All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Confusion reigns in the Oblonsky household in Moscow. Stiva Oblonsky has been unfaithful to his wife, Dolly, with their children’s former governess. Stiva is distraught but not overly remorseful. Dolly, meanwhile, is devastated and refuses to leave her rooms. The servants advise Stiva to apologize repeatedly, predicting that Dolly will calm down. Stiva finally visits Dolly, begging her to remember their nine years of marriage. Dolly is inconsolable, telling her husband he is disgusting and a total stranger to her.
Stiva goes to his office. His job is respectable and comfortable, thanks to his charm and good connections. He receives a surprise visit from an old friend, Konstantin Levin, who lives in the country. Stiva introduces Levin to his business partners, saying that Levin is active in the zemstvo, his village administrative board. Levin reveals that he has quit his post on the board, and tells Stiva that he has an important matter to discuss. They arrange to meet for dinner. Stiva guesses the matter has something to do with his sister-in-law, Kitty Shcherbatskaya, with whom he knows Levin is in love.
While in Moscow, Levin stays with his half-brother, Koznyshev, whose philosophical mindset sometimes perplexes Levin. The brothers discuss Levin’s plan to visit their estranged and sickly third brother, Nikolai, who is back in Moscow with a girlfriend. Koznyshev advises Levin not to go, saying Levin cannot help Nikolai, who wishes to be left alone.
Levin goes to the skating rink at the Zoological Gardens, where he is sure he will find the charming Kitty. She is at the rink, as expected. Levin and Kitty enjoy one another’s company together on the ice until Levin confesses that he feels more confident whenever Kitty, a less accomplished skater, leans on him for support. Kitty’s mood suddenly darkens, and she sends Levin away. Levin grows upset and goes off glumly to his dinner with Stiva.
Over the luxurious meal, Levin confesses to Stiva his passionate love for Kitty. Stiva encourages Levin to be hopeful but warns him of a rival for her affections, an officer named Alexei Vronsky. Stiva then discusses his own problematic infatuation with his children’s governess. Levin gently chastises Stiva for his behavior, but Stiva laughingly calls Levin a moralist.
Kitty’s mother, Princess Shcherbatskaya, weighs the relative merits of Vronsky and Levin as suitors. She is disconcerted by Levin’s awkwardness and generally favors Vronsky. But the Princess is also aware that young Russian noblewomen of the new generation prefer to choose their husbands for themselves rather than submit to their parents’ arrangements.
That evening, Levin calls at Kitty’s home and finds her alone. Kitty is aware that she feels affection for him, but she loves Vronsky. She considers avoiding Levin entirely but then bravely meets him and declines his marriage proposal. Princess Shcherbatskaya is relieved to see that no engagement has been declared. Vronsky arrives, and the devastated Levin is impressed with this rival suitor. That night, Kitty cannot sleep, haunted by Levin’s face. Kitty’s father has learned about the rebuffed proposal and is upset, as he prefers Levin to Vronsky.
The next morning, Vronsky goes to the train station to meet his mother arriving from St. Petersburg. There he meets Stiva, who has come to meet his sister, Anna Karenina. Vronsky tells Stiva he has met Levin, whom he finds nice but somewhat awkward. Stiva defends Levin, hinting that Levin might have proposed to Kitty. Vronsky states that Kitty can find a better match. Meanwhile the train arrives, and Vronsky awaits his mother.
Although Anna Karenina is renowned as a study of romantic passion, the novel shows us the dark and discouraging side of romance from the first page. Tolstoy’s novel begins when the honeymoon is already over. Deception and disappointment mar the marriage of Stiva and Dolly, two attractive, rich, cultured, sensitive, and likable people. We expect them to be the ideal happy couple, but they are miserable, and the source of the problem is their marriage. In fact, the opening of the novel, with its threat of a marital breakup casts a dark shadow over all the love and romance in Anna Karenina. This dark shadow extends over many romantic moments in the novel. For example, Levin's and Kitty’s turn at the skating rink ends with Kitty rebuffing Levin’s advances, killing any sense of romance in the scene. From these early scenes of Stiva and Dolly and Levin and Kitty, love seems doomed from the start.
Stiva is a crucial character because he is, in many ways, an advance introduction to his sister, Anna Karenina. His adultery opens the novel; her later adultery is the novel’s main focus. Moreover, they share personality traits and moral attitudes. For one thing, there is an inexplicable aura of innocence around Stiva. He has made mistakes but is far from a villain. Because Tolstoy presents Stiva as such an affable and sincere character, it is nearly impossible even for the most moralistic of us to condemn Stiva wholeheartedly, even if we disapprove of his adulterous liaisons. Despite his lack of restraint, he is not a bad man, and is even quite charming. His flaw is not willful cruelty or meanness but simply his “amorous” nature, as Tolstoy euphemistically puts it. Stiva likes sexual adventure, and in his mind it is not wrong. He regrets not having hidden the affair more thoroughly but does not regret the affair itself, which brought him pleasure, as he openly admits. The question of a right to sexual pleasure is further examined later, in his sister Anna’s situation.
Though Anna Karenina is on the surface a novel about romantic love and courtship, it is actually far more wide-ranging in its focus, delving into public and social topics such as technology, agriculture, and administration. Tolstoy’s explorations of social themes strike many readers as annoying interruptions of the love story, but in fact the novel’s social concerns and its love theme often reinforce each other. The train, for example, is a symbol of modernization and European efficiency. But it is also recurrently associated with Anna and her “transport” of passion upon meeting Vronsky. Anna appears in the novel near a train, and thrillingly meditates on Vronsky as she rides the train to St. Petersburg. Perhaps most important, a train is involved in Anna’s final fate at the end of the novel. The train, like Anna’s adultery, is for Tolstoy an unfortunate product of the modern world. The novel’s social themes intersect with its romantic themes again in the discussion of the Shcherbatskys’ confusion about Kitty’s courtship. It is no longer possible for Russian parents to arrange marriages, but at the same time, children like Kitty cannot choose for themselves. The result is that no one knows how to proceed, and the risks seem huge. Modernization may improve the quality of Russian life, but it also disrupts the fabric of Russian society and courtship.