In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy’s expert treatise on adultery, Dolly Oblonskaya catches her husband, Stiva, having an affair with the governess and threatens to leave him. Stiva’s sister, Anna Karenina, the wife of an aristocrat and high St. Petersburg government official by the name of Karenin, arrives at their home to help resolve the sticky situation, and is able to manage a reconciliation of the two. Meanwhile, Kitty, Dolly’s sister is being courted by two gentlemen: Konstantin Levin, an awkward fellow with a sizeable bit of land under his ownership, and Alexei Vronsky, a very handsome and debonair military official. Kitty of course prefers Vronsky, but he and Anna meet by chance in a Russian train station, and sure enough they fall in love at first sight. Kitty, is devastated and takes ill. Levin, retires to his large country estate, to work himself out of the depression he feels after being rejected by Kitty.
Anna returns to St. Petersburg, to be back at her husband’s side. Vronsky follows Anna. Their attraction grows. At a soiree, Anna asks Vronsky to ask forgiveness of Kitty and encourages him to go after her, but he instead confesses to Anna that he loves her instead. Karenin feels that something is amiss. He speaks to Anna later that night about his suspicions with her and the handsome military official, but she denies any wrongdoing.
Later in the story there is a horse race in which Vronsky participates, and although he is quite an accomplished rider, he has an accident during the race. Karenin notices his wife’s extreme preoccupation with Vronsky during the accident and confronts her about it. Anna, admits that she is in fact having an affair with Vronsky and goes on to tell him that she is in love with Vronsky. Karenin is devastated by the revelation.
Sergei Koznyshev a stepbrother of Levin’s goes to the country to visit him. But mostly he is just there to criticize Levin for abandoning his post at the local administration Council. Levin explains that his resignation came because he found the work to be bureaucratic and utterly useless and that he found the work with his serfs on the farm much more gratifying. Levin then visits Dolly, who encourages him to revive a relationship with Kitty. Levin complies with her advice and meets Kitty at a dinner party, the two suddenly and immediately feel a strong mutual love that at least on Kitty’s account was absent before. With Vronsky out of the picture though, the two soon commit to getting married.
Anna and Vronsky continue their affair, all they speak of is of a way that they can be together. Anna asks her husband for a divorce but Karenin rejects Anna’s request and stresses that appearances must be kept. Anna moves to the country, to get away from her husband, who eventually agrees to a divorce. Anna, however, perhaps moved by feelings of guilt, ends up not following through immediately with the divorce and goes off to Italy with Vronsky. But their relationship soon becomes strained after Anna reveals that she is pregnant. They return to Russia where Anna is spurned by society for her adulterous affair. That and the strain of a pending divorce, and Vronsky becoming more and more distant, ends up giving this story of ill-fated love one of the most tragic scenes in literature. The death of Anna Karenina is perhaps not the most tragic event in all of Count Leo Tolstoy’s fiction, but it’s certainly the most well-known.