“. . . [M]y life now . . . is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!”
Two months pass after Anna’s death. Sergei Koznyshev’s book on statehood in Russia and Europe, on which he spent six years of work, is published to virtually no public recognition. Sergei tries to forget his failure by focusing his attention on the movement to liberate the Serbs, Montenegrins, and other Slavic groups from the Muslim rule of Turkey—a cause that seemingly occupies the whole Russian nation.
Sergei and Katavasov accompany a large number of Russian volunteers who are traveling to occupied Serbia to offer military support to the Slavs. A bystander affirms that Vronsky is among the volunteers, and that he has even outfitted a squadron at his own expense. Stiva appears from the crowd and greets Sergei. “God Save the Tsar” resounds from the patriotic crowd. Sergei meets Vronsky’s mother, who is accompanying her son. The Countess Vronsky insults the dead Anna as “mean and low” and says that Karenin has taken custody of Anna’s young daughter. Finally, Sergei speaks to Vronsky, who is ready and willing to die for the Slavic cause, as nothing in life has value for him now.
Sergei and Katavasov visit Levin’s estate. Kitty greets them and feeds her infant son, Mitya, while waiting for Levin to come home. She is glad Levin has visitors, for she has been worrying about his gloomy mood, which she attributes to his lack of religious faith. Levin has been more focused on philosophical questions ever since marriage and fatherhood, searching for the meaning of life. He has read the classics of philosophical idealism, seeking a non-materialist answer to his question. Unable to find any, he has flirted with suicide. When Levin stops thinking and simply lives, he finds himself happy.
The day Sergei arrives, Levin is tormented by seeing his peasant workers and imagining them dead and forgotten in a few years. Levin speaks to a peasant, Fyodor, about a local innkeeper who rents some nearby farmland. Fyodor explains that the innkeeper lives only for his belly, unlike many who live for God and goodness.
Fyodor’s words galvanize Levin. He recognizes that living for God and goodness is the answer to his questions about the meaning of life. He feels freed from life’s deceptions. Living for oneself and aiming only to satisfy one’s own desires is childish, as Levin notes when he catches his children behaving mischievously. Life is good, whereas thinking is bad. The sky is not infinite but a vault overhead, however irrational that may be.
Lying on his back in a field, gazing up at the sky, Levin knows he has found faith and thanks God for it. He resolves never to allow quarrels or estrangement to divide him from other people. Just a few minutes later, however, Levin argues with his driver on the way back home after meeting Sergei and Katavasov. Levin feels self-critical but knows that his faith will survive despite his little moral failures. At home, he meets Dolly and her children, tells her the news about Vronsky’s departure with the volunteers, and takes everyone on a picnic. Discussing the Slavic cause with Sergei, Levin states his opposition to the war and expresses skepticism about the Russian people being unanimously behind it. He tries to argue but realizes he is helpless against the wits of the more intellectual Sergei and Katavasov.
A sudden, violent thunderstorm overtakes the picnickers, who run for the house. Levin learns that Kitty and Mitya are not inside, as he believed, but are still out in the woods. Seeing a giant oak toppling over near where Kitty and the child were sitting, he fears they have been killed but runs to them and finds them safe. Levin realizes the extent of his love for his son, and Kitty is grateful that he finally feels paternal emotions. Feeling another surge of faith, Levin contemplates telling Kitty of his newfound spirituality but decides not to, concluding that faith is private and inexpressible. He feels once again that the meaning of life lies in the goodness that one puts into it.
Tolstoy’s decision to end the novel with Levin’s religious regeneration, rather than with Anna’s demise, perplexes many readers who expect the novel to be first and foremost about Anna and her tragedy. The ending shows us yet again that Anna Karenina is a novel of ideas, rather than merely a tragic love story. The final chapters recounting Levin’s thoughts and feelings as he discovers the meaning of life are more abstract than any other part of the novel, and some paragraphs read like a philosophy treatise. The result is striking: Anna is hardly mentioned in the last part of the novel that bears her name. As Tolstoy clearly intends this omission, we must conclude that he means us to forget or bypass Anna’s life—at least in part—in the context of the novel’s search for higher meaning. When Levin comes to reject a life lived simply to satisfy one’s own desires, he does not mention Anna, but we inevitably think of her. Tolstoy invites us to think that Anna, like Stiva and Dolly’s naughty children who destroy things in pursuit of pleasure, has pursued her passion selfishly and destructively. Anna is the negative example of what Levin positively illustrates—the ability to live one’s life in commitment to something higher than oneself.
The question of the meaning of life confronts not only Levin, but Sergei and Vronsky as well, and the latter two men come up with quite different answers to the question than Levin does. Vronsky’s response is the simpler of the two: he concludes that life has no meaning whatsoever—a notion that Levin fleetingly embraces during his thoughts of suicide. Ironically, this pessimistic idea fuels Vronsky’s courageous show of valor in traveling to fight in the Serbian war. Vronsky frankly informs Sergei that the prospect of losing one’s life is easy to accept when nothing in life has value. Sergei’s conclusion is more complex. Having tried and failed to acquire meaning through intellectual achievement, Sergei masks his private disappointment by throwing himself into a public, patriotic cause. Sergei is not exactly insincere in supporting the Serbians, but his fervor appears shallow, especially when Levin cross-examines him on whether the newspapers have sensationalized the Serbian affair to boost their circulation. Sergei tries to connect with something larger than himself but does so in the wrong way. The humans for whom he cares are abstract, not real. Like Vronsky, Sergei is unable to find good in actual relationships with living humans.
Some feminist critics feel that Anna Karenina, though it frequently presents the issue of women’s rights with sympathy and fairness, betrays a misogynistic streak at the end. Tolstoy’s parallel plot device disappears as the female story line vanishes—Anna is hardly mentioned—leaving the male Levin the star of the show. His reproach to Kitty for taking the baby to the woods against his orders suggests that father knows best, not mother. Likewise, Levin experiences religious enlightenment but decides not to share it with his wife on the grounds that she would not understand it. No woman in the novel has any grand philosophical illumination; they simply have children and busy themselves with domestic concerns. Even Anna’s rich experience seems dismissed at the end of the novel. All the compassion with which Tolstoy has represented the complexity of Anna’s situation goes up in smoke when Countess Vronsky is given the last word, calling Anna lowly and mean. We know the Countess is wrong, aware of Anna’s high-mindedness and nobility, yet nobody in the novel defends Anna or refutes the Countess. In the end, it is as if Tolstoy condemns the female right to seek passion and autonomy—even after leading us to support Anna’s claim to that right.