And Levin went out of the room, only when he was in the doorway remembering that he had forgotten to take leave of Oblonsky's colleagues. (1.5.73)
Levin is socially awkward. He's clearly not used to high society, since he prefers spending time on his country estate.
Levin's conviction that it could not be was founded on the idea that in the eyes of her family he was a disadvantageous and worthless match for the charming Kitty, and that Kitty herself could not love him. In her family's eyes he had no ordinary, definite career and position in society, while his contemporaries by this time, when he was thirty-two, were already, one a colonel, and another a professor, another director of a bank and railways, or president of a board like Oblonsky. But he (he knew very well how he must appear to others) was a country gentleman, occupied in breeding cattle, shooting game, and building barns; in other words, a fellow of no ability, who had not turned out well, and who was doing just what, according to the ideas of the world, is done by people fit for nothing else. (1.6.6)
Levin is fully aware that the path he chose in life is not one that is admired by society at large, but is looked down upon instead. Levin provides a contrast to characters like Oblonsky and Karenin, who have impressive careers and live in the city, but don't have the happy, fulfilling life that Levin has by the end of the novel.
In Moscow he had for the first time felt, after his luxurious and coarse life at Petersburg, all the charm of intimacy with a sweet and innocent girl of his own rank, who cared for him. It never even entered his head that there could be any harm in his relations with Kitty. At balls he danced principally with her. He was a constant visitor at their house. He talked to her as people commonly do talk in society – all sorts of nonsense, but nonsense to which he could not help attaching a special meaning in her case. Although he said nothing to her that he could not have said before everybody, he felt that she was becoming more and more dependent upon him, and the more he felt this, the better he liked it, and the more tender was his feeling for her. He did not know that his mode of behavior in relation to Kitty had a definite character, that it is courting young girls with no intention of marriage, and that such courting is one of the evil actions common among brilliant young men such as he was. It seemed to him that he was the first who had discovered this pleasure, and he was enjoying his discovery.
If he could have heard what her parents were saying that evening, if he could have put himself at the point of view of the family and have heard that Kitty would be unhappy if he did not marry her, he would have been greatly astonished, and would not have believed it. He could not believe that what gave such great and delicate pleasure to him, and above all to her, could be wrong. Still less could he have believed that he ought to marry. (1.16.3-4)
Having engaged in a life full of debauchery, Vronsky has no idea of how society views his conduct with Kitty. Though Vronsky feels that he has no obligations toward Kitty, thinking that they're just having a good time, she and her family fully expect him to marry her.
"I know more of the world than you do," [Anna] said. "I know how men like Stiva look at it. You speak of his talking of you with her. That never happened. Such men are unfaithful, but their home and wife are sacred to them. Somehow or other these women are still looked on with contempt by them, and do not touch on their feeling for their family. They draw a sort of line that can't be crossed between them and their families. I don't understand it, but it is so." (1.19.47)
Anna argues to Dolly that for men like Stiva, infidelity is never allowed to interfere with their home life. This is a socially acceptable form of infidelity. Interestingly, when Anna later commits adultery herself, her home and husband do not remain "sacred" to her. Her relationship with Vronsky does "cross the line between [her] and [her] family." Unlike Oblonsky, Anna leaves her family behind entirely, even giving up her son to be with Vronsky. Maybe this is part of the reason why society shuns Anna while accepting Oblonsky.
He was so far from conceiving of love for woman apart from marriage that he positively pictured to himself first the family, and only secondarily the woman who would give him a family. His ideas of marriage were, consequently, quite unlike those of the great majority of his acquaintances, for whom getting married was one of the numerous facts of social life. For Levin it was the chief affair of life, on which its whole happiness turned. And now he had to give up that. (1.27.3)
Although most of Levin's equals in society view marriage as yet another obligation, or part of social life, Levin takes marriage more seriously. This is another example of how Levin veers away from societal norms.
Vronsky heard with pleasure this light-hearted prattle of a pretty woman, agreed with her, gave her half-joking counsel, and altogether dropped at once into the tone habitual to him in talking to such women. In his Petersburg world all people were divided into utterly opposed classes. One, the lower class, vulgar, stupid, and, above all, ridiculous people, who believe that one husband ought to live with the one wife whom he has lawfully married; that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, and a man manly, self-controlled, and strong; that one ought to bring up one's children, earn one's bread, and pay one's debts; and various similar absurdities. This was the class of old-fashioned and ridiculous people. But there was another class of people, the real people. To this class they all belonged, and in it the great thing was to be elegant, generous, plucky, gay, to abandon oneself without a blush to every passion, and to laugh at everything else.
