A group of strangers meet in a Russian railway carriage. It is 1889 and the conversation turns to the decline of marriage. An old man states that this is all because of too much education: people have become too learned and there is no more fear. Women should fear their husbands, then there would be fewer divorces. A woman shakes her head:
“Oh, that, my little father, that is ended.”
“No, madam, that cannot end. As she, Eve, the woman, was taken from man’s ribs, so she will remain unto the end of the world,” said the old man, shaking his head so triumphantly and so severely that the clerk, deciding that the victory was on his side, burst into a loud laugh.
“Yes, you men think so,” replied the lady, without surrendering, and turning toward us. “You have given yourself liberty. As for woman, you wish to keep her in the seraglio. To you, everything is permissible. Is it not so?”
“Oh, man, –that’s another affair.”
Double standard? The old man says, No. He says that men, too, have received the Law, but that it is not so bad for them to break it as it is for women. Double standard, yes.
The old man gets off the train and the others continue chatting about marriage and the status of women, all except one passenger who keeps to himself and avoids eye contact with the others. Finally, he is drawn into the conversation and begins talking wildly about love, which he denounces. One of the other passengers mentions the Posdnicheff case, where a man murdered his wife. “I see that you have recognized me,” says the man who does not believe in love and reveals himself as Posdnicheff.
At the next stop all of the passengers leave the carriage except Posdnicheff and the narrator. “Love, marriage, family, — all lies, lies, lies,” says Posdnicheff and then he tells the narrator the story of how he came to murder his wife.
Thus begins Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata”, a work disliked by pretty much everyone who has read it. But Tolstoy had serious purpose in writing the story and put a lot into it over the years. “The Kreutzer Sonata” incorporated much of his own thinking on sex, marriage, and the relations between the sexes. This is not to say that Posdnicheff is Tolstoy’s double — Tolstoy never murdered anyone — but his words often reflect Tolstoy’s opinions.
Posdnicheff tells the narrator that he comes from a wealthy family and that he did not marry until he was thirty. Before that time he lived, he says, a life of debauchery, having sex with prostitutes. Eventually, though, he is persuaded that he should marry and decides on a young woman from a family fallen on hard times. Before their wedding he shows his bride-to-be his diary, which describes his various sexual adventures, one of which he wants her to know about before she hears of it through gossip.
Now this last bit also happens in Anna Karenin, when Levin shows Kitty his diary. And, in fact, Tolstoy also showed his diary to Sophia before he married her, particularly because he wanted her to know about a liason with a woman that she knew. All three of these women — Sophia, Kitty, and Posdnicheff’s fiancée — were terribly embarrassed by this action, though Tolstoy would have it that they were horrified rather than mortified.
Anyway, the Posdnicheff wedding proceeds. The marriage is not a success. The couple quarrel often and then make up and have sex. Then they quarrel again. Posdnicheff is convinced that they quarrel because, once their sexual desire is satisfied, that they are not interested in one another. They hate each other, says Posdnicheff, and their hate grows because neither is able to find a reason for this hatred. Of course, he is ascribing thoughts and feelings to his bride that she is unable to refute and, over the course of the story, the reader may come to see Posdnicheff as a very unreliable narrator. Certainly, by this point, most readers will find him unlikeable, cold and distant, though he believes himself a creature controlled by passion.
The marriage staggers on. There are children — at least five, maybe seven, possibly two died — and Posdnicheff names two of them, the boy that he uses as a weapon against his mother and the girl that she enlists as an ally against him. The couple fight and screw and propagate until a “rascally” doctor explains birth control to Mrs. Posdnicheff. Now she blossoms, becoming plumper and prettier. Of course, Posdnicheff hates this. When his wife becomes interested in performing music with a male violinist, he becomes jealous. They perform Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata for Piano and Violin, No.9 in A Major (Opus 47), a work that greatly disturbs Posdnicheff. His jealousy and hatred grows until he tells his wife that he wishes she were dead. She attempts suicide; they reconcile, briefly, then back to the old routine of quarrel/hate/screw; he suggests divorce, but only if she initiates it. Finally, in a fit of jealous rage, Posdnicheff stabs his wife, right through her corset, inflicting a wound that turns out to be fatal. The story ends by quoting Matthew 5:28, “…whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery…” and goes on to say that this includes a husband looking lustfully on his own wife.
