Stiva's affair with his children's French governess sets the novel in motion. In a timeless scenario, we see him sleeping on the sofa in his study, agonizing, briefly, over how he can get Dolly to forgive him. Stiva is a truthful man concerning his own self, we are told, and although he is no longer in love with his wife, he never thinks of ending their marriage.
Guilty but Not to Blame
Although he is guilty, Stiva doesn't regret his behavior—only that he had failed to hide it better from his wife. He is actually surprised how deeply his infidelity has hurt Dolly. He "vaguely imagined that his wife had long suspected him of being unfaithful" and because she was "a worn-out, aged, no longer beautiful woman, not remarkable for anything, simple, merely a kind mother of a family, ought in all fairness to be indulgent." (p. 3) He does not however pursue this argument when he speaks to her. Instead he sobs and begs her to think of their children. A cheerful and pleasant man, liked by everyone who knows him, Stiva can't stand anyone being mad at him.
Sweet Rolls and Marriage
He also can't stay focused in his own despair for very long and bounces back to his old self. At dinner with Levin, Stiva indulges in expensive tastes—that he can't afford—and their conversation reveals how simply Stiva views matters of the heart. For Stiva, having an affair is like stealing a sweet roll when he's already full. "Sometimes a sweet roll is so fragrant that you can't help yourself." (p. 40)
All joking aside, Stiva wants Levin to see how helpless he is when it comes to women and that he really can't be blamed for wandering outside his marriage. "The wife is getting old, and you're full of life. Before you have time to turn around, you already feel you can't love your wife as a lover, however much you may respect her. And here suddenly love comes along and you're lost, lost!" (p. 41) He returns to this line of reasoning again in Part Two. He tells Levin, "You don't accept that one can like sweet rolls when one has a daily ration of bread—in your opinion, it's a crime. But I don't accept life without love. No help for it, that's how I'm made." (p. 162)
The Sham of a Dutiful Husband
As soon as Stiva's sister Anna convinces Dolly to forgive him, he feels free to carry on as before. Although Dolly suspects he's started a new liaison, by forgiving Stiva she has agreed to keep her silence, tolerate his affairs and preserve their "family habits." (p. 121) Stiva becomes as absent from his family life as he is from the novel. In Part Three, only the repercussions of his actions can be felt. Using his government position as an excuse to avoid joining his family in the country for the summer, Stiva is not fooling anyone.
Try as he might to uphold appearances, Stiva fails miserably at his duties as a father and husband. When Stiva visited the estate in the spring to sell the wood, he said he had ordered all of the necessary repairs. "Like all guilty husbands he was very solicitous of his wife's comfort." (p. 259) He makes all of the cosmetic repairs but neglects the day-to-day necessities like food, bathing, and hired help. "He never could remember that he had a wife and children. He had a bachelor's tastes, and they alone guided him." (p. 260)
It seems the apple doesn't fall far from the tree in the Oblonsky family. Now that his sister's affair has been revealed, whose side will he take—Anna's for her passionate love or Karenin's for his rights as a husband? Caught between a sister and a friend, a freedom and a duty, you may see Stiva in a new light.
Karenin's change of heart