The Oblonsky house is in turmoil: Stiva Oblonsky, a genial aristocrat, has had an affair with the children’s former governess, and his wife, Dolly, is furious. She is devastated and refuses to leave her rooms. Oblonsky tries very hard to feel guilty, but he’s too merry and affable, and too prone to enjoy life, to feel too remorseful. The servants know that they should side with Dolly, but they can’t help being lenient with Oblonsky.
Levin, a landowner who lives in the country and is an old friend of Oblonsky’s, comes to visit Oblonsky in his office in Moscow. Oblonsky has gotten his position through his brother-in-law, Karenin. Levin says that he is in love with Oblonsky’s sister-in-law, Kitty, and Oblonsky sets up a plan for them to meet. While Levin is in Moscow, he stays with his half-brother, Koznyshev, an intellectual; the two men discuss Nikolai, their ill older brother. Even though Nikolai says he wants to be left alone, Levin resolves to go and see him.
Levin goes to the skating rink where Oblonsky had arranged for him to meet up with Kitty; sure enough, she is there, and he can show off his physical prowess. Oblonsky warns Levin of a rival suitor, a dashing young military officer named Vronsky. Levin visits Kitty and proposes to her, but Kitty is smitten with Vronsky and refuses Levin. The next day, Oblonsky and Vronsky both go to the train station: Oblonsky is there to meet his sister, Anna, and Vronsky is there to pick up Countess Vronsky, his mother. As soon as Vronsky and Anna make eye contact, they fall in love. At the same time, a worker falls under the train and is killed.
Ever since Dolly found out about Oblonsky’s affair, she has remained isolated from society with her children. Anna greets Dolly compassionately and sympathetically. When Kitty arrives at the Oblonsky house, Anna is warm to her, and Kitty looks up to Anna. However, at the ball that is held soon after Kitty and Anna arrive, Anna dresses her best and steals the spotlight. Vronsky is clearly captivated by her, and though he dances some waltzes with Kitty, he saves the most important dances for Anna, demonstrating that he is in love with Anna, not Kitty.
Levin, gloomy after Kitty has rejected him, goes to visit Nikolai, who is even sicklier than Levin remembers. Levin tells Marya, Nikolai’s mistress, to write to Levin if things get worse. Levin feels much better when he returns home to the countryside and the natural world.
After the ball, Anna returns to Petersburg, relieved to escape Vronsky, but she sees Vronsky on the train platform and realizes, with a little glow of pride, that he has followed her from Moscow. Anna’s husband, Karenin, meets her at the platform, and Vronsky can tell that Anna does not love her husband. When Anna sees her son, Seryozha, she is initially disappointed: he does not quite live up to her ideal memory of him. After a conversation with Countess Lydia, a smug, morally upright lady, Anna reassures herself that nothing untoward has happened with Vronsky.
Kitty’s health has been worsening all spring, and after consultation with doctors, the family decides she should go to a foreign spa. Dolly talks to Kitty and realizes that Kitty is devastated both because she rashly refused Levin and because she is upset over Vronsky’s rejection of her. Meanwhile, in Petersburg, Anna has been spending more and more time in Princess Betsy’s elite, brilliant, morally lax social circle, where Vronsky also lingers, instead of in the stuff, morally righteous circle that Countess Lydia anchors. Though Anna initially asks Vronsky to return to Kitty, her eyes tell a different story: she is in love with him. Rumors are beginning to fly about Anna and Vronsky, but nothing concrete has happened yet. When Anna returns home after a party at Princess Betsy’s, Karenin confronts her about her relationship with Vronsky, warning her that she has been too carefree. The narrative jumps forward to after Anna and Vronsky have just slept together, and Anna sobs, dreaming rashly that Vronsky and Karenin are both her husband.
Levin, still dejected after Kitty’s refusal, busies himself with his work in the natural world on the farm; he sends Nikolai to a foreign spa to improve his health. Oblonsky pays Levin a visit, and Levin learns that Kitty is not married and that she is ill, but he does not inquire too deeply out of pride and embarrassment. Oblonsky and Levin discuss a tract of forest that Oblonsky is selling; Levin thinks that Oblonsky is getting swindled.
