The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy

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Let’s tackle this weird piece of literature. The most Dostoevskian work by Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata. Why was it written, what did Tolstoy mean with it, and how much of it represents Tolstoy’s own views?

A Crime Passionel

It’s a murder mystery. We know from the start that Pozdnyshev has murdered his wife, but the tension is kept in the story by the question what drove him to it. Instead of the happy family life that Pozdnyshev was expecting, marriage turned out to be nothing more than alternating periods of arguments and lust. Disillusioned, Pozdnyshev becomes more and more desperate and tense. His dispair culminates when he becomes convinced that his wife is deceiving him with a violinist. Unable to cope with the stress any longer, he murders her.

Confessions of a murderer

For most of the novella we are listening to the monologue of Pozdnyshev. And what a monologue it is! He is obsessed with sex, women and doctors. Sex is portrayed by society as something healthy, women only want to look attractive in order to trap innocent men, and doctors are the promotors and facilitators of sex. STD’s are proof that sex is not healthy. Even music is condemned, because it can make people want to have sex. Sex is the root of all evil. 70 pages long.

Fiction

Tolstoy got the idea from a friend who told him an anecdote about a man in the train who had told him all about his unfaithful wife. He started writing the story in 1887, left it for a bit, and finished it in 1889. He re-wrote it nine times with the help of his daughter Masha, who was then 19. When it was finished, interestingly enough, his wife Sofia read it to the older children. She wanted to publish it in the latest part of Tolstoy’s collected works, a project that she had started to generate income for their large family. Tolstoy had by then renounced his copyright and let Sofia and and his friend and follower Chertkov fight over publication. While she was trying to get the novella approved by the infamous censor, illegal copies produced by the Samizdat started circulating, most probably the work of Chertkov. 

How was it received? 

Tsar Alexander III thought it ‘magnificent’, but his wife was shocked. It was banned in America. Chekhov initially praised it, but after his epic journey to Sakhalin he changed his mind and said it was ridiculous. The first illegal copies were the cause for gossip about the marital situation of the Tolstoys. This infuriated Sofia, who did not want the world to think that their marriage was celibate. She managed to get an audience with the tsar in 1891 and she got permission to publish it. In 1893 she wrote her answer to The Kreutzer Sonata: Who is to Blame?.

Is it autobiographical?

No. Tolstoy would not likely choose a madman like Pozdnyshev to voice his opinion. He has also put an anonymous narrator between Pozdnyshev  and the reader. Does it contain autobiographical elements? Yes, like all his work. He was definitely interested in the idea of celibacy. He had devoured a book about celibacy that was sent to him by Dr Alice Stockham, who promoted celibacy within marriages and Tolstoy wrote back to her to say that he agreed on many points. Tolstoy himself has always struggled with his libido. He was able to give up gambling, smoking, drinking, meat, money, his title; but not sex. As he wrote to  Chertkov “I’m a dirty, libidineus old man”. As far as we know, and we know a lot through their diaries, Sofia never had an affair.

So what did Sophia make of it?

If she had believed it to be autobiographical she would hardly have read it to her children and put so much effort into getting it published (although she mostly wanted Chertkov not to publish it). She does not mention anything about disliking the story in her diary. It is apparently only when the story causes gossip about their marriage that she gets upset. In that light we should also see Who is to Blame?. The marriage was not particularly good. They both were to blame. One of the main themes of the story is jealousy, and within the relationship Sofia was more jealous than her husband. She was jealous when Tolstoy let Masha help him with The Kreutzer Sonata, and she was extremely jealous of Tolstoy’s close relationship with Chertkov.

Conclusion

Tolstoy lets his Pozdnyshev explore the darkest, most hidden corners of his mind. Like Dostoevsky he wants to know what drove him to his deed. What did it feel like to murder? The result is disturbing, confronting and it provocative. The conclusion is almost too simple: If Pozdnyshev and his wife had practised abstinence, the crime passionel would not have taken place.

