Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 611
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Vasyla Pozdnishef (VAHS-lyah pohz-DNIH-shehf), a Russian landed proprietor who describes the horror of marriage and the murder of his wife. The only character in the novel developed to any extent, Pozdnishef relates his macabre story to a fellow traveler on the train, who in turn relates it to the reader. The hero-villain has been brought up to avoid all moral responsibility. As a wealthy young man, he looked on women merely as the instruments of his sensual gratification. At thirty, he married and settled down to what he supposed would be an ideal and pure relationship, but instead of bliss he found only misery or “swinish carnality.” From sex satiation and boredom on their honeymoon, husband and wife move to quarreling in an increasingly violent manner, to threats of separation and attempts at suicide. A new lover for Madame Pozdnishef furnishes the final straw. By this time, Pozdnishef has come to view marriage as a sham, a married woman as functionless unless she is bearing children. Trukhashevsky, the wooer, plays the violin, and Madame Pozdnishef frequently accompanies him on the piano; their music infuriates Pozdnishef. One evening, he becomes frantic while listening to the first movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata”; on another occasion, finding them together, he stabs his wife with a curved Damascus dagger, while her cowardly lover flees in desperation. The entire novel is a psychological study of the effects of domestic misery, and certainly the effects are devastating. Pozdnishef himself remarks, “I’m supposed to be more or less insane.” Shown in this morbid light, he is a consummate villain. Yet he is also a hero figure, in that he is the vehicle for Tolstoy’s views that the physical nature of man is vile and that the ills of the world stem from his failure to triumph over the desires of his body. For many pages, Pozdnishef’s conversation to his unidentified listener reads more like a formal disquisition on morality and ethics than a work of fiction. Pozdnishef remains a curious paradox. His message is straight from Tolstoy’s heart, but his fanaticism and curious mannerisms estrange the reader from both him and his ideas. It is only as a tormented soul impelled to a dreadful act that Pozdnishef becomes tragically human.
Madame Pozdnishef, the beautiful daughter of an impoverished landowner. Although the reader sees her merely as a puppet manipulated for Pozdnishef’s narrative, it is obvious that for several years she was a faithful and dutiful wife who bore him five children. After their relationship becomes strained, she grows peevish and moody, given to wild accusations against her husband and occasional attempts on her own life. She is moderately talented at the piano, and through a common interest in music she becomes intimate with Trukhashevsky. After she is stabbed, she is haughty until the very end, swearing that her husband is but completing the murder begun years ago.
Trukhashevsky (troo-khah-SHEHF-skihy), a semi-professional violinist with some standing in society, the illicit lover of Madame Pozdnishef. Moist eyes, smiling red lips, and a waxed mustache make him the type of man most women call handsome. He presents himself as a gallant and talented gentleman; however, his failure to defend Madame Pozdnishef against the fury of her husband depicts his true nature.
A lawyer, and
A clerk, people on the train at the beginning of the novel who discuss marriage and the place of women in society. This conversation draws Pozdnishef into his narrative.
Ivan Zakharich (ih-VAHN zah-KHAH-rihch), the doctor in attendance on Madame Pozdnishef.