr Kirilovich Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of a wealthy count , who is dying after a series of strokes. Pierre is about to become embroiled in a struggle for his inheritance. Educated abroad at his father's expense following his mother's death, Pierre is kindhearted but socially awkward, and finds it difficult to integrate into Petersburg society.
He is disillusioned with Petersburg society and with married life, feeling that his wife is empty and superficial, he comes to hate her and all women, expressing patently misogynistic views to Pierre when the two are alone. Pierre doesn't quite know what to do with this, and is made uncomfortable witnessing the marital discord. Andrei tells Pierre he has decided to become aide-de-camp to Prince Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov in the coming war against Napoleon in order to escape a life he can't stand.
The plot moves to Moscow , Russia's former capital, contrasting its provincial, more Russian ways to the more European society of Saint Petersburg. The Rostov family are introduced. Count Ilya Andreyevich Rostov and Countess Natalya Rostova are an affectionate couple but forever worried about their disordered finances.
They have four children. Thirteen-year-old Natasha Natalia Ilyinichna believes herself in love with Boris Drubetskoy, a young man who is about to join the army as an officer. Twenty-year-old Nikolai Ilyich pledges his love to Sonya Sofia Alexandrovna , his fifteen-year-old cousin, an orphan who has been brought up by the Rostovs.
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The eldest child, Vera Ilyinichna, is cold and somewhat haughty but has a good prospective marriage in a Russian-German officer, Adolf Karlovich Berg. Petya Pyotr Ilyich at nine is the youngest; like his brother, he is impetuous and eager to join the army when of age. At Bald Hills, the Bolkonskys' country estate, Prince Andrei departs for war and leaves his terrified, pregnant wife Lise with his eccentric father Prince Nikolai Andreyevich and devoutly religious sister Maria Nikolayevna Bolkonskaya, who refuses to marry the son of a wealthy aristocrat on account of her devotion to her father.
The second part opens with descriptions of the impending Russian-French war preparations. Boris Drubetskoy introduces him to Prince Andrei, whom Rostov insults in a fit of impetuousness. He is deeply attracted by Tsar Alexander 's charisma. Nikolai gambles and socializes with his officer, Vasily Dmitrich Denisov, and befriends the ruthless and perhaps psychopathic Fyodor Ivanovich Dolokhov. Bolkonsky, Rostov and Denisov are involved in the disastrous Battle of Austerlitz , in which Prince Andrei is badly wounded as he attempts to rescue a Russian standard.
The Battle of Austerlitz is a major event in the book. As the battle is about to start, Prince Andrei thinks the approaching "day [will] be his Toulon , or his Arcola ",  references to Napoleon's early victories. Later in the battle, however, Andrei falls into enemy hands and even meets his hero, Napoleon. But his previous enthusiasm has been shattered; he no longer thinks much of Napoleon, "so petty did his hero with his paltry vanity and delight in victory appear, compared to that lofty, righteous and kindly sky which he had seen and comprehended".
Book Two begins with Nikolai Rostov briefly returning on leave to Moscow accompanied by his friend Denisov, his officer from his Pavlograd Regiment. He spends an eventful winter at home. Natasha has blossomed into a beautiful young girl. Denisov falls in love with her, proposes marriage but is rejected. Although his mother pleads with Nikolai to marry a wealthy heiress to rescue the family from its dire financial straits, Nikolai refuses. Instead, he promises to marry his childhood sweetheart and orphaned cousin, the dowry-less Sonya. Pierre Bezukhov, upon finally receiving his massive inheritance, is suddenly transformed from a bumbling young man into the most eligible bachelor in Russian society.
Pierre loses his temper and challenges Dolokhov to a duel. Unexpectedly because Dolokhov is a seasoned dueller , Pierre wounds Dolokhov.
