The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy
The Kreutzer Sonata Leo Tolstoy
The following entry presents criticism of Tolstoy's novella Kreitserova sonata (1890; The Kreutzer Sonata). See also Leo Tolstoy Literary Criticism, Khozyain I rabotnik Criticism, and Smert Ivana Ilyicha Criticism.
The Kreutzer Sonata, a novella written during the closing years of the 1880s, issues from the later period of Tolstoy's literary career, which followed his moral and spiritual crisis of the late 1870s and culminated in works of fiction largely defined by his moral preoccupations. The Kreutzer Sonata emphasizes Tolstoy's controversial view on sexuality, which asserts that physical desire is an obstacle to relations between men and women and may result in tragedy. Although the moral stance on sexual relations presented in The Kreutzer Sonata has been criticized as simplistic or severe, the novella also has been recognized as among the best examples of Tolstoy's art of storytelling. Russian dramatist and contemporary Anton Chekhov wrote: "You will hardly find anything as powerful in seriousness of conception and beauty of execution."
Plot and Major Characters
The Kreutzer Sonata opens as a third-person narrative by an anonymous gentleman making his way across Russia by train. When the conversation among the passengers turns to the subjects of sex, love, and marriage, a lawyer claims that many couples live long, content married lives. But Pozdnyshev, another passenger, violently contradicts his statement and announces that he has murdered his wife in a jealous rage, a crime of which a jury has acquitted him. Citing that the deterioration of their marriage began on their honeymoon when they first began a sexual relationship, Pozdnyshev reveals himself as a man with an insane sexual obsession—he links sex with guilt, regards it as a 'fall' from an ideal purity, and describes sexual intercourse as a perverted thing. He tries to persuade his captive audience that all marriages are obscene shams, and that most cases of adultery are occasioned by music, the infamous aphrodisiac. This latter idea explains the title of the story, which is also a musical composition by Ludwig von Beethoven. Pozdnyshev explains the circumstances that led to his tragedy: after marrying a pretty woman who bore him children, he came to hate but lust for his wife. One day a musician named Trukachevsky, accepting Pozdnyzhev's invitation to visit their house, accompanied Pozdnyshev's wife on the violin while she played the piano. Convinced that the pair were having an affair, Pozdnyshev went into the country to attend the meeting of the local council, often recalling the look on their faces as they played the "Kreutzer Sonata." He returned home early, thinking that he would find the lovers in bed and consequently kill them; instead he found them sitting in the drawing room after they had played some music. Enraged nevertheless, Pozdnyshev killed his wife after Trukachevsky had escaped.
Critics observe that The Kreutzer Sonata presents Tolstoy's moral ideals through the medium of an artistic narrative, and that its principal theme is the corrupting power of sex and attendant jealousy. The novella summarizes Tolstoy's disgusted attitude toward sex, which he completely denounces, and reflects his new faith in celibacy and chastity after his conversion to a radical Christianity. The narrative is also said to manifest Tolstoy's belief that since Christ was not and could not be married, total chastity is the ideal state. The Kreutzer Sonata rests on the premise that carnal love is selfish and that unselfish love needs no physical consummation. For Pozdnyshev and Tolstoy alike sex is repulsive and destructive, even in marriage. Pozdnyshev's story highlights this premise by suggesting that sexual love degrades a human being and results in hostility to others and to one's self.
Pozdnyshev also dismisses love, or what the world calls love as distinct from sensuality, as non-existent between the sexes. To him traditional marriage has lost meaning and represents a cover for vice, fostering misunderstanding, jealousy, lies, and criminal passions. Finally, the title suggests that music provokes lechery, especially in the context of Beethoven's sonatas, which are often characterized by their intensity of feeling and violent contrasts of mood and emotion. Overall, commentators find that The Kreutzer Sonata represents Tolstoy's iconoclastic renunciation of social institutions, accepted conventions, and the lifestyle of the cultured class.
The initial reception of The Kreutzer Sonata generated a great deal of controversy, especially since some readers perceived Pozdnyshev's story as advocating free love. Censored by government and church officials, Tolstoy's novella circulated widely in manuscript, both in Russia and abroad, before it was published. Since then The Kreutzer Sonata has become one of Tolstoy's most read works, sometimes referred to as his "crowning achievement." However, many commentators have criticized the novella for its unrealistic plot, inconsistent method, and the unsound principles espoused by Pozdnyshev ("How would the human race survive?" they have asked), and others have criticized its aesthetic imperfections, noting Tolstoy's failure to connect diverse points and direct contradictions in Pozdnyshev's arguments. Attempts by such critics as Dorothy Green and Bettina L. Knapp to relate the structure of the story to the structure of Beethoven's sonata have been successful, and such critics as Ruth Crego Benson and John M. Kopper have approached the various aspects of sexuality in the novella, including the relations between men and women and the position of women in modern society. Above all, The Kreutzer Sonata is often discussed in terms of the author's personal life. R. F. Christian has described the appeal of Tolstoy's novella: "Few other novelists could have made compelling reading out of sentiments and arguments which are irritating and manifestly unjust. Few other novelists could have given pathos and poignancy to the ending of a story whose limits appear to be laid down by the advice proffered in its opening chapters: 'Do not trust your horse in the field, or your wife in the house'."