A couple of notes are due here: Posdnicheff never actually discovers that his wife is unfaithful — there’s that unreliable narrator trick — and it is only when she is dying that Posdnicheff sees his wife as a human being, that is, a real individual person as opposed to a Wife, a Mother, a Woman; throughout his tale, he never once uses her name. Along the way in this story, we are treated to various rants: against contraception — which is a terrible evil; against pretty dresses and hairdos — traps to catch men; about love — which does not exist; about music — which is so disturbing that it should be controlled by the state; about the fact that all women care about is entrapping a husband; and the fact that women actually run the world by being totally in control of men all the time, even though they exercise this control from a condition of slavery. By now the reader’s brain is shouting the word “misogyny”.“The Kreutzer Sonata” was circulated in a mimeographed form for a while. Tolstoy rightly thought that the Czarist government would block its publication but perhaps he did not forsee that an enterprising Berlin publisher would release versions in four different languages. After the English version was released, the United States Post Office made it illegal to send it through the mail. The US Attorney-General backed this action and President Roosevelt called Tolstoy a “sexual moral pervert”. Of course, Teddy might have been just getting back at a guy who disapproved of hunting. The case went to the courts after some newspaper vendors excitedly offered “Suppressed!” copies for sale. In the end, Philadelphia’s Justice Thayer struck down the ban. Tolstoy might hold some absurd ideas, he said, but the work was not an “obscene libel”. In the first place, it wasn’t obscene and, after all, the anti-sex ideals expressed in it were a commonplace in Christian thought.
G.K.Chesterton, who held a jaundiced view of Tolstoy’s “simplicity”, said:
The emotion to which Tolstoy has again and again given a really fine expression is an emotion of pity for the plain affairs of men. He pities the masses of men for the things they really endure — the tedium and the trivial cruelty. But it is just here, unfortunately, that his great mistake comes in; the mistake that renders practically useless the philosophy of Tolstoy… Tolstoy is not content with pitying humanity for its pains: such as poverty and prisons. He also pities humanity for its pleasures, such as music and patriotism. He weeps at the thought of hatred; but in “The Kreutzer Sonata” he weeps almost as much at the thought of love.
Isabel Hapgood, who had translated and championed Tolstoy’s work for Americans, refused to translate “The Kreutzer Sonata”. She said:
The whole book is a violent and roughly worded attack upon the evils of animal passion. In that sense, it is moral. Translation, even with copious excisions, is impossible, in my opinion, and also inadvisable. The men against whom it is directed will not mend their ways from the reading of it, even if they fully grasp the idea that unhappiness and mad jealousy and crime are the outcome of their ways, as Pozdnisheff is made to say in terms as plain as the language will admit of, and in terms much plainer than are usually employed in polite society.
On the other hand, the book can, I am sure, do no good to the people at whom it is not launched. It is decidedly a case where ignorance is bliss…
This bit of peck-sniffery makes me almost sympathize with Tolstoy. (I say, fuck “polite society”! And “Stay ignorant, blissful fools,” is elitist bullshit. [rant rant rave rave]) But there is an interesting bit in Hapgood’s essay:
Count Tolstoi one day praised the Shakers in this manner [i.e., for the same reason that Posdnicheff praised them, because they were committed to non-reproduction] before a table full of people. I was afraid to ask him his meaning, lest he should explain in detail, so I questioned his wife in private as to whether this new departure was not somewhat inconsistent with his previously advocated views on woman’s vocation.
She replied: “Probably it is inconsistent; but my husband changes his opinions every two years, you know.”
I like that she didn’t ask what he meant, “lest he should explain in detail” which says quite a bit about Count Tolstoy and his imperious verbosity. I also like the interchange with Sophia Tolstoy that confirms many men’s suspicions that all women are in league and constantly plotting together against the master sex.
