It’s 1805. We meet a lot of people at a party in Petersburg (a.k.a. Saint Petersburg, Russia). There’s Pierre, one of the illegitimate children of Count Bezukhov. Pierre is awkward and strange, but he's his father’s favorite child, and his father is old and rich – so he’s got that going for him. There’s also Pierre’s good friend Andrei Bolkonsky, who is a little too smart for his own good. Andrei is married to Liza, a social butterfly whom he kind of hates. And then there’s the Kuragin family, generally a bunch of sleazeballs who are only looking out for themselves.
Pierre likes to booze it up and cruise the ladies, but his friend Andrei wants him to straighten up and fly right. Pierre wants to quit the bad behavior, but gets sucked into it by Anatole Kuragin. There’s one particularly bad night of partying that gets a lot of Anatole’s buddies sent away from Petersburg. Then Pierre’s dad has a series of strokes and dies. There’s a struggle over the will, but with some help, Pierre comes out on top and inherits all of his father’s vast wealth and estates.
OK, now on to Moscow. Tolstoy describes it as more Russian and less Europeanized and affected than Petersburg. Here we meet the Rostovs, a totally awesome, loving family. The Count and Countess love each other but are terrible with money. Then there's 13-year-old Natasha Rostov (who loves Boris), Nikolai Rostov (who loves his cousin Sonya), the weirdly robotic Vera Rostov (who is engaged to Berg), and little Petya Rostov, who is just 8. All the boys want to go into the army, especially since war looks like it’s about to break out.
Andrei thinks society sucks and decides to go to war too. He leaves pregnant Liza with his family at Bald Hills and goes off to be an adjutant for General Kutuzov. Liza is stuck with the horrible, dysfunctional Bolkonsky family. There’s crazy, abusive, and generally unpleasant Prince Bolkonsky, Andrei’s dad. And there’s Andrei’s homely sister Marya, who is super-duper religious. Marya is forever being mistreated by her father.
Then we get a lot of descriptions of preparations for the coming war between France and Russia. Nikolai Rostov is now a hussar (basically a cavalry officer) and he is psyched to take part in the battle of Schöngrabern. Well, he’s psyched until he actually experiences the fighting – then he's terrified out of his wits. Afterward, he meets Andrei, who is in the command, and tells him off. Nikolai has a man crush on the Russian emperor, Alexander, whom he gets to see a little bit in an army review. Nikolai also makes friends with his commanding officer, Denisov, and the total nutcase Dolokhov, who has lost his rank because of the drunken escapade with Pierre Bezukhov that got them all kicked out of Petersburg.
Now it’s 1806. Nikolai comes home on leave with Denisov, only to find that his parents are about to go bankrupt. His mom insists that Nikolai marry a rich girl to save the family. Nikolai is huffy about this and swears that he’ll marry poor cousin Sonya. Meanwhile, Denisov falls in love with pretty Natasha, who is 14. (Um, jailbait much?) Denisov proposes to her and gets rejected.
Pierre now has all his money and suddenly he’s gone from total loser to prom king. Well, at least that’s the way he’s being treated. He is seduced by the really hot but inwardly super-gross Helene Kuragin. He proposes to her (sort of) and she accepts. How gross is she? Rumor has it she and her brother Anatole are getting it on. Eww.
Helene has an affair with Dolokhov, and when Pierre finds out, he challenges Dolokhov to a duel. Not the smartest move, since Dolokhov is a stone-cold killer. But shockingly, Pierre wounds Dolokhov and is himself unharmed. He comes home and is just about to beat up Helene when he gets hold of himself. Instead, he just kicks her out of the house.
Totally confused and depressed, Pierre joins the Freemasons. He tries to become a better man and has a lot of deep thoughts about what that might mean. He tries is to improve the lives of his serfs who work on his estate, but he’s too uninvolved in his estate to do anything except be tricked by his estate manager.
Meanwhile, back at the war, Andrei leads an awesome charge at the Battle of Austerlitz. He is seriously wounded and has a near-death experience, which leads him to realize that ambition is a totally pointless thing. While he’s injured, Napoleon himself rescues him from the battlefield.
