In Moscow, Levin and Kitty await the birth of their child. Kitty notes how anxious and wary Levin is in the city compared to the countryside. He dislikes the men’s club and its attendant socializing but has few other ways to pass the time. In her condition, Kitty rarely goes out. On one occasion, however, she does leave the house and encounters Vronsky, whom she addresses calmly, pleased at her ability to master her former romantic feelings for him.
Levin is uncomfortably aware of the expenses of city life, noting that the cost of his city servants’ uniforms could pay for two summer workers on his farm. He meets the scholars Katavasov and Metrov and discusses his book on Russian agriculture with them. Metrov is agreeable but understands agricultural issues solely in terms of capital and wages, ignoring the cultural factors that are central to Levin’s thinking. Levin concludes that intellectual advancement can come only from each scholar following his own ideas to the end. He leaves to visit Lvov, the diplomat husband of Kitty’s sister Natalie. Lvov complains about the studying required to keep up with his children’s education, which he supervises.
Levin then goes to a concert and hears an orchestral piece based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. Levin dislikes the piece’s random connection of disparate moods, and the audience’s enthusiastic applause perplexes him. Later, at a reception, Levin discusses a recently concluded trial and finds himself repeating words that he heard someone else say the day before. Then Levin goes to the club, where he enjoys lewd and drunken conversation with Stiva, Vronsky, and others, laughing so loudly that others turn to look. Levin decides he likes Vronsky. Stiva asks Levin whether he likes the gentlemen’s club—their “temple of idleness”—and notes how lazy some of the members are. Levin gambles and loses forty rubles. Stiva suddenly proposes a surprise visit to Anna, whom Levin has never met. Levin agrees. Stiva explains Anna’s loneliness in Moscow, saying that she passes her time writing a children’s book and assisting in the education of the daughter of an impoverished English family.
Stiva and Levin reach Anna’s home, where Levin immediately notices Mikhailov’s portrait of her. Anna delights Levin with her sincerity, beauty, and intelligence. The two discuss a variety of topics in an easy and familiar way, and Levin is amazed by Anna’s grace and facility in conversation. Levin asks why Anna supports the English girl but not Russian schoolchildren. Anna replies that she only loves this particular girl, and love is paramount. On parting, Anna tells Levin that she does not wish Kitty to forgive her, for forgiveness would be possible only if Kitty were to live through the same nightmare Anna has experienced. Levin blushes and agrees to tell Kitty.
Levin returns home, aware of his fascination with and attraction to Anna. He tells Kitty he has met Anna, and Kitty jealously provokes a quarrel. Meanwhile, Anna, alone, wonders why Vronsky is colder to her than Levin. When Vronsky returns, she chastises him for preferring his male friends to her. Vronsky notes the clear hostility in her tone. Anna speaks vaguely and ominously about a disaster she is nearing and about her fear of herself.
Surprising even himself, Levin grows accustomed to his expensive and superficial city life. One night, Kitty awakens him with news that her labor has begun. Levin is dazed, aware only of her suffering and the need to alleviate it. He picks up the doctor, frustrated by delays. During the long labor, Levin becomes convinced that Kitty will die during childbirth. When the doctor announces that the birth has taken place, Levin can hardly believe he has a son. Kitty is fine, but the sight of the red, shrieking infant makes Levin feel a bizarre mix of pity and revulsion.
The meeting between Anna and Levin is a key structural point in the novel, as the parallel story lines converge and the two most emotionally intense characters in the work finally come face to face. Lost in the immensity of Tolstoy’s novel, we may not even initially realize that this is the first time the two protagonists meet. Postponed for so long, the encounter acquires symbolic importance. The result is harmonious, as Levin and Anna like each other and connect easily. Indeed, it is hard to avoid speculating on what a marriage between Anna and Levin might have been like. Beyond a physical attraction, they seem to share a social and spiritual connection. The frequently awkward Levin has no difficulty conversing with Anna, and he never finds her artificial, as he finds many others. Levin’s awareness that in Anna there is “truth,” as he calls it, highlights the dogged search for sincerity that both these protagonists have led throughout the novel. Levin knows he is besotted with Anna, as his reflections on the way home make clear. Moreover, Kitty’s jealousy of Anna hints that she feels Levin’s infatuation too. Of course, nothing comes of this interaction between Anna and Levin. The meeting simply invites us to compare their characters directly and to note the affinities between their respective searches for truth.
These chapters also give us a glimpse into Anna’s increasingly strange and unstable mindset as she begins to slip into suicidal feelings. She is clearly tormented, yet it is striking how little objective cause for torment there is. To be sure, Anna’s social life is no bed of roses, but earlier we see her radiantly happy in her outsider status when Dolly meets her on horseback. Anna blames Vronsky for coldness toward her, yet Vronsky’s readiness to adapt to her plans and his promptness in answering her telegrams hardly appear coldhearted. She reproaches Vronsky for spending time with his male friends, but his socializing does not appear excessive. It would surely be unreasonable for her to expect Vronsky to spend every waking moment with her. Indeed, Anna admits in her apologetic note that her accusations are unfair. Yet we should not judge Anna too harshly; for it seems cruel to accuse her of making it all up, hysterically inventing reasons to be anguished. Her need for love at this time in her life—having abandoned son, husband, friends, and society—is overwhelming. As she repeatedly tells Vronsky, love is all she has left. We may feel that nothing is objectively wrong in Anna’s life, but for her, subjective feelings of love are more important than objective physical well-being.
King Lear on the Heath, the fictional musical fantasia that Levin hears performed, is based on Shakespeare’s great tragedy about isolation and mistrusted love, in which the hero, Lear, spends an anguished night on the moors confronting his own madness. Lear ends up alienated from others—an alienation that we see mirrored in both Levin’s and Anna’s experiences. Both Levin and Anna seek peace of mind in the country, yet both are disappointed when they withdraw into solitude only to discover their private demons—Levin’s dissatisfaction with his unproductive life and Anna’s furiously jealous fits. Moreover, Lear’s rejection of the love of his affectionate daughter Cordelia reminds us of Anna’s forthcoming rejection of Vronsky’s love. In both Anna’s and Lear’s stories, a powerful emotion is the turning point of the plot. The reference to King Lear reminds us of the intensely subjective focus of Anna Karenina. The status of Tolstoy’s novel as a realist work full of historical references sometimes threatens to obscure the fact that it is centrally about the human heart. While social themes are clearly present, Anna Karenina is anchored in the psychological states of its main protagonists, and the way they perceive reality colors the entire sweep of the novel.