That brings up the question of the Tolstoy marriage. In brief: it was troubled. Leo was thirty-four, a little older than Posdnicheff when he married. Sophia was nineteen, about the same age (so far as I can tell) as Posdnicheff’s bride. The Tolstoys had thirteen children; nine survived infancy. They began arguing early on but Sophia was not shy with her opinions. She acted as Tolstoy’s editor and transcribed his manuscripts over all the years of their marriage. When she didn’t like a work — and she hated “The Kreutzer Sonata” — she let him know. When Leo leapt into appealing new systems of thought, she tried to restrain him. They certainly fought. Sometimes, like many battling couples, their fights were ridiculous to outsiders. But Leo’s lofty foolishness could be forgiven as idealism gone off the rails; Sophia’s actions appeared neurotic and mad.
Sophia spied on her own house through binoculars, sizing up the situation. She hated cats and banned them from the Tolstoy estate at Yasnaya Polyana; then, to counter the vermin problem, brought in snakes. The symbolism here, of Eve investing a would-be Paradise with swarms of serpents, cannot have been lost on either Tolstoy. And Sophia was a temptress, always trying to turn Leo away from a multitude of notions. Their daughter Aleksandra cited a letter:
“You are harassing and killing yourself,” [Sophia] wrote him on April 19, 1889, to Yasnaya Polyana. “I…have been thinking: he does not eat meat, nor smoke, he works beyond his strength, his brain is not nourished, hence the drowsiness and weakness. How stupid vegetarianism is….Kill life in yourself, kill all impulses of the flesh, all its needs — why not kill yourself altogether? After all you are committing yourself to *slow* death, what’s the difference?”
Yeah, dude, why not just kill yourself? Which is what Posdnicheff says to his wife and which she promptly attempts to do. And it was Sophia who actually attempted suicide, several times, so often that it seems to have become a ritual. Sophia’s diary also castigates Leo for his coldness which he interrupts only in fits of sexual desire. So the real life drama is close to the story. Well, except for one thing: it wasn’t sex that the Tolstoys fought about, mostly it was money.
Tolstoy, in a bout of spiritual fervor, decided to leave his entire estate to some noble purpose or other. Sophia wanted the money to go to their children. This was the cause of the great combat between them at the end of their lives. Tolstoy was assisted by a number of fervent Tolstoyians. Some he employed as secretaries. One of these, Vladimir Chertkov, helped Leo determine how to distribute his fortune in his will and it was Chertkov that Sophia was most worried about; this was the guy she was looking for with binoculars. She had heard that there was a secret will signed by Tolstoy in 1909 and was determined to fight it. In 1910, Leo and Sophia quarrelled and he stalked out of the house, attended by an acolyte. He was persuaded not to try to walk to wherever it was he had chosen as a destination and instead took up refuge in a series of railway stations, headed somewhere else. Tolstoy succumbed to pneumonia in one of these stations and died at the age of 83. Sophia was not allowed to see him; she hovered nearby, in a railway car, talking about hiring a private detective to follow Leo and find the secret will. A decade later, everything became moot as the Bolshevik Revolution wiped out the Tolstoy property values.
But there is still the question of how much Posdnicheff’s views reflect those of Leo Tolstoy. Well, Posdnicheff’s views on sexy clothing had already been stated by Tolstoy both in other works and in rants to his listeners. He was horrified by the sight of a naked shoulder. Or perhaps he was filled with lust, which is much the same thing, right? And, this was the fault of the shoulder-barer — at least to a egocentric like Tolstoy. Then there is the stuff about music: Posdnicheff says, “…a terrible thing is music in general. What is it? Why does it do what it does? They say that music stirs the soul. Stupidity! A lie! It acts, it acts frightfully.” Tolstoy once told Rachmaninoff that he could not stand Beethoven, “Is such music needed by anyone? I must tell you how I dislike it all. Beethoven is nonsense.” Stefan Zweig said that Tolstoy distrusted both women and music because they unleashed his passions. But let’s go directly to Tolstoy’s own defense of “The Kreutzer Sonata” in which he explains his thinking:
…it is necessary for the view in regard to carnal love to change. Men and women ought to be educated in their homes and by public opinion to look, before and after marriage, on infatuation and the carnal love connected with it, not as upon a poetical and exalted condition, such as it is now considered to be, but as upon an animal condition, degrading to man…
It is not good to use means preventive of childbirth, in the first place, because people are thus relieved of cares and labours in regard to children, who serve as a redemption of carnal love, and, in the second, because it comes very near to the act which is most repulsive to a human conscience, to murder. Nor is non- continence during pregnancy and nursing good, because it is destructive of the physical, and still more of the mental, powers of woman.
