Anna is a beautiful woman in her late 20s who is married to a man 20 years her senior. Although he is a good and responsible husband, he lacks passion and treats her with some degree of condescension. Anna pours all of her love into her son, Seryozha, as a result, because she is starved for affection. When Anna comes to Moscow to help smooth her brother's marital woes, she meets Count Vronsky, and they fall in love. After he pursues her relentlessly over several months, she becomes his mistress and eventually leaves her husband. Although she wishes to transcend the limits of social restraints, she does not have the strength to do so. In the end, Anna kills herself because she sees no way out of her situation. Anna's maiden name is Princess Oblonsky.
Levin is a nobleman in his early 30s who manages and farms his own estate, working beside his peasants. He is a nonconformist who disagrees at times with both the liberals and traditionalists, and he has a notion that he can improve his land's productiveness if he can learn more about the relationship between the land and the peasants. Levin is also in love with Kitty but does not have the confidence to ask her to marry him until it is too late. However, Kitty and Levin get a second chance and end up marrying and living happily.
Karenin is a highly placed government minister who marries Anna after being pressured to do so by her aunt. But he learns to love his wife and is devastated when he discovers she is cheating on him with Vronsky. When she refuses to stop seeing Vronsky, he decides to divorce her. After she gives birth to Vronsky's child and almost dies, he forgives her, but she still cannot stand to live with him and leaves him for Vronsky. He has agreed to give her a divorce, but she initially refuses his offer. After Anna leaves, Karenin deteriorates and becomes dependent on a vindictive and fatuous woman who preaches a distorted form of Christianity.
Count Vronsky is a handsome military officer in his 20s who receives a brilliant education and begins a promising career. He has no intention of marrying and lives the promiscuous life of a typical officer. When he comes to Moscow, he begins courting Kitty but then sees Anna and experiences "love at first sight." He dances with her at a ball and then follows her back to Petersburg, courting her insistently until she gives in to him. Anna becomes pregnant with his child, and the two of them eventually live together but are not able to become a legal couple because her husband will not divorce her. Vronsky ends up a broken man after Anna commits suicide in a fit of rage and spite.
Kitty is the youngest daughter of the Shcherbatskys, and she has known Levin since she was a child. Kitty, now 18, loves Levin, and he loves her. But he stops courting her, and she meets Vronsky and falls for him. When Levin returns to town and asks her to marry, she says no because she wants Vronsky. Vronsky drops her quickly when he sets eyes on Anna, and then Kitty suffers both rejection and regret for turning Levin down. Eventually, she and Levin resume friendly relations, and he proposes again. They marry and have their first child by the end of the novel. Kitty is also called Katerina, Katia, and Katenka.
Stiva is Anna's brother and an unrepentant rake. Although he is married, he carries on affairs with a string of women, goes out on the town and treats himself and his girlfriends, and runs through a good part of his wife's estate. He takes no interest in their numerous children and has stopped loving his wife, Dolly, because she has lost her youthful beauty. Stiva is well liked and gets along with everyone, and he tries to intervene with Karenin on behalf of his sister. But he is a man with few values, a hypocrite, and a cheat.
Dolly is Stiva's wife, and she gets a rude awakening at the beginning of the novel when she learns that Stiva has been carrying on an affair with the children's English governess. She thinks about leaving him, but she still loves him, and there are the children to consider. She allows Anna to talk her into forgiving her husband, but as time passes she realizes he is still doing the same thing. She resigns herself to living an unhappy married life and takes solace in her beautiful children. She also cultivates relationships with her sisters and remains good friends with Levin and with Anna. Dolly is also called Dasha, Dashenka, and Dollenka. Her maiden name is Shcherbatsky.