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[117] The Kreutzer Sonata – Leo Tolstoy

Russian Reading Challenge #2.


“The vilest thing of all about it is that in theory love’s supposed to be something ideal and noble, whereas in practice it’s just a sordid matter that degrades us to the level of pigs, something that is vile and embarrassing to remember and talk about. After all, nature didn’t make it vile and embarrassing for no reason….And yet it’s quite the contrary: people behave as though what was vile and embarrassing were something beautiful and noble.” (56)

What is love? Does it sanctify marriage? The Bible says love is patient, love is kind, and love does not envy. In the voice of Pozdnyshev, a husband bemired in jealousy and rancor, Tolstoy also draws from his own experiences, which appalls his wife, to create a scathing indictment of marriage. Having lived a life of debauchery, which he defines as freeing oneself from any moral regard for the woman one enters into physical relations with, Pozdnyshev is fully aware of what horrible evil sex instinct is. He would go as far to be rid of sex instinct in order to live in monogamy. He blames this unrestrained outburst of desire on women, who ensnare the attention of men; because at the first place women are not treated as men’s equal:

“The ways things are at present, the woman is deprived of the rights possessed by the man. And, in order to compensate for this, she acts on the man’s sensuality, forces him into subjection by means of sensuality, so that he’s only formally the one who chooses–in actual fact it’s she who does the choosing. And once she has mastered this technique, she abuses it and acquires a terrible power over men.” (40)

This might ring a truth, but it’s not completely true. In reflecting his prenuptial, debauched existence, Pozdnyshev makes an unfair, flawed generalization that woman cannot keep to the wedding vow and remain faithful to her husband. He acknowledges that woman is no more than object of pleasure . So jealousy dictates his capricious bouts of emotional meltdown and sweet reconciliation, until he is consumed with rage, indignation, and a kind of morbid, drunk enjoyment of his own hurt pride.

For years he and his wife have been in love until she stops bearing children. No sooner has she escaped from pregnancy and breast-feeding than he realize the female coquetry that has lain dormant within her make a quick reappearance. Convinced his wife is betraying him with a young musician (actually he is convinced that even if she hasn’t been unfaithful to him, she wants to), he is driven to even more dangerous lengths by his overpowering suspicion and delusion.

However feverish and absurd this self-lacerating confession is, a whole layer of truth exists beneath the violent tantrum. Pozdnyshev’s story is this grim reality propagated at large. Do love and monogamy co-exist? In marriage, and in relationship? The preference for one person above all others–in terms of intimacy–does it still exist in real life, or just in novels? If it does exist, how long will this preference last? The work is an argument for the ideal of sexual abstinence.

9 Responses

  1. Did the Russian novelists ever write a happy-go-lucky novel?

  2. I just wanted to say that I stumbled upon your site today (doing a search for The City and the Pillar), and really enjoy the reviews, especially of the gay “classics.” I look forward to seeing more! Regards, Matt/TGR…

  3. In answer to Jef’s comment above, there are some “lighter” Russian novelists. For example Turgenev, whilst he of course touched upon some weighty issues (such as the upcoming downfall of the old order, generational issues etc in Fathers and Sons), he also wrote some stunning, light pieces on the beauty of nature and the simple lives led by the Russian peasantry, without getting overly political (Sketches from a Hunter’s Album). Gogol has some awesome short stories too, easy to read and hilarious.

    Matt, could you tell me how you posted that icon “2008 Russian Reading Challenge” up in your left-hand sidebar? I would love to add it to my blog too (have just joined the challenge!).

    Thanks so much.


  4. Living in Russia was hard in the last few centuries (Don’t know about this one). The weather is bad, the food is bad, everyone is cold. Only the fittest survive.

    So, I can see why many novels are sad.

  5. Captain Cat:
    For the reading challenge badge, download the image and save it under your blog. Check the url of that image and link to the official reading challenge blog: (Be sure to include the brackets

    a href=”http://exlibris.typepad.com/russian_reading_challenge/”><img src=’https://mattviews.files.wordpress.com/2007/10/russia.jpg’ alt=’russia.jpg’ /

    Hope this helps

  6. Jef:
    They are not! But Virgin Soil by Turgenev and few other stories of Chekov and Gogol are not too grim.

    The Gay Recluse:
    Thanks for the kind words Matt. What you say simply makes my day. 🙂

    They tend to vent out of their pent-up frustrations and suppression in very funny satires. 🙂

  7. […] [117] The Kreutzer Sonata – Leo Tolstoy […]

  8. […] Maugham 6. Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton Tentative List 1. Le Bal, Irène Némirovsky 2. The Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy 3. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy 4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 5. Heart […]

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