SOURCE: "Tolstoi's 'Kreutzer Sonata'," in The Nation, Vol. L, No. 1294, January-June, 1890, pp. 313-15.
[In the following review, Hapgood summarizes the plot of The Kreutzer Sonata, noting the novella's language, style, and construction, but disparaging its moral.]
What are the legitimate bounds of realism? To what point is it permissible to describe in repulsive detail the hideous and unseemly things of this world, simply because they exist, when it is quite impossible to say what the effect will be upon thousands of people to whom such description conveys the first knowledge of the existence of evil? It has been proved that public executions, far from inspiring horror of the deeds which led to them, and deterring others from the commission of like deeds, through fear of the result thus presented, actually give rise to crimes copied after those which are thus brought to general attention. The same thing is true in the case of crimes which are minutely described in the newspapers. But books? On the whole, although a sensational realistic book may never reach as many people as an article published in the popular newspaper, it probably produces as much effect because of the weight and respectability which the binding and comparatively high price give to it.
One has occasion to reflect upon this topic rather frequently in these days of "psychological" romances; but it is not often...
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SOURCE: "Tolstoy, Lermontov, and Others," in Russian Literature and Modern English Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Donald Davie, University of Chicago Press, 1965, pp. 164-202.
[In the following excerpt, Davie analyzes the central conflict between human intelligence and the will to act in The Kreutzer Sonata, observing Tolstoy's inconsistency of method.]
In general, we regard The Kreutzer Sonata as a didactic tract disguised as a novel. Such tracts in disguise can be works of literary and artistic value. Perhaps they are necessarily of the second rank as works of art. But at least the novel of ideas is a thoroughly respectable literary kind, having methods and conventions proper to it. One may cite, in our day, the novels of Mr. Arthur Koestler. But is The Kreutzer Sonata a novel of ideas, of this sort? I think that it is not. It is a novel and a tract at once, or it essays to be both at once. It is both and neither. And the conventions which govern it are confused, so that the reader does not know "which way to take it." Nor, so far as we can see, was this ambiguity intended by the author. It is therefore a grossly imperfect work.
The scene in the railway-carriage is set, in the first two chapters, with pleasing skill. Thereafter, until chapter xxi, the initial convention is not altogether sustained; the reader begins to wonder why the...
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SOURCE: "The Kreutzer Sonata: Tolstoy and Beethoven," in Melbourne Slavonic Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1967, pp. 11-23.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1966, Green discusses the connections between The Kreutzer Sonata and Beethoven's musical composition, focusing on similarities of dramatic feeling and structure in both works.]
The origin of this paper was a strong impression that there is a closer connection between Tolstoy's novel and Beethoven's music than is usually allowed for in criticisms of the book. The paper is also an attempt to counter a tendency to regard the book merely as an expression of a thesis. Before anything else, Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata seems to me a complete work of art, as much a thing made and existing in its own right as Beethoven's sonata, obeying the laws of a particular kind of literary form, as the sonata obeys those of a particular kind of musical form.
Criticism of this kind is bound to be impressionistic: it is obviously impossible to prove what a piece of music suggests to the mind of anyone but oneself, but it is hoped that the interpretation will be found to be inconsistent neither with the text of the novel, nor with that of the music. It would be absurd for one knowing no Russian to undertake any kind of verbal analysis and I have tried to draw conclusions which are independent of linguistic...
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SOURCE: "The Nouvelle as Hypothesis," in his Tolstoy and the Novel, Chatto & Windus, 1966, pp. 281-93.
[In the excerpt below, Bayley contrasts Pozdnyshev's views about marriage expressed in The Kreutzer Sonata with those of Tolstoy.]
If one married, along what lines might the relation proceed? What would happen if one became murderously jealous, or obsessed with desire for another woman? Suppose one were to contract a fatal and painful disease, or gave up the world to become a monk and hermit? These hypotheses are specialised; they depend on the rest of life being left out, so that we can concentrate on one particular possibility and problem. Yet all ask the question which is implicit in all Tolstoy's fictions: how should a man live?
