Anna Karenina. Narrative Structure in Chapter Eleven
Close Reading of Narrative Structure in Chapter XI of Anna Karenina
Until this point, chapters focusing on the development of their relationship have been narratively situated in the singular voices of Anna (I-XXX, II-IV) or Vronsky (I-XVIII, I-XXXI), but the voice of this passage alternates between their viewpoints, in some places stopping ambiguously between them. This is the second instance of this structure in the text so far, having previously been employed in II-VII with a transition from Anna’s reflections on her speech and actions to Vronsky’s interior monologue response: “She exerted all the powers of her mind . . . ‘This is it!’ he thought with rapture” (127). Apart from that brief moment, though, this passage in II-XI marks the first substantial instance of Tolstoy directly comparing Anna’s and Vronsky’s inner thoughts and feelings.
The passage opens with a view of each character’s inner state, giving equal authority to the two by presenting them with identical language, in the same sentence. Both Vronsky and Anna see “that which . . . had been” weighing on their consciences – the inevitable consummation of their affair – come to pass, and they judge it according to their individual expectations (135). The linguistic parallel gives these divergent views of the same act the same narrative weight. This indicates to the reader that the adulterers’ sexual urges can be equally judged as both a monomaniacal “desire” and an impossible “dream of happiness.” While the adultery is explicitly said to be shameful to both perpetrators, the narrator’s depiction of the shame from two perspectives, without one given more legitimacy over the other, introduces some amount of moral relativism to their plight. Tolstoy certainly does not imply that extra-marital sex is defensible, but his commitment to depicting it with two distinct sets of opinions keeps the morality of the outcome of their affair more open than it could be otherwise.
Vronsky’s perspective follows in the second sentence, as indicated by two factors. First, there is a motif, his “trembling lower jaw,” that is found next in chapters situated in Vronsky’s frame of reference (II-XXIV 177, II-XXV 182). Through this scene and the disastrous horse race, the twitching mouth becomes a symbol of guilt. It will be interesting to see whether this remains a habit of Vronsky’s alone, or whether other guilty parties are indicated by this narrative device. Second, the narrator tells us how he feels about his actions: “he stood over her, entreating her to be calm, himself not knowing how or why.” Vronsky’s perspective, established in the previous sentence as an unwavering commitment to his sinning, is expanded to include conscious doubt and physically-manifested guilt, without necessarily overruling his former passion. Tolstoy thus introduces psychological complexity to a situation that at first appeared to be a simple of matter of wrongdoing and remorse.
After another sentence of Vronsky’s dialogue, but before we see into Anna’s head, there are two sentences describing Anna’s actions from an ambiguous point of view. The signifier here is “her once proud, bright, but now shame-stricken head.” Attention has previously been drawn to Anna’s luminous features, but it has been accompanied by interior feelings of both characters. In I-XVIII, “Vronsky had time to notice the subdued animation that enlivened her face” after he is said to have “felt compelled to have another look at her” (56). In II-IX, it is said that “[Anna’s] face shone with a vivid glow” before the descriptive text gives way to an interior monologue provoked by her feelings of falsehood (132). Therefore, we cannot definitively attribute this piece of the text to a single character’s bias. But because there is still a moral judgment made by the depiction of Anna’s body as “shame-stricken” and in need of upholding, we have to assume it has a source. We could assume it is a continuation from Vronsky’s perspective in the previous sentences, or that it is a transition into Anna’s in the next. Or we could treat it as a moment dissimilar from the rest of the novel, as an example of the omniscient narrator passing judgment on its subjects. These three interpretations that attribute the morality of the scene to a single voice are countered, however, by further evidence in the passage which suggests a generalized judgment of these character’s actions by the text as a whole.
The penultimate paragraph starts in Anna’s perspective, following her dialogue into her feelings of guilt, then crosses back into Vronsky’s when he is said to feel “what a murderer must feel” (135). The narrative center comes back to Anna with “the shame she felt at her spiritual nakedness,” but is made ambiguous again when this “nakedness communicated itself to [Vronsky].” This narrative voice is ambiguous because what starts as a notion developed within one character’s mind is transferred, without dialogue, into the emotional outlook of the other character. Furthermore, Anna’s idea of “spiritual nakedness” parallels Vronsky’s unspoken conception of her “spiritual beauty” earlier in the novel (II-VII 126). What we have here is one point of view expressed by two characters simultaneously, conveyed by an impartial third-person voice that switches between their perspectives mid-sentence. Analysis of this last perspective shows that this polyphonic muddling coincides with a generalization of the passage’s themes.
After Vronsky picks up what is “communicated” to him, the text continues in his mindset of homicidal guilt. But the language used to describe this point of view is modified, it refers abstractly to “the murderer,” his horror, and his violent actions, placing them in parallel to Vronsky’s anxiety and actions. Tolstoy opens up the metaphorical framework that his character has invented, shifting from Vronsky’s view of himself feeling like a murderer, to the external narrator’s view of Vronsky acting like a murderer. Tolstoy solidifies the thematic connection between sex and violence in Vronsky’s character, while also generalizing that connection as a device to encompass more than just this particular character’s situation. The implication is that the text, not just the character, can define adultery in this way, as a horrific act of violence. But, as suggested earlier, this is just one among many definitions the text introduces for Anna and Vronsky’s relationship.
As narrative voices overlap, varying levels of the shame expressed toward illegitimate love, from psychological distress, to physical revulsion, and finally to criminal culpability, are articulated holistically by Tolstoy and his creations. Because, in the end, no lone voice silences the others, this passage instills the possibility that the novel could thematically pursue any facet of this theme of shame. The combination of narrative ambiguity and unambiguous moral judgments teaches the reader to be receptive to messages coming from the text, but to avoid a one-dimensional acceptance of their conclusiveness.
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Close Reading of Narrative Structure in Chapter XI of Anna Karenina Until this point, chapters focusing on the development of their relationship have been narratively situated in the singular voices […]