In a dingy hotel in the provinces, Levin meets Nikolai, who is clearly at death’s door. Kitty insists on seeing Nikolai too, and he greets her pleasantly. Levin cannot bear to look at Nikolai, but the more practical Kitty immediately gets down to work to lessen the dying man’s suffering, displaying remarkable compassion and empathy for him. Kitty’s tenderness touches Nikolai. Levin meditates on how he fears death more than Kitty, even though he is more intelligent than she. He concludes that he is self-centered whereas she is selfless.
The next day, Nikolai takes communion and feels better, passing a half-hour without coughing. But then the cough returns. Nikolai tells Kitty—whom he calls by her Russian name, Katia—to leave the room, as he will die soon. He continues to linger between life and death, however. Kitty, meanwhile, feels ill and vomits. After several tedious days of waiting, Nikolai finally passes away. The doctor tells Kitty that she is vomiting because she is pregnant.
Karenin, meanwhile, cannot grasp what has led him to his current misery. Asked to pay one of Anna’s overdue bills, he nearly breaks down. His career is at a standstill. The narrator fills us in on Karenin’s childhood: an orphan, Karenin grew up with many awards and distinctions but without intimacy in his life. Now, his friend Lydia Ivanovna urges him to trust in Jesus and offers to run his household. Forlornly in love with Karenin herself, Lydia Ivanovna has replaced erotic passion with religious love. However, she is spiteful toward Anna, refusing to acknowledge Anna’s letter pleading to see Seryozha. Lydia Ivanovna informs Karenin that Anna is in St. Petersburg, which makes Karenin glum. He asserts that he cannot thwart Anna’s maternal love for her son. Lydia Ivanovna maliciously asks whether Anna truly loves her son.
Seryozha’s birthday arrives, and his joy in getting gifts is heightened by his pride that his father has received an official award. The boy bombards his tutor with questions about his father’s award, but the tutor insists he concentrate on schoolwork. Seryozha wonders why the tutor does not love him. Lydia Ivanovna has told Seryozha that his mother is dead to him, but he still hopes to see Anna again. Karenin visits Seryozha and quizzes him on his religious lessons. Seryozha does not do well, and Karenin is disappointed in his son’s progress.
Upon returning to St. Petersburg, Vronsky and Anna stay in a fine hotel. They hope to resume their social life but are thwarted. Everyone shuns them, even Betsy Tverskaya, who explains that she cannot risk the public shame of socializing with Anna. Anna receives Karenin’s denial of her plea to see Seryozha and is devastated. Determined to see her son anyway, she buys him toys for his birthday and visits the Karenin home one morning, hiding her face until she has entered.
The servants recognize Anna and bring her to Seryozha. Mother and son chat, and Anna cries with joy and regret. Seryozha’s former nanny, also visiting him, informs Anna that Karenin is soon to enter the room. Anna hurries away but encounters Karenin on her way out. As she leaves, she realizes that she never got the chance to give Seryozha his toys. Returning to the hotel in a daze, Anna is unable to fathom her present situation. Moreover, she suddenly feels less love toward her infant daughter, Annie. Anna mentally reproaches Vronsky for abandoning her lately.