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In his moral and spiritual confusion, Pierre joins the Freemasons. Much of Book Two concerns his struggles with his passions and his spiritual conflicts. He abandons his former carefree behavior and enters upon a philosophical quest particular to Tolstoy: how should one live a moral life in an ethically imperfect world? The question continually baffles Pierre. He attempts to liberate his serfs , but ultimately achieves nothing of note. Pierre is contrasted with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Andrei recovers from his near-fatal wound in a military hospital and returns home, only to find his wife Lise dying in childbirth.
He is stricken by his guilty conscience for not treating her better. His child, Nikolai, survives.
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Burdened with nihilistic disillusionment, Prince Andrei does not return to the army but remains on his estate, working on a project that would codify military behavior to solve problems of disorganization responsible for the loss of life on the Russian side. Pierre visits him and brings new questions: where is God in this amoral world? Pierre is interested in panentheism and the possibility of an afterlife. Prince Andrei feels impelled to take his newly written military notions to Saint Petersburg, naively expecting to influence either the Emperor himself or those close to him.
Young Natasha, also in Saint Petersburg, is caught up in the excitement of her first grand ball, where she meets Prince Andrei and briefly reinvigorates him with her vivacious charm. Andrei believes he has found purpose in life again and, after paying the Rostovs several visits, proposes marriage to Natasha. However, Andrei's father dislikes the Rostovs and opposes the marriage, and he insists the couple wait a year before marrying. Prince Andrei leaves to recuperate from his wounds abroad, leaving Natasha initially distraught. Count Rostov takes her and Sonya to Moscow in order to raise funds for her trousseau.
Anatole has since married a Polish woman whom he has abandoned in Poland. He is very attracted to Natasha and determined to seduce her, and conspires with his sister to do so. Anatole succeeds in making Natasha believe he loves her, eventually establishing plans to elope. Natasha writes to Princess Maria, Andrei's sister, breaking off her engagement. At the last moment, Sonya discovers her plans to elope and foils them. Natasha learns from Pierre of Anatole's marriage. Devastated, Natasha makes a suicide attempt and is left seriously ill.
Pierre is initially horrified by Natasha's behavior, but realizes he has fallen in love with her. As the Great Comet of —12 streaks the sky, life appears to begin anew for Pierre. Prince Andrei coldly accepts Natasha's breaking of the engagement. He tells Pierre that his pride will not allow him to renew his proposal. With the help of her family, and the stirrings of religious faith, Natasha manages to persevere in Moscow through this dark period.
Meanwhile, the whole of Russia is affected by the coming confrontation between Napoleon's army and the Russian army. Pierre convinces himself through gematria that Napoleon is the Antichrist of the Book of Revelation. Old Prince Bolkonsky dies of a stroke knowing that French marauders are coming for his estate. No organized help from any Russian army seems available to the Bolkonskys, but Nikolai Rostov turns up at their estate in time to help put down an incipient peasant revolt.
He finds himself attracted to the distraught Princess Maria. Back in Moscow, the patriotic Petya joins a crowd in audience of Czar Alexander and manages to snatch a biscuit thrown from the balcony window of the Cathedral of the Assumption by the Czar. He is nearly crushed by the throngs in his effort. Under the influence of the same patriotism, his father finally allows him to enlist. Napoleon himself is the main character in this section, and the novel presents him in vivid detail, both personally and as both a thinker and would-be strategist.
Pierre decides to leave Moscow and go to watch the Battle of Borodino from a vantage point next to a Russian artillery crew. After watching for a time, he begins to join in carrying ammunition. The battle becomes a hideous slaughter for both armies and ends in a standoff. The Russians, however, have won a moral victory by standing up to Napoleon's reputedly invincible army. The Russian army withdraws the next day, allowing Napoleon to march on to Moscow. Among the casualties are Anatole Kuragin and Prince Andrei.
