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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.

Works Cited
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Bantam Books: New York. 1960. Print.

Supernatural Writing

by Cheryl Russell

My copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners has post-it flags standing at attention on many of the pages and almost as much highlighting as my copy of Madeline L’Engle’s Walking on Water; i.e. much of the book now wears lines of pink or blue.

In the chapter titled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” O’Connor says that successful fiction writers deal with the concrete and the concrete is anchored in the senses (67). Since my interests are exploring the supernatural, the challenge will be in using concrete details and the senses to show a character or setting that is the opposite of concrete.

O’Connor reiterates the importance of using concrete details and the senses in the “Writing Short Stories” chapter by saying how the “first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted and touched” (91). The attention to detail is also critical for several other reasons: fiction is experienced meaning and doesn’t work in the abstract (96) and demands the “strictest attention to the real” (96). Details are what count and what make a short story work.

Other components important in writing are mystery and manners, the “two qualities that make fiction” (103). Manners come from the environment in which a writer is familiar—I think it can refer to a childhood environment or other past environments as well as the current environment a writer lives in. Manners ground the story and its characters so the story isn’t taking place in a vacuum. Local idioms are key in giving a character a personality; to ignore idioms is to ignore a vital component of a story’s characters (104).

Character is another point O’Connor emphasizes that if a writer has “a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know before you begin” (106). On page 90, O’Connor states “…in good stories, characters are shown through the action and the action is controlled through the characters…” which reinforces the concrete aspect of writing—well-developed characters are what make a story worth reading and well-developed characters will have specific personalities. Interesting characters are created by using idioms, personality, and detail, detail, detail. In the case of stories that deal with the supernatural, O’Connor says that the supernatural world or characters will only work if the natural world is made real (116).

Mystery and Manners is a book that will take more than one reading to digest all that O’Connor has to say on writing. The book comments on art, short story writing, regional writing, southern writing, peacocks, thoughts on her own work, literature—specifically teaching literature–attempts at censorship specifically in middle school, Catholicism, Protestantism, and the influence of a dying young girl and the nuns who devoted themselves to her care.

Works Cited

O’Conner, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald.  New York:Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 1961. Print.