Day 829: The Kreutzer Sonata Variations

The Kreutzer Sonata Variations“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a controversial novella by Leo (Lev Nikolaevich) Tolstoy. It was banned in several countries because of its provocative message and because of what was considered at the time prurient content. If your nature contains an ounce of feminism, it will enrage you. Yet its origins are in eccentric ideas that Tolstoy almost certainly considered to be for the benefit of women.

The Kreutzer Sonata Variations brings together this work with others by the family on the same subject. Tolstoy’s wife Sofiya Andreevna (I’m using the spelling from the book) disliked the novella intensely and wrote two stories in answer to it, “Whose Fault?” and “Song Without Words.” These stories were suppressed by the family. Tolstoy’s son, Lev Lvovich, also wrote a story, “Chopin’s Prelude.” These stories are followed by a section including review comments by several contemporaries, excerpts from diaries, and other writings of all three Tolstoys.

So, what was “The Kreutzer Sonata” about and why did it evoke all this controversy? It is a virtually plotless story about a man who meets another man on a train journey and tells him the story of why he murdered his own wife. Throughout the story, the main character, Pozdnyshev, expresses abhorrent opinions about women, sex, and marriage, and shows no understanding of women at all. Although this character is not completely describing Tolstoy’s own marriage, he is giving voice to Tolstoy’s ideas about marriage. This story is harsh, disturbing, and reflects ideas that show no understanding of human nature, or for that matter, many other things. Tolstoy posits that marriage is simply legal prostitution, that sex is disgusting, and that people should just strive to be celibate (something he notoriously had a problem with). Because Tolstoy saw his role in later years as one to instruct and had too high an opinion of his own ideas, this information is presented didactically, in a polemic.

Sofiya Andreevna disliked the novella intensely and was embarrassed by it, because she believed that others thought it reflected her own marriage. She insisted it did not but mostly, I think, because she didn’t want people to think she became attached to another man while married to Tolstoy (and who would blame her?). She also felt that the story showed no understanding of the wife, and so she wrote her own story. In both, the story is basically the same, a madly jealous husband comes to believe his wife is unfaithful when she is not and kills her in a fit of anger. It was Sofiya herself who convinced Tolstoy that his story would be more effective if the wife was innocent.

It is in the context of the responding stories and other writings that “The Kreutzer Sonata” is most involving. The story itself is ridiculous to modern sensibilities. Two pages of quotations by contemporaries provide some interest, particularly the two (not surprisingly) that I most agree with.

No wonder the Countess was often near the end of her patience.—George Bernard Shaw

“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a nightmare, born of a diseased imagination. Since reading it I have not the slightest doubt that its author is cracked.—Émile Zola

For an enlightening look at the Tolstoy’s marriage, I recommend the novel The Last Station by Jay Parini.

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15 thoughts on “Day 829: The Kreutzer Sonata Variations

  1. Carolyn O January 5, 2016 / 12:11 pm

    What made you want to read this? The background material does sound fascinating.

    • whatmeread January 5, 2016 / 12:18 pm

      It’s a long time ago, but I think I read an article about it. I was surprised, though, at how much I hated the original story. But in context with everything else, it was very interesting.

  2. Naomi January 5, 2016 / 12:49 pm

    I love this review, Kay! It might be one of my favourites of yours. All the background information is so interesting – it makes me want to go read all kinds of stuff about Tolstoy and his family. I hope the feeling fades, though, because I don’t have time. 🙂
    The story itself does sound awful.

    • whatmeread January 5, 2016 / 12:55 pm

      Thanks so much! I recommend The Last Station, if you are interested. I hadn’t heard about it until there was an excellent movie a year or so ago starring Helen Mirren, based on the book. Oh, it must have been longer ago than that, because I haven’t reviewed it on this site, so I haven’t read it in the past four or five years.

      • Naomi January 5, 2016 / 5:02 pm

        I’ve added it to the list!

      • whatmeread January 6, 2016 / 7:20 pm

        I hope you think it’s interesting.

  3. Emily J. January 5, 2016 / 5:39 pm

    I’ve never heard of this one. It looks like it would probably enrage me and my feminist sensibilities! I should totally try it.

  4. Cecilia January 5, 2016 / 8:17 pm

    It does sound fascinating, as disturbing as parts seem but I do understand this was a different place and time. I had no idea about this novella and all the family drama surrounding it!

    • whatmeread January 6, 2016 / 7:07 pm

      I know. I think I read an article about it, but now I can’t remember.

    • whatmeread January 6, 2016 / 7:22 pm

      I think it isn’t so much the times as Tolstoy!

  5. nicolaliteraryramblings January 6, 2016 / 1:27 am

    Hi, well I never – fascinating stuff. I did read The Last Station and would like to see the film which I suspect is very better than the book (?). Currently reading War & Peace while watching the BBC adaptation so this is very timely and interesting to read about another less known work. Oh to be a fly on the wall in that marriage! Thanks for your review.

    • whatmeread January 6, 2016 / 7:08 pm

      Thanks! I thought the movie was very good.

    • whatmeread January 6, 2016 / 7:23 pm

      I thought the movie was very good.

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