The novel opens with the troubles of Dolly and her husband Stiva, whose arcs run parallel to Anna’s in many ways. Dolly discovers that her husband has been consistently unfaithful to her with multiple women throughout their marriage and that he no longer loves her romantically after the difficulties of childbearing and childrearing have decreased her physical attractiveness. Dolly is faced with a choice: divorce her husband, creating a complicated situation for their large family and forcing her to return to her parent’s care, or stay with her husband, saving her family but subjecting herself to a marriage lacking in love and fidelity. She chooses to stay, convinced by Anna that divorce would present too many difficulties and miseries, and her decision and its consequences, both good and bad, echo throughout the novel.

Dolly is a kind, gentle woman whose life and happiness revolve around her children. When her children behave well, she is joyful, and secure in her decision to stay with Stiva, but when they behave badly, she’s prone to bouts of despair. Dolly’s individuality and autonomy are suppressed by the patriarchal society and unhappy marriage she endures, so she directs her energy toward her children’s lives rather than her own, and they become the litmus test by which she measures her personal success.

Dolly’s character arc is often in conversation with Anna’s. The two women are quite different: while Dolly is sweet, submissive, stable, and traditional, Anna is vivacious, passionate, sharply intelligent, and generally progressive. Their different personalities lead them to make contrasting life decisions. While Anna initially advises Dolly to stay in her unhappy marriage to save her family, Anna acts contrary to her advice when she leaves Karenin and her son for Vronsky. Leaving her son is Anna’s greatest regret, and it causes her more pain than any of the other difficulties of her life after separating from Karenin. Meanwhile, Dolly chooses the safer route, but is not without her own regrets. She admires Anna for her choices, and daydreams about what her own life would be like if she were to take a lover and throw herself into a passionate affair like Anna and Vronsky. But, unlike Anna, Dolly doesn’t possess the willpower to completely upend her life, and her dreams of freedom remain fantasies. Although it is painful and humiliating for Dolly to capitulate to the patriarchal system that allows men to betray their families without consequence, obeying these social orders allows her to keep her children and her life, while Anna’s rebellion ends in isolation and death.