Sunday, March 11, 2012

Burning Up the Miles

There are roughly 400 miles between Petersburg and Moscow. While that may not seem too impressive, many of our characters in Anna Karenina make the trip again and again, bouncing between the two. After just 3 round trips you have the equivalent of a San Francisco to New York, or 1/10th the circumference of the earth. Throw in an Italian adventure, a healing trip for Kitty, and frequent countryside vacations and you have a book full of motion. 

Except, in this particular case, I am not entirely sure that you do. As a fan of travel stories I have always felt that the act of being in motion changes how people think and interact. The simple act of moving together keeps you alert and provides a barrage of new views and shared experiences. It is different in every way from meeting one another in the study or over the daily tea. Unfortunately, I feel as though Tolstoy ignores what must nonetheless be important experiences for his characters. One particular example that comes to mind is Anna and Vronksy as they go abroad. At the end of Part 4 we are told that they are off. The next time Tolstoy brings us to them we hear "For three months Vronsky and Anna had been travelling together in Europe. They had visited Venice, Rome, Naples and had just arrived in a small Italian town..." (459). It seems unfair to see the characters only as they settle into this town at the end of their journey, and to miss out on the actual adventuring. But this is a recurring theme. Karenin will leave for Moscow or Petersburg at the end of one chapter and later we will see him in the other place. On the smaller scale, carriages will pluck up a character or two, only to have them reappear elsewhere. It's as though Tolstoy hates writing about people in motion.

This is a far cry from our previous novels. Hero of Our Time and Captain's Daughter are motion-fueled, and even Fathers and Sons builds up Arkady and Bazarov's relationship as they travel together. Crime and Punishment works on the small scale, where our hero staggers around the streets constantly. Which brings me to a second complaint. Beyond being vital to how people think and interact, it is easier to follow stories with a bit more motion. It gives just a bit of fuel for the imagination as you follow the story in your mind, and offers up a bit of variety that, at least for me, aids memory of when and where characters are in particular places. 

Given the widespread appreciation for Anna Karenina, am I far off base in thinking that we might understand the characters better if we were involved in their physical motions rather than only their social ones? I'm curious if this fact has colored anyone else's reading of the novel.

1 comment:

  1. I think we might understand the characters better if we saw them evolve as they move about, but I think Tolstoy is choosing to emphasize the importance of the place itself. In other words, he is less concerned about showing the character's development as they move about than showing the distinction between Moscow and Petersburg, Russia and the West, the city and the country, or whatever. I think showing the character's grow as they travel would develop the characters more, but I don't think that is Tolstoy's goal.