One of the strangest of Leo Tolstoy’s works, The Kreutzer Sonata is almost entirely a raving monologue concerning sex and marriage. The sources for The Kreutzer Sonata, first published in 1889 in lithograph, are said to be autobiographical. An idea for the short novel initially came from a friend of Tolstoy, who told him about meeting a stranger on a train who, during the course of a long journey, related an account of his wife’s infidelity. The story intrigued Tolstoy, who began working the idea into a story he was writing on the complexities arising out of the conflict between chastity and sexual love. About a year after he began this project, Tolstoy happened to go to a musical. Among the pieces performed that evening was the Kreutzer sonata (1803). This piece deeply affected Tolstoy, and he was inspired to incorporate it into his novel.
The autobiographical aspects of the novel center on the dilemma Tolstoy experienced after his conversion in his later years to a life of asceticism and chastity. He was revolted by his former life, which he saw as one of indulgence, greed, and lust. In trying to change his nature, he became obsessed by his desires, in particular, his sexual desires and the spiritual unrest arising from them. His obsession included his wife, Sonya; consequently, their final years together were, for the most part, miserable. On his deathbed, Tolstoy refused to see her, and although no one could claim that he, like the protagonist in The Kreutzer Sonata, murdered his wife, her heart was broken.
Since the publication of The Kreutzer Sonata, critics, in their assessment of the novel, have run the gamut from praise to disgust. Anton Chekhov wrote that “it is hardly possible to find anything of equal importance in conception and beauty of execution.” Others have read it as a diatribe against sexuality rather than a work of fiction. Tolstoy himself once called it a negative, malicious work, and his wife complained, during the period Tolstoy was writing it, that he no longer was doing creative work.
Today, the critical scales might be balanced by reading the novel not only as a diatribe against lust but also as a mesmerizing, gothic portrayal of a husband ravaged with jealousy. The short novel takes place on a train and, for the most part, inside a carriage in which the narrator and another passenger, Vasyla Pozdnishef, sit throughout the long night drinking glasses of strong tea, smoking, and talking—that is, Pozdnishef talks and the narrator listens. Earlier, a woman, a lawyer, a tradesman, and a clerk enter the carriage and, in desultory fashion, begin talking about subjects that later become the center of the novel—sexual love, infidelity, jealousy, chastity, and marriage.
Outside Pozdnishef’s monologue, there is little action. At one point, before dawn, the conductor comes by to remove a burned candle. Tea is made and drunk. They smoke. They change their positions—cross a leg, lean forward. The effect of little or no action outside the monologue is similar to being locked into the same, confining space as the characters. One is on the train, so to speak, and unable to get off. Listening to a deranged, although intelligent, man’s obsessive tale is not everyone’s idea of a pleasant journey. In a manner of speaking, Tolstoy imprisons the reader with the narrator in a situation in which there is no alternative but to listen if one wants to find out what happened and why.
Pozdnishef’s monologue works on several levels. It is both a classic case of jealousy, dramatically and inextricably leading to...
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murder, and also a polemic on sexual mores. The novel suffers from the latter—Pozdnishef’s doctrinaire digressions on sexual mores. His bitter, impersonal view of marital love is chilling. He attributes falling in love to an excess of rich foods and to dressmakers’ skills. Although he is not a misogynist (he claims that man corrupted woman with his filthy passions), he claims that women enslave men through their sexuality.
What rescues the novel from didacticism, however, is the riveting drama, interwoven among the monologues, of the jealous husband caught in a tapestry of his own weaving. Pozdnishef introduces the violinist, Trukhashevsky, to Madame Pozdnishef. He encourages him to come to their home and participate in musicals with her, as she is an enthusiastic pianist. Thus he sets into motion sexual jealousy, a passion flaming out of his control to its tragic end. In this characterization, Tolstoy’s skill is superb. Listening to his attractive wife and the young violinist play the Kreutzer sonata, Pozdnishef imagines a pulsating, romantic liaison between them, and his rage mounts.
Tolstoy’s character, Pozdnishef, is equal to the best of a long list of nervous neurotics teetering on the edge of psychotic behavior. In The Kreutzer Sonata, Pozdnishef is portrayed as continually horrified, exasperated, painfully struck, or ashamed. He calls himself swinish, depraved, malicious, and evil. In telling his story, Pozdnishef is agitated, tense, and irritable. His eyes glitter and his movements are abrupt; he emits strange sounds, not quite human. He talks obsessively.
He is a type familiar to nineteenth century readers from writers such as E. T. A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe, who excelled in the psychological horror story. In these macabre tales, the character’s body and soul or mental and instinctive drives are dissected, the rift or schism between body and spirit is exposed, and the personality is revealed to be founded on fear, cruelty, and madness. Pozdnishef is such a personality and, in portraying him, Tolstoy’s skill is unsurpassed.
Although Tolstoy created a remarkable character, his jeremiads on sexual mores weaken the plot. His didacticism threatens to overwhelm his narrative skills. The result is a flawed novel, but one of strange and compelling interest.