The epic story by Leo Tolstoy describes the times when Napoleon started his conquest in Russia, but, justifying the name of the book, the first scene we see is a lavish party in Sankt-Petersburg. The party is held by Anna Pavlovna and is dedicated to her name-day. We see all the major characters coming to her house: among them is Pierre Bezukhov, a bit socially awkward, but generally lovely young man, an illegitimate son of a very rich old man, who loves Pierre very much despite his origins. Pierre has just returned to Russia after his study in Europe, his worldview is somewhat naive and idealistic and he considers Napoleon the greatest man in the world.
Another people we meet are the Bolkonskis - a young couple, Prince Andrei and Liza. Andrei is a serious and ambitious young man roughly of Pierre’s age, a son of the retired military officer. Lisa looks shallow at the first glance, she likes to dance and socialise and doesn’t have any other prominent traits. It seems that the couple isn’t getting along well. Also among the guests are the ill-fated Kuragin family with more than dubious morals: father Vasili, his son, young fortune-seeker Anatole and his daughter Helene who looks whom to marry with the most profit. Finally we are introduced to the Rostovs, a noble family from Moscow - mostly to their children: the beautiful, lively and innocent Natasha, who is eager to shine on her first ball, her more shy and reserved cousin Sonya and brother Nicholas, who has just joined the military under the commandment of the old general Kutuzov.
We see as the characters are opening to us during the socialising on the ball. Andrei and Pierre appear to be friends. Andrei mildly chastises Pierre for such a carefree behaviour that borders with recklessness: the man of their age should start thinking about the future, not only about drinks and courting ladies. Pierre seems to agree, he himself thinks that it is time to get serious, but his another poisonous friend, Anatole Kuragin, just keeps dragging Pierre into various adventures that end with more alcohol and ladies. They talk about Napoleon and both agree that, regardless of their personal attitude to his action, that man deserves respect. After the ball Pierre leaves with Andrei to his house. He is just in time, because after the series of the bad events lots of other friends of Anatole have to leave St. Petersburg. Soon Pierre receives the news that the old Count Bezukhov had series of strokes and died, leaving his huge heritage to Pierre. Now young Bezukhov is one richest and most desired bachelors in the entire city.
The next city Leo Tolstoy shows the readers is Moscow. Moscow is described by him as the less European city than St. Petersburg. We meet the Rostov family at their home and see that they are a very loving and caring family, though living through the financial crisis. The Count and Countess are an almost ideal couple, but they aren’t very good at saving money and housekeeping in general. Natasha, who we saw on the ball, is absolutely sweet, but a bit spoiled. She is in love with a young man named Boris, thinking about the idyllic future with him. Nikolai and Sonya who were also at the ball, love each other romantically, despite they are cousins. There is also Vera - a very reserved girl, up to being emotionless - engaged to the man named Berg. The littlest brother is Petya (Peter) Rostov, who is a lovely eight-year-old child. But even he, in his age, already wants to go to army and fight, as Nikolai is going to do. The war is knocking at everyone’s door and for now the Russian aristocracy is very enthusiastic about it. Nikolai is joining the Hussars to serve as one, much to the adoration of Sonya. She even kisses him right in front of Natasha, overwhelmed with awe and jealousy after she saw Nikolai flirting with another girl.
Prince Andrei, fed up with snobbish society, also joins the army, and now is an adjutant for General Kutuzov. His wife Liza, who is already pregnant, is left with Andrei’s family that is pretty dysfunctional. Prince Bolkonski Sr. is an abusive and manipulative old man whose sanity is highly dubious. Andrei’s sister Marya isn’t harmful for anyone, but she is extremely religious, overly traumatized and constantly emotionally abused and mistreated by her father.
