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'."