A government official with little personality of his own, Karenin maintains the façade of a cultivated and rational man. He keeps up with contemporary poetry, reads books on Roman history for leisure, and makes appearances at all the right parties. He is civil to everyone and makes no waves. But he remains a bland bureaucrat whose personality has disappeared under years of devotion to his duties. Though he reads poetry, he rarely has a poetic thought; he reads history but never reflects on it meaningfully. He does not enjoy himself or spark conversations at parties but merely makes himself seen and then leaves. Karenin’s entire existence consists of professional obligations, with little room for personal whim or passion. When first made aware of Anna’s liaison with Vronsky, Karenin briefly entertains thoughts of challenging Vronsky to a duel but quickly abandons the idea when he imagines a pistol pointed his direction. This cowardice indicates his general resistance to a life of fervent emotion and grand passions.
Karenin’s limp dispassion colors his home life and serves as the backdrop to Anna’s rebellious search for love at any price. He viewed his betrothal to Anna, for instance, as an act of duty like everything else in his life: it was time to marry, so he chose an appropriate girl, who happened to be Anna. He never gives any indications of appreciating Anna’s uniqueness or valuing the ways in which she differs from other women. His appreciation of her is only for her role as wife and mother. Similarly, Karenin’s fatherly interaction with Seryozha is cold and official, focused on educational progress and never on Seryozha’s perceptions or emotions. Karenin wishes to raise a responsible child, as he surely was himself. It is Karenin’s obedience to duty, his pigeonholing of all persons and experiences as either appropriate or inappropriate, that Anna rejects. When Anna leaves, she does not simply dump Karenin the man but also the conventionalism that Karenin believes in and represents. Karenin’s slide into occultism and stagnation at the end of the novel suggests indirectly how much he needed Anna, and how much she was the life behind his façade.