Narrative Distance in Anna Karenina
by Cheryl Russell
Tolstoy’s use of narrative distance in Anna Karenina allows the reader several different views of the main character and the world in which she moves. Narrative distance in this novel encompasses wide views focusing on families and society—the wealthy or peasant class—to a tighter focus that allows the reader to know the thoughts of different characters; especially Anna. I think Tolstoy’s use of narrative distance is what makes his novel so powerful.
One of the strongest passages in the book deals with Anna’s assumption that her position in Petersburg’s high society hasn’t changed, even though she’s living with Vronksy while still married to Karenin. She decides to attend the opera, against Vronsky’s advice; he’s already deduced the reception she will receive. The narrative distance pulls back to reveal the setting at the opera house—a place packed with members of the upper classes, including Anna’s former circle of acquaintances. The grand setting it the perfect foil for Anna’s public humiliation. Anna is driven from the opera house by the actions of Madame Kartasov, a woman who speaks for many in attendance when she declares “it is a disgrace” (587) to be in Anna’s presence.
Through the use of narrative distance, the reader sees how Anna’s individual decisions play against this much larger backdrop of privileged society—clarifying why the broad scope set forth in the novel’s beginning—is necessary to the story. The narrative distance tightens in on a woman whose suspicions and paranoia are combining to destroy her sanity; “I’m going out of my mind” (802). Hints of Anna’s suicidal plans are present when she tells Dolly and Kitty “she came to say good-bye” (806). The tighter focus on Anna makes the story more powerful.
But the narration in regards to Anna is strongest when she begins to have second thoughts about killing herself; she “tried to get up, throw herself back” (816) but isn’t quick enough to get out of harm’s way and is killed. Through the use of tight narrative distance, the reader knows Anna changes her mind about committing suicide, making her death even more of a tragedy.
The narrative distance begins to pull back from Anna’s suicide and reveals the effects Anna’s death has on those around her. Vronsky courts suicide in his own way by heading off to war; for the fighting is “something for which he can lay down a life” since he considers his own life “useless to me but loathsome” (828). Much is learned of Vronsky through his mother’s conversation with Konyshov (826-827), as the widening narrative pulls in earlier characters.
At the novel’s beginning, the narrative distance can seem tedious—why does the reader need to know about Russian society and all these different characters; for much of the novel’s first half, Anna vanishes. But the reader needs to know the society that Anna moves in in order to comprehend the ramifications of her choices—in society and on a personal level.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Bantam Books: New York. 1960. Print.