Summary and Analysis
Part 5: Chapters 21-33
Karenin finds himself alone and despised by all, as a sick dog left by the pack to fend for itself. At the deepest point in his misery, Countess Lydia Ivanovna enters his study unannounced and offers herself as his confidante and helper. Doing what she can to "lighten his burden of petty cares" the countess begins to run Karenin's household. Despite having considered her religiosity excessive and distasteful, Karenin is comforted by her prayers and exhortations. Lydia lvanovna begins her management by telling Seriozha that his father is a saint and his mother is dead. Then she attends to the practical household affairs, though proving herself inept. Karenin's valet, Korney, quietly corrects her impossible orders, and things run smoothly under his guidance.
Lydia Ivanovna is given to excesses. She frequently falls in love, especially with people connected with the court, and now directs all her affections at Karenin. She is especially proud of having converted Alexey Alexandrovitch from an apathetic believer into a fervent Christian. With her usual blindness, she does not realize his belief is merely a convenient way for him to overcome his humiliation and misery. She is, of course, very jealous of Anna, and gives no answer to Madame Karenina's request to see Seriozha.
Karenin takes great care to provide his son with an excellent education. Hiring outstanding tutors in each discipline, he himself gives Seriozha lessons in the New Testament.
Seriozha, meanwhile, does not believe that his mother is dead. His favorite occupation during his walks is to look for her. Every comely, dark-haired woman sends such a rush of tenderness through him that his eyes fill with tears. He imagines how his mother would come to him, her smiling face revealed as she raises her veil to kiss him.
Arriving at Petersburg, Anna thinks of nothing but her son and how to meet him. Humiliated at the countess' lack of response, Anna's shame turns to wrath when Lydia lvanovna does write, saying that Seriozha's ideals would be shattered by his mother's presence.
She enters the house early one morning and goes to her son's room. Seriozha has become a young boy since her absence, thinner, taller, more mature. Aching with love, Anna hugs him while he is still asleep. Finding his mother is a reality, not a delicious dream, Seriozha wriggles in her arms and presses closely against her.
Anna returns to her hotel room so dazed she does not know why she is there. Despite her intense longing, and having prepared her emotions for the meeting, she has been unable to foresee how violently the encounter would affect her. Now the nurse brings in the newly dressed baby girl, whose round pink face wreathes in smiles when she sees her mother. Yet Anna feels her love for little Ani is nowhere as intense as that reserved for her son, the first child on whom she lavished all the affection she could not give its father.
Gazing at her son's photograph, she sees a picture of Vronsky on the same page of the album, suddenly remembering he is the cause of her present misery. Along with a surge of love for Vronsky, she reproaches him in her mind for not being here to share her unhappiness. Perhaps he does not love her, she thinks, and finds all sorts of evidence to prove it: their separate hotel suites, the guest Vronsky brings with him rather than seeing her alone.
When Vronsky and Anna meet for dinner that evening, he finds her in an unusual, reckless mood. She has invited guests to dine with them, flirts with the men, and, suddenly, decides to attend a benefit performance at the opera that night where all Petersburg will be there to see her. Your presence will acknowledge your position as a fallen woman, Vronsky wants to say to Anna. Begging her not to go, he tries not to look at her beauty, now heightened by the gown she will wear to the theater. Anna cries out that for her nothing matters but her love for Vronsky, that she does not regret what she has done.
Arriving when the performance is in full swing, Vronsky goes to Anna's box at intermission. He learns that she has been insulted by the countess in the next box, and her name is on everyone's lips as people throng the halls. Only at home does Anna succumb to the emotions her humiliation has aroused. She blames him for her shame, and Vronsky can comfort her only by repeated assurances of his love. Her dazzling beauty irritates him, and in his heart he reproaches her action. The next day, fully reconciled, they leave for the country.
Anna's heart-rending visit to her son affects her the same way as his brother's death affected Levin: Both cling more intensely to their love and life after experiencing a loss. Strengthened in her love according to the amount of suffering she paid for it, Anna defends her rights to happiness against the very society opposed to it. She declares the truth of her status by appearing in public. Quoting Steiner, "the ironic intensity" of the scene derives from its setting: "society condemns Anna precisely in that place where society is most frivolous, ostentatious, and steeped in illusion."
She blames Vronsky for her humiliation because he lacks the depth of soul to understand her torment at giving up Seriozha. Anna feels her challenge would have been a triumph had Vronsky been proud of her public declaration. Instead, like Karenin before him, Vronsky, perplexed at her wilful neglect of propriety, thinks only to hide his disgrace from the members of his social set. The moment of disagreement reveals Vronsky's limitations. At her public and proud affirmation of her love for him, he loses respect for her. He is even regretful of being attracted by her beauty, as if her physical charms were to blame for this embarrassment.
Thus Tolstoy shows the fateful differences between Vronsky and Anna. For Vronsky, love is not an absolute quality, but one which must be reinforced through its environment. Unfavorable circumstances wear love's intensity while Anna's love, under the same conditions, becomes mere intense and desperate. This is another example of Tolstoy's concept of "historical necessity" which molds the human condition. Once Anna and Vronsky are isolated from Petersburg society, however, their lives run smoothly and the failing balance of their relationship is restored.