Although totally estranged, the Karenins live as before. Anna continues to meet Vronsky but always away from home and her husband knows about it. All three endure their misery only because they hope for a change. Karenin expects this passion to pass with the lapse of time, while Anna hopes "something" will turn up to settle the situation. Vronsky, submitting to her lead, waits for the problem to clear up of itself without his taking any action.
In the middle of winter, Vronsky spends a tiresome week showing a foreign prince the sights of the city. A "true gentleman," the visitor is a stupid, self-satisfied, immaculate person. Dignified and poised with his superiors, free and simple with his equals, contemptuously indulgent with his inferiors, the visitor is a disturbing mirror-image of Vronsky himself. When the foreigner finally leaves, Vronsky so relieved to be delivered from this distasteful self-reflection, engages in an all night revel to purge himself.
Returning home, Vronsky finds a note from Anna asking him to see her while Karenin is at a meeting. At her gate, Vronsky alights from his sledge only to come face to face with Alexey Alexandrovitch just entering his carriage. As they bow coldly to one another, Vronsky feels like a snake in the grass, a position foreign to his nature which angers and frustrates him.
Having heard about his latest revel, Anna feels more wretched than ever and scolds him in one of her more and more frequent fits of jealousy. Though he knows she is prompted out of her great love for him, Vronsky takes fright at her outburst. At these moments his love vanishes, and he notes her increasing stoutness, her somewhat faded beauty and the new spiteful expression which sometimes crosses her face. Yet he feels the bond between them can never be broken. Asking her what the doctor had said, Vronsky learns their child shall arrive soon. Their position will then be resolved, says Anna, but not as they expect. Tears well in her eyes and she feels sorry for him. "Soon we shall be at peace and suffer no more," she says "And I shall not live through it."
Karenin storms directly to Anna's rooms when he returns. Furious that she dared see Vronsky at their home, he declares he will see a lawyer and begin divorce proceedings. Seriozha is to remain with his sister until the case is decided. "Leave me Seriozha," Anna pleads, "You don't love him. You want him in order to hurt me." "Yes," answers Karenin in his fury, "I associate my son with my loathing for you." Anna begs that Seriozha remain until after her confinement; at that Karenin loses his temper completely and flings from the room. The next day he engages a famous Petersburg lawyer to take the case.
Karenin's previous victory at the last sitting of the commission turns into defeat. With full information about the condition of the native tribes (gathered through all the administrating officials in these remote parts) his enemy, Stremov, goes over to his side, carrying other members with him. Not only agreeing with Karenin, Stremov proposes even more radical solutions to the problem so that, carried to an extreme, the measures prove ridiculous The commission divides in confusion, no one knowing whether the native tribes are flourishing or impoverished. All the indignation of public opinion and of officialdom falls on Karenin. Owing to the contempt of those who know Karenin's domestic life, as well as this last blunder, his position is somewhat precarious. To remedy matters, Karenin resolves to travel — at his own expense — to the distant provinces and investigate for himself the condition of the native tribes.
Stopping in Moscow for three days, Karenin meets Oblonsky. To get rid of his brother-in-law, Alexey Alexandrovitch agrees to dine at the Oblonskys the following evening. Stiva is delighted to have Karenin as the most distinguished guest for his party where Kitty and Levin are also to attend. This occasion emphasizes his recently happy life. Although still short of money, he manages to provide fine gifts for the pretty actress he has recently taken under his protection, and Dolly has been quite cheerful for a time.
Returning from church, Karenin sets to work. He writes to the lawyer, enclosing some of Vronsky's letters to Anna as evidence, and then receives a deputation for the native tribes on the way to Petersburg. Then the servant announces Oblonsky. Stiva begs Alexey Alexandrovitch to reconsider the divorce. At least Karenin must talk to Dolly before going any further with proceedings.
One of the last to arrive at his home, Oblonsky perceives at first glance that his guests are not yet brought together. In a moment he has introduced everyone to everyone else. Bringing Koznyshev and Karenin together on a talk about the russification of Poland, Stiva has the conversation lively and his company relax and begin enjoying themselves.
At Levin's arrival, Kitty's face lights up with joy and she almost bursts into tears. To Levin her every word holds unutterable meaning and his whole being is filled with tenderness for her. While everyone else discusses women's right, Levin and Kitty talk softly together, delighted at their perfect understanding.
Meantime Dolly draws Karenin off for a talk. She begins by protesting Anna's innocence, but Karenin's response cuts her short. She tries to change his mind — "anything but a divorce," she pleads — appealing to his sense of Christian charity. But even after the intense discussion, Karenin's opinion remains the same.
