Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1126
One spring night a railway train speeds across Russia. In one of the cars a sprightly conversation about the place of women, both in public and in the home, is in progress among a group of aristocrats. One of the listeners finally breaks into the conversation with the statement that Russians marry only for sexual reasons and that marriage is a hell for most of them unless they, like himself, secure release by killing the other party to the marriage. With that remark he leaves the group and retires to his own seat in the car. Later on, he tells his story to his seat companion.
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His name was Pozdnishef, and he is a landed proprietor. As a young man, he learned many vices, but he always kept his relationships with women on a monetary basis, so that he would have no moral responsibility for the unfortunates with whom he came in contact. His early life taught him that people of his class did not respect sex. The men viewed women only in terms of pleasure. The women sanctioned such thoughts by openly marrying men who became libertines; the older people allowed their daughters to be married to men whose habits were known to be of a shameful nature.
At the age of thirty, Pozdnishef fell in love with a beautiful woman of his own class, the daughter of an impoverished landowner in Penza. During his engagement he was disturbed because she and he had so little about which to converse when they were left alone. They would say one sentence to each other and then become silent. Not knowing what should come next, they would fall to eating bonbons. The honeymoon was a failure, shameful and tiresome at the beginning, painfully oppressive at the end. Three or four days after the wedding they quarreled, and both realized that in a short time they grew to hate each other. As the months of marriage passed, their quarrels grew more frequent and violent. Pozdnishef became persuaded in his own mind that love was something low and swinish.
The idea of marriage and sex became an obsession with him. When his wife secured a wet nurse for their children, he felt that she was shirking a moral duty by not nursing her offspring. Worse, Pozdnishef was jealous of every man who came into his wife’s presence, who was received in his home, or who received a smile from his wife. He began to suspect that his wife had taken a lover.
The children born to Pozdnishef and his wife were a great trouble to him in other ways as well. They were continually bothering him with real or fancied illnesses, and they broke up the regular habits of life to which he was accustomed. They were new subjects over which he and his wife could quarrel.
In the fourth year of their marriage, the couple reached a state of complete disagreement. They ceased to talk over anything to the end. They were almost silent when they were alone, much as they were during their engagement. Finally the doctors told the woman she could have no more children with safety. Pozdnishef felt that without children to justify their relations, the only reason for their life together was the children already born who held them like a chain fastening two convicts.
In the next two years, the young woman filled out and bloomed in health, after the burden of bearing children was taken from her. She became more attractive in the eyes of other men, and her husband’s jealousy sharply increased.
Madame Pozdnishef had always been interested in music, and she played the piano rather well. Through her musical interest, she met a young aristocrat who turned professional musician when his family fortune dwindled away. His name was Trukhashevsky. When he appeared on the scene, the Pozdnishefs had already experienced several crises in their marriage. The husband at times considered suicide, and the wife tried to poison herself. One evening, after a violent scene in which Pozdnishef told his wife he would like to see her dead, she rushed to her room and swallowed an opium compound. Quick action on the part of the husband and a doctor saved her life, but neither forgot her desperate attempt.
One evening Trukhashevsky came to Pozdnishef’s home in Moscow. He and Madame Pozdnishef played during the evening for a number of guests. The first piece they played together was Ludwig von Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. The first movement, a rapid allegro, worked upon the highly strung emotions of the husband until he began to imagine that there was already an understanding between the musician and his wife. The idea so obsessed him that he could hardly wait until the other man was out of the house. Never in his life had music affected Pozdnishef in that manner. Between it and his jealousy, he was almost violently insane.
Two days later, Pozdnishef left Moscow to attend a meeting. He went away fearful of what might happen while he was gone. On the second day of his absence, Pozdnishef received a letter from his wife saying that the musician called at the house.
Jealousy immediately seized the husband. He rushed back to Moscow as fast as carriage and train could carry him. He arrived at his home after midnight. Lights were burning in his wife’s apartment. Taking off his shoes, he prowled about the house. He soon discovered the musician’s overcoat. He went to the nursery and the children’s rooms but found everyone there asleep. Returning to his study, he seized a dagger and made his way to his wife’s apartment. There he found his wife and the musician seated at a table, eating. He rushed at the man, who escaped by ducking under the piano and then out the door. Pozdnishef, beside himself with anger and jealousy, seized his wife and stabbed her. When she dropped to the floor, he ran from the room and went to his study. There he fell asleep on a sofa.
A few hours later his sister-in-law awakened him and took him to see his dying wife. Shortly afterward the authorities carried Pozdnishef away to prison. He went under police escort to his wife’s funeral. It was only after he looked at the waxen face of the corpse that he realized he committed a murder. Then, at his trial, Pozdnishef was found innocent because he murdered while in the heat of anger at finding his wife unfaithful to him.
Now judged insane, Pozdnishef declares that if he had it to do over, he would never marry. Marriage, he insists, is not for true Christians with strong sensibilities and weak moral restraints.