Anatole loses a leg, and Andrei suffers a grenade wound in the abdomen. Both are reported dead, but their families are in such disarray that no one can be notified. The Rostovs have waited until the last minute to abandon Moscow, even after it is clear that Kutuzov has retreated past Moscow and Muscovites are being given contradictory instructions on how to either flee or fight. Count Fyodor Rostopchin , the commander in chief of Moscow, is publishing posters, rousing the citizens to put their faith in religious icons , while at the same time urging them to fight with pitchforks if necessary.
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Before fleeing himself, he gives orders to burn the city. The Rostovs have a difficult time deciding what to take with them, but in the end, Natasha convinces them to load their carts with the wounded and dying from the Battle of Borodino.
Unknown to Natasha, Prince Andrei is amongst the wounded. When Napoleon's army finally occupies an abandoned and burning Moscow , Pierre takes off on a quixotic mission to assassinate Napoleon. He becomes anonymous in all the chaos, shedding his responsibilities by wearing peasant clothes and shunning his duties and lifestyle. The only people he sees are Natasha and some of her family, as they depart Moscow. Natasha recognizes and smiles at him, and he in turn realizes the full scope of his love for her.
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Pierre saves the life of a French officer who enters his home looking for shelter, and they have a long, amicable conversation. The next day Pierre goes into the street to resume his assassination plan, and comes across two French soldiers robbing an Armenian family. When one of the soldiers tries to rip the necklace off the young Armenian woman's neck, Pierre intervenes by attacking the soldiers, and is taken prisoner by the French army.
Pierre becomes friends with a fellow prisoner, Platon Karataev, a Russian peasant with a saintly demeanor. Tolstoy had entered the Russian Army in the same year, and was appointed a subaltern of artillery. He was assigned to the fortress of Kovno, the capital city of the province of the same name, which lies to the south of the Baltic provinces. Here with merely perfunctory duties to perform in his military capacity, he began his long career as a novelist. When the Crimean War began Tolstoy was anxious to see active service. He sought and obtained a transfer to the staff of his relative Prince Gortachakoff.
When aid was being rushed to the garrison at Sevatopol, Tolstoy went forward at a head of a battery and took an active part in the seige, distinguishing himself by personal acts of bravery. He was wounded in one of the skirmishes. He had first-hand experience with war which was most valuable to him in his later work as a novelist. At the close of the war Tolstoy resigned his commission and went to St. Here he had a most flattering reception as a nobleman, a returning hero, and a literateur.
But he soon became utterly disgusted with his life there. He described himself afterward in a passion of remorse as having been an adulterer, a liar, and a robber. He signalized his return to his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, by freeing his serfs, by dressing himself in peasant costume, and by preaching the gospel of waht is now known as the simple life.
From time to time he left hie estate to make extensive tours in Germany and Italy. While returning from one of these trips in Tolstoy met and wooed his wife Sophia Behrs, the daughter of his friend Dr. At the time he met he she was a young girl. He was already by his own account, a jaded man of the world. His strange religious ideas were just beginning to find expression. He knew the women of the Russian aristocracy well and had decided he said, that there were no good women in the world and that he would never marry. So in his customary erratic way, he sold the lovely old mansion which had come to him through his grandfather, one of Catherine the Great's famous Generals.
Then he met the woman with whom he fell in love, and she changed the whole world for him. They were married soon afterward and the Countess began her life of constant self-sacrifice by going to a little hut on the Polyana estate--all that was left after the sale of the mansion. There she lived for many years in a lonely, deserted place, many miles from any town.
Tolstoy spent his time going up and down the Russian Empire, studying social conditions, being absent from home a great deal of the time. The Countess attended to her housework. The couple were too poor to have any servants; she nursed each one of her thirteen children, she dispensed with governesses and taught the children English, French, and German, gave them music lessons, made their clothes and her own. Then, as soon as her husband commenced a book, she began revising it, translating it from Russian into French or German, copying it in here clear handwriting, so that the printers could read it, and attending to the publication of the book when it was completed.
