The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

In The Kreutzer Sonata (c. 1889), a man traveling on a railway carriage finds himself eavesdropping on and then inserting himself into a conversation between some of the other travelers about marriage, love, and divorce. This man, our narrator, is then approached by another party in the carriage, Pozdnyshev, whose strong opinions on the subject put a bit of a damper on the original conversation. Pozdnyshev proceeds to tell the narrator the story of how he came to believe what he believes, namely that in real life (not in novels!), love doesn’t last and thus cannot sanctify marriage, which institution is a sham.

Pozdnyshev’s enlightenment came “only after the suffering I endured,” that is, only after he lived a debauched life, got married, had a family, and killed his wife. He recounts the story of his sexual exploits, engagement, and marriage, noting that things started to go downhill immediately on the honeymoon because of his “pigsty” lifestyle. This was inevitable, basically, as soon as he ever had sex:

I had become what is known as a fornicator. Being a fornicator is a physical condition similar to that of a morphine addict, an alcoholic or a smoker or opium. Just as a morphine addict, an alcoholic or a smoker of opium is no longer a normal individual, so a man who has had several women for the sake of his pleasure is no longer a normal person but one who has been spoiled for all time—a fornicator. And just as an alcoholic or a morphine addict can immediately be recognized by his features and physical mannerisms, so can a fornicator. A fornicator may restrain himself, struggle for self-control, but never again will his relation to women be simple, clear, pure, that of a brother to a sister. A fornicator can be instantly recognized by the intent look with which he examines a woman.

Ultimately, this failure to relate to his wife as a brother would to a sister causes this fornicator to stab her in a jealous rage, suspecting she’s having an affair. To get from point A to point B, the narrator sits through hours of talk, both general and particular, that is disorganized and self-contradictory. Pozdnyshev is frantic, furtive, in general, acts like a madman (David McDuff, in the introduction to my Penguin Classics edition of The Kreutzer Sonata and other stories calls him “Dostoevskian”). He has all the hallmarks of an unreliable narrator; Pozdnyshev seems generally crazed, and the real narrator of the story rather aloof. Quite aside from the fact that most contemporary readers would simply disagree with Pozdnyshev, they would believe Tolstoy disagreed with him too if they based their beliefs only on the text. But based on extratextual evidence, that belief would be quite wrong.

When The Kreutzer Sonata was still being revised, illicit copies of the text began to circulate around the drawing rooms of Russia and it became quite a topic of conversation before Tolstoy had truly finished it. His contemporaries apparently also had trouble believing the story promoted the views of Pozdnyshev, because Tolstoy felt compelled to add a postface explaining the tale in more explicit terms.

I will not be afraid of Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata is a failure. Pozdnyshev is utterly unbelievable—not “as a character,” but as a source of knowledge. Take the passage above on fornicators. What is “a normal individual” when practically everyone is a fornicator by this definition? And what are those physical features and mannerisms of fornicators? These are questions that will not be answered; Pozdnyshev is full of assumptions and generalizations with no or insufficient evidence.

He is also full of contradictions. He complains about the marriage market among the upper classes of Russia: “At least under the old system [of matchmaking] the rights possessed by both parties and their chances of making a decent match were equal, but nowadays a woman is like a slave in a market or a piece of bait for a trap.” Girls must sit “waiting,” hoping men will choose them. Not only is this contradicted by contemporary analyses of the marriage market, it will be contradicted by Pozdnyshev himself less than 20 pages later: “the ideal of every girl, no matter how well educated, will be to attract as many men, as many males, as she can, so she can make her choice from among them.” Who is choosing whom, again?

Pozdnyshev also challenges readers by claiming first that sex is unnatural because children and “uncorrupted young girl[s]” don’t know the mechanics of a practice that’s been studiously hidden from them, and then proceeds to the naturalistic fallacy that therefore sex is wrong. Eating, on the other hand, “is natural. Eating is something joyful, easy and pleasant which by its very essence involves no shame. But this is something loathsome, ignominious, painful.” Don’t bother looking for any evidence of this loathsomeness, and try to ignore the fact that Pozdnyshev has already told you how immoral eating is as well, because all it does is whet the appetite for sex.

When Pozdnyshev really starts getting into his theme, that men must give up carnal love altogether and that even marital sexual relations are unacceptable, he also asks the listener to follow the strange logic that learning won’t be helpful here, but that somehow, perhaps magically, successive generations of men will reach their goal without having had to go through the process of being wrong and then correcting themselves:

Imagine if God had created human beings in order to achieve a certain goal and had created them either mortal, but without the sex instinct, or immortal. If they’d been made mortal, but without the sex instinct, what would the result have been? They would have lived for a while, and failed to attain their goal; in order to achieve his aim, God would have had to create a new human race. If, on the other hand, they’d been created immortal, let us suppose (though it would be more difficult for beings of this sort to correct the error of their ways and approach perfection than it would for new generations to do so) that after many thousands of years they attained their goal…what good would they be then? What would be done with them?

Got that? A single generation without a sex instinct can’t reach the goal (some kind of mushy “unity” of all mankind), but a brand new generation could do better than a race of immortals who have all eternity to learn. And then once they’ve reached the goal, “what then”? Does this inspire confidence in the speaker?

