Part Six, Chapters 17–32
En route to Anna’s house, Dolly encounters Anna, Veslovsky, Princess Oblonskaya, and Levin’s friend Sviyazhsky on horseback. Dolly is startled by Anna’s boldness in riding horseback, which society considers improper for ladies. Dolly dislikes Princess Oblonskaya, who sponges off of her rich relatives. Dolly knows that she looks older than Anna. Anna speaks of her great, “unforgivable” happiness: having survived past fears and torments, she says she only wants to live. She talks about Vronsky’s estate management and the first-class hospital he is building for the local peasant community.
Dolly stays in a room that Anna calls inferior but that is in fact very luxurious. Dolly feels very self-conscious about her shabby clothes. Anna presents her baby daughter, who is illegitimate but technically a Karenin. Dolly is troubled by the child’s disagreeable governess and by Anna’s ignorance of nursery matters. Indeed, Anna even admits she feels superfluous in the infant’s upbringing. Overall, Anna’s life pleases Dolly, who envies Anna’s freedom and love. In private, Vronsky implores Dolly to persuade Anna to get a divorce—which Karenin had agreed to earlier—so that Vronsky and Anna might petition the emperor for a legal adoption of their daughter. Dolly promises to speak to Anna later.
Over a costly dinner, the group discusses such topics as American efficiency in building, government abuses, and the zemstvo system. When someone mentions that Levin has retired from zemstvo activity, Vronsky asserts that it is important for a nobleman to fulfill his duties, as he does in serving as justice of the peace. Dolly, annoyed by Vronsky’s slighting of Levin, affirms Levin’s responsible character. Anna remarks that Vronsky’s official duties are distancing him from her.
Playing croquet afterward, Dolly dislikes Veslovsky’s flirtations with Anna. Later, Anna inquires about Levin, wanting the best for Kitty. Dolly mentions Anna’s possible divorce for the sake of future children. Anna announces that because of her illness she can have no more children, saying she thinks it is for the best. Dolly wonders how Anna will hold on to Vronsky when her beauty inevitably fades. Anna says she cannot humiliate herself by writing to Karenin for a divorce. Dolly suddenly reflects on her own family life with warmth, noting that Anna takes medicine to fall asleep. Rather than stay several days as planned, Dolly decides to return home the next day.
When Vronsky announces he must travel to Kashin province for some important local elections, Anna receives the news with a strange calm. Levin, now living in Moscow because of Kitty’s pregnancy, also goes to the elections. He is frustrated by the bureaucratic proceedings, but Sergei explains to him the importance of the elections, in which the old-guard marshal of nobility will be replaced by a younger man more supportive of the zemstvo system. When the vote is cast, the younger party wins. Levin runs into the landowner he met during his visit to Sviyazhsky’s house and has a conversation with him. The landowner says that the elections have little significance and reports that he is still farming at a net loss; in fact, he is pessimistic about the state of Russian landowners in general. Levin tells Sviyazhsky, who is also present at the elections, that the local court is an idiotic institution.
Soon, Levin grows dejected and yearns to flee the elections. Ultimately, a venomous nobleman named Nevedovsky is elected marshal of the nobility. Vronsky hosts a party for the victor but receives a worried note from Anna telling him to return home immediately, as their infant daughter is ill. At home, Anna fumes over her utter lack of freedom, her inability to travel on a whim as Vronsky can. Vronsky returns and asks why Anna is irritable, once again affirming his love for her. Anna says she refuses to be separated from Vronsky again. She agrees to write Karenin for a divorce, which they expect him to permit.
In this section, Tolstoy uses the dinner party discussion of local politics to explore the notion of social commitment. Vronsky comes across as high-minded in his eloquent assertion that Russian nobles must serve their governmental duties, affirming a vital political and social role for the aristocracy. But his praise of social duty may be hollow, an idea put forth for show but lacking substance—just like Vronsky’s state-of-the-art hospital, which seems to have been constructed more with the aim of being an architectural wonder than a practical facility. Vronsky may feel lofty social sentiments, but we trust Levin more, understanding his complaints that the local courts are bureaucratic and inefficient. Levin has had more hands-on political experience than Vronsky, having served on a zemstvo, so we give his cynicism about Russian local politics more weight. Moreover, the local elections at Kashin make us feel the futility of local social institutions even more sharply. Despite all the fanfare, most local landowners appear to agree that the vote is meaningless. All the bluster and attention leads to nothing of importance. As Vronsky figures large in the elections, we may associate this empty bluster with his character.
Tolstoy’s brand of feminism, in the sense of attention to the political and social oppression of the women of his era, is strongly evident in these chapters, beginning with the unforgettable portrait of Dolly meeting the happy Anna on horseback. At the time, as the narrator hints, it was almost scandalous for a grown woman to ride on horseback. Tolstoy thus purposely portrays Anna in a radically unconventional pose. The symbolic contrast with Dolly is noticeable. We note that Dolly’s journey to Anna’s house is enabled entirely by men: Dolly is transported by a male driver, on horses borrowed from another man, Levin. Anna, on the other hand, is in control of her own movement, guiding the horse directly. When Dolly compares herself to Anna immediately upon meeting her, noting the differences in the aging of their faces, we feel that Dolly is already envious of Anna’s independence and its benefits. Yet Tolstoy reminds us that Anna’s independence is far from complete, noting how she fumes over the fact that Vronsky enjoys far greater rights than she. Vronsky can travel at will, while she is stuck at home. Symbolically, Anna is on the road to women’s emancipation but has not yet arrived.
Tolstoy’s treatment of motherhood here may indicate the limitations of his feminist sympathies. As Anna pursues her freedom, Tolstoy deprives her of a maternal role—not only does she lose custody of Seryozha and feel ambivalence toward her baby girl, but her illness also leaves her unable to have any more children. Some readers feel that Tolstoy demonstrates an old-fashioned sexism in insisting that an independent woman automatically becomes both infertile and a bad mother. But we should not necessarily label Tolstoy a misogynist. The sexist ideas that appear here—such as Dolly’s idea that Anna will be unable to keep Vronsky after her beauty fades, which equates a woman’s desirability only with her physical appearance—are not necessarily Tolstoy’s. The author may circulate ideas that provoke dissent and reflection in the reader without agreeing with them himself. In any case, we must exercise caution in assessing Tolstoy’s views toward women.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!