At the opening of the novel, Pierre is a young man who has recently returned to Russia to seek a career after completing his education abroad. Although a well-meaning, kind hearted young man, he is awkward and out of place in the Russian high society in whose circles he starts to move. Pierre, though intelligent, is not dominated by reason, as his friend Prince Andrey Nikolayevich Bolkonsky is. His lack of direction leads him to fall in with a group of profligate young men like Anatole Kuragin and Dolokhov whose pranks and heavy drinking cause mild scandals. After a particularly outrageous escapade in which a policeman is strapped to the back of a bear and thrown into a river, Pierre is sent away from St. Petersburg.
Pierre's life changes after he becomes the sole heir to his father's vast estate, and his position in society is changed from that of an illegitimate son to the new Count Bezukhov. His inability to control his emotions and sexual passions lead him into a marriage with the vapid but sensually beautiful Princess Helene, a match which her self-serving father, Prince Vasily, sets up to secure his access to Pierre's newly acquired vast fortune. Helene is not in love with Pierre, and has affairs. From jealousy, Pierre shoots her suspected lover, Dolokhov, in a duel. He is distraught at having committed such a crime and eventually abandons Helene in order to become a Freemason. His madcap escape into the city of Moscow and his subsequent obsessive belief that he is destined to be Napoleon’s assassin show his submission to irrational impulses. Yet his search for meaning in his life and for how to overcome his emotions are a central theme of the novel. He eventually finds love and peace with Natasha Rostova and their marriage is perhaps the culmination of a life of moral and spiritual questioning.
Daniel Rancour-Laferriere calls Pierre "one of the best known characters in world literature." Merriam-Webster lists him among "the most attractive and sympathetic characters in literature..." And M. Keith Booker describes Pierre as one of Tolstoy's "most memorable characters..."