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.