After getting better, Andrei comes home just in time to watch Liza give birth...and die. He is consumed with guilt because he was such a crummy husband to her. He decides that the only thing left for him is his newborn son, Nikolenka. He doesn’t go back to the army but instead just works on his estate, all gloomy and depressed. He starts writing a set of military rules to fix problems with the army. Pierre drops by for a visit and talks about his new thoughts about spirituality.
Back in Petersburg, Helene begs Pierre to take her back. After some kind of weird, erotic Freemasonic dream, he does. Even though she is kind of dim, Helene starts up a really influential salon (a kind of regular intellectual gathering). It might have something to do with the whole she’s-extremely-hot thing.
Andrei comes to Petersburg to submit his work, but then realizes that he's an idiot for assuming that he’s going to somehow get to see the emperor and convince him about how to fix the military. He meets Natasha, quickly feels better about everything, and proposes. She accepts. Old Daddy Bolkonsky, though, is totally against the marriage and forces Andrei to put off the wedding for a year and go abroad.
It’s horrible to wait for Andrei, and to cheer Natasha up, her dad takes her and Sonya to Moscow. There she goes to meet her future sister-in-law, Marya, and the two of them immediately full-on hate each other. The Rostovs also check out the opera scene and Natasha meets the horrible Kuragins. Anatole Kuragin is a systematic seducer and he’s so good-looking (and Natasha is still so young and inexperienced) that Natasha totally falls for it. She makes plans to run off with him and sends a letter to Marya breaking off her engagement to Andrei. Sonya accidentally finds out about the plan to elope and prevents this terrible mistake. Natasha is deeply depressed when she realizes that Anatole was only ever in it for the sex and didn't want to marry her. Pierre comes to make her feel better…and falls in love with her himself.
Andrei finally comes back and is all ice when he hears that Natasha called off the engagement. His pride is forever wounded.
There is a long, vivid, mapped, and heavily researched description of the Battle of Borodino, fought on September 7, 1812. This battle is the turning point in Napoleon’s campaign because of the unbelievably large loss of life on both sides. After the battle the Russian army retreats and abandons Moscow to the French.
OK, backing up a little. Natasha is dealing as best she can and is mostly just one degree above being catatonic. Pierre meanwhile is doing some kind of mystic numerology nonsense and convinces himself that Napoleon is the Antichrist. And also that he himself is the Antichrist. Or maybe the anti-Antichrist. Fun with numbers is what we’re saying.
The French army comes closer and closer to Moscow, hitting the Bolkonsky estates. Old Prince Bolkonsky dies of a stroke, with finally one nice word for his daughter. Meanwhile, the Bolkonsky serfs suddenly revolt and refuse to let Marya escape the estate. By coincidence, Nikolai shows up out of nowhere and rescues her. They’re attracted to each other, but he’s still engaged to Sonya. Petya Rostov enlists in the army after seeing Emperor Alexander in Moscow.
Meanwhile, on the French side, we get Napoleon himself as a character. For Tolstoy, Napoleon is little more than hype as far as his military strategies and general awesomeness are concerned. Napoleon is vain, self-obsessed, and constantly aware of being historically important. After getting his son’s portrait as a present and showing it off, Napoleon gets ready to watch the battle.
Pierre decides to enlist in the army but can only really help out indirectly by financing a militia. Still, he goes out to Borodino to watch the battle. Staying with the cannonaders in a bunker and then helping to carry ammunition, he experiences the grisly nightmare of war firsthand. The battle is a slaughter of unbelievable proportions, with the field completely covered in dead bodies at the end. The Russian army wins the first day and is all set to attack the next, when the Russian general, Kutuzov, sees from the casualty reports that it would be better to retreat. As the Russian army withdraws, the French are about to enter Moscow.
Andrei is at the battle too, in a reserve regiment. He is wounded in the stomach and in the medic tent sees a legless Anatole Kuragin. (He knows all about the almost-seduction of Natasha.) Andrei has a moment of deep religious feeling and realizes that he can now love all of humanity, even Anatole, his enemy.
Pierre receives a report that Andrei is dead.
