All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

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Confusion reigns in the Oblonsky household in Moscow. Stiva Oblonsky has been unfaithful to his wife, Dolly, with their children’s former governess. Stiva is distraught but not overly remorseful. Dolly, meanwhile, is devastated and refuses to leave her rooms. The servants advise Stiva to apologize repeatedly, predicting that Dolly will calm down. Stiva finally visits Dolly, begging her to remember their nine years of marriage. Dolly is inconsolable, telling her husband he is disgusting and a total stranger to her.

Stiva goes to his office. His job is respectable and comfortable, thanks to his charm and good connections. He receives a surprise visit from an old friend, Konstantin Levin, who lives in the country. Stiva introduces Levin to his business partners, saying that Levin is active in the zemstvo, his village administrative board. Levin reveals that he has quit his post on the board, and tells Stiva that he has an important matter to discuss. They arrange to meet for dinner. Stiva guesses the matter has something to do with his sister-in-law, Kitty Shcherbatskaya, with whom he knows Levin is in love.

While in Moscow, Levin stays with his half-brother, Koznyshev, whose philosophical mindset sometimes perplexes Levin. The brothers discuss Levin’s plan to visit their estranged and sickly third brother, Nikolai, who is back in Moscow with a girlfriend. Koznyshev advises Levin not to go, saying Levin cannot help Nikolai, who wishes to be left alone.

Levin goes to the skating rink at the Zoological Gardens, where he is sure he will find the charming Kitty. She is at the rink, as expected. Levin and Kitty enjoy one another’s company together on the ice until Levin confesses that he feels more confident whenever Kitty, a less accomplished skater, leans on him for support. Kitty’s mood suddenly darkens, and she sends Levin away. Levin grows upset and goes off glumly to his dinner with Stiva.

Over the luxurious meal, Levin confesses to Stiva his passionate love for Kitty. Stiva encourages Levin to be hopeful but warns him of a rival for her affections, an officer named Alexei Vronsky. Stiva then discusses his own problematic infatuation with his children’s governess. Levin gently chastises Stiva for his behavior, but Stiva laughingly calls Levin a moralist.

Kitty’s mother, Princess Shcherbatskaya, weighs the relative merits of Vronsky and Levin as suitors. She is disconcerted by Levin’s awkwardness and generally favors Vronsky. But the Princess is also aware that young Russian noblewomen of the new generation prefer to choose their husbands for themselves rather than submit to their parents’ arrangements.