The household of Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky is in a state of confusion that began three days ago when his wife discovered his relationship with their former French governess. Dolly Oblonsky says she can no longer live in the same house with her husband.
Stiva (as he is called) considers her attitude unnecessarily harsh, despite the gravity of the situation. Though she is a good mother to their five children and manages the household well, she is worn out and no longer young or good looking; whereas he feels himself in prime enjoyment of his powers. Meanwhile all the servants, painfully aware of the Oblonsky's problems, feel a separation is imminent.
On the third day, while the barber shaves his face, Stiva reads a telegram, announcing that his sister, Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, will arrive tomorrow to visit. Perhaps she might reconcile husband and wife.
Dressed and shaved, feeling fragrant and comfortable, Stepan Arkadyevitch reads his letters, some office papers, and peruses a liberal newspaper, one advocating the views of the liberal majority and satisfying to
his truthful temperament. Interrupting his reading, he affectionately greets two of his children, treating them to bon-bons as he sends them off.
While his carriage awaits him, Stiva sees a petitioner and gives her advice. Taking his hat, he feels as if he forgot something. Lighting a cigarette, squaring his shoulders, he rapidly walks to his wife's bedroom.
Darya Alexandrovna is collecting her things and the children's clothes in order to pack up and leave for her mother's house. Regarding her husband out of startled eyes, prominent in her sunken and thin face, she scans his figure which radiates health and freshness. Though he tries to look pitiful and humble, she notes with disgust that good nature of his which everyone praises and likes so well.
The brief interview fails. Dolly shrilly insists she will leave the house, while Stiva pleads his guilt and begs her to forgive his one lapse of passion which could not belie their nine years of happy marriage. When he weeps in sympathy for her, Dolly becomes angrier than ever: she seeks his love, not his pity.
Dolly leaves the room to attend to a child crying in the nursery. Plunging into the duties of the day, she crowds the grief out of her mind for a time. Stiva slowly leaves the room. "Maybe she will come around," he tells himself.
"Happy families are all alike," Tolstoy writes as the first words of Anna Karenina, "Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Specifying this generalization the author details the life of a well favored aristocrat. Stepan Arkadyevitch has an excellent post in Moscow, is the head of a loving and smoothly run household. His wife, Darya, Stiva's feminine counterpart in the Russian class system, centers her life on raising the children and tending her husband. But his infidelity shatters their harmonious life and Dolly must confront the problem of how to repair her personal ruin. For Stiva, his marital life is of secondary value; his official duties, his social activities, and his pleasures are primary. Thus we see that the values of men and women in this society are oriented toward different goals and Stiva's affair with the French governess causes these different values to stand in clear relief.
In these chapters Tolstoy has set up a small working model which generates all the subsequent themes of Anna Karenina. Stiva's petty love affair prefigures the adultery of Anna with Vronsky, and serves as a negative comparison with Levin's successful marriage later in the novel. The individual's quest for meaning through personal relationships and through the details of ordinary life begins — though modestly — among the descriptions of domestic life in the Oblonsky household.