In Tolstoy’s 1889 novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” an aristocrat named Pozdnyshev tells a stranger on a train the story of his unhappy family. He married a much younger woman, provoked by her youthful beauty and sexy sweater; they had five children, but Pozdnyshev was disgusted by family life. The marriage curdled, and he became jealous of his wife’s relationship with a musician who kept coming over to play duets. In a rage, he stabbed his wife to death. Though there was no evidence that his wife was unfaithful, and although he feels guilty for his crime, Pozdnyshev argues that he and his wife were equal partners in their submission to lust, and equal victims of corrupt sexual standards that turn all women into prostitutes. He concludes that “sexual passion, no matter how it’s arranged is evil, a terrible evil against which one must struggle.… The words of the Gospel that whosoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery relates not only to other men’s wives, but precisely—and above all—to one’s own wife.” The only righteous path is abstinence; if it leads to the end of the human race, so be it. In an afterword written in response to many letters asking him to explain the meaning of the novella, Tolstoy confirmed that he shared Pozdnyshev’s opinions. He added that he didn’t mean that no one should ever have sex—only that everyone should try never to have sex, because it is noblest to strive for an impossible ideal.
“The Kreutzer Sonata” caused an international scandal at a time when sexuality and gender roles were the subject of widespread debate. Banned both in Russia (where Tolstoy had long struggled with the censors) and in the United States, the novella led many men and women to embrace celibacy and modesty, in keeping with Tolstoy’s Christian asceticism, which also emphasized nonviolence, vegetarianism, physical labor, and poverty. One particularly enthusiastic young Romanian castrated himself. Other readers were appalled. In 1890, Zola told the New York Herald that the novella was a “nightmare, born of a diseased imagination.” Tolstoy himself had his doubts. In an 1891 letter, he wrote, “There was something nasty in The Kreutzer Sonata … something bad about the motives that guided me in writing it.”.
The novella had an especially powerful effect on the author’s wife, Sofiya. Friends sent their condolences, and she knew they weren’t the only readers who understood “The Kreutzer Sonata” as a personal attack on her. She decided to shake off the shame by petitioning the tsar (who loved Tolstoy’s fiction but felt very sorry for his wife) to lift the publication ban on the novella: by defending it, she hoped to persuade the world that it wasn’t really about her. When the tsar granted her request, she wrote in her diary, “I cannot help secretly exulting in my success in overcoming all the obstacles, that I managed to obtain an interview with the Tsar, and that I, a woman, have achieved something that nobody else could have done!”.
“The Kreutzer Sonata Variations,” a new volume edited and translated by Michael Katz, places “The Kreutzer Sonata” and its afterword alongside what Katz calls “counterstories” by Sofiya and by the Tolstoys’ son Lev, as well as excerpts from the diaries and memoirs of various members of the Tolstoy family. There are two novellas by Sofiya: “Whose Fault?,” the story of a jealous husband who murders his innocent wife, and “Song Without Words,” about a depressed married woman who becomes obsessed with a composer and his music, and eventually checks herself into a “nerve clinic.” “Song Without Words” is a response to “The Kreutzer Sonata;” “Whose Fault?” is a systematic rebuttal.
The most well written of the counterstories and the most forceful rejection of Tolstoy’s thesis, “Whose Fault?” is the most intriguing part of “The Kreutzer Sonata Variations.” The heroine, Anna, is an idealistic young woman who is fond of writing, philosophy, and painting. The child of a happy family, she marries, in her late teens, Prince Prozorsky, a family friend in his mid-thirties. She hopes that, as a kind, well-educated older man, he will be her guide to artistic and intellectual pursuits. But just before the wedding, she learns of his premarital sexual adventures, and on their wedding night she is disgusted by his advances. The peasants on Prozorsky’s estate mock her, and she learns that one of them had a long affair with her husband. Of Anna’s response to this news, Sofiya writes, “Despair and horror couldn’t fail to leave their mark on a very young soul for her entire life; they were the sort of wounds that a young child experiences the first time it sees a decomposing corpse.” Anna is overwhelmed by jealousy, shame, and sexual repulsion. Her husband is disappointed by her sexual incompetence (an unfortunate side effect of innocence) and lack of enthusiasm. (All of this corresponds to Sofiya’s own experience.)
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