With her help and constant inspiration Tolstoy wrote his great novels. He was appointed a magistrate of his district and devoted much time to the education of the peasantry and to the elaboration of plans for their material improvement. Although he had not yet come to the full acceptance of the theories in regard to socioligal subjects which he later advanced, he realized the necessity of living the life of the people if he hoped to benefit them, and accordingly, even with his increased means, the house, in which he wrote text books for the poor of the country and instructed classes of the peasantry of the neighborhood, was furnished with the rudest of chairs and tables, and the mode of life in his household was monastic in its simplicity.
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He professed himself a disciple of the political and economic doctrines of Henry George and declared that George and William Lloyd Garrison were the two greatest Americans. The salvation of Russia, he declared, depended on the peasant ownership of land,and the introduction of the single tax system of Henry George. His next work issued in , "War and Peace" won him his great reputation as a novelist. The work deals with Russia's great struggle against Napolean Bonaparte. Eight years later Tolstoy produced his even more celebrated "Anna Karenina," a study of one side of the marriage question, worked out in the novel to a conclusion of terrible tragedy.
This work provoked discussion throughout the whole civilized world, and provoked Matthew Arnold to say : "This is less a work of art than a piece of life. But what it loses in art it gains in reality. About the time of the publication of "Anna Karenina," Tolstoy who had formerly been an infidel, accepted the doctrines of Jesus in a very literal way, although he declined to profess a belief in His divinity. He took as his text and precept the Sermon on the Mount, and added to his work as teacher and physician, friend and adviser, of his poor neighbors, that of a cobbler and farm laborer.
He made over his property in its entirety to the members of his family, and refused to touch the royalties from his works. He permitted his children however, to follow their own modes of life, without respect to his own ideas. Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata," a surprisingly frank short novel dealing with the marital relation was published in It caused much censure from the pulpits of various countries and was severely criticised in some of the papers in England and in the United States.
In , when a particularly severe famine prevailed in Russia, Tolstoy established a number of relief stations in Tula and Samara and published his volume "The Famine. For an upper-class literary gent, Tolstoy made a notable effort to take practical action to alleviate other people's suffering. His dedication to the peasantry was nowhere more evident than in his famine relief work.
But Tolstoy was adamant. He did it again after the famine in , and with other members of his family spent the next two years raising money from around the world and working in soup kitchens. Lesson 4: Master the Art of Simple Living. One of Tolstoy's greatest gifts — and also a source of torment — was his addiction to the question of the meaning of life. He never ceased asking himself why and how he should live, and what was the point of all his money and fame. In the late s, unable to find any answers, he had a mental breakdown and was on the verge of suicide.
He gave up drinking and smoking, and became a vegetarian. He also inspired the creation of utopian communities for simple, self-sufficient living, where property was held in common. These "Tolstoyan" communities spread around the world and lead Gandhi to found an ashram in named the Tolstoy Farm. Tolstoy's new, simpler life was not, however, without its struggles and contradictions.
Apart from the fact that he preached universal love yet was constantly fighting with his wife, the apostle of equality was never able to fully abandon his wealth and privileged lifestyle, and lived till old age in a grand house with servants. When he mooted the idea of giving away his estate to the peasants, his wife and children were furious, and he eventually backed down.
But in the early s he managed, against their wishes, to relinquish copyright to a huge portion of his literary works, in effect sacrificing a fortune. In his last years, when writers and journalists came to pay homage to the bearded sage, they were always surprised to find the world's most famous author chopping wood with some workers or making his own boots. Given the privileged position in which Tolstoy started life, his personal transformation, if not complete, still deserves our admiration.
The most essential lesson to take from Tolstoy is to follow his lead and recognize that the best way to challenge our assumptions and prejudices, and develop new ways of looking at the world, is to surround ourselves with people whose views and lifestyles differ from our own. That's why he ceased socializing in Moscow and spent so much time with laborers on the land.