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Limits to Interpretation

The Meanings of Anna Karenina

Vladimir E. Alexandrov

Publication Year: 2004

Vladimir E. Alexandrov advocates a broad revision of the academic study of literature and proposes an adaptive, text-specific reading methodology that is designed to minimize the circularity of interpretation inherent in the act of reading. He illustrates this method on the example of Tolstoy’s classic novel via a detailed "map" of the different possible readings that the novel can support.  Anna Karenina emerges as deeply conflicted, polyvalent, and quite unlike what one finds in other critical studies.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. ix-xi

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pp. xiii

I am grateful to Caryl Emerson, Donna Orwin, Irina Paperno, and Robert Wechsler for reading parts of this book and for giving me their expert opinions and suggestions about a wide range of issues. I am especially indebted to David Bethea, Joseph Frank, Michael Holquist, and Hugh...

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A Notes on Transliteration

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pp. xiv

In the endnotes to this book and whenever I quote Russian, I use the simplified Library of Congress system for transliterating the Russian alphabet. For personal names in the body of the book, I use either the...

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pp. 3-22

This is a hybrid book that could easily have had the two parts of its title reversed. My primary aim is to propose a text-specific reading methodology, one that is tailored as much as possible to a particular work, and that is thus designed to minimize the circularity of interpretation, or the process...

Part One. The Plurality and Limits of Interpretation

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1. An Ethical Argument for Recognizing Textual Alterity

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pp. 25-28

The problem of how to minimize the circularity inherent in the act of reading can be addressed from the perspective of the relations among ethics, psychology, semiotics, and linguistics.1 Few among us would deny the moral imperative to grasp as precisely as...

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2. A Psychological Argument for Recognizing Textual Alterity

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pp. 29-31

The ethical argument about reading can also be coordinated with one drawn from major trends inWestern developmental and cognitive psychology that hinge on the ineluctable role of transactional exchanges between self and other in the process of individual maturation. Jean Piaget’s highly...

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3. Alterity and Semiotics

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pp. 32-33

There is also support for the linguistic side of the bridge that psychological theories build between self-formation and semiosis among such leading theorists of language and meaning as Ferdinand de Saussure, Charles Sanders Peirce, Roman Jakobson, and Umberto Eco. In effect, all four agree that...

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4. Jakobson's "Metalingual Function" and Alterity

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pp. 34-37

Understanding one’s interlocutor is of course not simply a matter of grasping the surface content of his message. As Jakobson has famously argued, any act of verbal communication can be analyzed in terms of six basic aspects, or “functions,” of language that are oriented toward and tell us...

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5. Hermeneutic Indices, or Guides to Textual Alterity

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pp. 38-60

Although the reader’s contribution to the act of interpreting a work of literature cannot be ignored, no reader is free to make what he wills of a given text. The primary reasons are that all literary works are structured in ways that determine their meanings (as well as their ambiguities) and that they...

Part Two. 'Anna Karenina' : A Map of Readings

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6. From Theory to Practice

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pp. 63-66

Before turning to the opening of Anna Karenina, I would like to clarify the relation between the methodology I advocate and the results I claim for it by explaining briefly the procedure I followed to produce the map of possible readings (see also 5.3). A seamless transition from theory to praxis...

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7. Early Signals

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pp. 67-74

What is most striking about the beginning of the novel is that it opens not with Tolstoy’s own words but (apparently) with God’s, as quoted by Saint Paul: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”1 Any epigraph functions as a potent hermeneutic index because of its primacy and because its relation to...

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8. Reading Readings, and Art about Art

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pp. 75-91

I would like to shift now from the novel’s early signals to hermeneutic indices that deal with the interpretation of verbal texts and other kinds of semiotic constructs, as distinct from “realia” such as characters’ remarks to each other, their appearance, behavior, thoughts, emotions, or the spaces...

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9. Art and Metaphysics

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pp. 92-94

A comment that Vronsky makes about “technique” when viewing Mikhailov’s painting triggers a series of reflections in Mikhailov’s mind that have additional important implications for the novel’s worldview (474, V.11). Mikhailov infers that Vronsky, like many others, believes in...

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10. The Formal Implications of the Novel's Conception of Art

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pp. 95-106

The scenes in the novel dealing with different kinds of art imply an ambivalent aesthetic because they present a relational conception of artistic meaning and form while simultaneously raising doubts about the ability of art to communicate that meaning. As we have seen, this conclusion is...

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11. The Problem of Language

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pp. 107-111

In addition to writing, spoken language is also subjected to self-conscious scrutiny in the novel. There are frequent instances when nonverbal communication proves to be far more effective than what characters say to each other, as in the narrator’s judgment of Varenka’s inopportune comment...

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12. Absolutism: Claims about Universal Truth and Morality

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pp. 112-133

Where in Anna Karenina, other than the epigraph, is the claim made for an absolute and transcendent ethical norm? Before trying to answer this question, it is worth considering how seriously such claims can even be taken in a work of fiction. A novelistic character’s perception or judgment is usually presented as...

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13. Relativity: Characters as Arbiters of Meaning and Value

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pp. 134-232

In the world of Anna Karenina it matters a great deal who is perceiving, interpreting, or evaluating something and even what an individual’s emotional or mental state is at any moment. Different points of view are of course a dominant feature of the novel in general, and several mutually...

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14. Self and Others

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pp. 233-242

In describing at length how characters’ worlds are largely their own projections and how this isolates them from each other, I inevitably appear to underemphasize the instances of connection, understanding, and feelings of unity that also occur. I would now like to focus on these, and to do so in...

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15. The Inner Voice and Conscience

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pp. 243-256

The difficulty characters have with communicating in Anna Karenina— which defines their relations on a “horizontal,” or experiential, plane—is also manifested on a “vertical” axis that connects the characters’ conscious behavior to the deepest recesses of their own psyches and perhaps to...

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16. Essentialism

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pp. 257-275

Another kind of unity evoked in Anna Karenina is essentialism, which takes two forms. The first is the claim made by the narrator and several characters that some categories of human beings—especially women and peasants— are defined by unalterable traits. (The “situation rhymes” among different characters also imply the interchangeability and therefore the universality...

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17. Fate

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pp. 276-289

In addition to the behavior of characters, and statements by them and by the narrator, what other kind of evidence can there be in a novel for the existence of forces or laws that rule over the given fictional world? A related question is, how can a reader verify a character’s, or even the narrator’s...

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18. Literary Form, Fate, Freedom, Chance

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pp. 290-294

I would like to give another illustration of the restrictive effect that literary form has on interpretation by focusing on the relation between literary form and the concepts of freedom and chance. Because it has been claimed in recent years that freedom, contingency, and the general randomness of...

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pp. 295-300

In his classic history of Russian literature, Prince Dmitry Sviatopolk- Mirsky characterizes the end of Anna Karenina as “a no-thoroughfare, a path gradually losing itself before the steps of the wayfarer.”1 With some exceptions, the map of readings of the novel that I have sketched above...


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pp. 301-333

Works Cited

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pp. 334-346


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pp. 347-353

E-ISBN-13: 9780299195434
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299195403

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2004