Levin and Kitty talk at a card table while she scribbles with a chalk. He is amazed that their minds are in such perfect agreement. However badly he expresses a thought, she always understands. Taking the chalk from her, he writes only the initial letters of his question: "When you told me it could not be — did that mean never or then?" Pointing to the n, Kitty says, "That means 'never' but it's not true." A few more sentences pass between them with the chalk, and then Levin writes the initials for, "I have never ceased to love you." With this device he asks her to marry him and Kitty answers "Yes" before he finishes writing. When the Shtcherbatskys leave. Levin feels so forlorn without her that he can hardly await the next morning to call on them.
After the dinner, Levin accompanies his brother Koznyshev to a meeting. Filled with joy, he finds everyone splendid and good-hearted. Levin listens to the debate on missing sums of money and the laying of sewer pipes. He concludes that the subject is unimportant to the debating members and that they merely enjoy themselves.
Levin's excitement allows him no rest that night. Toward noon the next day he arrives at the Shtcherbatskys and Kitty runs to meet him. The old prince and princess are kind and affectionate; both have tears in their eyes. Then the servants offer congratulations, and then relations begin to arrive. This is the beginning of the "blissful hubbub" which never diminishes until the wedding.
Levin feels Kitty has much to forgive. One matter is his lack of faith, but his betrothed does not care. She says she knows his soul and in it sees the goodness she values. The other item concerns his past life, and Levin regrets he is not as chaste as she. Wishing to share all his secrets, he gives her his diary, and Kitty weeps bitterly over the notebook. This confession is the one painful episode of their engagement. When she forgives him, Levin feels more than ever unworthy of her love. Morally bowed before her, he prizes his great undeserved happiness more highly than before.
Returning to his lodgings, Karenin recalls his talk with Dolly. Annoyed at her reminder of Christian forgiveness — "love those that hate you" — Karenin turns to consider his tour of inspection in the provinces. First he reads his two telegrams. One contains news that Stemov received the very appointment he had coveted for himself. The second is from Anna. "I am dying," she writes. "I beg, I implore you to come. I shall die easier with your forgiveness." Realizing her confinement is near, he decides the note is not just a trick. He will leave for Petersburg right away, perform his last duty to her, retaining his self respect despite everything. But he cannot drive away the reflection that her death would solve his most pressing problem.
At home Karenin learns she had been safely delivered yesterday but she is very ill now. Entering Anna's room he finds Vronsky, face in hands, weeping at her writing table. Karenin's appearance confuses him. "She is dying," Vronsky says, "The doctors say there is no hope. I am entirely in your hands, only let me remain here." Turning from his tears, Karenin approaches Anna's bed. With flushed cheeks, glittering eyes, she talks rapidly in a ringing voice. She speaks of Seriozha, and of her husband who does not himself know how good he is. Karenin's face quivers as he sees her gaze at him with such tender and ecstatic affection as he has never seen in her before.
"Don't be surprised at me," Anna says. "There is another woman in me (who) loved that man and tried to hate you.. .Now I'm my real self, all myself. I'm dying now. Only one thing I want: forgive me, forgive me completely . . .''
Suddenly Karenin gives way to an emotion which gives him a new happiness he has never known. Kneeling, with his head against her arm which burns like fire through his sleeve, he sobs. She calls Vronsky, who, seeing Anna, buries his face in his hands. "Uncover your face!" she orders. "Look at him! He is a saint!" To her husband she cries, "Uncover his face, Alexey Alexandrovitch, I want to see him!" Karenin draws Vronsky's hands away, uncovering a look terrible in its agony and shame. "Give him your hand," says Anna, "Forgive him." Karenin stretches out his hand," while unrestrained tears stream down his cheeks. "Thank God, thank God," murmurs Anna. Then the pains begin again. Crying for morphine, she tosses about on the bed.
Anna had puerperal fever, the doctors said, and ninety-nine cases out of a hundred are fatal. In a coma, Anna's end is moments away. Toward morning she regains consciousness, then sleeps again. The doctors are hopeful.
That day, Karenin comes to Vronsky in the boudoir. The luminous, serene expression of his tear filled eyes impresses Vronsky. "The happiness of forgiving has revealed to me my duty," the husband tells him. "Should the world hold me a laughing-stock, I will never forsake her and will never utter a word of reproach to you." Promising to call should Anna wish to see him, Karenin suggests that Vronsky leave.
As if in a stupor, Vronsky stands on the steps. All the rules of his familiar world now seem false and inapplicable. Anna had raised her deceived husband to an elevated position from which that despised creature proves himself, not ludicrous or false, but kind, straightforward, and dignified. Their positions are reversed: Karenin exalted, magnaminous, himself debased, petty, and deceitful. Feeling further dejected since his love for Anna had increased during her illness, Vronsky has been humiliated before her at the very pinnacle of his love and has now lost her forever. Returning to his brother's house, Vronsky finds rest impossible even after his vigil of three days and nights. Out of desperation and wretchedness he aims his gun at his heart and fires. With consciousness dropping from him, Vronsky is suddenly aware that he has missed.