Ever since the affair with Anna, Vronsky’s external life has remained essentially the same: he’s still a popular officer in the regiment. Vronsky buys a new horse, Frou-Frou, for the upcoming officers’ steeplechase. Just before the race, Vronsky visits Anna, who tells him that she’s pregnant. Vronsky is almost late for the race, but he makes it back in time. Frou-Frou is excitable, and though Vronsky almost rides her to victory, he shifts incorrectly on her near the end; she breaks her back and must be killed. Although the relationship between Anna and Karenin has appeared the same externally throughout Anna and Vronsky’s affair, on the inside, it is crumbling. At the race, Anna only has eyes for Vronsky; afterwards, Karenin admonishes her to keep up appearances.
At the German spa, Kitty meets Varenka, a humble, virtuous young girl; she is the ward of Madame Stahl, an outwardly pious old society lady. Varenka aids Petrov, a painter at the spa; Kitty attempts to do the same, but the painter develops a crush on Kitty. Kitty realizes that she must be true to herself, rather than attempt to follow another person’s way of living life. The arrival of the old Prince, Kitty’s father, also helps to expose Madame Stahl as a hypocrite.
As a respite from his intellectual life, Koznyshev, Levin’s half-brother, goes to visit Levin on his farm, which makes Levin uncomfortable, because life on the farm is anything but relaxing for him. Koznyshev lectures Levin for withdrawing from public affairs, but Levin is more concerned with actually plowing his fields than with the philosophical issues surrounding peasant life. Levin finds deep fulfillment when he joins the peasants in mowing. Dolly has moved to her country estate with her children for the summer to save money, but the estate is falling apart. Oblonsky writes to Levin to ask him to help Dolly; when Levin arrives, Dolly has the estate under control, but she is nevertheless happy to see him. Dolly mentions Kitty, which makes Levin angry and embarrassed. But when he sees Kitty passing in a carriage, his love for her is renewed.
Karenin wants to keep up his reputation in society. He decides that the best punishment for Anna is to refuse her request for a divorce and to forbid her from seeing Vronsky anymore. Anna is shocked and furious. She writes Karenin a letter saying that she is taking Seryozha and going to Moscow, but in the end, she tears up the letter. Instead of going to Moscow, she goes to Princess Betsy’s croquet party, where she hopes to see Vronsky; when Vronsky isn’t there, she arranges to meet with him through a complicated interchange of notes.
Although Vronsky appears to live the same carefree life as all the officers of the regiment, he is much more scrupulous both with his finances and with his reputation than most. However, Anna’s pregnancy throws him for a loop, as he does not know how to proceed with his normal rules of conduct. When his old colleague Serpukhovskoy visits, who has just received a big promotion, Vronsky realizes that his affair with Anna has been holding his career back. When Vronsky and Anna meet, Vronsky encourages her to press Karenin for a divorce; Anna, however, says that this is impossible, because with a divorce she will never see Seryozha again. Karenin has a major political triumph with a successful speech, and that same night, Anna confronts Karenin and tells him that they cannot live as man and wife.
Levin has come to hate the farm labor he once loved. Kitty is on Dolly’s estate nearby, which distracts Levin so much that he goes to visit his friend Sviyzahsky, who tries to set Levin up with his sister-in-law. Sviyazhsky’s actions contradict his philosophies: though he purports to be against serfdom, he runs his farm as though the peasants are serfs. Sviyzahsky says that education is the key to improving peasant life, but Levin disagrees. Levin realizes that farming only works when the peasants are incentivized; though the peasants are resistant to Levin’s reforms initially, they eventually come around to his ideas. Nikolai visits the farm; he is sicker than ever, and his visit causes Levin to start thinking about death and mortality.
Anna and Karenin remain married, but their marriage is only a façade, upheld solely for reputation’s sake. Despite Karenin’s explicit demands to the contrary, Vronsky appears at the Karenin household. Anna is pregnant and no longer as beautiful as she once was; she is irritable and jealous, though she and Vronsky still share a bond stronger than ever. It turns out that Anna and Vronsky have had the same ominous nightmare involving a peasant man speaking in French. Karenin is furious that Vronsky has arrived in his house. Karenin says that he is taking Seryozha and moving to Moscow and does not relent when Anna implores him to let her have custody of her son. Karenin snatches Vronsky’s love letters to Anna and takes them to a divorce lawyer, but it turns out that they are insufficient evidence to prove adultery. Karenin runs into Oblonsky, who invites him to a dinner party at his house; though Karenin refuses at first, telling Oblonsky that he is getting a divorce from Anna, he eventually accepts.