The Rostov family finally gets its act together and leaves Moscow. It’s literally the day before the French troops get there. At the last minute, Rastopchin, the governor of the city, finally stops all his “we’re number one!” propaganda and OKs the burning of the city (so that the French can't use any of the supplies there). As the Rostovs leave, they decide to abandon all their stuff and instead load their wagons with soldiers wounded from the Battle of Borodino. What Natasha doesn’t realize is that one of the anonymous soldiers is Andrei.
Then we get a little peek at good old Napoleon Bonaparte as he hangs out waiting for a delegation from Moscow. Sorry, dude, no delegation is coming. The French start occupying the city. Pierre stays behind in kind of a crazy mindset – he’s decided to assassinate Napoleon. He briefly sees Natasha and realizes how totally in love with her he is.
While he’s waiting around for Napoleon to show up, Pierre ends up saving the life of a French officer. Then he goes out and saves a little girl from the fire that’s now destroyed half the city. And then he saves a young woman from being raped by a French soldier. Finally, he's taken prisoner, accused of being an arsonist. OK, got that? He starts out wanting to kill a guy but ends up saving three people instead.
Pierre has to march with the French army’s prisoners as the French flee Moscow. He becomes BFF with another prisoner, Platon, a simple peasant who’s full of all sorts of simple peasant wisdom – basically an angel in peasant clothing. By being a miserable prisoner, Pierre figures out the meaning of life, which is something like “just be glad you’re alive, buddy.” (Kind of depressing if you ask us.)
Meanwhile, we find out that our friends Denisov and Dolokhov are now guerrilla fighters. They attack a French transport along with young Petya Rostov, who gets killed in the process. But (always a silver lining) they end up freeing Pierre.
Natasha finds out that Andrei is traveling with them and takes care of him. There’s a lot of love. Andrei’s sister Marya finds out that Andrei is with the Rostovs and comes to see him. Andrei kind of just gives up and dies. Through their grief, Natasha and Marya grow to love each other like sisters. Andrei’s son Nikolenka is (not surprisingly) deeply affected by seeing his father die.
Meanwhile, in Petersburg, horrible Helene dies under strange circumstances, hinted to be a botched abortion. Pierre is now free as a bird and meets up again with Natasha. Both of them have changed a lot and are in love. The Russians come back to rebuild the burned-down Moscow. Pierre and Natasha also find new life among the ashes and get married.
Picking up right up where we left off, Pierre and Natasha get married. Sadly, Count Rostov soon dies and Nikolai comes home to see that the estate is bankrupt and they are totally in the poor house. Meanwhile, Countess Rostov is borderline senile and needs to be kept in the same high-class lifestyle she’s grown accustomed to. Nikolai is basically up crap creek, taking care of everyone and being miserable.
Since saving her, Nikolai has been in love with Marya, but he now thinks marriage is out of the question because of his poverty. Marya doesn't think that's a problem, so they get married. The Rostov family is saved by Marya's giant inheritance. Now Nikolai, Marya, Countess Rostov, and Sonya all live together at Marya’s estate, and Nikolai turns out to have a good head for estate management. He quickly pays off his dad’s debts and starts making money. He also gets into agriculture and learns how to treat his serfs well, so they treat the land well.
Both couples have good marriages, and we get to see up close and personal how they negotiate power roles, parenting responsibilities, and how they deal with disagreements and miscommunications. It’s like a self-help manual all of a sudden.
At the end, there’s a big argument between Pierre and Nikolai about how Emperor Alexander has gotten sucked into religion and has basically left the country in the hands of some crazy reactionaries. Pierre hints that he might be down with regime change, but Nikolai is totally devoted to Alexander and would never oppose him. The end shows Nikolenka (Andrei's son) thinking about doing something great with his life and also about how much he adores his godfather, Pierre. That’s a hint that they might be part of the Decembrist uprising (a failed attempt to assassinate the emperor).
Well, that’s the end of the characters, but not the end of the book. Next we get a really long essay in which Tolstoy denounces the way historians were writing history at the time. History had always been seen as the story of a few individuals: everything can be explained by finding the “great man” who made things happen. Tolstoy instead urges historians to see events in the context of all the other events that came before. He argues that even the lowliest people influence history. Basically, he’s advocating the kind of historical writing that has become the modern standard. Way to anticipate, Tolstoy!