The Kreutzer Sonata

by Leo Tolstoy

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*Russia. Tolstoy’s native land is the setting for all his fiction, which typically focuses on family problems. In his view, the human mind is the place where everything starts: love and hate, marriage and murder, and the family is a micro-unit of society, showing health or sickness of the whole body. This novel is Tolstoy’s “peep show”—attempt to analyze causes of failed marriages. The conflict between human physical needs (sex) and spiritual (moral) needs, created by the strict Christian upbringing in patriarchal Russia is further complicated by the inequality and bigotry in raising male and female children, therefore not preparing them for a successful marriage and family life together. The natural differences in male and female needs and roles are further complicated by the clash between new, modern ideas (of women’s liberation, among others) and the old societal mores, resulting in unhappy individuals and couples, psychological problems, neuroses, domestic violence, and murder.


Train. Tolstoy uses a train speeding across Russia metaphorically and symbolically to reflect his view of the Russian high society headed toward a fast moral and social disintegration brought by civilization from the West. Construction of the huge trans-Siberian railroad, a costly project, greatly diminished arable land and impoverished many landowners and peasants. For these reasons, Tolstoy treats trains as symbols of “unnatural” and destructive forces.

As Tolstoy’s protagonist, Pozdnyshev, travels on the train, he expresses Tolstoy’s ideas in great length and detail. Through the choice of passengers and their participation in the conversation, Tolstoy displays opinions of different segments of society: educated versus uneducated, modern versus traditional, male versus female. Tolstoy believes that peasants and women are closer to nature and land, by their role, therefore crucial for the health and well-being of the society. During the train ride, Pozdnyshev tells his life story: his “libertine” youth and premature sexual corruption, marriage based on the romantic love (lust), quickly turning into emptiness and boredom, ultimately escalating into obsessive hate and jealousy.

Polluted with debauchery and plagued by shame and guilt, Pozdnyshev’s mind develops a mental aberration fabricating ugly and hateful illusions leading to murder without a rational justification. The furious speed and urgency of the train powerfully (though subliminally) creates the atmosphere of a sexual, obsessive frenzy. The compartmental confinement, like a sick cell of a brain, obsessively focuses on the final, destructive end—murder.

Pozdnyshev’s mental state is similar to Anna Karenina’s. Tolstoy’s earlier novel Anna Karenina (1875-1877) uses train symbols six times to foreshadow violence and tragedy. Although Tolstoy’s favorite metaphor powerfully serves his artistic purpose, the composition of The Kreutzer Sonata (unlike Anna Karenina) is simplified and impoverished by the plot being told during the ride instead of shown in direct, life-simulating action. Tolstoy’s rich and character-revealing dialogues here are replaced by a didactic and less engaging monologue expressing the ideas that Tolstoy strongly represented.


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Bayley, John. “What Is Art?” In Leo Tolstoy, edited by Harold Bloom. Edgemont, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1986. Discusses Tolstoy’s ideas about the function and moral purpose of art, with special reference to The Kreutzer Sonata. Contains many other excellent essays pertinent to understanding Tolstoy’s ideas about art, love, and sex.

Maude, Almyer. The Life of Tolstoy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1953. Maude, Tolstoy’s English friend and translator, produced the most tasteful and accurate English translations of Tolstoy’s writings. This biography is outstanding because of Maude’s close association with the Russian author and his opportunities to consult Tolstoy in person. Many references to The Kreutzer Sonata.

Shirer, William L. Love and...

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Hatred: The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. Devotes an entire chapter to The Kreutzer Sonata, analyzing how it reflects the real-life marital relationship of the Tolstoys, and how its publication created further marital friction. Contains many excellent rare photographs.

Smoluchowski, Louise. Lev and Sonya: The Story of the Tolstoy Marriage. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1987. A revealing study of the tempestuous marriage of the Tolstoys, which lasted from 1862 to 1910. Discusses the marriage’s powerful influence on the Russian author’s ideas about love and marriage, as reflected in such works as Anna Karenina (1875-1877) and The Kreutzer Sonata.

Tolstoy, Leo. What Is Art? Translated by Almyer Maude. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960. Originally published in Russian in 1896, this great, neglected work was the fruit of decades of intensive thought and study. Tolstoy condemned art designed to entertain the idle upper classes, a belief he dramatized in The Kreutzer Sonata.


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