(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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'."

Isabel Hapgood (review date 1890)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 necessary, I think, to meditate so seriously as one is forced to do over Count Lyoff Tolstoi's last story.

When I first resched Russia, in the autumn of 1887, I heard that Count Tolstoi was writing a new tale: it began on the railway, and a man murdered his wife, and it was to be of the searching psychological type exemplified by Ivan Ilyitch. So much seemed to be known in well-informed circles. I asked no questions when I made the Count's acquaintance a year later. But one evening last July, during a visit which I made to Yasnaya Polyana, at the Countess's invitation, the Count spoke to me of his story as being near completion, and asked me to translate it when it should be finished. I promised, and inquired whether it was in a condition for me to read. "You may read the last version if you like," he answered, "but I would rather have you wait." His wife showed me sheets of the fourth version, which she was then copying, and advised me not to waste time in reading it, as it was quite likely that he might suddenly see the subject in a totally different light, and write it all over again from that point of view. So I read nothing, asked no questions, and waited, being informed from time to time that the book was progressing. How many different versions were finally made, I do not know, but this winter one of these versions began to make the rounds in Petersburg. The solitary manuscript flew rapidly from hand to hand. I was warned, however, that it or any copy from it would be imperfect, incomplete, and not approved by the author, who was at work upon the final version. I contented myself with the verdict of those who were too impatient to wait, and who had not been promised the first complete copy, as I had been. That verdict was, "Shocking!" "Beauties mingled with horrors," and so forth. It was said that it was not allowed to be printed—the usual cry; but, as there is nothing religious or political in it, its morality must have been the cause of the prohibition, if true.

At length I received the first copy of the genuine story (the second went to the Danish translator), with the information that, although the substance was nearly identical with that of the version which had already been circulating, and which was said to be in process of translation into foreign languages, the execution had been so altered that "not one stone was left upon another" in some places, while in others whole pages, and even chapters, had been completely rewritten by the author. My copy was corrected by the author especially with a view to translation, and was, therefore, to be regarded as the only one sanctioned by him for rendering into other tongues, and this version is yet unattainable in St. Petersburg.

Why, then, do I not translate a work from the famous and much-admired Russian author? Because, in spite of due gratitude to Count Tolstoi for favoring me with the first copy, and in spite of my faith in his conviction that such treatment of such a subject is needed and will do good, I cannot agree with him. It recalls the fable of his countryman, Kriloff, anent the man who borrowed his neighbor's water cask, used it for wine, and returned it impregnated with vinous fumes to such a degree that the unfortunate lender was obliged to throw it away, after using every possible means, during the space of two years, to expel the taint so that the water should be pure once more.

"Too frank and not decent," was one of the Petersburg verdicts upon this Kreutzer Sonata. This is so true that, although thus forewarned, I was startled at the idea that it could possibly be beneficial, and, destroying the translation which I had begun, I wrote promptly to decline the task. It is probable that the author and his blindly devoted admirers will consider that I have committed an unpardonable sin. But they must remember that his "comedy," The Realm of Darkness, although it was acted in private, in high Petersburg society, and in public in Paris, has never been translated into English, so far as I am aware, at least. I yield to no one in my admiration for and appreciation of Tolstoi's genius, as displayed in certain of his works. I tried to get American publishers to bring out War and Peace and Anna Karenin in 1881, five years before American readers were treated to the mangled versions of those works through the French. They declined, and one noted Boston publisher said, with great frankness: "No one in Russia knows how to write except Turgeneff, and he is far above the heads of Bostonians." I predicted a change of opinion, and if I am now morally compelled to appear unfaithful to my own former admiration, my regret is certainly more deep and sincere than even the regret of those who merely repent their failure to grasp an opportunity for making money, or of those who, consciously or unconsciously, follow the literary fashion of the hour.

But I will turn to the book. After making due allowance for the ordinary freedom of speech, which has greater latitude in Russia (as elsewhere in Europe) than is customary in America, I find the language of the Kreutzer Sonata to be too excessive in its candor. At the same time I admit that if that subject was to be treated in that way, no other language would have answered the purpose. I mention this first because it is the first thing which strikes the reader, and because it is also the special thing which hovers over the horrors of the tale with an added dread, and lingers long behind in the reader's mind, like a moral bad taste in the mouth. Next, the style and construction. The construction is good, as is usual with the author. The style errs in the direction in which all his books are faulty, viz., repetition. The unnecessary repetition of words or phrases occurs in his greatest works, while in the later, the polemical, writings, it has become greatly exaggerated. It forms a feature of this book, and although it gives strength at times, it is too marked on the whole. One must think that this tautology is deliberate on the author's part, since he is never in haste to publish uncorrected matter; but the result is harshness, which increases with every fresh work. Nevertheless, the book is well written. And the story? It is that of a man who kills his wife out of jealousy for a semi-professional violinist, who plays Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata" with her one evening.

The author begins by...

(The entire section is 3232 words.)

Donald Davie (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2435 words.)

Dorothy Green (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 6375 words.)

John Bayley (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1554 words.)

R. F. Christian (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1472 words.)

Keith Ellis (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3759 words.)

Ruth Crego Benson (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7066 words.)

E. B. Greenwood (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1807 words.)

Robert Louis Jackson (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4405 words.)

Bettina L. Knapp (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7239 words.)

John M. Kopper (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5031 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 477 words.)