Vronsky brings his financial accounts into balance. Despite rumors of his huge fortune, he actually leads a hand-to-mouth existence. However, he adheres to a rule he imposed on himself long before and refuses to ask his mother for a loan. Vronsky obeys his rules of conduct rigorously, and it is only with the recent appearance of Anna in his life that he has felt conflicted about proper behavior.
Upon learning of Anna’s pregnancy, Vronsky feels that he should resign from military service. He is reluctant to give up his professional ambitions, however, especially because his old school friend—and friendly rival—Serpukhovskoy has recently found fame. Serpukhovskoy warns Vronsky to be wary of women, as they can hold a man back from his full career potential.
Vronsky sets off for Anna’s country house, where she has arranged a meeting with him. On the way, he feels he loves her more than ever, and his pulse quickens upon his first glimpse of her. Anna reveals to Vronsky that she has told her husband about their adulterous affair. Vronsky fears a duel, but after reading Karenin’s letter to Anna he does not know how to react. Vronsky thinks about Serpukhovskoy’s advice to him but knows he cannot tell Anna about it. He advises Anna to abandon Seryozha, her son with Karenin, and put an end to the humiliating situation by obtaining a divorce. Anna bursts out sobbing, saying that she is not humiliated but proud.
Karenin delivers a speech before the commission on the relocation of the Russian native tribes, and it is a brilliant success. Anna goes to her home in St. Petersburg to talk with her husband. She reaffirms to him that she is the one at fault but says that she cannot change anything. Karenin, exclusively concerned about defending his honor, makes only one demand—that Vronsky never set foot in his home. Anna and Karenin part.
Meanwhile, Levin has come to loathe the farm work he once enjoyed. He feels worn down from his unending struggle with the peasants over their reluctance to adopt new technological innovations for farming. More tormenting is the nearby presence of Kitty at Yergushovo; Levin yearns to see her but feels he cannot. Dolly tries to lure Levin to visit—and encounter Kitty—by requesting to borrow a saddle from him. Levin merely sends the saddle by courier, without visiting Dolly’s house personally.
The torture of being near Kitty but not with her eventually becomes unbearable, so Levin takes off to visit his friend Sviyazhsky, who lives far away. On the way, Levin stops to eat at the home of a prosperous peasant. The peasant and his healthy family impress Levin, as does the farmer’s obvious financial success. The old farmer asserts that landowners cannot rely on hired men, for peasants handle a farm best on their own.
At Sviyazhsky’s house, Levin’s host seems intent on arranging a marriage between Levin and his sister-in-law. Levin does his best to avoid talking to the sister-in-law, knowing in his heart that he can marry only Kitty or no one at all.
At dinner, Sviyazhsky entertains two old-fashioned landowners who miss the bygone days of serfdom in Russia. One of the landowners claims that farming was better in those days, and that the emancipation of the serfs has ruined Russia. Levin meditates on the fact that, in virtually all aspects of Sviyazhsky’s life, there are huge contradictions between what Sviyazhsky inwardly believes and what he outwardly lives.
Sviyazhsky argues that all farming should be done under a rational, scientific system, whereas one of the landowner guests asserts that farming simply requires a firm authority looming over the peasantry. Levin agrees that his attempts to introduce farming innovations to the peasants have been disastrous. Sviyazhsky maintains that serfdom is a thing of the past and that hired labor is the future that all Russian landowners must accept. He asserts that education is the key to winning over the peasants, but Levin disagrees. Thinking about the matter afterward, Levin believes the answer is to treat the peasants not as an abstract workforce but as specifically Russian peasants whose specific traditions and nature must be factored into all decisions involving labor. Levin is determined to put his new theory into practice on his estate, making the peasants financial partners in the harvest. The peasants resist, however, suspecting Levin of somehow trying to cheat them.
