Three social spheres form subdivisions of Petersburg's top society: One is composed of Karenin's government officials, another that of elderly, benevolent, pious women and their learned, ambitious husbands. Centered around the Countess Lydia lvanovna, and called the "conscience of St. Petersburg," this set is the one through which Karenin built his career and the one Anna has been closely connected with. Of late, feeling bored and ill at ease in this group whom she suspects of hypocrisy, Anna prefers the third circle of society proper — the world of balls and dinner parties. Her link with this group is through the Princess Betsy Tverskoy. In this circle, Anna and Vronsky frequently meet.
At one of Betsy's dinner parties, they are engrossed in talk. Anna begs him, if he loves her as he says, to leave her in peace. But Vronsky, his face radiant as he pleads his love, says it is impossible for him to live separately from her. Anna is unable to reply. As she looks into his face with eyes full of love, Vronsky is ecstatic.
Karenin arrives, and glancing toward his wife in her animated conversation with Vronsky, talks with Betsy. While seeing nothing improper or peculiar in his wife's behavior, Karenin notices the disapproval of the other guests. Leaving before dinner, though Anna insists to remain, Alexey Alexandrovitch resolves to mention the matter this evening.
Thinking it over, Karenin decides a talk is not such a simple matter after all. For the first time he tries to imagine what his wife thinks and feels, whether she could possibly stop loving him and turn to another man. The irrational and illogical feeling of jealousy throws him into confusion. Having always lived for his work in official spheres — a reflection of life — Karenin is horrified to suddenly confront life itself. While composing the speech he would deliver to Anna, he tries to soothe himself. But the sound of a carriage driving up, then the sound of her light step on the stairs, frightens him.
Anna pretends surprise at his request for a talk. Inwardly marvelling at her confident answers, she feels herself clad in an impenetrable armor of falsehood and wonders how easily she can lie. Karenin notices the change immediately. The depths of her soul, always open to him before, now close against him. Looking into her laughing eyes, alarming with their impenetrability, Karenin feels the utter uselessness and idleness of his words.
He warns that her thoughtlessness and indiscretion might cause herself to be spoken of in society, her "too animated conversation" with Count Vronsky this evening which attracted attention, to give an example. Anna responds cheerfully and seems sincere. Reminding her of her duty, for their lives have been joined "not by man but by God" Karenin says this concerns not himself, but Anna and their son. "I have nothing to say," she answers, restraining a smile, "and it really is bed-time."
Their talk marks a new life for Karenin and his wife. Though outwardly unchanged, their intimate relations completely alter. Forceful when dealing with affairs of state, Karenin feels helpless dealing with his wife. "Like an ox with bent head" he waits submissively for the axe which he feels raised above him.
Vronsky satisfies his one desire which absorbed him for nearly a year. Overcome by her sense of degradation, Anna sobs and does not speak. Her shame infects him, and he feels a "murderer's horror before the body of his victim." Realizing "the murderer must make use of what he has obtained by his crime" Anna sadly submits to his kisses for "these are what have been bought by my shame." "Everything is over," she says, "I have nothing but you left. Remember that."
The shame, rapture, and horror she feels upon stepping into a new life drives all other feelings from her. She has no calm left in which to reflect on what occurred, but in her dreams she has to face her ugly position. She dreams she is the wife of Alexey Alexandrovitch as well as of Alexey Vronsky. As both caress her, she explains to them, laughing, that what had seemed impossible before is now simply and satisfactorily arranged. Both men are contented and happy. Anna's dream is like a nightmare and she awakes from it in terror.
Anna's awakening passion changes the pattern of her social life. She avoids the serious group because its members are hypocrites, and attends the brilliant functions of Betsy's set. Her sudden awareness of hypocrisy reflects her awareness of her own deceit. This deceit, however, is twofold. Anna suspects that her emotionally incomplete existence as the faithful wife of a man she realizes now she does not love was basically hypocritical. The other source of deceit is adultery, a condition of fraud defined by society. At the same time, adultery provides the only means by which Anna can redeem her false marriage: Through Vronsky she can achieve a truthful love relationship. This conflict between emotional truth and formal truth is the basis of Anna's tragedy.
At the point of Karenin's talk with Anna, however, there is no conflict. While her husband points out the social consequences of "indiscretion" and "tactless behavior," Anna can barely suppress a smile. Social convention, her smile says, is a trivial matter compared with emotional values, and her feelings for Karenin are trivial compared with her passion for Vronsky.
The tragic consequences of "stepping into a new life" suddenly loom large and real when Anna and Vronsky consummate their relationship. A life with two husbands is that of an outlaw: Having broken one of the most forceful social conventions, Anna denies herself the protection society offers. She has no one left but her "accomplice."
Vronsky's position is less serious than Anna's, and he has pursued his conquest with more frivolous intentions. Though his love is deep — deeper than he realizes — his officers' code of behavior sets a prestige value on seducing married women: the higher her social standing, the higher the man's prestige. Tolstoy shows Vronsky's awareness of these values as Betsy and her cousin chat during intermission at the opera.
Only when he sees Anna's shame and when she rejects his platitudes about "moment of happiness" does Vronsky gain insight into the seriousness of his crime against her. Tolstoy's analogy of a murderer and his victim underscores the extent of Vronsky's commitment to Anna and forecasts her doom and his culpability.