In the following weeks, Karenin basks in his feeling of inward peace. Now that he freely loves and freely forgives, he finds life so simple. He has a great affection for the newborn daughter and visits the nursery many times a day. Yet he feels the world will not understand him, that something more is expected of him. Though realizing his relations with Anna are still unstable and unnatural, Karenin does not want the situation to change.
The "misunderstanding world" for Karenin is best represented by the stylish Betsy Tverskoy who has just arrived with a message for Anna. Vronsky had written to beg Anna to see him once more before he departs to a new post at Tashkent, a distant province. A little afraid of her husband, Anna asks his advice, but Karenin cannot express himself under Betsy's contemptuous gaze. He is relieved when Betsy leaves them. Karenin is aware of Anna's irritation in his presence. His physical proximity repulses her. Deciding never to see Vronsky again, Anna feels the misery of her false position with full strength. "Oh God, why didn't I die," she sobs.
Realizing Anna's hatred of him, and realizing that the world demands their divorce, Karenin is in a dilemma. Divorce would place Anna in a helpless position, disgrace both children, and deprive himself of everything he cares for. Yet he realizes that the world would prevail against what he thinks is right and proper.
Oblonsky arrives while the Princess Betsy is leaving. Finding his sister in misery, Stiva tries to convince Karenin to consent to divorce. After they discuss the matter, Alexey Alexandrovitch gives Stiva permission to arrange matters as he sees fit.
Vronsky hovers between life and death in the days following his attempted suicide. His action solved one source of his misery and he can confront Karenin's magnaminity without humiliation. Resolving that he would no longer come between the repentant wife and her husband, he accepts a post which Serpuhovskoy found for him and asks Betsy to arrange a final meeting with Anna before he leaves for Tashkent.
Betsy arrives with news that Karenin has consented to a divorce. Vronsky dashes to Anna's house. Without looking to see whether they are alone or not, he showers kisses on her, while Anna trembles with emotion. Finally able to speak, Anna tells him she wants no divorce, that she is worried about Seriozah. Tears flow down her cheeks, and she is unable to smile.
Vronsky refuses his Tashkent post, and, noting the disapproval from high quarters at this action, quickly resigns his commission. A month later Karenin and his son are left alone in the house. Anna goes abroad with Vronsky, not having obtained a divorce and having resolutely refused one.
This section presents the parallel careers of Levin and Anna in striking contrast. As Levin embarks to fulfill his life through his courtship and marriage to Kitty, we see his career as an affirmation of his life. This part of his story already points to the happy ending in his struggle to overcome death. Anna's imminent death in this section, however, portends disaster.
Just as death reverses life, Anna's deathbed crisis reverses the process of her love affair. From this point on, we see the slow-motion deterioration of her relationship with Vronsky and its corresponding effect on her lover and husband.
As Vronsky and Karenin exchange roles during this crisis, they both achieve an emotional intensity neither have previously experienced. At the point of losing Anna, Vronsky rises to the pinnacle of his love but finds himself unable to cope with his humiliation and debasement. With Karenin exalted, Vronsky's "code of prescribed behavior" offers no solution to his present crisis. His life based on regimented social values to sustain his ego, Vronsky cannot countenance this sudden loss of honor. He responds by trying to destroy his suddenly meaningless life now that it can no longer conform to formulistic interpretation. Tolstoy shows us that Vronsky is too rigid to sustain the intensity of his passion. The attempted suicide tells us of the ultimate futility of Vronsky's attempt to maintain the emotional depth of love that Anna demands from him.
For Karenin, Anna's deathbed crisis acts as a catalyst releasing his latent emotions of love and forgiveness — emotions which he has spent his life trying to repress. His exaltation results from his sudden discovery of universal love and the truth of "turning the other cheek," a basic tenet in Tolstoyan Christianity. No longer resisting evil, Karenin's confrontation with evil allows him to overcome it. Death for Alexey Alexandrovitch becomes the basic truth which makes him a living human being capable of love.
With a masterful touch of irony, Tolstoy also brings Anna to a point of reversal when she is near death. In her fever, Anna's "real self" begs forgiveness while she gazes with tender affection at her husband. However, when she returns to health, Anna chooses in favor of Vronsky. Tolstoy's device here is a Dostoevskian twist to show how the moment of death illuminates life's truths, whereas the state of health provides the conditions for illusion.
This awareness of life-in-death provides the climax of the novel, with the main characters perceiving truth from the heights of their emotional intensity. Hate and deceit no longer exist in the presence of death, and Anna, Vronsky, and Karenin live a moment of pure innocence. From the point of Anna's recovery, however, the novel portrays the human condition as if after the Fall of Grace. Karenin, despite his ennoblement, finds Anna cannot love him. Vronsky pursues his ill-fated love, while Anna follows through toward her already doomed destiny.
Thus Tolstoy provides a crossroad in this section of the novel, defining the direction his main characters will take from now on. Levin's path ascends toward light and love, while Anna's career points to tragedy.