Tolstoy introduces Kitty, the eighteen-year-old girl, who was spending her first winter "out in the world" and who already has two serious suitors, Levin and Count Vronsky. Kitty's parents, having gone through the anxieties of getting their two elder daughters married off, have renewed arguments over their third. The old Princess Shtcherbatsky reflects how much easier it was in the older days when young girls did not demand their own freedom of choice in marriage. Nowadays it is hard for parents to know when to use their influence to protect their daughters against a rash or unsuccessful choice. The old prince prefers Levin for his plainness and honesty, while his wife prefers Vronsky for his dash and brilliance. She wonders why the young officer, openly flirting with Kitty at balls and calling on her at home, has not yet made an offer.
Kitty considers her feelings toward each of her suitors. While she feels "perfectly simple and clear" with Levin and somewhat awkward with Vronsky, she decides she prefers the dashing officer.
Kitty receives Levin in the drawing-room alone. He blurts out his proposal, his heart sinking as he gazes at her. "That cannot be," Kitty whispers, "Forgive me." The old princess arrives and guesses what has happened: Pleased, she welcomes Levin cordially.
Vronsky arrives among the other guests, and Levin remains to see the man Kitty loves. He sees Vronsky as an agreeable, sincere, very calm and intelligent person. Levin soon finds an opportunity to slip quietly away.
As she gets ready for sleep, Kitty rehearses the events of the evening. Though elated at having received an offer, she weeps as she recalls Levin's kind eyes filled with dejection. Downstairs her parents argue. The old prince accuses his wife of debasing their child by catching "an eligible gentleman" for her and discouraging her feelings for Levin, by far the better man. If Kitty falls in love with Vronsky, a "peacock" and featherhead "who's only amusing himself," she might meet the same fate as their unfortunate Dolly.
Kitty, although ready to love, is still not mature enough to discriminate. But she is flooded with happiness at Levin's proposal and does not know why. Vronsky is introduced in the most favorable way, and, at Kitty's unfeigned joy at his arrival, the theme of her indiscriminate love deepens.
As Kitty's mother reflects on the simpleness of matchmaking when she was a girl, Tolstoy telescopes the family history through his characteristic device of "interior monologue." This discussion also pinpoints a primary theme of the novel — the problem of marriage in a modern society.