In a dingy hotel in the provinces, Levin meets Nikolai, who is clearly at death’s door. Kitty insists on seeing Nikolai too, and he greets her pleasantly. Levin cannot bear to look at Nikolai, but the more practical Kitty immediately gets down to work to lessen the dying man’s suffering, displaying remarkable compassion and empathy for him. Kitty’s tenderness touches Nikolai. Levin meditates on how he fears death more than Kitty, even though he is more intelligent than she. He concludes that he is self-centered whereas she is selfless.
The next day, Nikolai takes communion and feels better, passing a half-hour without coughing. But then the cough returns. Nikolai tells Kitty—whom he calls by her Russian name, Katia—to leave the room, as he will die soon. He continues to linger between life and death, however. Kitty, meanwhile, feels ill and vomits. After several tedious days of waiting, Nikolai finally passes away. The doctor tells Kitty that she is vomiting because she is pregnant.
Karenin, meanwhile, cannot grasp what has led him to his current misery. Asked to pay one of Anna’s overdue bills, he nearly breaks down. His career is at a standstill. The narrator fills us in on Karenin’s childhood: an orphan, Karenin grew up with many awards and distinctions but without intimacy in his life. Now, his friend Lydia Ivanovna urges him to trust in Jesus and offers to run his household. Forlornly in love with Karenin herself, Lydia Ivanovna has replaced erotic passion with religious love. However, she is spiteful toward Anna, refusing to acknowledge Anna’s letter pleading to see Seryozha. Lydia Ivanovna informs Karenin that Anna is in St. Petersburg, which makes Karenin glum. He asserts that he cannot thwart Anna’s maternal love for her son. Lydia Ivanovna maliciously asks whether Anna truly loves her son.
Seryozha’s birthday arrives, and his joy in getting gifts is heightened by his pride that his father has received an official award. The boy bombards his tutor with questions about his father’s award, but the tutor insists he concentrate on schoolwork. Seryozha wonders why the tutor does not love him. Lydia Ivanovna has told Seryozha that his mother is dead to him, but he still hopes to see Anna again. Karenin visits Seryozha and quizzes him on his religious lessons. Seryozha does not do well, and Karenin is disappointed in his son’s progress.
Upon returning to St. Petersburg, Vronsky and Anna stay in a fine hotel. They hope to resume their social life but are thwarted. Everyone shuns them, even Betsy Tverskaya, who explains that she cannot risk the public shame of socializing with Anna. Anna receives Karenin’s denial of her plea to see Seryozha and is devastated. Determined to see her son anyway, she buys him toys for his birthday and visits the Karenin home one morning, hiding her face until she has entered.
The servants recognize Anna and bring her to Seryozha. Mother and son chat, and Anna cries with joy and regret. Seryozha’s former nanny, also visiting him, informs Anna that Karenin is soon to enter the room. Anna hurries away but encounters Karenin on her way out. As she leaves, she realizes that she never got the chance to give Seryozha his toys. Returning to the hotel in a daze, Anna is unable to fathom her present situation. Moreover, she suddenly feels less love toward her infant daughter, Annie. Anna mentally reproaches Vronsky for abandoning her lately.
Vronsky returns to the hotel to find Anna with Princess Oblon-skaya, an old, unmarried aunt of Anna’s with a bad reputation. Anna announces that she plans to attend the opera that evening. Vronsky begs her not to, warning her of the fact that the members of high society at the theater will scorn and humiliate her. He believes that she wishes to deliberately provoke and insult conventional society.
Nevertheless, Anna leaves for the opera. Vronsky follows later and watches in horror as Anna is insulted by acquaintances in the neighboring box. Anna returns home angry and desperate. Vronsky reassures her of his love, and the two depart for the countryside.
Just before we see Anna reach the depths of humiliation in her public disgrace, Tolstoy shows us a glimpse of Anna in private, at her most tender and maternal moment. The author juxtaposes the two extremes of Anna’s personality: just as we have never seen her so brazenly in the public eye as during her time at the opera, so too have we never seen her quite so loving and motherly as when she secretly brings birthday presents to her son. We have frequently heard that she loves Seryozha, but her tears of joy at seeing him prove that love. The birthday scene is crucial because it reminds us that the love for which Anna lives is not just romantic love but parental love as well. Her life is defined by the fact that she cares for certain people and does not care for others. In this regard, she is not a dizzy romantic dreamer like Flaubert’s deluded Madame Bovary. Anna does not throw away her past in pursuit of a dashing love interest but simply and passionately tries to find and stick by true love in all its forms, whether lover or son.
These chapters all center on human isolation, exploring this concept from different angles through the experiences of different characters. Karenin’s loneliness nearly pushes him to a nervous breakdown as his family life and professional career fall apart. The man who once seemed invincible now appears surprisingly frail. Tolstoy suggests that isolation can topple even giants. We learn that Karenin was an orphan, raised without parental intimacy. In giving us Karenin’s childhood history, the author invites us to conclude that Karenin’s later pursuit of status and honor is an attempt to fill the void left by the lack of family love. Seryozha may well feel this same lack of love, and we fear that he may grow up to be just like his father. When Seryozha asks his tutor about official awards and wonders why the tutor does not love him more, we see that the boy mixes intimacy and honors in his mind as much as his father does.
Anna’s humiliation in the theater is, of course, another case of isolation—a painful, forced ostracism. The dying Nikolai is isolated as well, and Kitty’s companionship is like a medicine to him. Though Nikolai does not recover, Kitty’s kindness makes his final days far less lonely and frightening than they might have been. The healing power of Kitty’s company for Nikolai reminds us that simple togetherness can have a miraculous effect in curing the great ill of isolation that afflicts mankind.