The Russian troops are coming for aid to the army of the Austrian empire that is now withstanding all the might of Napoleon’s army. Nikolai makes friends with his commanding officer, Denisov and another friend of Anatole Kuragin, Dolokhov (the one of those who were participating in the last party and were sent away from St. Petersburg). Nikolai is sure that he is ready for battles and glory, he imagines the war as a place where an average man can become a hero. But after his first battle of Sch枚ngrabern he is terrified to his very soul. After the battle he meets Andrei (who also had his first battle, but copes much better). They discuss their experience. Both if them understand that individual bravery is absolutely useless in the mass slaughter. Nikolai is fine with it, accepting his role as a faceless unit amongst the thousands of similar ones. Andrei, on the contrary, despises being part of the army mechanism and chooses to fight at the front.
Andrei with General Kutuzov attends the war council near Austerlitz on the eve of the notorious Battle of Austerlitz and is excited when the battle starts. He hopes to finally become a hero, earn fame and respect and become worthy of his military family line. But amidst of the battle Andrei is heavily wounded. He falls on his back and sees the calm and endless sky. At this moment Andrei gets an epiphany and understands that all his struggles and even the war and Napoleon himself are so petty and insignificant in comparison with life, death and spiritual values. Andrei is left on the field and considered dead at his home. Napoleon himself finds and rescues him.
The second volume shifts the date to 1806. Lots of events have happened from the time when war started. Rostov family is having hard times. Nikolai is allowed to go home with his commander Denisov and sees that the financial state of his family is now much worse. The Countess insists that Nikolai shall marry some rich girl and save the family, but he refuses with all due respect - he still loves his cousin Sonya. Denisov in the meantime falls in love with Natasha, whose beauty flourished even more. Natasha’s parents are excited because of such a match, but the girl rejects him outright.
Kuragin family still tries to get some fortune: Anatole desperately tries to court Marya, but she has a complete immunity to his advances, because of her trauma and religious zeal. Another Kuragin family member succeeds, though. Helene Kuragin, beautiful and calculated, manages to get the proposal from Pierre Bezukhov, now the richest and most promising single man in the entire St. Petersburg. But the reputation of Helene is less-than-stellar: there are even rumors that she sleeps with her brother Anatole. So, it is only a matter of time when she cheats on him openly with Dolokhov. Enraged, Pierre challenges the offender to the duel (that wasn’t a smart move at all - Dolokhov was a military man and notorious duelist) and miraculously nearly kills the man. He manages to regain his composure not to kill Helene too and just tells her to get out of his house.
Feeling empty and depressed, Pierre starts to search for himself. Suddenly he encounters a Freemasons member and joins the organisation. The mystical atmosphere, rituals and the rigid structure give him some sense to live. At that time in Russia it was more of a “gentlemen club” of intelligent men than an actual secret society. Bezukhov tries to become a better man, remembering what Andrei told him. He tries to improve the lives of the peasants on his lands, but he doesn’t know much about how ruling the land should work. Pierre fails miserably again and again and is constantly tricked by his estate manager.
Andrei returns home much to the shock of his family, right before Liza goes to labor. Despite all the efforts, the woman dies in childbirth, leaving Andrei with his newborn son Nikolenka and an unbearable grief for being such an ignorant husband. He decides not to go back to the army, feeling that his ambitions have ruined his life. Depressed and devastated, Andrei stays in his estate, ruling it and writing suggestions about fixing issues in the army. He, as more practical of the two, also helps Pierre to rule his estate and cope with his divorce with some advice and discussions.
Back to the Rostovs: Dolokhov, who dumped Helene immediately after the duel, falls in love with Sonya, but the girl is faithful to her cousin. Holding grudge after her refusal, Dolokhov engages Nikolai into a card game and, using his addiction, wins everything he has and even more, putting Nikolai into enormous debt. Now all the Rostovs are in trouble. They press on Nikolai, trying to make him marry the rich heiress, but he stays adamant. While the family is considering selling their family estate, Otradnoe, Nikolai returns to the military and is making a good career, witnessing the peace between Tsar Alexander and Napoleon. But he loses his friend and commander Denisov: when his regiment was starving, Denisov stole food from his people and now has to be court-martialed and expelled from the army. Despite all the efforts of Nikolai, who wrote the petitions and letters asking to pardon his friend, he can do nothing and finally accepts the decision of the authorities.