For the first moment only, Vronsky was startled after the impression of a quite different world that he had brought with him from Moscow. But immediately as though slipping his feet into old slippers, he dropped back into the light-hearted, pleasant world he had always lived in. (1.34.16-17)
Vronsky divides society into two groups. He belongs to, and prefers, a hedonistic, carefree world of loose morals. He ridicules the other half of society, people that follow society's expected path of marrying and having children, considering them "old-fashioned," "ridiculous," and "stupid." Over the course of the novel, however, we see that Vronsky has misjudged his social group. Maybe there aren't two clear-cut groups. When his friends don't accept his intense, public affair with Anna, he beings to see them as "old-fashioned" as well. Check out the quote below on 5.28.6 for more on this.
"None whatever," said Vronsky, laughing and showing his even rows of teeth. "Excuse me," he added, taking an opera glass out of her hand, and proceeding to scrutinize, over her bare shoulder, the row of boxes facing them. "I'm afraid I'm becoming ridiculous."
He was very well aware that he ran no risk of being ridiculous in the eyes of Betsy or any other fashionable people. He was very well aware that in their eyes the position of an unsuccessful lover of a girl, or of any woman free to marry, might be ridiculous. But the position of a man pursuing a married woman, and, regardless of everything, staking his life on drawing her into adultery, has something fine and grand about it, and can never be ridiculous; and so it was with a proud and gay smile under his mustaches that he lowered the opera glass and looked at his cousin. (2.4.13-14)
Vronsky knows that society fully condones young men pursuing married women, but a married woman responding to this pursuit does not get the same response.
"Stay, stay," he began, interrupting Oblonsky. "You talk of his being an aristocrat. But allow me to ask what it consists in, that aristocracy of Vronsky or of anybody else, beside which I can be looked down upon? You consider Vronsky an aristocrat, but I don't. A man whose father crawled up from nothing at all by intrigue, and whose mother – God knows whom she wasn't mixed up with.... No, excuse me, but I consider myself aristocratic, and people like me, who can point back in the past to three or four honorable generations of their family, of the highest degree of breeding (talent and intellect, of course that's another matter), and have never curried favor with anyone, never depended on anyone for anything, like my father and my grandfather. And I know many such. You think it mean of me to count the trees in my forest, while you make Ryabinin a present of thirty thousand; but you get rents from your lands and I don't know what, while I don't and so I prize what's come to me from my ancestors or been won by hard work.... We are aristocrats, and not those who can only exist by favor of the powerful of this world, and who can be bought for two pence halfpenny." (2.17.31)
Levin has a different view of his social position than Vronsky, and he disrespects Vronsky for coming from "new money" and for not having worked to maintain his position as an aristocrat.
Vronsky's mother, on hearing of his connection, was at first pleased at it, because nothing to her mind gave such a finishing touch to a brilliant young man as a liaison in the highest society; she was pleased, too, that Madame Karenina, who had so taken her fancy, and had talked so much of her son, was, after all, just like all other pretty and well-bred women, – at least according to the Countess Vronskaya's ideas. But she had heard of late that her son had refused a position offered him of great importance to his career, simply in order to remain in the regiment, where he could be constantly seeing Madame Karenina. She learned that great personages were displeased with him on this account, and she changed her opinion. She was vexed, too, that from all she could learn of this connection it was not that brilliant, graceful, worldly liaison which she would have welcomed, but a sort of Wertherish, desperate passion, so she was told, which might well lead him into imprudence. She had not seen him since his abrupt departure from Moscow, and she sent her elder son to bid him come to see her. (2.18.4)
Adultery itself is not condemned outright, but society really begins to turn on Anna and Vronsky's affair when it is clear that real feelings are involved.
"Very well! But I expect a strict observance of the external forms of propriety till such time" – his voice shook – "as I may take measures to secure my honor and communicate them to you." (2.29.42)
Karenin is mostly concerned with upholding the external demands of propriety. He's more concerned with how Anna's affair will affect his reputation than how it affects their marriage. This paints Karenin as a rather cold character; he doesn't seem to have loved his wife at all. We readers can't help but feel sympathy for Anna, realizing that she's been stuck in a loveless marriage.
"Really! what an idea! But tell me, how do the peasants look at it? I suppose they laugh in their sleeves at their master's being such a queer fish?" (3.4.16)
Levin's affinity for mowing with the peasants is yet another way in which he flaunts dominant social mores.
