The Kreutzer Sonata by Lev Tolstoy
I invite my audience to begin by listening to the composition that inspired The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) by Lev Tolstoy. The music itself acts as a driving force in the novel, demonstrating the emotive power of art to evoke unnatural sensations within its audience. Art, replete with sensual stimuli, possesses the power to move individuals beyond the bounds of acceptable behavior. According to Tolstoy, art itself is inherently transgressive and should be reconceptualized for the betterment of society. These are a few of the meta-level issues Tolstoy grapples with in The Kreutzer Sonata and the attached essay, “A Sequel to The Kreutzer Sonata.” But the novel also deals with questions of transgression on a more local level. Tolstoy weaves together a story of sexual debauchery, marriage, jealousy, adultery, and murder as a way to convey the values he espoused later in life after his “spiritual crisis.” Much of Sonata and the essay that follows is an articulation of a Tolstoyan doctrine, encouraging his contemporaries to follow the example of Christ (not to be confused with ideas espouses by a corrupt Church and clergy). The end product is a straightforward, yet somewhat ambiguous expression of Tolstoy’s own personal anxieties and worldview.
In the Sonata, the main protagonist, simply referred to as Pozdnyshev, encounters the narrator on an overnight train ride. Pozdnyshev openly explains his claim to fame (he killed his wife) and that he would like to share his story. The narrator kindly obliges, and listens to the prolonged confession with few interruptions. The one-sided dialogue comprises the bulk of the novella, occasionally broken by a question from the narrator, the appearance of fellow passengers, or when Pozdnyshev is so overcome with emotion, he must pause or exit for a brief period. The product is a scathing account of Pozdnyshev’s love life throughout his early years, which eventually culminates in a tortuous marriage. Pozdnyshev and his wife (who remains unnamed) bear three children, after which, she begins to take contraceptives, a scientific development that is abhorrent to Pozdnyshev. It is around this time, that a young musician by the name of Trukhashevsky appears. He is invited to play the violin with Pozdnyshev’s wife. It is during a public performance of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” that Pozdnyshev finds himself to be emotionally moved by the performance, and the pangs of jealousy begin to appear. While travelling for work, Pozdnyshev continues to agonize over the idea of his wife and Trukhashevsky having an affair. He decides to return home early, where he finds his wife and Trukhashevsky playing their instruments together late into the night. In a fit of rage, he stabs his wife with a dagger. He lets Trukhashevsky run free because he manages to recall that it is ridiculous to run after a wife’s lover in socks. Pozdnyshev was ultimately acquitted of the crime, though there is no reference to his trial or his defense. The novella ends as the narrator leaves a grieving and incapacitated Pozdnyshev in the train car.
The story is devoid of characters with redeeming qualities, except maybe the narrator who forgoes a night of sleep and patiently sits and listens to Pozdnyshev’s story. Pozdnyshev never renounces his actions, arguing that the amoral nature of contemporary society led him to act out in a fit of passion, against his wife, who, it appears, never actually sinned against him. Here, transgression is to be understood collectively, rooted in contemporary culture. Modern culture produces a profound sense of madness resulting in endless transgression. The main perpetrators, which are condemned in the novel, are modern science, modern education, consumerism, traditional relations between the sexes, and art. The collective aspect of Tolstoy’s argument renders the characters much less interesting as individuals. Their agency in this story is almost entirely negated. The fact that Pozdnyshev was acquitted of murder, when there is no doubt that he is guilty of killing an innocent women, suggests that to some degree, such madness is normative and not worthy of punishment. The fact that Pozdnyshev’s wife never actually engaged in physical activity with Trukhashevsky is ironic, and it demonstrates that Tolstoy’s interest in transgression lies at a more abstract level.
Much of this story is a product of Tolstoy’s own spiritual crisis. As a soldier in the imperial army, Tolstoy was known for his sexual escapades and profligate gambling that shocked most of his colleagues. At the age of thirty-four, Tolstoy fell in love with eighteen-year-old Sofya Adreyeva Bers. The two were married in 1862 and went on to have thirteen children. The early years of their marriage are described as happy. In the early 1880s, while writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy experienced a spiritual crisis that would shape the rest of his life and work. He began to espouse teachings from the life of Christ. Afterward, explains Doris Lessing,
He became an extreme rationalist and moralist, and in a series of pamphlets published during his remaining years Tolstoy rejected both church and state, denounced private ownership of property, and advocated celibacy, even in marriage. In 1897, he even went so far as to renounce his own novels, as well as many other classics, including Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for being morally irresponsible, elitist, and corrupting” (Lessing, vii).
Tolstoy’s views generated a serious tension between him and his wife and the later years of his marriage were unhappy; Tolstoy often referred to his wife as a “stone around my neck.” Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis and troubled marriage were recently captured in the film, The Last Station (2009) starring Christopher Plummer as an elderly Tolstoy and Helen Mirren as Sofya. It is not a particularly good film, but it is interesting to consider how the sheer magnitude of Tolstoy’s presence in history is a powerful enough force to drive an entire film.