Natasha attends balls and becomes a heartbreaker, falling in love with young men and then leaving them without any remorse. But, unlike Helene, she does it not because of calculation or sex drive, but because of sheer naivete. Finally Natasha meets Andrei (who returned to St. Petersburg to present his work about military to the Tsar) and becomes extremely attached to him. Andrei, with all his serious attitude, makes a proposal, as a proper man, but his father is against this marriage. He wants to test Natasha’s intentions and demands to wait for a year before giving his blessing. Natasha promises to wait for a year and Andrei goes off to travel.
Meanwhile Helene returns to Pierre and begs him to take her back, using all her charm and sexuality. After having a series of weird erotic dreams Pierre surrenders and allows her to return. Using the very same charm and her husband’s money, Helene opens a salon in St. Petersburg and it quickly becomes a gathering place for the most influential people.
Natasha is very depressed to wait for the whole year, so Count Rostov takes her and Sonya back to Moscow to cheer them up. Natasha meets Marya - Andrei’s sister - and they immediately dislike each other due to drastic difference of their personalities. The Rostovs attend opera where Natasha meets Anatole Kuragin, who is as sleazy as he was before and immediately starts to court her. Natasha is too naive to see through his disguise and gradually she falls in love with him. Despite her family’s objections, she is ready to elope with Anatole and writes a letter to Marya, stating that she breaks her engagement. Sonya accidentally finds out about her cousin’s plan and saves Natasha in the last moment. Natasha is devastated to know that Anatole had no intentions to marry her and wanted only to sleep with her and leave her as he left countless girls before. But it is too late, Andrei returns and, after reading the letter and talking to Marya, is so offended that he doesn’t want to hear anything about Natasha anymore. Shocked by what she has done, the girl falls ill. Pierre comes to care for her and falls in love with her beauty and innocence.
In 1812 the peace between Russia and France is broken. Napoleon now is depicted not as an ideal superhuman but as a crazed gloryseeker. Andrei, who is still can’t let go Natasha’s betrayal, returns to the war and commits himself to the men of his regiment, winning their adoration. Nikolai also is engaged a battle and finally is decorated for his bravery and wits (after taking a noble French prisoner). Petya, who is now a teenager, joins the army out of sheer patriotism after seeing the Tsar in Moscow. Natasha is slowly recovering turning to religion. She gradually goes from a coma-like state to the “ordinary” depression. Pierre, still nursing her back to health, does some numerology and discovers that Napoleon is very close to the Antichrist and is a threat for the whole world, not Russia only. He feels himself obliged to stop this threat and assassinate Napoleon.
Meanwhile, the French troops proceed to Moscow. They come too close to Bolkonski estate and the whole family (the old Prince Bolkonski and Marya) are advised to evacuate. But Marya’s father is too old and has a heart attack because of stress when the French army arrives. Marya has to run away alone, but suddenly she finds out that the local serfs she considered obedient and loyal became hostile to her family. She would be in big trouble if not Nikolai, who came to the rescue and saved her. This event triggers their romance, but Nikolai’s heart is breaking apart, because he is still engaged to his faithful Sofia.
We get a brief glimpse at Napoleon’s personality. Here he is a totally negative character. Despite being a strategy genius, he is full of vanity, self-obsession and desperately wishes his name to be written in history forever. He receives a portrait of his son as a present and proudly shows it off to tickle his sense of self-importance before rushing into Battle of Borodino. The battle is described vividly and precisely, with lots of historical research involved. It is shown as a catastrophic massacre with the unbelievably large losses on both sides. Russians were losing physically, but their sheer spirit and morals made this battle a turning point that overwrote the whole campaign and led to Napoleon’s defeat later. Still, now the Russian forces have to retreat and abandon Moscow to the army of France.
