As Levin and Kitty’s wedding date is set, Levin remains in his blissful daze. He performs all the duties expected of him but is almost mad with joy. Stiva reminds Levin that he must go to confession before his wedding. Levin meets with the priest and confesses that he doubts everything, including the existence of God. The priest sternly warns Levin that the Christianity of his future offspring is at stake. Later, Levin enjoys a bachelor party with his brother Sergei and Sergei’s university friend, Katavasov. The bachelors ask Levin if he is prepared to give up his freedom for the constraints of marriage. Levin, feeling insecure and wondering why Kitty should ever love him at all, asks Kitty whether she wants to go through with the wedding. They have a brief argument but are reconciled.
That evening, the wedding guests await the groom in the church. Levin is late because a mix-up involving his clothes has left him without a proper shirt to wear. The ceremony is delayed and the guests become impatient, but Levin finally arrives at the church. Kitty cannot understand the priest’s words as she hears them, for she is swept away by love. Levin cries during the ceremony. The wedding concludes majestically, and Levin and Kitty leave for his country estate.
Vronsky and Anna, meanwhile, travel in Italy for three months together and settle down and rent a palazzo. Vronsky, seeking distraction, is delighted to meet an old school friend, Golenishchev. Golenishchev and Anna get along well. Vronsky listens as Golenishchev expounds on the book he is writing, and Anna tells Golenishchev that Vronsky has taken up painting.
Anna, for her part, has been very happy. Far from Russia, she feels no more disgrace. Vronsky is less contented, however: all his desires are satisfied, so he misses desire itself. He begins to paint a portrait of Anna. Hearing of a Russian painter named Mikhailov who lives in their town, Vronsky reflects on the new generation of Russian intellectuals who have talent but lack education. Anna, intrigued, proposes visiting Mikhailov.
When Vronsky and Anna arrive at Mikhailov’s studio, the artist is flattered to receive attention from wealthy Russians. He shows them a painting in progress, a scene from the life of Jesus Christ. Anna and Vronsky praise Mikhailov’s rendering of Pontius Pilate, and Anna delights in the expression of pity on Jesus’ face. The visitors enjoy even more a landscape painting of Russian boys relaxing by a river. Vronsky asks whether the latter painting is for sale and hires Mikhailov to paint Anna’s portrait. Vronsky abandons his own portrait of Anna and becomes dissatisfied with their Italian life.
Levin slowly adjusts to married life. He imagines that Kitty needs only to be loved, forgetting that she has desires and aspirations of her own. Kitty throws herself into housekeeping with gusto in a way that initially annoys Levin but then pleases him. Quarrels occasionally erupt. One day, Levin gets lost on the way home from the fields, and Kitty is jealous and suspicious of where he has been. He is offended but then forgives her.
Meanwhile, Levin continues work on his book about the Russian agricultural system, but his slow progress distresses him. He chastises himself for being spoiled by married life, and silently reproaches Kitty for her lack of interest in anything other than housekeeping. Levin receives a letter from Marya Nikolaevna, saying that she is back with his brother Nikolai, who is dying of consumption. Levin says he must visit Nikolai, and Kitty insists on going with him. Levin does not want her to come, resenting his lack of freedom and shuddering at the idea of Kitty meeting a former prostitute. Levin and Kitty fight, but finally he allows her to come along.
Levin’s confession to the priest brings religion out from the background—where it has been consistently throughout Anna -Karenina—and into focus in the foreground. Like many thinkers of his era, Tolstoy was skeptical of religious faith but also yearned for its potential for transcendence. In the novel, Tolstoy gives Levin—his namesake in the novel, as Lev is Tolstoy’s first name—this same ambivalence toward religion. Levin is a deeply soulful person, as we see in his ecstasy in both farming and marriage. However, though he has the spirituality that faith demands, he lacks belief in its dogma and rituals. With characteristic candor, Levin tells the priest that he doubts the existence of God—a remarkable statement even for Levin. This contradiction, however, is exactly Tolstoy’s point: Levin is in the church not because of faith but because of social convention, as a confession certificate is required for marriage. Tolstoy invites us to see religion as divided between spirituality on one hand and social expectations on the other. He does not attack religion but merely suggests that observance of its social institutions often replaces true spirituality.
Meanwhile, the account of Vronsky and Anna’s time in Italy hints at the lovers’ future difficulties as refugees from Russian social conventions. At first glance, they seem to live in an expatriate paradise: they are wealthy, have servants and a beautiful palazzo, and pass their time strolling and painting, with no enemies to attack or demean their love. Anna is happier than she ever imagined, and Vronsky feels that all his desires are satisfied. Nonetheless, there is trouble in this seeming paradise. Vronsky misses desire—in particular, we feel he misses the professional ambitions that guided his life in Russia. Even in exile, Russia draws the lovers back into its grip. Significantly, the people important to Anna and Vronsky in Italy are Russians—Golenishchev and Mikhailov. No Italians are significant enough to be named in the novel. The painting that Vronsky loves most is not the portrait of Jesus—a rebel like him and Anna—but rather a Russian landscape. For all his love of Italy, Vronsky is pulled back toward the very country where he and his lover are damned, defiled, and excluded. Social conventions, we see, are not easy to escape. They are part of us, and we continue to live within them even when suffering because of them.
As Tolstoy continues to develop the plots involving Levin and Anna in parallel, he invites us to compare the differing honeymoons of the novel’s two recently formalized romantic relationships. Despite the fact that Levin’s majestic church wedding contrasts starkly with Anna’s scandalous flight to Italy, the two unions are surprisingly similar. The difference between their respective legal statuses hardly matters when we focus on their internal dynamics. Both couples settle in the countryside, leaving behind social ambitions, and both struggle with the disorientation that comes from having their desires satisfied. Vronsky finds total satisfaction to be irksome, and Levin admits to Kitty that he is discontented even though he is happy. Both men are unable to do the work they dream of doing: Vronsky is antsy after resigning from his regiment, and Levin cannot bring himself to work on his book on agriculture. The similarities between Vronky and Levin remind us not to exaggerate the importance of Anna’s so-called immorality. Relationships are relationships whether or not they bear social or religious stamps of approval. Tolstoy encourages us to look beyond social rules and to examine the inner workings of romantic unions with an open mind.