After sharing the ins and outs of Anna Sergeyevna's personal story, the narrator notes that people often gossiped about her around town, but she always turned a deaf ear because "she had an independent and pretty determined character" (15.5).
The first time that we hear of Anna Sergeyevna is from Madame Kukshin, who immediately begins bad-mouthing her, saying that she is not yet properly educated and refined. Yet, as time goes on, we begin to suspect that one of the main reasons Kukshin disapproves of Anna Sergeyevna is jealousy. At Kolyazin's ball, Anna Sergeyevna attracts much more attention than Kukshin, and appears to be more socially graceful. She may keep herself a bit aloof from high society, but it is not because she is not yet prepared – it's because she's independent.
As we consider the character of Anna Sergeyevna, however, we should notice that our view of her is biased. We are bound to get a positive view of her because we usually see her through the eyes of either Bazarov or Arkady, both of whom are in love with her. The first time that Arkady sees her at Kolyazin's ball, the narrator tells us, "The sound of her voice haunted his ears; the very folds of her dress seemed to fall differently – more gracefully and amply than on other women – and her every movement was wonderfully flowing and natural" (14.18). Reading this passage, it's important to observe that we are learning much more about Arkady than we are about Anna Sergeyevna. When we read, "the very folds of her dress seemed to fall differently," the key word to pick out is "seemed." Of course she seems remarkable; Arkady is in puppy love with her.
That said, Anna Sergeyevna must be a very impressive woman. It seems that the majority of male characters who come into contact with her are left swooning. She won over Monsieur Odintsov with ease, Arkady went down like a bowling pin, and Bazarov, in spite of himself, is left with his head over his heels. She is a beautiful woman, but whether knowingly or not, she is also extremely coy. When she takes a liking to Bazarov, she begins inviting him on private walks, and then takes him into her room to discuss her unhappiness. Bazarov is both passionate and furious when he makes his declaration of love to her. As he puts it, "you have forced that out of me" (18.45). Anna Sergeyevna is a master at drawing men into her confidence, of playing with their hearts, of taking two steps forward and one step back.
Yet whether out of self-deception or a simple lack of awareness, Anna Sergeyevna does not see this skill in herself. Thinking back on her relations with Bazarov, she says, "I am to blame, but I could not have foreseen this" (18.53). Later, when Bazarov reveals that Arkady was also in love with her, she is similarly surprised. She makes men fall in love with her, but, for whatever reasons (which we'll get into below), she always pulls back at the last minute; she cannot return their affections.
Though we are given Anna Sergeyevna's back-story explicitly and the narrator often characterizes her directly, we get our most revealing glimpse into her character when the narrator describes how she responds to a draught. Sitting on the couch and dreaming of what she might become, the narrator tells us, "Her soul would be filled with sudden daring and begin to seethe with noble aspirations; but then a draught would blow from a half-open window and Anna Sergeyevna would shrink back into herself, feel plaintive and almost angry" (16.83). Anna Sergeyevna is an ambitious woman, a dreamer, but it seems that she's been softened by her comfortable lifestyle. Her life is more about avoiding adversity than seeking out challenges, and thus she often makes the simple and safe choice, even if it won't make her as happy in the long run.
The more we get to know Anna Sergeyevna, the more we see that there is a hard kernel at her core that keeps her from getting too close to other people. She is as selfish as she is self-determined. One of the most lasting images we have of Anna Sergeyevna is that she lays there "all pure and cold in her pure and fragrant linen" (16.86). She is not as conceited as the Princess, but one can imagine that, in later life, she will be doomed to a similar feeling of irrelevance. It's clear that she has not yet learned that youth and beauty are fleeting things, and she often brings herself right up to the edge of happiness without making the final step.
After her encounter with Bazarov, the narrator tells us, "The pressure of various vague emotions – the sense of life passing by, a longing for novelty – had forced her to a certain limit, forced her to look behind her – and there she had seen not even an abyss but only a void... chaos without shape" (18.56). One could argue at length about what this "certain limit" is that defines the choices Anna Sergeyevna makes, but we would argue that it is love: the ability to give herself completely to another person. Ironically, it's this feature that binds her so closely to Bazarov and also makes it impossible for them to be together.
When discussing the coldness at the core of Anna Sergeyevna's character, one might think back to her father, Sergei Nikolayevich Lotkev. We learn that he was a man about town and a gambler; he lost his fortune at cards and died soon after, leaving his daughters both poor and abandoned. If it weren't for Monsieur Odintsov, Anna Sergeyevna might have spent her entire life in much humbler circumstances. It's clear that her father has left her with some basic trust issues, and a fear of being abandoned. Marriage and men have come to seem like only practical things – a way of attaining a certain lifestyle. At the end of the novel, it is not surprising when we learn that Anna Sergeyevna marries again, not out of love but "out of conviction," and her husband is "kind-hearted and as cold as ice" (28.9).