As Levin makes plans to visit farms in western Europe to research his new agricultural theory, his brother Nikolai visits. Nikolai, who is even sicker than before, has abandoned Marya Nikolaevna. Since only one room in the house is heated, Levin allows Nikolai to sleep in his own bedroom. Nikolai’s incessant coughing and cursing keep Levin awake all hours of the night. With his brother obviously dying, Levin can think of nothing but death. He gets up to examine his graying temples, affirming that he has a few good years left in his life. He goes back to bed wondering whether there is anything he can do to help his brother.
The next day, conversation between the brothers is strained, as the despairing and self-pitying Nikolai purposely irritates Levin by mocking his ideas about agricultural improvement. Nikolai leaves but at the last minute asks for Levin’s forgiveness. Levin later meets a friend, to whom he speaks about death. Levin is aware that he must live out his life to the end, come what may.
In this portion of the novel, Tolstoy shows us some of the unexpected and seemingly contradictory aspects of Vronsky’s character. Though Vronsky’s methodical accounting practices appear to be at odds with his devil-may-care image, we see that they are as integral to his character as his wild horse-racing style. Vronsky divides all the bills he receives into three distinct categories, ranked in order of urgency of payment, and he never deviates from this system. He likewise has strict moral regulations for himself: he may lie to a woman but never to a man, and so on. On the whole, Tolstoy suggests that Vronsky is perhaps as much of a stickler for rational systems as the other Alexei, Anna’s analytical husband. Karenin applies his methods to public policy, whereas Vronsky applies his to his finances. Regardless, it is clear that both men value intellectual systems over intuition, instinct, or whim. Tolstoy thus thwarts our expectation of a stark contrast between a cold, rational Karenin and a stormy, passionate Vronsky. The two are certainly different but not absolute opposites. Anna, who has little interest in applying systems of thought to her personal life, may be less similar to either of them than they are to each other. Indeed, she never once appeals to any rule or process of deduction to determine her actions. In her ruling instincts Anna resembles Levin more than her husband or her lover.
Vronsky’s conversation with Anna at the country house is the first hint at a decline in the intimacy of their relations. For the first time in the novel we are aware of Vronsky having a thought that he fails to share with Anna—his memory of Serpukhovskoy’s warning about the dangerous effects of women on men’s ambition. Tolstoy heightens the drama of this moment at the country house by showing us Vronsky’s thought and then telling us of his inability to communicate it to Anna. Serpukhovskoy’s advice itself is not necessarily valid, for Anna has proved herself a capable wife to the extremely ambitious Karenin. What is more important is that the advice cannot be shared, which signals the formation of a boundary between Vronsky’s mind and Anna’s. As the novel progresses, this boundary becomes increasingly insurmountable and foreshadows the end of their union. Another hint of a bleak future comes in Vronsky’s reference to Anna’s “humiliation,” a very public form of shame. Anna rightly rejects this term, saying she does not feel humiliation. She is aware only of love, a private emotion. Vronsky’s focus on humiliation suggests that he feels beholden to the pressure of social values—a pressure that represents a clear danger to their love.
Just as Vronsky’s rationality comes as a surprise, so do Levin’s thoughts of mortality and of his own death. Though Levin is a healthy and vigorous man ablaze with future plans, Tolstoy has him meditate on death for several reasons. First, Levin’s thoughts reveal his deep empathy with his critically ill brother. Like Anna, Levin is unable to distance himself from the suffering of anyone close to him. Second, Levin’s reflections on mortality endow him with a wise humility that other characters, such as Karenin and even Vronsky, lack. Levin is no frailer than they, yet some vainglorious quality about those other men makes it hard to imagine either of them contemplating his own demise. Even Vronsky, who has come near death in the horse race, has not let the experience noticeably alter his views. Levin is different: his closeness to his ailing brother causes him to realize and accept his human nature and limited life span. Finally, Levin’s thoughts of death align him with Anna, who thinks about death the first moment we meet her, after the casualty in the train station. Levin and Anna are linked not only in the intensity of their lives but also in their recognition of the closeness of death.