When Levin arrives at the Oblonsky’s dinner party, all he can think about is seeing Kitty again; both Levin and Kitty are keyed up with emotion. The discussion turns to infidelity, which makes Karenin deeply uncomfortable; Karenin tells Dolly that he is planning to divorce Anna, and though Dolly begs him to reconsider, he remains firm. Meanwhile, at the dinner party, Levin proposes to Kitty nearly wordlessly with a special code: they are so in sync with each others’ desires that they don’t need any words to show their love and to become engaged to be married. The next day, in a blissful haze, Levin calls on Kitty and her parents; he shows her a diary that reveals all his secrets—i.e., that he is agnostic and not a virgin—and she forgives him.
After the dinner party, Karenin receives two telegrams, one saying that he has not received a promotion he’d wanted and the other saying that Anna is dying in childbirth and that she begs his forgiveness. When he arrives at her bedside, he sees Vronsky and realizes that Vronsky loves her as well. Anna has delivered a baby girl, but it does not seem as though Anna will survive, and Karenin forgives both Anna and Vronsky. Karenin feels buoyed by his own ability to forgive. Vronsky is in despair; he attempts to shoot himself, but ends up wounding without killing himself. Even when Anna doesn’t die, Karenin still accepts the daughter as legally his own and feels uplifted with spiritual joy at his forgiveness. Vronsky accepts a post in central Russia, and Princess Betsy begs Karenin to allow Vronsky to visit one last time; Karenin says that it’s Anna’s decision, and Anna refuses to see Vronsky again. Oblonsky suggests to Karenin that Karenin grant Anna a divorce, and Karenin concedes that this is the best option. Upon hearing the news that Karenin has agreed to the divorce, Vronsky goes to visit Anna, and the two embrace passionately. He abruptly turns down his post in Russia, and he and Anna leave for Italy without accepting Karenin’s offer of divorce.
The marriage preparations for Kitty and Levin proceed quickly. Though Levin expresses his religious doubts to the priest, the priest allows Levin to proceed with the marriage anyway. Despite some last-minute comical mishaps and fumbles, the wedding itself proceeds beautifully; Kitty and Levin truly seem to have an equal partnership.
Meanwhile, Vronsky and Anna have been traveling in Italy. Anna is in a state of infatuated bliss, but Vronsky is bored: he has taken up painting in the palazzo they’ve rented, but he doesn’t have true skill. Vronsky commissions the talented painter Mikhailov to paint a portrait of Anna. Upon seeing the true painter’s portrait, Vronsky abandons his own work and grows even more dissatisfied with Italian life.
Levin and Kitty slowly adjust to married life; though initially they quarrel often, they eventually settle into a routine. Levin is unable to get much work done on his book while Kitty is around, and he doesn’t understand why she is so obsessed with housework; Kitty, for her part, is preparing to have a baby. They receive a letter from Marya, Nikolai’s mistress, saying that Nikolai is very ill; Levin and Kitty both travel to visit him. Levin is so emotionally shaken that he becomes useless around Nikolai, but Kitty takes charge, dealing instinctively and expertly with all the pragmatic arrangements. Nikolai declines slowly, his illness lingering, but he eventually passes away; at nearly the same moment of his death, Kitty learns that she is pregnant.
Anna and Vronsky return to Petersburg. Countless Lydia calls on the grief-stricken Karenin and offers herself as a confidant. Lydia attempts to drive an even greater wedge between Anna and Karenin by refusing to answer Anna’s request to see Seryozha. When Karenin learns that Anna is in Petersburg, he is horrified, which delights Lydia. Although Seryozha has been told that Anna is dead, he refuses to believe it. Anna visits Seryozha, which reminds her of the deep emotional connection to her son that she lacks with her daughter who she had with Vronsky. Anna is becoming increasingly hectic and resentful that Vronsky can continue to travel in society while she is a social pariah. Anna goes to the opera, despite Vronsky’s warnings, and the night is a disaster, as she is publicly humiliated as a disgrace. The next day, she and Vronsky leave Petersburg for Vronsky’s country estate.