Almost every character is present on the battlefield. Pierre tried to enlist in the army, but is allowed only to help indirectly. He sends lots of money to the local militia and then goes to Borodino to serve as support: carrying ammunition and doing the non-military work. The horrors of war now haunt him: a slaughter that leaves a vast field covered with dead bodies. On the first day Russian army is victorious, but reading the casualty reports General Kutuzov understands that he must retreat to save the rest of the troops. Andrei is in a reserve regiment that was thrown into the battle later. He gets heavily wounded in the stomach and taken to the medical tent, where he sees Anatole Kuragin who is now legless. Andrei gets another epiphany, understanding that now he can forgive and love all the humanity in general and even his enemy Anatole in particular. Later Pierre receives a report that Andrei passed away.
The army of Napoleon goes to Moscow. The aristocracy, including the Rostovs, have to leave in a hurry, almost at the last minute. When the Frenchmen are about to enter the city, the governor of Moscow, Rastopchin, gives up the propaganda and orders to burn the whole city and all the supplies in it. The Count and Countess Rostov, in their final act of selflessness, decide to abandon everything they had except the most necessary things and fill their carts with wounded soldiers instead. No one from the family knows that one of the wounded is Andrei.
Pierre stays behind, dedicated to kill Napoleon in Moscow. He sees Natasha leaving with her family and understands how much he is in love with her. Still, his spiritual duty entrances him and makes Pierre wander around the burning Moscow, waiting for his archnemesis. Napoleon in the meantime is waiting for the delegation from Moscow and their surrender. But when no one comes he orders to take over the city. During these events Pierre accidentally rescues a French officer, saves a little girl from fire and a young woman from being raped. But finally he is imprisoned by French troops as a potential arsonist.
Now Pierre has to walk behind the French army with the rest of the prisoners of war. He befriends another prisoner, a simple peasant named Platon Karataev - almost a spiritual teacher or a guarding angel, from whom Pierre learns the simple wisdom to live within the present moment and be glad and grateful for the joys of that moment. He feels like he finally discovered the meaning of life and becomes happy despite all his miseries. Suddenly the prisoners convoy is attacked by the local guerrilla fighters. Denisov (Nikolai’s former commander) and Dolokhov (Kuragin’s friend) are among them along with Petya Rostov. Petya is shot and killed on the spot, but they manage to rescue some of the prisoners. Pierre is among them.
Natasha recognises Andrei while taking care of the wounded and tries to nurse him to health. She is still in love with him and Andrei, who forgave everyone and everything after his wound, reconciles with her. Marya, who gets a message that Andrei is alive, comes to Rostovs to help look after him. Countess Rostov still tries to arrange the marriage of Nikolai and Marya, but Nikolai resists, remembering that he is still engaged to Sonya. United by the common goal, Natasha and Marya learn to love each other like sisters. Despite their best efforts Andrei gives up and dies, leaving his son Nikolenka deeply affected by it.
Pierre falls ill for three months, recovering from his imprisonment. While he stays in bed he receives the news that Helene, his cheating wife, died in St. Petersburg, presumably because of an abortion gone wrong. Now Pierre is free and he confesses his love for Natasha and makes her the proposal which she accepts. They marry and Natasha soon turns from the naive beauty to a solid and uninteresting matron.
Old Count Rostov dies and his wife is very old and fragile. Life in poverty can kill her. Nikolai finally gives up his engagement to Sonya and asks Marya if she is ready to marry him despite his lack of money. Marya says that she loves him not for money and they marry, though resolving Rostovs family financial issues. Nikolai helps Marya to rebuild her family estate and lives a relatively happy life with her. Nikolai, Marya, Sonya (who never married) and the old Countess now live together and Nikolai quickly learns to treat his serfs and land well and earn the money.
Pierre and Nikolai stay friends and often talk to each other, arguing about the politics and religion. Nikolenka grows up, dreaming about doing something great in his life. These talks and Nikolenka’s idealism hint that they all might become a part of the Decembrist uprising. In the end of the book Tolstoy adds a big essay about the history being made not only by the few individuals, but by everyone involved. He proves that anyone can change the history with enough luck and devotion.