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.