Vronsky continues life as usual in his regiment. Though he never lets slip that he loves Anna, the whole of St. Petersburg high society knows about his feelings for her. The women who once praised Anna as righteous now wait for a chance to sling mud in her face.
Vronsky hears about an upcoming officers’ steeplechase, so he buys a new mare, named Frou-Frou, to ride in one of the races. On the day of the races, Vronsky visits Frou-Frou in the stable, and she grows more agitated as he approaches. Vronsky reflects on everyone pestering him about Anna.
Just before the horse race, Vronsky visits Anna at her nearby summer house. She has been thinking about him and seems somewhat distraught. Her son, Seryozha, is absent, as Vronsky had hoped. Anna informs Vronsky that she is pregnant. He urges her to leave her husband and live with him instead. Vronsky cannot imagine how Anna can wish to continue living in such deceit, not realizing that the reason is her love for her son. Suddenly, Vronsky realizes he is late for the races.
Vronsky arrives at the racetrack just as Frou-Frou is being led out of the stable. Vronsky’s brother, Alexander, approaches him and tells him to answer a letter their mother has recently sent. Vronsky is expected to do well in the race, as his only serious rival is another officer, Makhotin, who rides a horse named Gladiator. Nonetheless, Vronsky is agitated. The race begins. After a slow start, Frou-Frou outpaces all the horses except Gladiator. At last, Frou-Frou pulls ahead of Gladiator, and is in the lead. Vronsky is ecstatic. But during a jump over a ditch, he shifts in the saddle incorrectly, causing Frou-Frou to fall. The horse breaks her back and must be shot.
Meanwhile, the Karenins’ relationship, on the surface, has remains just the same as before. Unable to face or admit his own feelings for his wife, Karenin treats Anna with an offended hostility. He hardly ever sees her, as she goes away for the summer, living near Betsy Tverskoy’s home in the countryside. At the officers’ steeplechase, which Anna and Betsy attend together, Karenin observes that his wife only has eyes for Vronsky. When Vronsky falls, Anna weeps with alarm, and then with relief after hearing that he is safe. Karenin offers to take Anna home, but she prefers to stay. Karenin tells Anna that her visible grief upon Vronsky’s fall is highly improper. Finally, on the carriage ride home, Anna frankly confesses to Karenin that she loves Vronsky and hates Karenin. The shocked Karenin demands that she continue to observe the outward conventions of marriage for appearances’ sake until a suitable solution is found.
Meanwhile, Kitty and some of her family are at a spa in Germany. The Shcherbatskys enjoy socializing with European aristocrats as they await an improvement in Kitty’s health. One of the spa guests is a snobby, elderly, Russian invalid named Madame Stahl, who is famously devout and is accompanied by a young girl named Varenka. Kitty likes Varenka immensely but is nervous about meeting her. Kitty’s mother learns that two spa guests, a tattered Russian gentleman and his female companion, are in fact Levin’s brother Nikolai and Nikolai’s girlfriend. One day, Kitty’s mother is so impressed with Varenka that she allows Kitty to meet the girl. Kitty is delighted, and both mother and daughter are enchanted by Varenka’s goodness.
Following Varenka’s example of charity, Kitty throws herself into devotion and good deeds. She befriends a sad painter named Petrov, visiting him often. However, Petrov’s wife eventually becomes jealous of Kitty, who is upset that her good intentions have gone astray. Near the end of Kitty’s treatment, her father, Prince Shcherbatsky, returns from his travels elsewhere in Germany. He entertains his family and various others at the spa with his easy manner and funny jokes. The Prince chats with Madame Stahl, who he claims is bedridden not from illness but from vanity, merely because her legs are stubby. Her idealized, pious image of Madame Stahl deflated, Kitty never sees the old woman in the same way again.
One of Tolstoy’s main concerns in Anna Karenina is the conflict between inner and outer life, between private passions and the public social conventions that bind those passions. We see this tension in Karenin’s reaction to the news of Anna’s adultery. Unlike Anna, Karenin has no expectation that outward appearances should match the heart’s inner feelings—he is content to live with a glaring disparity between the two. He tells Anna that she must maintain the status quo until he finds a suitable solution, which effectively means living the same life of deceit and lies with which Anna has struggled prior to her confession. Karenin’s position ensures that Anna’s admission of adultery changes nothing. Nothing changes later, either, when Karenin insists on formally maintaining his marriage. Although Anna has done wrong, she at least is aligned with the side of truth. In contrast, Karenin, who technically has done no wrong, is guilty in the sense that he prefers falsity just for the sake of maintaining appearances.
Vronsky’s disaster in the horse race is a brilliant symbol of the difficulties he faces as Anna’s lover. Tolstoy fills the scene with implicit comparisons between the horses’ obstacle course and the love affair. Vronsky is on public display as he rides in the officers’ steeplechase, just as his love affair with Anna is on public display despite all his efforts to keep it secret. He struggles to control Frou-Frou, a creature he does not know well, just as he struggles to understand the still-unfamiliar intricacies of his relationship with Anna. Moreover, much like a romantic relationship, Vronsky’s relationship with his horse is more of a partnership than a situation of mastery and submission. He cannot rule the horse completely but can only hope for the best. Frou-Frou and Vronsky seem to have a strong rapport, but the horse grows increasingly nervous as Vronsky approaches her just before the race—just as the relationship between Vronsky and Anna becomes more unsettled as the lovers grow closer. Vronsky’s troubling conversations with Anna and his brother before the race impair his concentration and his ability to ride, emphasizing still further the connection between his horse race and his relationship. In light of these parallels, the race is darkly prophetic. Vronsky’s false move on the saddle, which inadvertently breaks Frou-Frou’s back and leads to her death, foreshadows Vronsky’s unintentional yet disastrous wounding of Anna.
Kitty’s involvement with Varenka and Madame Stahl demonstrates Tolstoy’s ability to approach the central themes and concerns of Anna Karenina from various angles, so subtly that we are hardly conscious of it. Kitty’s stay at the German spa offers a parallel tale of a character swept away by illusions and then rudely awakened to disillusionment. Tolstoy presents Kitty’s disenchantment with Madame Stahl in a way that makes us think twice about Anna’s infatuation with Vronsky. When Kitty becomes enamored with Varenka and Madame Stahl, she is gloriously happy to have found a higher aim for her life, a transcendent vision of charity and piety to lift her up. But as Kitty’s father points out to her later, Madame Stahl is less an invalid angel of virtue and goodness than a vain woman who stays in bed because her legs are stubby. In imitating Madame Stahl, Kitty performs acts of goodness that are not sincere, as she herself admits eventually. Indeed, Kitty causes more harm than good when she makes Petrov’s wife jealous and upset. In presenting this sequence of infatuation and disillusionment, Tolstoy implies that Anna may be in love with an illusion as well, causing unnecessary harm to those around her. We see what Anna may not yet see: Vronsky is not a Prince Charming but rather an ordinary man with the same limitations as everyone else, including Anna’s own husband.