…the attainment of the aim of being united in wedlock or of being outside of wedlock with the object of love, however much extolled by poetry it may be, is unworthy of man, just as the aim of obtaining sweet and superabundant food, which presents itself to many as the highest good, is unworthy of man.
And so on. Tolstoy proceeds from principles which he says everyone agrees with — the value of chastity, for instance — and he cites the New Testament as a basis for his thinking — hence the quotation that ends “The Kreutzer Sonata”. Tolstoy thinks it is best not to have sex – procreation is not an issue for him, better not to breed — but he recognizes that complete celibacy is difficult if not impossible. So, try for the chaste ideal but if continence is the best you can manage, so be it. There are echoes here of Paul’s notion that it is better to marry than to burn. Marriage is an accomodation with sin. Although Tolstoy claims to believe in the equality of the sexes, his argument is based on unstated premises of female subservience. The old man in “The Kreutzer Sonata” who proclaims that obedience is a wife’s duty is saying something that Tolstoy accepts as obvious.
Sophia Tolstoy took over responsibility for publishing her husband’s work in 1886 and performed this duty very well. She disliked the crowds that called at Yasnaya Polanya, thinking that many of the Tolstoy-worshippers were “lunatics” and the women “hysterics”. But mostly she regretted the loss of her husband as he took on the role of living saint. From Sophia’s journal, 1903:
I went to [my husband's] room this evening as he was getting ready for bed, and realised I never hear a single word of comfort or kindness from him nowadays.
What I predicted indeed has come true: my passionate husband has died, and since he was never a friend to me, how could he be one to me now? This life is not for me. There is nowhere for me to put my energy and passion for life; no contact with people, no art, no work – nothing but total loneliness all day.
That, I think, is the authentic voice of Posdnicheff’s wife. Posdnicheff himself says that he murdered his wife, not when he stuck a knife in her, but when he married her. Perhaps that’s what Tolstoy thought about Sophia. One last thing: as Tolstoy’s publisher, it was Sophia who demanded that the czar lift the ban on Russian publication of “The Kreutzer Sonata” in 1891. She was successful.
[Part 2 will discuss a riposte to Tolstoy also titled from a Beethoven sonata, Joyce Cary's The Moonlight.]
The full text of “The Kreutzer Sonata” is here and in other places on the Net. I have kept Posdnicheff’s name as the anonymous translator has it, though you can find it spelled at least three other ways in the various pages I have linked.
Tolstoy’s Epilogue, his explanation of “The Kreutzer Sonata”, was published in English in 1904.
Besides her anti-Kreutzer essay linked above, Isabel Hapgood wrote a long account of visiting the Tolstoys in 1890. There she gives another version of the Shaker/celibacy business mentioned above.
This is a marvelous account of visiting Yasnaya Polnaya by Elif Batumen which has quite a bit to say about “The Kreutzer Sonata” and the Tolstoy marriage.
Many adaptations have been made of “The Kreutzer Sonata” for stage, screen, and television. None (that I have seen) are particularly good since they all follow the action of the narrative, so you get a drama about a neurotic, jealous wife-murderer with none of the surrounding rationale. You can see the same thing on many TV crime shows. But there is one movie of interest: The Last Station starring Helen Mirren, Christopher Plummer, and Paul Giametti as the scummy Chertkov, which looks at the final days of the Tolstoy marriage.