Dolly, unhappy with her own run-down estate, moves in with Levin and Kitty for the summer. Kitty’s friend Varenka and Levin’s half-brother, Sergei, are also present. Sergei is friendly despite the others’ awe of his fame. Dolly and Kitty even discuss the possibility of setting him up with Varenka. Levin is skeptical of this idea, explaining that Sergei is used to a spiritual life whereas Varenka is more earthy. Levin tells Kitty that he envies Sergei, who lives for duty and thus can reach satisfaction. Kitty asks why Levin is not satisfied himself. Levin mentions his work frustrations but affirms he is happy overall.
Sergei and Varenka do indeed like each other greatly, and Sergei fantasizes about proposing marriage. One day, the two go out picking mushrooms together, and both of them suddenly realize Sergei is on the verge of proposing. At the last minute, however, he is unable to bring himself to do so, as he wishes to be loyal to the memory of a deceased lover from his youth. The opportunity gone, Sergei and Varenka both realize they will never marry each other.
One day, Stiva arrives with a friend, the handsome Veslovsky. Stiva mentions that Veslovsky has visited Anna. Dolly asserts that she will visit Anna too, though Kitty is reluctant to go. Veslovsky flirts with Kitty, which makes Levin insanely jealous. Levin and Kitty quarrel and Levin apologizes, promising to make Veslovsky feel welcome on their hunting trip the next day.
Setting out with Stiva and Veslovsky, Levin is ashamed of his earlier anger, for he now finds Veslovsky comical and good-natured. But once they begin hunting, the presence of the somewhat hapless Veslovsky again bothers Levin, distracting him and causing him to shoot badly. The others bag far more game, and Levin’s irritation grows. Veslovsky stupidly sets his gun off accidentally and gets their cart stuck in a marsh.
The men discuss a railroad magnate neighbor whose fortune Levin disdains, considering it ill gotten, the product of financial tricks, not hard work. Stiva mocks Levin for being a nobleman who does not work for his fortune, and Levin is irked. Levin goes to bed frustrated, while the other two go off in pursuit of farm girls, which Stiva says is acceptable as long as his wife does not find out.
Waking early the next morning, Levin goes off hunting alone. His dog flushes out several enormous snipe, which Levin kills effortlessly. Delighted, Levin returns hours later with nineteen birds. His joy disperses, however, when he learns that Stiva and Veslovsky have eaten all the food. Kitty then discusses her need to go to Moscow to see an obstetrician. Levin initially resists, believing doctors to be unnecessary, but finally assents. Veslovsky engages Kitty in a conversation about whether love can be above social conventions, but she finds his tone objectionable. Kitty and Levin quarrel and make up once more. Finally, Levin, again annoyed at Veslovsky’s flirtation with Kitty, kicks him out of the house, despite his awareness that such an action is ungracious.
Dolly sticks to her plan of visiting Anna. She plans to hire her own horses rather than ask for Levin’s, as she is reluctant to seek his aid for a potentially shameful mission. Levin, however, insists on giving Dolly his horses. During the trip, Dolly reflects on love and marriage, remembering a peasant girl’s comment that motherhood is bondage. She understands Anna’s need to live her life on her own terms, and wonders whether she too could love and be loved in a real way.
It might seem puzzling that Tolstoy suddenly chooses to focus on the courtship of two fairly marginal characters, Sergei and Varenka, at a point in the novel when Levin’s and Anna’s relationships are in full swing. However, the endearing and awkward romance between these two minor characters offers us an important contrast to other instances of love we glimpse in the novel, and makes us reflect on the nature of relationships in general. Sergei and Varenka are both spiritual creatures: Sergei is a born intellectual, and Varenka is often termed a born saint. They both seem to dwell in the air rather than in the flesh. Levin and Kitty are both aware of their differences from these two: Levin cannot follow Sergei’s highly analytical approach to life’s questions, and Kitty cannot follow Varenka’s example of moral good works at the German spa. But Tolstoy suggests that spiritual gifts may be a disadvantage in life and love, as we watch Sergei and Varenka’s touching but pathetic attempt to make romantic contact. Sergei dreams of declaring his love but ultimately can only dare talk about mushrooms. Their limitations are clear. Tolstoy may value purity of mind and heart, but he appreciates the worldly wisdom of physical beings still more.
Levin’s hunting frustrations give us an interesting insight into his psyche. His difficulty in bagging game may be attributed to simple bad luck, or to the annoyance of having others nearby—but it may also go much deeper. When Tolstoy shows Levin’s annoyance with Veslovsky, we suspect that the reason for Levin’s poor shooting may be unconscious anger. He certainly resents Veslovsky’s flirtations with Kitty, as we have seen earlier. Levin’s irritation, however, may also have a philosophical and social dimension: he may be angry at the irresponsible lifestyles these Russian noblemen enjoy. Veslovsky—whose name contains the Russian word for “merrily,” veselo—lives for pleasure and thinks only of himself. He nearly shoots his comrades by accident and laughs about it later, and he gets the cart stuck in the marsh through pure obliviousness. Veslovsky and Stiva also gobble up the food meant for Levin, again simply without thinking. On the whole, Veslovsky’s womanizing and pleasure seeking are exaggerations of similar traits in Stiva, and they symbolize the harmful selfishness of the Russian noble classes that Levin generally dislikes. Levin wishes to care for and be mindful of something larger than his own urges; these other men do not.
Dolly’s decision to visit Anna is an extraordinarily significant event. It reveals not just Dolly’s strength of character—she dares to call on a woman shunned by society, simply because she loves her—but also a dimension of Dolly’s inner thoughts that we have not seen before. Her willingness to hire her own horses, rather than use Levin’s for fear of shaming him, shows that she is well aware of the stigma that her visit may bring. We never doubt Dolly’s true love for Anna in paying her this visit, as Dolly is nothing if not sincere in her expression of affection. But on a deeper level, Dolly mentally puts herself in Anna’s place throughout her trip, vicariously trying out Anna’s experiences. Although happily devoted to her children, Dolly wistfully recalls overhearing a peasant say that motherhood is bondage. Dolly goes on to associate Anna with a freedom from this bondage, for Anna has abandoned her son. Anna represents freedom and happiness for Dolly, and her example is provocative, prompting Dolly to think about her own life philosophically. The climax of Dolly’s interior monologue comes when she wonders whether she could be loved in a real way—hinting that she knows that the slick Stiva does not have real love for her.