But this new generation, Pozdnyshev doesn’t really want that either, because he doesn’t want to reproduce. He spends plenty of time toward the beginning of his monologue talking about how the end of marital sex won’t be bad because it means the end of reproduction, because that doesn’t really matter anyway. But then he refers to maternity as “sacred work” to “give us perpetuity” that must not be “violated” by contraception, which is “too dreadful even to contemplate!” Maternity is the only salvation of women for Pozdnyshev, especially the direct processes of pregnancy and nursing, but even these are wrong and damned elsewhere.

As Pozdnyshev gets into the particulars of the tale of him and his wife, he only becomes more and more suspect. He explains his thought processes in terms that can only make him seem unreliable. After her first child, his wife has trouble nursing and hires a wet nurse on the advice of her doctors. Pozdnyshev is greatly upset by this, partly “because when I saw with what ease she threw aside the moral obligations of a mother, I correctly, though unconsciously, drew the conclusion that she would find it just as easy to throw aside her obligations as a wife, especially since she was in perfect health and, in spite of what the dear doctors told her, subsequently breast-fed all our other children herself, and did it excellently.” He couldn’t have known then that she would be able to breast-feed later; thank goodness for all his magical unconscious knowledge.

He jumps on things his wife says, when “she’d come out boldly and half seriously, completely oblivious to the fact that an hour ago she’d said the exact opposite”—how can this do anything other than reflect back on all the contradictions Pozdnyshev has been making in his own speech? When he meets the violinist he later believes has an affair with his wife, he notes that “from the very first day, the very first hour of our meeting, my attitude towards him was such as it ought really to have been only after what eventually took place.” Later, when the violinist is practicing duets with his wife, “it was obvious that the piano-playing was meant to drown out their voices, and perhaps their kisses, too.” Paranoia, anyone? And when his wife denies his accusations, saying “nothing” happened, it’s “what she had just said—from which I drew quite the opposite conclusion, namely that everything had taken place between them” that only confirms his beliefs. And in the fatal scene when Pozdnyshev surprises his wife and the violinist together, there is still no real evidence of an affair other than his extremely strong suspicions and paranoia.

It should be noted that Tolstoy isn’t necessarily holding Pozdnyshev killed his wife over a real, actual love affair; it is not necessary for the wife to have cheated because everything was made inevitable by the “piglike” nature of their marital sexual relations from the beginning. So the fact that Pozdnyshev may be wrong about the affair is not fatal to his case against sex. But that is just one piece of a monologue that screams “madman” from the top of its lungs; Pozdnyshev does nothing to engender the reader’s trust or respect. His behavior is strange from start to finish. He makes weird noises, thinks people recognize him and know he has killed his wife, and keeps himself hopped up all night on tea that the narrator says is as thick and dark as tar.

And yet any reader familiar with Tolstoy’s life history will suspect that this man is to be taken somehow seriously, but how? Maybe there is a clue in Tolstoy’s postface:

This is the substance of what I was trying to say, and of what I thought I had indeed said, in my story. It seemed to me that while one might argue about the best way of remedying the evil designated in the above propositions, it was impossible for anyone not to agree with them.

Impossible not to agree with what, you might wonder? Let’s just say, with a bunch of stuff enormous numbers of people disagree with now and, it seems very safe to assume, at least some disagreed with in the late nineteenth century. Was there some failure of imagination so total on Tolstoy’s part that he did not realize Pozdnyshev just did not work, that this novella just did not work? I’m leaving out here so many of the objectionable claims, the misogyny, the absurd and all-encompassing asceticism, because I don’t want to get involved in the fact that readers now, so far removed from Tolstoy’s personal brand of Christianity, would have a very hard time going along with him. Trying to put that out of my mind as much as possible, the text is still saying not to listen to this crazy wife-killer. I can’t see a way out of that.

So this doesn’t work for me. Quite unlike its namesake, Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, which is so successfully affecting that Pozdnyshev doesn’t think it should be allowed in drawing rooms.

2 comments to The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

  • I really liked this remark of yours “I will not be afraid of Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata is a failure”-sometimes when I read a work by a great writer and it seems a good ways from great I cannot help but think it must be me that does not get it-

  • Mo

    You say the work is a failure, but you don’t mention anything about whether or not it was moving. The Kreutzer sonata is a powerful work. It is not an essay. It should not be judged as one. No attempt is made to sugar-coat the narrator’s insanity, his views are not presented as logical. They are personal, felt, psychologically true to the character. There are people today and then who murdered their wives due to jealousy, this is a study of one such.
    Tolstoy was an honest writer, when he espouses views that he knows are grotesque, he will show them as they are. Pozdnyshev is pitiful, eccentric, coarse, pathetic. It is true that Tolstoy felt as the narrator did. That is how he makes him so convincing. That does not mean Tolstoy wasn’t challenging his own feelings and ideas even as he challenged society’s. I believe there is a moral at the end, and it is about the destructive power of the ego. I do not think it was a failure as art, I do not think it was against women. I see it as being against materialism and sensuality for its own sake.

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