After being thwarted by a rival at work, Karenin decides to set out for the provinces in an attempt to redeem his professional reputation. He encounters Stiva and Dolly one day and treats them coolly. Stiva, who is in good spirits and is enjoying his new ballerina mistress, invites Karenin, Levin, Kitty, and others to a dinner party. Karenin initially declines, revealing his plans to divorce Anna. Though Stiva is shocked and worried about his sister, he insists that Karenin come nonetheless. At the dinner party, Karenin is cold toward the others. Even so, the food is excellent and the party is successful. Kitty and Levin see each other for the first time since the failed marriage proposal, and their mutual love is overwhelmingly evident. Over dinner, the guests discuss education and the rights of women.
Anna’s bizarre dream and her prophecy that her life will soon end deepen her association with death. Prior to this point in the novel, Anna has been linked to death only symbolically, through the death of the workman at the train station and through the black dress she wears when dancing with Vronsky. When Anna straightforwardly announces that she is convinced she will die in childbirth, the connection between her illicit love and her death is cemented. Her sense that death is approaching is not rational, as it is based solely on a dream—but Anna has never done anything for rational reasons, so her certainty about dying carries a great deal of weight. In one sense this dream is a simple device foreshadowing Anna’s eventual death, accompanied by a note of the supernatural that suggests a divine force that punishes wrongdoers. But her death may be more than a tragic side effect of her love. Tolstoy hints that Anna may actually yearn for her own demise. When Anna rejects Karenin’s restraint, saying that in his place she would have killed a wife like herself, her suicide fantasy is obvious. Death may come not as a punishment but as the only option for a desperate woman.
The specter of dishonesty pervades the Karenins’ domestic life, as they still live together in purported harmony despite the reality of their near-complete estrangement. Karenin is so intent on maintaining the outward appearance of propriety that he makes a point of visiting Anna once a day merely so rumors will not spread among the servants. Anna’s worst nightmare—prolonging her deceitful existence—is unfortunately now her way of life. She knows that this charade may continue indefinitely if Karenin refuses a divorce.
Tolstoy artfully broadens Anna Karenina into a social critique by showing how the Karenins’ false lifestyle is not an anomaly but actually quite typical of other aristocratic Russians in the same social circle. Subtly, and without commentary or value judgment, the narrator mentions Stiva’s new ballerina mistress, showing us that Stiva has not repented of his earlier offense to Dolly but has perhaps only learned to hide his misdemeanors more carefully. Similarly, Vronsky is aware that he is only mimicking typical Russian life with his foreign guest, playing at being the stereotypical high-living nobleman his guest expects to see. This universality of deceitful living among the Russian nobility makes their upcoming rejection of Anna all the more hypocritical.
Stiva’s society dinner party seems a bit jarring, as it shows us that the carefree Stiva pursues his social calendar as usual even after receiving the shocking news that divorce proceedings are in the works against his sister. Though divorce may be commonplace in our society, in 1870s Russia it carried a great stigma, typically leaving the guilty party socially shunned, unable to remarry, and without custody of his or her children. In this light, we might expect a more sensitive brother to cancel his dinner party upon hearing such devastating news. Stiva, however, carries on with his soiree as scheduled. We cannot wholeheartedly blame Stiva, though, as he clearly loves his sister. Furthermore, we sense that he may be hoping to use the party to dissuade Karenin from divorce, though a private and solemn meeting at home would likely be more fitting than a festive dinner. Still, we have lingering doubts about the way Stiva and the other male characters in Anna Karenina treat women. As a novelist, Tolstoy was enormously sensitive to the situation of women in Russia. Here he implicitly criticizes the womanizing and oblivious Stiva: Anna may be ruined, but Stiva lets the party go on.