Vronsky was continually conscious of the necessity of never for a second relaxing the tone of stern official respectfulness, that he might not himself be insulted. The prince's manner of treating the very people who, to Vronsky's surprise, were ready to descend to any depths to provide him with Russian amusements, was contemptuous. His criticisms of Russian women, whom he wished to study, more than once made Vronsky crimson with indignation. The chief reason why the prince was so particularly disagreeable to Vronsky was that he could not help seeing himself in him. And what he saw in this mirror did not gratify his self-esteem. He was a very stupid and very self-satisfied and very healthy and very well-washed man, and nothing else. He was a gentleman – that was true, and Vronsky could not deny it. He was equable and not cringing with his superiors, was free and ingratiating in his behavior with his equals, and was contemptuously indulgent with his inferiors. Vronsky was himself the same, and regarded it as a great merit to be so. But for this prince he was an inferior, and his contemptuous and indulgent attitude to him revolted him.
"Brainless beef! can I be like that?" he thought. (4.1.6-7)
Vronsky is astonished and repulsed when coming face to face with a mirror image of his own conduct in society.
But as time went on, he saw more and more distinctly that however natural the position now seemed to him, he would not long be allowed to remain in it. He felt that besides the blessed spiritual force controlling his soul, there was another, a brutal force, as powerful, or more powerful, which controlled his life, and that this force would not allow him that humble peace he longed for. He felt that everyone was looking at him with inquiring wonder, that he was not understood, and that something was expected of him. Above all, he felt the instability and unnaturalness of his relations with his wife. (4.19.3)
Karenin is comfortable in his current situation, but he knows that society will force him to do something about Anna's adultery, even though he himself has made peace with it. For more on this topic, check out Karenin's "Character Analysis."
"I am very grateful to you for your confidence, but..." he said, feeling with confusion and annoyance that what he could decide easily and clearly by himself, he could not discuss before Princess Tverskaya, who to him stood for the incarnation of that brute force which would inevitably control him in the life he led in the eyes of the world, and hinder him from giving way to his feeling of love and forgiveness. He stopped short, looking at Princess Tverskaya. (4.19.48)
For Karenin, Princess Betsy embodies all the societal pressures and forces that are bending him to act in a direction contrary to his true feelings. He wants to forgive Anna (and we want him to forgive Anna!), but Betsy is pushing him in a different direction. You can learn more about Karenin's conflict over how to treat Anna in his "Character Analysis."
He felt that he could not endure the weight of universal contempt and exasperation, which he had distinctly seen in the face of the clerk and of Korney, and of everyone, without exception, whom he had met during those two days. He felt that he could not turn aside from himself the hatred of men, because that hatred did not come from his being bad (in that case he could have tried to be better), but from his being shamefully and repulsively unhappy. He knew that for this, for the very fact that his heart was torn with grief, they would be merciless to him. He felt that men would crush him as dogs strangle a torn dog yelping with pain. He knew that his sole means of security against people was to hide his wounds from them, and instinctively he tried to do this for two days, but now he felt incapable of keeping up the unequal struggle. (5.21.5)
Here society is painted as cruel, eager to "crush him" and tear him to pieces. Karenin lacks the inner strength to stand up to societal contempt. Anna certainly faces a similarly cruel society, one that treats her as an outcast.
While he was governor of a province, Anna's aunt, a wealthy provincial lady, had thrown him – middle-aged as he was, though young for a governor – with her niece, and had succeeded in putting him in such a position that he had either to declare himself or to leave the town. Alexey Alexandrovitch was not long in hesitation. There were at the time as many reasons for the step as against it, and there was no overbalancing consideration to outweigh his invariable rule of abstaining when in doubt. But Anna's aunt had through a common acquaintance insinuated that he had already compromised the girl, and that he was in honor bound to make her an offer. He made the offer, and concentrated on his betrothed and his wife all the feeling of which he was capable. (5.21.9)
Karenin was forced to marry Anna because her aunt spread a rumor that Karenin had already been fooling around with Anna, which was definitely not allowed. Karenin and Anna's relationship was founded on deceit, social manipulation, and Karenin's desire to maintain a good reputation.
In spite of all his social experience Vronsky was, in consequence of the new position in which he was placed, laboring under a strange misapprehension. One would have thought he must have understood that society was closed for him and Anna; but now some vague ideas had sprung up in his brain that this was only the case in old-fashioned days, and that now with the rapidity of modern progress (he had unconsciously become by now a partisan of every sort of progress) the views of society had changed, and that the question whether they would be received in society was not a foregone conclusion. "Of course," he thought, "she would not be received at court, but intimate friends can and must look at it in the proper light." One may sit for several hours at a stretch with one's legs crossed in the same position, if one knows that there's nothing to prevent one's changing one's position; but if a man knows that he must remain sitting so with crossed legs, then cramps come on, the legs begin to twitch and to strain towards the spot to which one would like to draw them. This was what Vronsky was experiencing in regard to the world. Though at the bottom of his heart he knew that the world was shut on them, he put it to the test whether the world had not changed by now and would not receive them. But he very quickly perceived that though the world was open for him personally, it was closed for Anna. Just as in the game of cat and mouse, the hands raised for him were dropped to bar the way for Anna. (5.28.6)
Vronsky is surprised to realize the extent to which Anna is ostracized in society. At first he thought that times and morals had changed, particularly in his social group, and that their affair would be accepted. He believed that Anna's friends would stand by her. But this isn't the case. While Vronsky's reputation is undamaged, Anna is excluded from society.
