I’m sure that most people come to Tolstoy through one of two novels: Anna Karenina or War and Peace. Though both of these novels are on my TBR list followed by asterisk after asterisk, I haven’t gotten around to them. Nope – my first venture into Tolstoy is the bizarre novella, “The Kreutzer Sonata.”
My reaction to this story is easily summed up in four words: Tolstoy was messed up. It begins innocently enough: a few strangers in a compartment together on a train strike up a conversation that comes around to love and marriage. It quickly becomes obvious that one of the travelers is really odd and begins a diatribe against love and marriage.
His argument goes all over the place. We have set up marriage as an ideal, but really it is virginity and chastity that should the ideal – the ideal advocated in the New Testament – for all one’s life. We are told that men “need” women, which essentially turns all women into whores trained to believe that being the object of men’s desire and fulfilling those desires is the highest ideal. Marriage is legal prostitution. Women are able to rule over their husbands, making them “wear the petticoats” because of this desire to be object within marriage. Men are subject to many more corrupting influences than women, but they then corrupt the women by their own debauchery. The woman is pure when she gets marriage, the husband debased. By engaging with her in “marital relations” she becomes debased as well by drawing her into his own debauchery. Coming into marriage, the pure woman is superior to the man. And then, THEN! She has children! And when that occurs, a woman realizes that her job in rearing children is more important than the jobs in which men engage to earn money. But men think that they are superior, and this contention leads to hostility and hatred, which is exacerbated by the bodily desires for one another. Also, by entering into “relations” with one’s spouse, jealousy naturally arises, which causes further suffering. In summary, every problem within marriage revolves around the fact that they ever consummated the relationship – any relationship – in passion to begin with.
And to make everything worse, doctors give information to women about how to avoid having children. And this makes women like a “horse without a bridle!”
The people in the compartment are wondering, “Who is this guy?” Over the course of the conversation, a certain recent trial is mentioned, in which a husband murdered his wife in a jealous rage. The bizarre dude (Pozdnyshev) speaks up and say, “Oh, I see you have recognized me as the murderer.” Nobody recognized him as the murderer…the case was just mentioned because it was pertinent to the conversation, but that doesn’t matter. Most of the compartment occupants leave eventually (Run Away! Run Away!), leaving the strange man alone with our narrator.
The murderer starts the conversation back up saying, “I’m sure you wonder how I came to murder my wife.” No, we really didn’t, but if the narrator told Pozdnyshev that, we wouldn’t have a story, would we? So, he goes on to tell us what happened.
Of course, Pozdnyshev comes from a decent family. In his youth, like most men, he has his dalliances on the primrose path. Then he fell in love and got married, had children, etc. Then the doctor told his wife how to avoid having children, and this musician starts coming around to “play” with Pozdnyshev’s wife. Pozdnyshev has to go away for a bit to another city. While he is away, the musician comes to visit, and his wife casually tells him of the visit in a letter. Pozdnyshev comes home early and murders his wife in a jealous rage. After she dies, Pozdnyshev is put on trial (and is acquitted because his wife may have really been having an affair with the musician) and over the course of the time between the murder and the train ride he came to realize that the concept of love, and marriage for any reason other than to have children for manual labor was the source of all his problems, including his jealous rage that caused him to murder his wife. The end.
Seriously – that’s where the story ends.
Authorities around the world found “The Kreutzer Sonata” offensive and banned its distribution. (What? Ban Tolstoy? Yes.) It was so maligned that Tolstoy had to write an explanation of its message. Which is that love is bad and we should follow the New Testament in its prescriptions for relations between men and women. Love stands in the way of men attaining the only aim worthy of attaining, which is service to God, because love of a woman is a distraction. “A Christian…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…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…he has no other altnerative 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.” I’ll let those of you who believe the Bible to be the authoritative word on how we should act in the world duke it out over whether Tolstoy was right.
What gets me about this whole thing is that Tolstoy was married when he wrote “The Kreutzer Sonata.” I don’t know anything of his life, but I know if my husband wrote something like this, I would be very very worried. I might have to start sleeping some place else, armed. Just bizarre.