Nursing the baby, Kitty reflects on her husband’s unceasing search for belief. Since the death of his brother, Levin examined the questions of life and death through reading philosophy and through modern scientific concepts which replaced the religious faith of his childhood. Though these ideas are intellectually interesting, Levin thinks, they provide no guidance for life. Feeling like a man “unprepared for life who must inevitably perish because of it.” Levin reads tirelessly, but still finds no explanation. “Without knowing what I am and why I am here, life’s impossible,” he thinks. If I am just a little “bubble-organism” in the immensity of time and space which lasts a little and then bursts, then life is not just a lie, but the “cruel jest of some evil, hateful power to whom one could not submit.” Death is the one way to escape this power, and Levin hides gun and rope for fear of committing suicide.
But he exists happily, he discovers, when he ceases worrying about the meaning of life. Absorbed among the thousand daily tasks of his existence — farming, livestock, his family, his hobbies and shooting and beekeeping — Levin finds satisfaction, but he does not know why.
On an especially busy day, Levin chats with one of his peasants. Remarking on the differences among people, the old man explains why some extend credit and why other don’t. “Some men live for their own wants, nothing else,” he says, “while some like Fokanitch (an upright old peasant) live for their soul. He does not forget God.” Suddenly inspired, Levin asks how one lives “for his soul?” “Why that’s plain enough,” answers the worker, “It’s living rightly, in God’s way. Like yourself, for instance. You wouldn’t wrong a man . . .” Feeling wonderfully illuminated, Levin finds the ideas he struggles with so clear they “blind him with their light.” And he has been solving the problem of life’s significance all along without having realized it, he thinks. One must live with “the greatest goodness possible,” and reason and intellect have merely obscured this simple, natural, irrational truth. In light of the truth of “natural goodness” Levin finds everything clear and simple. He returns home with a joyful heart.
While Kitty, the nurse, and the baby are still walking in the woods, Levin gets drawn, against his will, into an argument with Koznyshev and Katavasov about the Serbian war. Levin believes that a man would sacrifice himself for the sake of his soul, but not for murder. He does not agree that Russia’s entry into the war expresses the “will of the people,” since a common peasant, for instance, is interested in his immediate material needs. Changing the subject, Levin observes the gathering storm clouds and suggests they all seek shelter.
At the height of the storm, Levin struggles through the forest to search for Kitty and the baby. He finds them drenched, but safe. Fear and relief having torn him from the world of sophistic argument, Levin feels restored by nature and this atmosphere of family love now that the thundershower has passed.
As he and Kitty stand on the terrace, gazing into the clear night sky. Levin feels at peace. My life will still be the same despite my new realization, he thinks. He will still quarrel with Kitty, scold the coachman, express himself tactlessly, and feel remorse afterwards. Though I am still unable to understand with my reason why I pray, he thinks, I will go on praying. But my life is no longer meaningless as it was before. Now “it has the positive meaning of goodness which I have the power to put into it.”
Book 8 can be considered, on one level, as Tolstoy’s polemic against the Russo-Turkish war which broke out in April, 1877 while he was completing the novel. The author’s view was so unpopular at the time that Tolstoy’s publisher refused to accept the manuscript even though its tone was softened in two successive versions. Levin expresses Tolstoy’s pacifist views, based on the idea that the “general welfare” can be achieved only by the strict observance of “the law of right and wrong which has been revealed to every man.” The argument with Koznyshev convinces Levin he must pursue his own moral code despite the views of knowledgeable intellectuals. The imminent thunderstorm — an act of nature — turns his thought from these irritating transient matters to his more meaningful concentration on his family. As a literary device, the storm clears Levin’s thoughts, while the same storm — that of the war — is merely a vehicle whereby the other characters avoid self-scrutiny and submerge their individual life quests by repeating of cliches like “fighting for freedom,” “brotherhood of all Slavs,” “national honor,” and “upholding Christian faith.”
Though Anna Karenina concludes with Levin’s salvation, Tolstoy has raised many problems he leaves unanswered, and characters who must still confront unresolved lives. Vronsky is embarked on a course of atonement whose end is uncertain, Karenin remains a pitiable cuckold, and Levin, newly inspired by a love of God, remains at the beginning of a long and difficult career.