Putting himself into the thoughts and feelings of another person was a mental activity alien to Alexei Alexandrovich. He regarded this mental activity as pernicious, dangerous daydreaming.

Karenin leads his life in a very rational and cold manner, to the point that he sees empathy as dangerous. He is so distant from other humans, and so unable to understand them, that he cannot comprehend that his wife has a rich inner life, or passions that cannot be satiated by the boring life of a socialite. Even if he did have the ability to empathize with or understand Anna, he actively resists it. His inability to connect with others not only ends his marriage but also leaves him with no true friends. In his loneliness, he becomes vulnerable to the manipulations and religious extremism of Lydia Ivanovna.

“Nothing but pure ambition and a desire to succeed—that’s all there is in his heart,” she thought, “and those lofty ideals, such as his love of learning and religion, are just a means to achieve success.”

While Anna is often not entirely fair to her husband, and perhaps exaggerates his worst qualities, there is truth in her observations about Karenin’s motives. Karenin is technically religious, but aside from one true moment of spiritual enlightenment at Anna’s deathbed, he generally only uses faith as a means for self-benefit. For instance, he weaponizes Christian forgiveness when he forces Anna to continue their marriage and keep her affair with Vronsky secret, convincing himself that his actions are in keeping with Christian charity but knowing deep down that he wants to punish and hurt his wife. Additionally, Karenin’s professional life is driven by ambition and reputation, not by a true love of learning or public service. The act of studying, learning, and working—even the act of teaching his son—is often one of tedium and duty, not passion. He fights through the boredom by imagining the success he will achieve.

He did not think that the Christian law which he had wanted to follow all his life ordained that he should forgive and love his enemies; but a joyous feeling of love and forgiveness of his enemies was filling his heart. He got down on his knees, put his head in the crook of her arm, whose raging heat burned him through her bed-jacket, and sobbed like a child.

One of the only times that Karenin shows intense, raw emotion is at Anna’s deathbed, when he experiences a genuine surge of empathy that prompts him to forgive his wife and Vronsky for their affair. Normally, Karenin sees empathy and tears as dangerous and useless, but for a moment his hard exterior cracks and he allows his own humanity to emerge. This passage shows that Karenin is not entirely the cold machine that Anna describes him as, and that he does have the capacity to feel, although that capacity may have been dampened by a number of things, from childhood development to his ambitious, bureaucratic lifestyle.