The Oblonsky country estate has been ruined, so Dolly and her children are spending the summer at Kitty and Levin’s country house; Kitty’s friend Varenka and Levin’s half-brother, Kozyshev, are also spending the summer there. Varenka and Kozyshev go mushroom-hunting together, and though Kozyshev is on the brink of a marriage proposal, he backs away at the crucial moment, and the proposal does not transpire. Oblonsky arrives with his young, dashing friend Veslovsky, and Levin is immediately jealous when he sees Kitty smiling at Veslovsky. Oblonsky, Levin, and Veslovsky all go out hunting; Oblonsky and Levin are skilled, but Veslovsky is inept. Levin’s dog, Laska, can understand Levin’s moods. Levin fluctuates between being sour and resentful that Veslovsky is messing things up and enjoying the snipe-shooting. Even though Veslovsky is generally an affable, likeable guest, upon their return, Veslovsky flirts with Kitty so much that Levin kicks him out.
Dolly goes to visit Anna; Levin insists that she take his carriage. During the ride, Dolly is envious of the peasant women she sees and is jealous of Anna as well, lamenting that she is no longer pretty and loveable. Princess Varvara, Anna and Oblonsky’s aunt, is sponging off Anna and Vronsky’s largess. Anna and Vronsky live in an opulent, lavish fashion in the countryside, and Dolly is ashamed of Levin’s dirty carriage and her shabby wardrobe. But all the luxury is a cold replacement for love, Dolly realizes; she sees that Anna does not really have an emotional bond with Annie, her daughter. Vronsky asks Dolly to press Anna to write to Karenin for a divorce so that if he and Anna have more children, they can legally belong to Vronsky rather than Karenin. Dolly feels awkward, dowdy, and uncomfortable at the fancy estate: everything seems fake and artificial. Vronsky dismisses the peasants and dismisses Levin’s attitude toward them, and Dolly finds herself defending Levin.
Though Tolstoy does not write out the explanation explicitly, Anna confesses to Dolly that she will not have any more children. Despite this explanation, Dolly continues to insist that divorce is the best option. Anna has been taking morphine to try and escape her troubles. When Dolly returns to Levin and Kitty’s estate, she now feels satisfied and happy in her life, rather than anxious and irritated, as she had before.
Vronsky and Anna continue in the same static status quo of their relationship. In the fall, Vronsky goes to Moscow for the elections. Kitty and Levin are also in Moscow for Kitty’s confinement before she has her baby, and Kitty encourages Levin to go to the elections as well, even though he doesn’t see the point of politics. Levin feels uncomfortable and awkward at the elections: he doesn’t follow the gist of the debates, and he finds himself making awkward mistakes and gaffes. In contrast, Oblonsky, Vronsky, and Koznyshev love all the political fervor and activity. Vronsky receives a letter from Anna saying that Annie is sick and that Vronsky must return home at once; he is irritated, but he gets on the next train home. Even though, in hindsight, Anna regrets the hectic and desperate tone of her letter, she’s pleased that it worked. When Vronsky returns, he affirms his love for her, and Anna agrees to ask Karenin for a divorce.
In Moscow, Kitty and Levin await the birth of their child. Kitty is calm, but Levin, who is out of his element in the city as opposed to the country, is anxious. He doesn’t socialize at the club and isn’t involved in politics, so the city is boring to him, and the daily routines of city life exhaust him. Levin visits his friend Katavasov and the scholar Merov, who likes the sound of his own voice much more than listening to Levin’s project. He goes to a concert with Wagnerian-style music but is puzzled by the aesthetic and doesn’t know what to think. Levin drops by the club, which is unusual for him; he relaxes and jokes with everyone, even Vronsky. Oblonsky insists that Levin accompany him on a visit to Anna; Oblonsky says that Anna is lonely in Petersburg, passing the time in writing a children’s book and caring for an English family. Levin is first struck by Mikhailov’s portrait of Anna, and is then smitten with the woman herself. When Levin returns home, Kitty can tell by his blushes that he has developed a crush on Anna, and she is devastated; they talk about it until the wee hours of the morning. Anna—whether consciously or unconsciously—makes every man who meets her fall in love with her; however, Vronsky’s affection is fading. Anna is waiting in suspense to hear whether or not Karenin will grant her the divorce.