Vronsky for the first time experienced a feeling of anger against Anna, almost a hatred for her willfully refusing to understand her own position. This feeling was aggravated by his being unable to tell her plainly the cause of his anger. If he had told her directly what he was thinking, he would have said:
"In that dress, with a princess only too well known to everyone, to show yourself at the theater is equivalent not merely to acknowledging your position as a fallen woman, but is flinging down a challenge to society, that is to say, cutting yourself off from it forever." (5.33.1-2)
Anna's determination to go to the opera will seal her fate as a fallen woman. Anna has rebelled against society by making her relationship with Vronsky public, but she doesn't seem to understand what has happened. Over time, this causes a huge conflict between Anna and Vronsky – she is excluded by society, but he isn't.
"Divorce, you mean?" said Anna. "Do you know, the only woman who came to see me in Petersburg was Betsy Tverskaya? You know her, of course? At bottom she's the most depraved woman in existence. She had an affair with Tushkevitch, deceiving her husband in the basest way. And she told me that she did not care to know me so long as my position was irregular. (6.23.20)
Princess Betsy lives a false life, and is accepted by society. Anna is frustrated that Betsy can get away with adultery through deceit, while she herself is ostracized as a result of being honest and making her love public.
In solitude afterwards, thinking over that glance which had expressed his right to freedom, she came, as she always did, to the same point – the sense of her own humiliation. "He has the right to go away when and where he chooses. Not simply to go away, but to leave me. He has every right, and I have none. But knowing that, he ought not to do it." (6.32.2)
One of the biggest conflicts in Vronsky and Anna's relationship is that he's free to go about in society, and she is not. In other words, he can basically keep up the same lifestyle, while her life is irreversibly changed. Would Vronsky have been able to endure the complete social isolation that Anna suffers?
[Kitty:] "Put on your frock coat, so that you can go straight to call on Countess Bola."
[Levin:] "But is it absolutely necessary?"
[Kitty:] "Oh, absolutely! He has been to see us. Come, what is it? You go in, sit down, talk for five minutes of the weather, get up and go away."
[Levin:] "Oh, you wouldn't believe it! I've got so out of the way of all this that it makes me feel positively ashamed. It's such a horrible thing to do! A complete outsider walks in, sits down, stays on with nothing to do, wastes their time and worries himself, and walks away!" (7.2.11-14)
Levin feels uncomfortable paying social calls, in part because the interactions seem so superficial to him.
In the circle to which Sergey Ivanovitch belonged, nothing was talked of or written about just now but the Servian War. Everything that the idle crowd usually does to kill time was done now for the benefit of the Slavonic States. Balls, concerts, dinners, matchboxes, ladies' dresses, beer, restaurants – everything testified to sympathy with the Slavonic peoples.
From much of what was spoken and written on the subject, Sergey Ivanovitch differed on various points. He saw that the Slavonic question had become one of those fashionable distractions which succeed one another in providing society with an object and an occupation. He saw, too, that a great many people were taking up the subject from motives of self-interest and self-advertisement. He recognized that the newspapers published a great deal that was superfluous and exaggerated, with the sole aim of attracting attention and outbidding one another. He saw that in this general movement those who thrust themselves most forward and shouted the loudest were men who had failed and were smarting under a sense of injury – generals without armies, ministers not in the ministry, journalists not on any paper, party leaders without followers. He saw that there was a great deal in it that was frivolous and absurd. But he saw and recognized an unmistakable growing enthusiasm, uniting all classes, with which it was impossible not to sympathize. The massacre of men who were fellow Christians, and of the same Slavonic race, excited sympathy for the sufferers and indignation against the oppressors. And the heroism of the Servians and Montenegrins struggling for a great cause begot in the whole people a longing to help their brothers not in word but in deed.
But in this there was another aspect that rejoiced Sergey Ivanovitch. That was the manifestation of public opinion. The public had definitely expressed its desire. The soul of the people had, as Sergey Ivanovitch said, found expression. And the more he worked in this cause, the more incontestable it seemed to him that it was a cause destined to assume vast dimensions, to create an epoch. (8.19.21-23)
A Pan-Slavic movement has become popular in Russia. However, many of the people involved are part of the movement to distract themselves from their own personal failures, rather than out of genuine interest. For more on the "Slavic Question," check out our detailed discussion in Levin's "Character Analysis."