Only one hypothesis became a fact for Tolstoy. He got married, and in some ways his married life resembled his forecast. Yet even Family Happiness . . . remains an abstract analysis, on the mental plane. In all of [his stories] Tolstoy forsakes the life of the body, even though it is problems and predicaments of the body with which most of them are so acutely concerned.
In general the characters in these stories act as Tolstoy's agents, representing his interests as if in some obsessive lawsuit. He does not imagine them, as he imagined the characters in his great fictions, and he does not on the whole...
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SOURCE: "The Later Stories," in his Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 1969, pp. 230-46.
[In the excerpt below, Christian considers the theme of sex in The Kreutzer Sonata.]
'One usually thinks that most conservatives are old men and most innovators young men. This is not quite so. Most conservatives are young people who want to live, but who neither think nor have the time to think how one should live, and so choose as their model the life they have always known.' These controversial words from "The Devil" have an unmistakably autobiographical ring, for Tolstoy as an old man was not a little proud of his nonconformity. The themes of nearly all his late stories were chosen to enable him to express his iconoclastic attitude to the organisation of society, the administration of justice and the relation between the sexes. Those on the subject of sex have attracted the greatest publicity. Uncompromising, perverse and uncharitable, they share a common loathing of the sexual act, whether lawful or unlawful, committed or merely meditated. The premise of The Kreutzer Sonata is that carnal love is selfish and that unselfish love needs no physical consummation. Do people go to bed together, asks its 'hero' Pozdnyshev, because of their spiritual affinities or the ideals they have in common? The knowledge and recollection of his own sexual indulgence in the past dominate his...
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SOURCE: "Ambiguity and Point of View in Some Novelistic Representations of Jealousy," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 86, No. 5, October, 1971, pp. 891-909.
[In the following excerpt, Ellis identifies sexual jealousy as a major theme of The Kreutzer Sonata, suggesting that it provides the basis for narrative ambiguity which in turn contributes to the coherence of the novella.]
When narrative is presented from the point of view of a jealous character a likely consequence is the occurrence of ambiguity regarding certain events in the action. Such ambiguity, deriving from a perspective affected by jealousy, determines meaning in several modern novels, and failure to take it properly into account has not only frustrated the task of interpreting some of these novels, but has also thwarted the appreciation of the possibilities of an important narrative technique. I wish to examine principally two novels: Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) and Machado de Assis' Dom Casmurro (1900), in which jealousy is a major theme and where narrative ambiguity plays a greater part in the meaning than has been recognized. I will then briefly consider more recent works of prose fiction that are related by theme and technique to my subject.
For some critics, the role of jealousy is obscured in The Kreutzer Sonata by the strong moralizing which marks the novel itself,...
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SOURCE: "Epilogue: Sexuality's Wasteland," in her Women in Tolstoy: The ideal and the Erotic, University of Illinois Press, 1973, pp. 111-38.
[In the following excerpt, Benson details Tolstoy's views on the nature of sex, women, and men represented in The Kreutzer Sonata and his other late fiction.]
Conceived within a single year, homogenous in thought and style, three stories, The Kreutzer Sonata, "The Devil," and Father Sergius, present Tolstoy's final fictional statement on the relations between men and women. The Kreutzer Sonata appeared first in 1889, followed a few months later by "The Devil." Although Father Sergius was not finished until 1897, it is clearly kin to the other two. It is important to think of these stories not only as individual works but, taken together, as an epilogue on sexuality, love, and marriage to Tolstoy's life-work.
Though Tolstoy had renounced all his belles lettres written before 1880, including The Cossacks, Family Happiness, War and Peace, and Anna Karenina, these three stories nevertheless took fictional form. It is understandable that the desire to renounce and suppress his artistic success would accompany the broader renunciation of his former style and philosophy of life and his adoption of a self-styled Christian pacifism. For tension and contradiction supply the...
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SOURCE: "Tolstoy the Ascetic? The Kreutzer Sonata, Father Sergius and Resurrection," in his Tolstoy: The Comprehensive Vision, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1975, pp. 137-46.
[In the excerpt below, Greenwood situates the ascetic tone of The Kreutzer Sonata in the context of Tolstoy's life and art.]
Aylmer Maude points out that the views approving marriage which satisfied Tolstoy in 1884 when he wrote What I Believe no longer satisfied him in 1889 when he wrote The Kreutzer Sonata. This can be brought out by considering Tolstoy's remarks on Jesus's teaching on sexual conduct in the Sermon on the Mount and his translation in The Gospel in Brief (1883) of Jesus's teaching on celibacy in the later passage in Matthew (19: 10-12). Let us first take Jesus's teaching on sexual conduct in Matthew 5: 27-32, part of the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery'. But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into...