Very early the next morning, Kitty goes into labor. Even though he’s a nonbeliever, Levin finds himself instinctively praying. He dashes out in search of the midwife and the doctor, who feel no rush to return back quickly. Kitty’s labor is long and difficult, and Levin wanders around in an extremely emotional, helpless state the whole time. Just as when Nikolai died and Levin was paralyzed with his strong feelings, he finds himself similarly unable to do anything but become an emotional wreck during Kitty’s labor. When Mitya, their son, is finally born, Levin sees the son himself as superfluous to the fact that Kitty has emerged alive and well.
The Oblonskys have no money left, and Oblonsky resolves to get a new, more well-paid bureaucratic position. He goes to speak with Karenin both about the position and about the situation with Anna. Oblonsky tells Karenin that Anna no longer demands custody of Seryozha and simply wants a divorce. Before Karenin makes his decision, however, he and Countess Lydia consult with Jules Landau, a French psychic who is supposedly clairvoyant. Oblonsky sits in on the séance, and the session confuses him so much that he’s uncharacteristically at a loss for words. The next day, Karenin says that based on what Landau uttered in his trance, Karenin will not grant Anna the divorce.
Meanwhile, Anna and Vronsky’s relationship has disintegrated: Anna clings desperately to him, and Vronsky yearns for freedom. They bicker constantly. Anna is hysterically, irrationally paranoid. They agree to go to the country, but when Vronsky says he must visit his mother first, Anna flies into a jealous rage. They have a quarrel that lasts longer than a day, which is unprecedented for them, as they typically fight intensely and often but briefly. Anna sends a flurry of complicated and somewhat contradictory messages to Vronsky, only some of which he receives.
Anna goes to visit Dolly. When Anna looks in the mirror, she doesn’t recognize herself. On the journey to Dolly, her thoughts are fractured, and she resolves that she will leave Vronsky. Kitty is also visiting Dolly. Though Kitty avoids Anna at first, and though Anna is somewhat cruel to her, Kitty realizes that Anna is not in her right mind and treats her with compassion. Anna returns home to find a note from Vronsky saying that he will come soon, but not immediately—he’s only responding to the telegram of her that he saw—and she resolves to go and meet him at the train station. Because Anna herself is so hysterical and miserable, she sees everyone around her as in despair as well. She sees a peasant working by the train tracks who looks like the dirty peasant of her recurring nightmare. In utter misery, Anna kneels on the train tracks in front of the oncoming train.
It is two months after Anna’s death. Koznychev has finally published the book on workers’ rights that he’s spent six years writing, but nobody cares about it. Instead, the topic on everybody’s lips is the Serbian emancipation––that is, the movement to liberate the Slavs—and Koznyshev hurls himself into this issue with great zeal. He and Katavasov decide to visit Levin in the country. The train they take is full of volunteers for the Serbian effort; among the volunteers is Vronsky. Vronsky has been thrown into complete despair by Anna’s suicide, but the Serbian effort gives him some renewed purpose in life. Katavasov talks to the volunteers and finds out that they’re all just young men who want to escape their lives in Russia, but Koznyshev is determined to believe in the heroism of the cause.
Kitty greets Koznyshev and Katavasov; Dolly, the old Prince, Agafya, and Dolly’s children are also present. Kitty is comfortable and at ease with all aspects of the household. Unlike Anna with her daughter, Kitty breastfeeds Mitya and has an obvious emotional connection with her son. Levin is in an existential funk: he has been reading many philosophers and wracking his brains, but he cannot find any purpose in life. Kitty hopes that the guests will pull Levin out of himself for a little while.
The day that Koznyshev and Katavasov arrive is one of Levin’s most tormenting days. However, Levin sees a peasant who tells him that he lives for his soul; this idea of living for one’s soul is an epiphany for Levin, who undergoes a sudden religious transformation. The previously nonbelieving Levin suddenly has a deep faith in God, and this realization makes him joyful. Although he is not perfect—indeed, he still becomes irritable and anxious—the existential despair is over. Levin realizes that instead of worrying about humanity, he can only take care of himself and his family; he should act instead of think.
Levin takes the visitors to see the bees. Kitty and Mitya go into the forest to avoid the heat of the house. A disagreement about the Slavic question breaks out among the men, but before it gets too intense, Levin sees the approaching storm and hurries everyone home; they arrive just in time, and Levin dashes to the forest to check on Kitty and Mitya. He sees lightning hit their favorite tree, but luckily, Kitty and Mitya were in the opposite corner of the woods. Levin looks up at the sky and rejoices in his epiphany of faith in God.