Summary and Analysis
Part 3: Chapters 12-23
At Anna's confession, Karenin remains still and deathlike. After seeing her home, he is better able to examine the problem. Like a sufferer who has had the bad tooth extracted, he feels relief at his wife's outburst. Despite his deep cowardice, he first considers challenging Vronsky to a duel. Karenin decides that, being indispensable to the ministry, he should allow nothing to interfere either with his duties or his reputation; no, a duel would solve nothing. Legal divorce, or even separation, is also not feasible, since the resulting scandal would injure only himself and the guilty parties would be united; they should rather suffer from their crimes. His only recourse is to keep his wife with him, conceal from the world what had happened, use every measure in his power to break off the intrigue, and above all (though he does not admit this) to punish her. His decision pleases him, and he feels satisfied that religious sanction coincides so conveniently with his self-interest. He resolves to write Anna a letter announcing his decision to maintain the status quo.
When he arrives home in Petersburg, Karenin first writes to Anna, then turns to an official matter, the business of setting up a commission to inquire into the work of the Native Tribes Organization Committee. Having accomplished both important items of work, Karenin retires, well pleased with himself.
Despite contradicting Vronsky when he said their position was an impossible one, Anna too desires above all to put an end to her false and dishonorable marriage. But where would she turn if put out of her husband's house? In her distress she imagines that Vronsky, loving her less, already finds her a burden. No, she cannot offer herself to him. Besides miserable, Anna is frightened: In her new spiritual condition she feels everything in her soul is double, each part claimed by conflicting loyalties to the two men in her life. If her relations to Vronsky and Karenin are in question, there is no ambivalence about Seriozha. Her aim and only support in life is her son. But she must act quickly to secure his helpless position. Ordering her things packed, she decides to leave with him for Moscow.
Then she reads Karenin's note which just arrived, and feels her plight more awful than ever. Shuddering at his threat that he would take her son if she persists in her unlawful ways, Anna finds her husband's insistence to lead the same life they always live further evidence of his willingness to exist by lies and hypocrisy. Enraged and frustrated, she realizes she is not strong enough to escape this intolerable situation. Never able to know freedom in love, she would remain the guilty wife constantly threatened with exposure, deceiving her husband for a disgraceful liaison with a man whose life she could not share. Weeping unconstrainedly, Anna cannot conceive how it will end. Later that afternoon she attends Princess Betsy's croquet party, leaving early to meet Vronsky at six o'clock.
As he does four or five times a year, Vronsky spends that day figuring his accounts and putting all his affairs in order. Despite his frivolous life, he hates irregularity and always manages his finances with care. He calls this day of reckoning a faire de lessive, and at this point, Tolstoy also reckons up the course of Vronsky's life.
Throughout his career, Vronsky has lived by a code of principles which answers problems in his life: "gambling debts must be paid, the tailor need not be; one must not lie to a man but might to a woman; one must never cheat anyone but may a husband; one must not pardon insults, but one may insult others, and so on." Lately, however, Vronsky finds these rules do not withstand the present contingencies of his intense love. Now that Anna's pregnancy means their lives must be joined, he wonders if he is prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. Ambition in his career rivals his passion for Anna, and he envies his good friend and school comrade, Serpuhovskoy who had become a general and now expects a command with great political influence. When they meet at a party, Serpuhovskoy tactfully tells Vronsky that women are the chief obstacles to a man's career. Marriage clears the path, however, and he begs Vronsky to give him carte blanche permission to use his influence in advancing his friend. Russia needs men like you in her service, he tells the officer. Promising to think it over, Vronsky goes to meet Anna.
When he reads Karenin's note to Anna, and she tells of her confession, he joyfully thinks "a duel is now inevitable" and pictures that honorable moment when, after firing into the air, he awaits the shot of the outraged husband. Serpuhovskoy's advice flashes through his mind — that it is better not to bind oneself — and he knows he cannot mention this thought to Anna. Seeing the lack of determination in his face, Anna loses hope.
"Things cannot remain as he supposes," says Vronsky, thinking of the duel but saying something else. She must leave her husband. "But my son!" cries Anna, "I should have to leave him and I can't and won't do that." To Vronsky the choice is simple: She must leave her child or maintain this degrading position. "To whom is it degrading?" says Anna. The only thing important in her life is Vronsky's love, and "if that's mine, I feel so exalted . . . that nothing can humiliate me." As she sobs, Vronsky, himself close to tears, feels helpless knowing he is to blame for her wretchedness. Sadly, Anna realizes her fears: Everything will remain the same.
That Monday, at the usual sitting of the Commission, Karenin emerges victorious. His motion carried after a fight, even against the arguments of his rival Stremov, three new commissions are appointed to investigate the Reorganization of the Native Tribes. Petersburg society talks of nothing else but Karenin's latest victory.
The next day Anna arrives in Petersburg, her visit marring Karenin's satisfaction from yesterday's triumph. Demanding his wife's conduct to be above the suspicions of even the servants, Karenin forbids Anna to meet her lover. In return, he allows her all the privileges of a respectable wife without fulfilling the duties of one.
These chapters define the characters of Karenin and Vronsky, and with Anna Arkadyevna caught "double-souled" between them, they have reached a stalemate. Both men have gone as far as their characters and experiences allow them to go. Until a crisis, the situation is to remain static.
Vronsky is a representative character of the milieu of army and court nobility which has made his career. His motivations are socially conditioned according to his social role and function as a promising career man in the military. Guided by his "code of behavior" Vronsky concludes a duel will occur, thus solving the problem of his honor. With confusion, he realizes that a duel will not solve Anna's disgrace. Now that her condition demands his assuming responsibility for her future, a resolve he has not yet decided, Vronsky's imagination stops.
Karenin, shown as almost the very symbol of bureaucracy, approaches his domestic problems the same way he meets problems at the office. Tolstoy tells us this as Alexey Alexandrovitch first dispatches a letter to Anna, then turns to the business of the Native Tribes Commission. Karenin sees Vronsky as an enemy like Stremov, a rival to be overcome through political, rather than personal, application. Human impulses are sunk deep within him. Religion, whose principles he applies as an afterthought, is for Karenin just a set of highly institutionalized rules. Since a duel solves no problems for a bureaucrat, Karenin issues no challenge. He must compromise emotional problems and avoid their poignancy through the principle of expediency.