I had an experience of this kind of re-discovery in the 1970’s while working as a chaplain at the Men’s House of Detention on Rikers Island, the jail and prison complex near New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. In the course of speaking with prisoners, I occasionally encountered someone with an interest in literature. On one occasion, Ralph (not his real name) brought up the subject of Russian novels. I told him of a copy of Anna Karenina at my parents’ home, and that on my next trip there I would bring it to him. Sitting on the train back to New York from Washington, I pulled it from my bag and began to page through itnot intending to read it again but just to glance over it.
However, I was immediately caught up once more by the power of the story of Anna and Count Vronsky and their doomed love affair. The prisoner did eventually get the paperbackbut not for the month it took me to read through Tolstoy’s novel again in its entirety. I had first read it at 20, too young to grasp its complexitiesnot only the story of the two lovers and the hypocrisy of the high society world that condemned them, but also the sub-story of Vronsky’s friend, Levin, a rich landowner who struggles with issues of property ownership and his own dawning spirituality. Two decades later, I was ready for what was indeed a fuller understanding of the book.
Then, in the mid-1990’s, a Jesuit volunteer teaching at the Nativity Mission Center School in Lower Manhattan also read Anna Karenina. I had described it to her with much enthusiasm. Since there was a copy in the center’s library, she began and finished it while doing her laundry in the center’s basement. (Given the length of the novel, I could not help but think, What a lot of laundry.) The justice-minded Tolstoy would surely have been pleased to know that his book was appreciated by a prisonerone caught up by the highly punitive Rockefeller drug laws that had recently gone into effectand by a young woman committed to social justice issues.
The following yearher second as a Jesuit volunteershe began Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, another of the Russian novels I had recently re-read, this time in a tattered paperback held together with adhesive tape. She borrowed it but could not finish it before returning to her home in California, so she brought it back with her on a later visit East. By then she was in law school. Along with the humanitarian and theological concerns, the legal aspects of the story held special interest for her, especially a trial scene involving one of the principal characters, who is accused of murder.
Novels like these, and others of the 19th centurysuch as George Eliot’shave strong moral cores that help ground the reader with a certain stability in a fluctuating world that increasingly seems to say that right and wrong are largely subjective matters. Through the medium of fiction Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Eliot remind us that lasting values do existvalues that oftentimes can only be learned through the crucible of suffering and self-sacrifice. These values, as presented by great novelists through their characters, can provide us with guideposts for navigating the uncertainties of our own individual life journeys in a world full of ambiquities.
George M. Anderson, S.J.