It is also necessary to contextualize Tolstoy’s crisis and The Kreutzer Sonata within a wider public debate that occurred in fin de siècle Europe about “the animal in man.” Demarcated by the two polar ideologies of Christianity and biological evolution, this debate centered around the “the family question,” “the woman question,” and questions of sexual morality. When Tolstoy’s Sonata appeared, aside from the authorities banning its publication, it generated a massive debate throughout Europe. Literary historian Peter Ulf Møller explains,
The Russian debate began late in 1889, when illegal copies of Tolstoy’s tale The Kreutzer Sonata began to circulate in St. Petersburg. At this time Tolstoy’s writings enjoyed an immense authority. He was the last survivor of the great Russian realists, and all over the world the reading public followed the drama that seemed to be taking place in the aging writer’s soul: his renunciation of fiction in favor of a new kind of Christian moral propagation, which rejected the existing social order at vital points. When in The Kreutzer Sonata he placed sexuality in the very foreground of a depiction of modern family life, a storm broke out (Møller, xii).
Tolstoy’s examination of these problems introduced the question of sexual instinct and marriage as a sexual relationship to Russian literature for the first time.
The Kreutzer Sonata is a surprisingly forthright text. It appears to be unambiguous and clear in the boundaries it establishes between good and bad. Pozdnyshev is explicit in his identification of the ills of society and the factors that drove him to murder his wife. The voice itself is a kind of dogmatic narrative voice making “authoritative non-novelistic statements” that are referred to as “absolute language” (Morson, 1981; Holland, 2013). Kate Holland points out, “Pozdnyshev is, on the one hand, a stand-in for Tolstoy’s own ambivalent attitude toward fictional narrative in this period. On the other hand, Pozdnyshev seems to embody the very ambivalence that so disturbs Tolstoy” (Holland, 1). According to Tolstoy, after the publication of The Kreutzer Sonata, he received a barrage of letters asking him to explicate his views, clearly and succinctly. It is unclear whether this was, in fact, what really happened or if he composed a “Sequel to The Kreutzer Sonata” as an intentional component of the story from the beginning. The “Sequel” establishes the terms of Tolstoy’s beliefs and is important for understanding the guiding principles of the story that precedes it.
The “Sequel to The Kreutzer Sonata” outlines five major aspects of society that contribute to the degeneration of the upper classes and the collective transgression discussed above. First, on the topic of intercourse, he writes, “The notion that sexual intercourse is necessary for health, and that marriage not being always possible, sexual intercourse without marriage, and binding the man to nothing beyond a mere money payment, is quite natural and a thing to be encouraged” (Tolstoy, 81). Likewise, Tolstoy believes that sexual vice goes hand in hand with other perversions and suggests that if one wishes to abstain from sexual intercourse and desire altogether, “they should lead a natural life.” He argues,
[Men should] not drink, nor eat meat, nor overeat, nor avoid labor – exhausting labor, not merely gymnastics, or other play. But besides this they should not, even in thought, admit the possibility of connection with strange women… Any man can find hundreds of examples around him showing that continence is possible, and less dangerous and less harmful to health than incontinence (82).
Tolstoy’s second critique is that contemporary culture embraces sexuality as poetic and elevated, in addition to something that is pleasurable and healthy. He writes,
In order not to indulge in it, it is necessary that this way of regarding sexual love should be changed. Men and women should be educated at home and by public opinion, both before and after marriage, not as now to consider being in love and the sexual affection connected therewith as a poetic and elevated condition, but as being an animal condition, degrading to man (82).
Tolstoy also believes that the significance of the birth of children has lost its meaning through the prevalence of birth control. He condemns,
It is bad to use means to prevent the birth of children, both because so doing frees people from the cares and troubles caused by children, which should serve to redeem sexual love, and also because it comes very near to what is most revolting to our conscience – murder. And incontinence during pregnancy and nursing is bad, because it wastes the woman’s bodily, and especially her spiritual, strength (83).
Relating to the previous point, there is a material critique. According to Tolstoy, children are not valued, as they ought to be. Children have become merely objects of the parents’ enjoyment, resulting in their debasement from an early age. He claims,
Human children are brought up like the young of animals; the chief care of the parents not being to prepare them for an activity worth of men, but to feed them as well as possible, to increase their stature, and to make them clean, white, plump and handsome. In all this, the parents are supported by the pseudo-science of medicine… And in pampered children, as in all overfed animals, an irresistible sensuality shows itself at an abnormally early age, and is the cause of terrible suffering before maturity (83).
Tolstoy’s fifth and final point resounds his previously stated sentiment – the poetics of love corrupt. He writes,
In our society, where the falling in love of young men and women, which after all has sexual love at its root, is considered poetically and is extolled as the highest aim of human effort (as witness all the art and poetry of our society), young people devote the best time of their life, – the men to spying out, tracking, and obtaining possession of the most desirable objects of love, whether in amours or in marriage; and the women and girls to trapping and luring men into amours or marriages… (84).
