Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Kreutzer Sonata, by Leo Tolstoy

One-line summary: A 50-page abstinence rant in the form of a story about a jealous man who kills his wife.

Tolstoy would hate this cover

Published in 1889 (in Russian). Available for free at Project Gutenberg.

When Marshal of the Nobility Pozdnyshev suspects his wife of having an affair with her music partner, his jealousy consumes him and drives him to murder. Controversial upon publication in 1890, The Kreutzer Sonata illuminates Tolstoy’s then-feverish Christian ideals, his conflicts with lust and the hypocrisies of nineteenth-century marriage, and his thinking on the role of art and music in society.

Crossposted to bookish and books1001.

I totally chose the cover image above because Tolstoy would have hated it. But it seems more in keeping with the spirit of his story than Russian kitsch.

So, my first thought, when I saw that my next books1001 reading selection was from Leo Tolstoy, was "Oh, crap." Not that I have anything against long novels, and I really am planning to tackle War and Peace one of these days, but I wasn't quite in the mood for a big huge Russian epic just now.

Fortunately, The Kreutzer Sonata turns out to be a novella of a mere 33,000 words. Unfortunately, it turns out to be less a story than a jeremiad against sexual desire (and pretty much all other forms of pleasure) exposing Tolstoy's uncontrollable gibbering terror of vajayjays.

Tolstoy's issues, let me show you them

"Ask an experienced coquette, who has undertaken to seduce a man, which she would prefer,—to be convicted, in presence of the man whom she is engaged in conquering, of falsehood, perversity, cruelty, or to appear before him in an ill-fitting dress, or a dress of an unbecoming color. She will prefer the first alternative. She knows very well that we simply lie when we talk of our elevated sentiments, that we seek only the possession of her body, and that because of that we will forgive her every sort of baseness, but will not forgive her a costume of an ugly shade, without taste or fit.

"And these things she knows by reason, where as the maiden knows them only by instinct, like the animal. Hence these abominable jerseys, these artificial humps on the back, these bare shoulders, arms, and throats.

Tolstoy isn't quite as severe on the opposite sex as such quotes might suggest -- the idea of gender equality is raised a number of times in the narrator's screed, and in fact he advocates for equality, by noting that the existing system essentially made horseflesh out of women. However, Tolstoy's version of a true marriage of equals requires an absolute lack of sexual desire, and as much as possible, a lack of sex.

Men, says Posdnicheff, the narrator of this story, are helpless beasts who can only be reduced to an animal state when allowed to satisfy their sexual desires -- even with their wives -- and who can only thereby degrade women. (Missing completely from his analysis is, of course, the notion that any woman might ever actually want to have sex -- in fact, he explicitly denies it.) While he's at it, he condemns music, poetry, dancing, and basically anything else that can excite "sensuality" in people.

"In China music is under the control of the State, and that is the way it ought to be. Is it admissible that the first comer should hypnotize one or more persons, and then do with them as he likes? And especially that the hypnotizer should be the first immoral individual who happens to come along? It is a frightful power in the hands of any one, no matter whom. For instance, should they be allowed to play this 'Kreutzer Sonata,' the first presto,—and there are many like it,—in parlors, among ladies wearing low necked dresses, or in concerts, then finish the piece, receive the applause, and then begin another piece? These things should be played under certain circumstances, only in cases where it is necessary to incite certain actions corresponding to the music. But to incite an energy of feeling which corresponds to neither the time nor the place, and is expended in nothing, cannot fail to act dangerously. On me in particular this piece acted in a frightful manner. One would have said that new sentiments, new virtualities, of which I was formerly ignorant, had developed in me. 'Ah, yes, that's it! Not at all as I lived and thought before! This is the right way to live!'

Of course, Posdnicheff is condemning music, musicians, and the Kreutzer Sonata after killing his wife over her alleged affair with a musician. His wife and the musician had played Kreutzer's Sonata together.

So, there are two ways to read The Kreutzer Sonata. One is as Tolstoy intended it: Posdnicheff spends the entire journey explaining to his captive audience of fellow train passengers how sex leads humans to behave like animals, how sexual desire is incompatible with morality or a Christian life, and everything else pleasurable or fun is dangerous, too. He particularly goes after doctors (and by extension, science in general). Doctors are the most evil people of all because thanks to contraception and abortion and cures for venereal disease, people can have sex and totally get away with it, the bastards!

I, however, preferred to read it as the ranting of an anxious, insecure jackass who killed his wife in a fit of jealous rage and now spends hours haranguing anyone who will listen to him about how the Devil (vajayjays) made him do it.

"I wanted to run after him, but remembered that it is ridiculous to run after one's wife's lover in one's socks; and I did not wish to be ridiculous but terrible."

Reading between the lines, he describes a terrible, dysfunctional marriage in which he and his wife had nothing in common, he had nothing to say to her (and in fact, by his own description, he starts fights with her and throws things at the slightest provocation), yet the problem wasn't that he was a violent, jealous asshole who couldn't be bothered to treat his wife like a human being: no, it was all the fault of society that taught him that sex was normal and healthy.

Writer On Board

Lest you think I'm being unfair in assuming that the author meant us to take his fictional narrator's words at face value, Tolstoy published an essay the following year, The Lesson of "The Kreutzer Sonata", in which he clarified exactly what he meant by writing this story:

It is not possible that the health of one class should necessitate the ruin of another, and, in consequence, it is our first duty to turn a deaf ear to such an essential immoral doctrine, no matter how strongly society may have established or law protected it. Moreover, it needs to be fully recognized that men are rightly to be held responsible for the consequences of their own acts, and that these are no longer to be visited on the woman alone. It follows from this that it is the duty of men who do not wish to lead a life of infamy to practice such continence in respect to all woman as they would were the female society in which they move made up exclusively of their own mothers and sisters.