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SOURCE: "Tolstoj's Kreutzer Sonata and Dostoevskij's Notes from the Underground," in American Contributions to the Eighth international Congress of Slavists, Slavica Publishers, Inc., 1978, pp. 280-91.
[Below, Jackson identifies the affinities of The Kreutzer Sonata and Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground, focusing on structure, narrative form, and use of the "irrational hero" to express each author's views of social problems.]
At the end of the third chapter of The Kreutzer Sonata (1891) the nervous, exasperated and shrill Pozdnyšev—"landowner, university graduate and Marshal of the Nobility"—begins his account of a "critical episode" in his life, namely, the murder of his wife, with a definition of depravity. Addressing the elusive narrator, Pozdnyšev remarks:
"Depravity really doesn't lie in anything physical, indeed, no physical outrage can be called depravity. Depravity, real depravity, consists precisely in freeing oneself from moral relations with a woman with whom you enter into physical relations. And precisely this kind of liberation I set down for myself as meritorious. I remember how I was once terribly upset when I did not manage to pay a woman who, after apparently falling in love with me, had given herself to me; and I regained my peace of mind only after I had sent her...
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SOURCE: "Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata: Archetypal Music as a Demonic Force," in her Music, Archetype, and the Writer: A Jungian View, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988, pp. 58-74.
[In the following essay, Knapp details the archetypal influence of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata on Tolstoy's novella, especially as it manifests in the narrative's structure and themes and correlates with both Tolstoy's psychological condition and that of his fictional protagonist.]
Leo Tolstoy drew the title of his short novel The Kreutzer Sonata (1891) from Beethoven's violin sonata (opus 47), an archetypal musical composition that was instrumental, according to the Russian novelist, in bringing out the animal in man. It affected Tolstoy's protagonist subliminally, exciting him to such an extent that he became victimized by a series of inner upheavals of volcanic force, which annihilated in him any semblance of rational behavior, balance, or logic. As Tolstoy's protagonist states:
Music instantaneously transports me into that mental condition in which he who composed it found himself. I blend my soul with his, and together with him am transported from one mood to another; but why this is so I cannot tell. For instance, he who composed the Kreutzer sonata—Beethoven—he knew why he was in that mood. That mood impelled him to do certain things, and...
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SOURCE: "Tolstoy and the Narrative of Sex: A Reading of 'Father Sergius,' 'The Devil,' and The Kreutzer Sonata,'" in In the Shade of the Giant: Essays on Tolstoy, edited by Hugh McLean, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 158-86.
[In the excerpt below, Kopper concentrates on various aspects of sexuality in Tolstoy's late short fiction, emphasizing the consequences of the writer's narrative strategies for the historical development of narrative literature.]
Like their confrères in France twenty years before, the generation of Russian writers who began their careers around midcentury—Turgenev, Goncharov, Tolstoy, and Pisemsky—found a stubborn problem of narrative lying across their path. The enterprise that they collectively pursued demanded the bodying forth of a fluid social world, filled with the motions of decay and resurgence, mobility and disruption. Railroads made travel easier and extended the possibilities of economic and social commerce both within the country and abroad. Capitalism was focusing the economic life of nations more and more in urban areas, and writers had to record not only the new importance of cities but the functions of new classes dwelling in those cities. Though change in nineteenth-century Russia moved at a slower pace than in Western Europe, her writers did begin to describe this new geographical and social mobility, the evolution of the class hierarchy, and the...
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Nazaroff, Alexander I. "Two Crusades." In Tolstoy, The Inconstant Genius: A Biography, pp. 262-83. London: George G. Harrap & Company, Ltd., 1930.
Reads The Kreutzer Sonata in the context of Tolstoy's life.
Simmons, Ernest J. "'Leave Thy Wife and Follow Me.'" In Leo Tolstoy, pp. 427-46. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1946.
Relates the genesis and themes of The Kreutzer Sonata to events in Tolstoy's life and thought.
Wilson, A. N. "The Kreutzer Sonata." In Tolstoy, pp. 371-92. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.
Situates The Kreutzer Sonata in autobiographical and cultural contexts, exposing contradictions and paradoxes in Tolstoy's life and his story.
Baehr, Stephen. "Art and The Kreutzer Sonata: A Tolstoian Approach." Canadian-American Slavic Studies 10, No. 1 (Spring 1976): 39-46.
Explores the "many parallels" between the novella and Tolstoy's essay What Is Art?
Cain, T. G. S. "The Fruits of Conversion," In Tolstoy, pp. 137-64. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1977.
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