The after effects of Levin's evening on the haycock destroy his pleasure as a squire and make him dissatisfied with farming. He is additionally annoyed because Kitty is spending the summer merely twenty miles away. Seeking a change, Levin visits his friend Sviazhsky who lives in a remote part of the district with splendid snipe marshes nearby.
Although the hunting is poor, Levin's discussions with Sviazhsky and another guest about the state of the Russian peasant and the inefficient use of the land inspire him to devise a new system of agriculture. After a few days, he hastens home to put his plan into action. Levin wants to increase the peasants' interest in the success of their work, even if it means, temporarily, that new methods and new machinery be sacrificed. He plans that he and the peasants work as shareholders in the estate. One stumbling-block is that summer farming is in full swing. Another is the insurmountable distrust of the peasants; they cannot believe that the master has any other aim than to squeeze all he can out of them. Some of the peasants grasp the idea of cooperative land plots and parts of the farm are divided accordingly, the rest of the estate remaining as before. Problems arise, of course, and some of the peasants do not put in the improvements they had agreed upon. These matters, along with managing the rest of the estate and writing a book on the subject occupy Levin until well in September.
Late one evening a visitor arrives. Hearing the familiar sound of coughing, Levin runs downstairs to greet his brother Nicolai. He has come, as Levin requested, to receive his share of a recently sold family estate. Although happy to see him, Levin feels frightened as he kisses the dry skin and looks into the unnaturally glittering eyes. Death, since it marks his own brother, confronts him for the first time and with an especially irresistible force.
Despite their deep affection, their conversation is insincere and disagreeable. Though Levin knows his brother is trying to hide his fear of death, he is stung by the bitter criticisms the sick man makes of his new system. Nicolai accuses him of being communistic, that Levin lacking conviction just reorganizes the peasants to flatter his self-esteem. After Nicolai leaves, Levin sees death or the advances of death in everything. He works harder than ever to realize his scheme, feeling this the one thread to guide him through the ever impending darkness.
Levin's farming scheme is an "action founded on material interests," to quote Koznyshev, aimed at the efficient use of available resources of land and labor so that the peasants, as well as the master, gain profit. Unnecessary waste is repulsive to Levin (exemplified at his disgust over Stiva's careless sale of the valuable forest) who believes that long-term reforms and basic life goals are based on materialist considerations. Levin's passion for agronomic reform satisfies his need for arduous work and expresses his search for meaning through emotional commitment rather than through intellectual inquiry. Criticizing his brother's reforms for showing his lack of conviction, Nicolai echoes Levin's deep-seated anxieties. Konstantin suspects himself of the same fault, fearing his zeal for reform merely as an avoidance of a deeper issue. Nicolai is right: Levin attempts to avoid the "deeper issue" of death, and with his brother's condition forcing him to confront the problem, Konstantin begins to struggle with this grave threat.
Levin's materialism derives from his attachment to sensual reality. His intense nature drives him to search for the meaning of his life through the everyday actions of his human individuality. Levin's desire for marriage and family is also based on this search. Love and his future offspring are essential to his self-fulfillment as a human being. As a further tie to his immediate world, marriage increases his sense of reality. But death has no part of Levin's life-seeking scheme and his attempt to come to terms with this threat becomes an obsessive struggle that carries him through the rest of the novel.