Prinet_-_Kreutzer_Sonata

Text en photo © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

Painting by Prinet from Wikipedia

Books read: see photo

Thanks to Karen from https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com for inspiring this post:-)

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22 thoughts on “The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy

  1. Elisabeth, excellent analysis of “The Kreutzer Sonata” and of much surrounding it! I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that novella does indeed seem like Tolstoy’s most Dostoevsky-like work. I found it riveting to read.

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  2. Happy to inspire, though I think our views on this one are going to be different! Accepting that Tolstoy was not a murderer, the book *does* very much reflect his viewpoint at the time. My edition has a selection from his non-fiction writing after it which reinforces this, and his thinking was contradictory and muddled. Celibacy might have been the only way for him to control his sexual urges (though I think very little did that during his lifetime) but the combination of a harsh didacticism with a tendency to blame everything on women seems to me hard to take and the height of hypocrisy. His wife suffered much during their long marriage and I’m not inclined to let him off easily for that!

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  3. I learn something new every time I visit your blog. I will be coming back to this one again. I find that Russian Literature has a grand spectrum of emotional dynamics. The narratives give voice to the breadth and depth of human experience. There is never, ever a dull moment. In fact, readers are challenged to think, to reflect and engage.

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  4. Oh, I don’t think our views are that different. I certainly don’t agree with Tolstoy’s crazy ideas about marriage or women either. There is no doubt that he was extremely difficult to live with, even for himself, let alone for his family. It’s a thin line between genius and madness.
    It’s interesting that after all these years he still evokes such strong emotions.

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  5. There is definitely never a dull moment with the 19th century Russians, well said, Rebecca! And I think that it is that breadth and depth that makes that it is still relevant today.

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  6. This is a real interesting, absorbing post, Elisabeth, full of pungent thoughts about Tolstoy, the novella itself, and marital infidelity. Yes, the work seems like Tolstoy’s most Dostoevskian. Regarding Tolstoy’s libido and his shame at his difficulty controlling it, I couldn’t help thinking about the powerful scene in Tolstoy’s “Resurrection” where the young
    Nekhlyudov seduces the servant girl Maslova. The scene seemed to me definitely autobiographical. A fascinating post, Elisabeth.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you, Roger, for your thoughts about this. It is definitely a thought provoking novella. You’re probably right about Neklyudov too. Tolstoy , like many writers, used his own experiences to write about.

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  8. Elizabeth, an enjoyable post about one of the few works by Tolstoy I don’t like! Did you know Sophia wrote her own version of it? It’s included in a recent translation by Michael Katz (I think), which includes Tolstoy’s text, Sophia’s version, and their son’s. That’s too much Kreutzer Sonata for me, but i’m sure it’s interesting from an academic point of view. N.B. I looked it the title: it’s The Kreutzer Sonata Variations: Lev Tolstoy’s Novella and Counterstories by Sofiya Tolstaya and Lev Lvovich Tolstoy

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you very much, Kat. For me too it’s one of his less likable works. The new translation sounds interesting indeed, and I shall definitely check it out when I come across it 😊

    Like

  10. This is the one I have read 🙂 It is an accurate reflection of the life in the 19th century Russia – patriarchal, not ready for emancipation, with ignorance being the main obstacle. Acute self-consciousness, self-absorption, intellectual digging were – and still remain, somehow – a national characteristic. Yet, the guy is blind to his wife’s emotional and physical needs. His selfishness, jealousy, emotional immaturity lead to the murder. A sad book about a mess in one’s head. Thank you for your brilliant article, Elisabeth, and for the link 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you very much, Inese, for your insightful and brilliant reply! I think you have captured the essence of the novella very well! It is very much a feeling of helplessness and inability to deal with the changes ahead. Perhaps that is also why the Slavophile movement found so much support. And that self-consciousness that they are still struggling with. Still, it provides us with great literature! 😊

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