A more rational mode of life should be adopted which would include abstinence from all alcoholic drinks, from excess in eating and from flesh meat, on the one hand, and recourse to physical labor on the other. I am not speaking of gymnastics, or of any of those occupations which may be fitly described as playing at work; I mean the genuine toil that fatigues. No one need go far in search of proofs that this kind of abstemious living is not merely possible, but far less hurtful to health than excess. Hundreds of instances are known to every one. This is my first contention.

Okay, so chastity, sobriety, and lots of physical exercise to keep your mind off of the vajayjays sin. Kind of a strict lifestyle he's advocating, but not completely batshit (or outside mainstream Christian thought). Then he gets to marriage.

Such a thing as Christian marriage never was and never could be. Christ did not marry, nor did he establish marriage; neither did his disciples marry. But if Christian marriage cannot exist, there is such a thing as a Christian view of marriage. And this is how it may be formulated: A Christian (and by this term I understand not those who call themselves Christians merely because they were baptized and still receive the sacrament once a year, but those whose lives are shaped and regulated by the teachings of Christ), I say, cannot view the marriage relation otherwise than as a deviation from the doctrine of Christ,—as a sin. This is clearly laid down in Matt. v. 28, and the ceremony called Christian marriage does not alter its character one jot. A Christian will never, therefore, desire marriage, but will always avoid it.

If the light of truth dawns upon a Christian when he is already married, or if, being a Christian, from weakness he enters into marital relations with the ceremonies of the church, or without them, he has no other alternative than to abide with his wife (and the wife with her husband, if it is she who is a Christian) and to aspire together with her to free themselves of their sin. This is the Christian view of marriage; and there cannot be any other for a man who honestly endeavors to shape his life in accordance with the teachings of Christ.

Yes, he was seriously arguing that all sex is a sin. Yes, even between husband and wife. Yes, even for purely procreative purposes. The last character I read espousing this viewpoint was Carrie's mother.

His response to the argument that the human race will go extinct without sex is basically that he knows everyone in the world isn't going to stop having sex... but they should try.

Chastity and celibacy, it is urged, cannot constitute the ideal of humanity, because chastity would annihilate the race which strove to realize it, and humanity cannot set up as its ideal its own annihilation. It may be pointed out in reply that only that is a true ideal, which, being unattainable, admits of infinite gradation in degrees of proximity. Such is the Christian ideal of the founding of God's kingdom, the union of all living creatures by the bonds of love. The conception of its attainment is incompatible with the conception of the movement of life. What kind of life could subsist if all living creatures were joined together by the bonds of love? None. Our conception of life is inseparably bound up with the conception of a continual striving after an unattainable ideal.

Kind of a buzzkill, that Tolstoy.

Not a fun guy at parties

The Kreutzer Sonata in Other Media: It's All About Lust

Listen to Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 9 ("The Kreutzer Sonata").

There have been a surprising number of adaptations of The Kreutzer Sonata. Films, plays, ballets, paintings.

As usual, I went to Netflix to watch the one version available there: a 2008 film directed by Bernard Rose, starring Danny Huston and Elizabeth Röhm.

It's a very loose adaptation, set in the modern day, and it's all about the husband's jealousy, his wife's infidelity, and the subsequent bloodshed. Of course, there is no pro-abstinence message or religious ranting... instead, all that ranting from the original novella gets distilled down to a rant about how the bitches got us by the balls, man. (The one thing I think the movie got right which Tolstoy probably wouldn't is that the narrator is clearly a violent, jealous douchebag and a completely unsympathetic character.) But not recommended in any case; it's mostly a dull series of piano and violin scenes interspersed with gratuitous sex scenes.

Has anyone read the sequel?

The public domain version available at the Gutenberg Project includes an endnote:

If the reading of this book has interested you, do not fail to get its sequel, entitled "KREUTZER SONATA BEARING FRUIT," by Pauline Grayson, which is an exceedingly interesting narrative showing one of the results of the ideas set forth in "Kreutzer Sonata." It is bound in paper covers and will be sent by mail, postage paid, upon receipt of 25 cents. Address all orders to J. S. OGILVIE PUBLISHING COMPANY, 57 Rose Street, New York.

Well, I'm interested to know what would be the result of the ideas set forth in "Kreutzer Sonata." (Maybe this?) But my Google-fu failed to turn up much evidence of this sequel or its author. Pauline Grayson apparently wrote another book called Gaspar Desmond's Passion.

Sadly, the history of J.S. Ogilvie & Co. suggests that Pauline Grayson was probably not an author whose novels have stood the test of time, and it's doubtful many copies have survived. If anyone comes across "Kreutzer Sonata Bearing Fruit" in the basement of some old library, I would love to know what she did to poor Tolstoy's ideas.

Verdict: It's probably not fair to judge Tolstoy's writing from this plea for Christian ascetiscm which he wrote later in life. In terms of communicating his views, he does this in exquisite, articulate fashion, but even if you agree with his views (and even among Christians, there aren't many who will), The Kreutzer Sonata is not so much a story as a polemic. It's not meant to be entertaining, so the only literary merits I can grant it are that by the end, we have a very, very clear picture of Posdnicheff, his wife, and their marriage. And Tolstoy's issues. Read it if you want to know why Tolstoy and his wife had such a crappy marriage; read Anna Karenina or War and Peace if you want to find out why he's regarded as a great writer.

This was my third selection for the books1001 challenge, introducing people to writers they've never read and books they've always known they should read but haven't. Please join us!
Tags: books, books1001, literary, movies, netflix, reviews

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