Over dinner at the Oblonskys’, a guest makes a remark that displeases Karenin, who leaves the table. He finds Dolly in the drawing room and reveals to her his firm plans for divorce. Hearing that Anna has cheated on Karenin, Dolly protests that Anna will be ruined. Karenin claims there is nothing he can do.
At the same dinner, Levin and Kitty speak to each other for the first time since her rejection of his marriage proposal. Clearly still caring for each other greatly, they play a word game on a card table through which they apologize to each other for their past errors. Levin proposes to Kitty again, and she accepts. Later, Levin tells his brother Sergei of his engagement and wanders sleeplessly in the streets, overjoyed. When morning comes, Levin visits the Shcherbatsky house and embraces Kitty. In a happy daze, Levin goes off to buy flowers and presents for the engagement celebration. Levin, wishing to be fully honest with Kitty, shows her his journals, which divulge the fact that he is agnostic and has not been chaste prior to marriage. Kitty is upset but ultimately forgiving.
Karenin is passed over for a government post he has been coveting. Just after receiving this bad news, he receives a telegram announcing that Anna is gravely ill. He arrives to learn that Anna has delivered a baby girl, and that she is suffering from a fever from which she is not expected to recover. Vronsky is present at Anna’s bedside. Anna is sure she is dying, so she begs Karenin for forgiveness. She also implores Karenin to forgive Vronsky, which Karenin tearfully does.
When Vronsky is about to leave the house, Karenin tells him that he has forgiven Anna and will stay by her side. Vronsky departs with the feeling that his love for Anna, which has flagged lately, is reviving. Back at his home, he cannot sleep, tormented by the possibility of Anna’s death. Only half-aware of his actions, Vronsky aims a pistol at his chest and fires. He is gravely wounded but survives, as one of his servants quickly discovers him and sends for doctors.
Karenin, meanwhile, is surprised by how sincerely he was able to forgive Anna, and by the tenderness he feels toward her newborn daughter, who is also named Anna. Later, Karenin overhears a conversation between Anna and Betsy Tverskaya. Betsy implores Anna to say goodbye to Vronsky before he leaves for the provincial capital of Tashkent, where he is to be stationed. Anna refuses, saying that there is no point in seeing Vronsky again. On the way out, Betsy begs Karenin to allow Vronsky to visit Anna one last time. Karenin answers that such a matter is solely his wife’s decision. In desperate grief, Anna privately affirms to Karenin that there is no point in seeing Vronsky again. Karenin says he is willing to allow the affair to continue, provided that the family and children are not disgraced.
Stiva arrives at the Karenin house. Anna privately tells him that she cannot stand Karenin any longer. Stiva says the problem is simple: Anna married someone whom she did not love and who was twenty years her senior; now she loves another man, and she must decide whether or not to stay with her husband. Anna says she does not know what to do. Stiva speaks to Karenin, who shows him a letter he has begun writing to Anna. The letter tells Anna that the decision about the future of their marriage is entirely in her hands. Stiva says that only divorce will satisfy Anna, but Karenin reminds him of the disgrace she will suffer if she chooses such a path. Stiva mentions that Karenin could allow Anna to escape public shame by taking responsibility for the disgrace himself—by pretending that it was he, rather than Anna, who committed adultery. Karenin tearfully says that he is willing to accept this option.
Vronsky, hearing that Karenin has granted a divorce, visits Anna. They acknowledge their mutual love. Anna says that Karenin is being too generous with her, so she cannot accept his magnanimity in granting her wish for divorce proceedings. Vronsky resigns his commission, and he and Anna set off on a trip abroad, abandoning the idea of divorce.
Levin’s bliss at confirming his love for Kitty, and hearing her confirm it in return, is one of the most unforgettable portrayals of romantic love in all of literature. Yet this scene also fulfills a key function in the novel, reminding us of Tolstoy’s interest in exploring the relationship between reason and instinct in human life. Levin’s joy is irrational. His state approaches delirium as he loses control over his body and mind. He walks in the frigid Russian air without a coat, yet he does not feel cold. He tries to eat but feels no need of food, even though he has not eaten since the day before. He has not slept for two nights when he shows up in the morning at the Shcherbatsky residence in a blissful daze. This irrational episode puts Levin in stark contrast to Karenin, who, we suspect, has never had an irrational moment in his life. It also separates Levin from Vronsky, who always tries to maintain control over his life, as we see in his attempts to master Frou-Frou and settle his financial accounts methodically. Whereas Levin throws himself into love blindly and freely, Vronsky enters it in a controlling and self-possessed spirit. We ultimately sense that Tolstoy admires Levin’s love far more.
Our view of Karenin is jolted in these chapters when he breaks into tears and volunteers to accept guilt in the divorce proceedings. The tears themselves are a shock, as we have been told that Karenin hates nothing more than crying, which he considers irrational and odious. Here, however, Karenin’s intellectual and logical armor is pierced, and we get a glimpse of an emotional man within. Moreover, his assumption of guilt is unexpectedly and extraordinarily altruistic. As an important public personage, Karenin is well aware of the disgrace that would fall upon him and undoubtedly destroy his career. Honor is a paramount personal consideration for him—he says just a few chapters earlier that he is even willing to allow Anna to carry on her liaison as long as she does not threaten the honor of the family. Here, however, Karenin is willing not only to accept a divorce for Anna’s sake but also to sacrifice his own honor in the bargain. This sudden selflessness utterly shakes up our view of Karenin’s character, derailing our more cynical judgments about his attitude toward Anna’s adultery. Karenin is no passionate hero, but he is not a machine, as Anna calls him, either.
Anna’s deathbed plea for forgiveness for herself and Vronsky, and Karenin’s surprising assent, raise important questions about the moral and theological importance of forgiveness in this novel. Several of the staple Christian teachings of selflessness—turning the other cheek to wrongdoers, giving away one’s cloak when one’s coat has been stolen, and so on—are repeatedly cited in Anna Karenina. Karenin, in his sudden generosity, exemplifies these tenets in his willingness to forgive and forget everything. We see similar generosity in Levin’s and Kitty’s forgiveness of each other’s past decisions and actions. But forgiveness does not have a simple function in the novel; it is not a cure-all that can be universally offered and accepted. Indeed, the epigraph that begins Anna Karenina is a quotation from the New Testament (Romans 12:19) that evokes the harsher morality of the Old Testament from which it is borrowed (Deuteronomy 32:35): “Vengeance is mine; I shall repay.” This emphasis on vengeance, the very opposite of forgiveness, suggests that violent retribution may ultimately win out over meek humility. Indeed, we see that Anna asks for Karenin’s forgiveness but does not necessarily accept it, fleeing abroad with Vronsky at the end of Part Four. The role of forgiveness is not a clear-cut one in the world of the novel: though a powerful healing force in Levin and Kitty’s relationship, it may ultimately be rejected in favor of vengeance in Karenin and Anna’s.