These are the main points that guide the story of marriage, betrayal, and murder in The Kreutzer Sonata. Tolstoy, instead, espouses chastity, an ideal manifest most clearly in the life of Christ himself. The ideal is love to God and his neighbor. There is no room for the self in this kind of existence. “Carnal love, marriage, is a serving of self, and is, therefore, at least a hindrance to the service of God and man… it is a fall, a sin” (88). Marriage, is a service to the self, and therefore, cannot be understood as part of this ideal. Instead, marriage should be replaced by the “pure love” of brother and sister (91). He concludes, “It is impossible, having heard Christ’s ideal teaching, to act as if we knew it not, and to replace it be external ordinances. Christ’s ideal teaching is before humanity now just because it is suitable for our guidance in man’s present stage of development” (92).
For the remainder of the presentation, I would like to focus on Tolstoy’s meta-critique of art in his writing, as well as his struggle with the “erotics” of art. Tolstoy spent years of his life attempting to understand the relationship between art, madness, and transgression, which culminated in his treatise, What is Art? (1898); unfortunately, I lack the space to discuss this treatise here. Pozdnyshev recalls his wife’s performance with Trukhashevsky,
They played Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata… That sonata is a terrible thing… Music in general is a terrible thing. I cannot comprehend it. What is music? What does it do? And why does it have the effect it has? They say music has the effect of elevating the soul – rubbish! Nonsense! It has its effect, it has a terrible effect – I am speaking about its effect on me – but not at all of elevating the soul. Its effect is neither to elevate nor to degrade but to excite. How can I explain to you? Music makes me forget myself, my real situation. It transports me into a state that is not my natural one. Under the influence of music it seems to me that I feel what I do not really feel, that I understand what I do not really understand, that I can do what I can’t do…
Music instantaneously transports me into that mental condition in which he who composed it found himself. I blend my soul with his, and with him I am transported from one mood to another. But I cannot tell why this is so. For instance, he who composed the Kreutzer Sonata – Beethoven – he knew why he was in that mood. That mood impelled him to do certain things; therefore that mood meant something for him, but it means nothing for me. And that is why music excites and does not bring to any conclusion. When they play a military march, the soldiers move forward under its strains and the music accomplishes something… They perform a mass, I take the sacrament; and the music accomplishes its purpose. But in other cases there is only excitement, and it is impossible to tell what to do in this state of mind. And that is why music is so awesome, why it sometimes has such a terrifying effect. In China, music is regulated by government, and this is as it should be… Indeed it is a terrible power to place in anyone’s hands. For example, how could anyone play this Kreutzer Sonata, the first Presto, in a drawing room before ladies dressed in low-cut gowns? To play that Presto, then to applaud it, and then to eat ices and talk over the last bit of scandal? These things should be played only under certain grave, significant conditions, and only then when certain deeds corresponding to such music are to be accomplished… But to call forth an energy which is not consonant with the place or the time, and an impulse which does not manifest itself in anything, cannot fail to have a harmful effect. On me, at least, it had a horrible impact. It seemed to me that entirely new impulses, new possibilities, were revealed to me in myself, such as I had never dreamed before (Tolstoy, 59-60).
The emotive power of art coupled with its lack of appropriate context proves to be a significant source of madness in modern society. How then, does Tolstoy reconcile his damning critique of art with the fact that he himself is one of the world’s most acclaimed artists?
This tension is very much at the source of The Kreutzer Sonata, determining the style and language in which it is written (as suggested by Holland above). As I previously indicated, the text is surprisingly straightforward, conveying the problems clearly to the audience. However, the lack of resolution in this story reveals ambivalence about Tolstoy’s own relationship to art. That such an unequivocal composition required an explanatory appendage to rearticulates the ideas on even clearer terms suggests that no art is capable of communicating ideas forthright. Only a non-fictional essay explicit in language and ideas like the “Sequel,” is capable of this. Therefore, the inclusion of a sequel suggests to the audience, that Tolstoy understood this piece to be somewhat of an ambiguous failure and demonstrates the internal struggle about morality and art that would continue to plague him for the rest of his life. Art, for Tolstoy, is complicit in the transgressiveness of modern culture and must be reconceptualized along new, moral lines.
Herman, David. “Art and Adultery in Anna Karenina and Kreutzer Sonata.” Slavic Review 56, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), 15-36.
Hoffman, Michael. The Last Station. 2009.
Holland, Kate. “Genre and the Temptations of Narrative Desire in Kreutzer Sonata.” Tolstoy Studies Journal 25 (2013), 1-14.
Lessing, Doris. “Introduction.” In The Kreutzer Sonata and “Sequel to The Kreutzer Sonata.” New York: The Modern Library, 2003.
Møller, Peter Ulf. Postlude to the Kreutzer Sonata: Tolstoj and the Debate on Sexual Morality in Russian Literature in the 1890s. Trans. John Kendal. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988.
Morson, Gary Saul. “Tolstoy’s Absolute Language.” Critical Inquiry 7, No. 4 (Summer, 1981), 667-687.
Tolstoy, Lev Nikoliavich. The Kreutzer Sonata and “Sequel to The Kreutzer Sonata.” Trans. Isai Kamen. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.