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The Karenins continue to live in the same house but are
almost completely estranged from each other. Karenin makes it a
rule to see Anna every day—in order to avoid spreading rumors of
separation among the servants—but he never dines at home. Both husband
and wife fervently hope that their painful situation is temporary.
Vronsky endures a dull week, entertaining a visiting foreign
dignitary who wishes to experience the true spirit of Russia. Carousing with
gypsy girls, the foreigner believes he is discovering Russian culture.
Vronsky is pained by the resemblance between the foreigner and himself:
both are healthy, confident, rather empty noblemen.
Returning home one night, Vronsky finds a note from Anna
saying that she must see him, inviting him to her home when Karenin
is to be at a meeting. Vronsky goes to Anna at the appointed time
but is shocked to run into Karenin, whose meeting has ended early. Anna
is grouchy, making barbed remarks about Vronsky’s night with the
foreigner and the gypsy girls. Vronsky is sadly aware of how Anna
has changed, both morally and physically: she is irritable and has
put on weight.
Anna erupts in anger toward Karenin, calling him a puppet
and an “administrative machine” and reproaching his lack of guts.
She says that in his place she would have killed a wife like herself.
Vronsky attributes Anna’s moodiness to her pregnancy, and asks when the
baby is due. Anna says that it should not be long. She adds that soon
everything will be resolved, as she will die shortly. Vronsky accuses
Anna of speaking nonsense, but she declares that she has had a prophetic
dream—a vision of an old peasant man rummaging in a sack and talking
about the necessity of beating iron. The peasant in the dream told
her that she would die in childbirth.
Karenin passes a sleepless night after his run-in with
Vronsky, angered that Anna has violated the only condition he placed
on her—that she never receive Vronsky in Karenin’s house. Karenin tells
Anna he plans to initiate divorce proceedings, and seizes her love
letters from Vronsky to use as evidence. Anna begs Karenin to allow
her to keep custody of Seryozha. Karenin replies that although he
no longer loves the boy, he will take him anyway.
The next day, Karenin visits a divorce lawyer, who assumes
Karenin wishes to pursue a mutually consenting divorce. Karenin explains
that he wants to prove involuntary exposure of an adulterous affair,
using the love letters as evidence. The lawyer warns him that such
cases require the involvement of religious authorities, and that
often letters are not sufficient evidence. The lawyer asks Karenin
for freedom to proceed with the specifics of the divorce as he thinks
best, and Karenin agrees.
After being thwarted by a rival at work, Karenin decides
to set out for the provinces in an attempt to redeem his professional
reputation. He encounters Stiva and Dolly one day and treats them coolly.
Stiva, who is in good spirits and is enjoying his new ballerina mistress,
invites Karenin, Levin, Kitty, and others to a dinner party. Karenin
initially declines, revealing his plans to divorce Anna. Though
Stiva is shocked and worried about his sister, he insists that Karenin
come nonetheless. At the dinner party, Karenin is cold toward the
others. Even so, the food is excellent and the party is successful.
Kitty and Levin see each other for the first time since the failed
marriage proposal, and their mutual love is overwhelmingly evident.
Over dinner, the guests discuss education and the rights of women.
Anna’s bizarre dream and her prophecy that her life will
soon end deepen her association with death. Prior to this point
in the novel, Anna has been linked to death only symbolically, through
the death of the workman at the train station and through the black
dress she wears when dancing with Vronsky. When Anna straightforwardly announces
that she is convinced she will die in childbirth, the connection
between her illicit love and her death is cemented. Her sense that
death is approaching is not rational, as it is based solely on a dream—but
Anna has never done anything for rational reasons, so her certainty
about dying carries a great deal of weight. In one sense this dream
is a simple device foreshadowing Anna’s eventual death, accompanied
by a note of the supernatural that suggests a divine force that
punishes wrongdoers. But her death may be more than a tragic side
effect of her love. Tolstoy hints that Anna may actually yearn for
her own demise. When Anna rejects Karenin’s restraint, saying that
in his place she would have killed a wife like herself, her suicide
fantasy is obvious. Death may come not as a punishment but as the
only option for a desperate woman.
The specter of dishonesty pervades the Karenins’ domestic
life, as they still live together in purported harmony despite the
reality of their near-complete estrangement. Karenin is so intent
on maintaining the outward appearance of propriety that he makes
a point of visiting Anna once a day merely so rumors will not spread
among the servants. Anna’s worst nightmare—prolonging her deceitful existence—is
unfortunately now her way of life. She knows that this charade may
continue indefinitely if Karenin refuses a divorce.
Tolstoy artfully broadens Anna Karenina into
a social critique by showing how the Karenins’ false lifestyle is
not an anomaly but actually quite typical of other aristocratic
Russians in the same social circle. Subtly, and without commentary
or value judgment, the narrator mentions Stiva’s new ballerina mistress,
showing us that Stiva has not repented of his earlier offense to
Dolly but has perhaps only learned to hide his misdemeanors more
carefully. Similarly, Vronsky is aware that he is only mimicking
typical Russian life with his foreign guest, playing at being the
stereotypical high-living nobleman his guest expects to see. This
universality of deceitful living among the Russian nobility makes
their upcoming rejection of Anna all the more hypocritical.
Stiva’s society dinner party seems a bit jarring, as it
shows us that the carefree Stiva pursues his social calendar as
usual even after receiving the shocking news that divorce proceedings
are in the works against his sister. Though divorce may be commonplace
in our society, in 1870s Russia it carried
a great stigma, typically leaving the guilty party socially shunned,
unable to remarry, and without custody of his or her children. In
this light, we might expect a more sensitive brother to cancel his
dinner party upon hearing such devastating news. Stiva, however,
carries on with his soiree as scheduled. We cannot wholeheartedly
blame Stiva, though, as he clearly loves his sister. Furthermore,
we sense that he may be hoping to use the party to dissuade Karenin
from divorce, though a private and solemn meeting at home would
likely be more fitting than a festive dinner. Still, we have lingering
doubts about the way Stiva and the other male characters in Anna
Karenina treat women. As a novelist, Tolstoy was enormously
sensitive to the situation of women in Russia. Here he implicitly
criticizes the womanizing and oblivious Stiva: Anna may be ruined,
but Stiva lets the party go on.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Anna Karenina!