Tolstoy’s Weird Novella

I’m currently reading Edith Wharton’s “The Writing of Fiction.” Her multi-independent-clause sentences are decidely hard to plow through; however, Wharton impressed me with her comments about Tolstoy’s “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

Remembering I had a collection of Tolstoy’s works, I plucked the book from the top of my bookshelf and found it. Reading it, however, was more difficult than Wharton—she hints that Tolstoy’s work is “almost avowedly the study of his own tortured soul.”

Tortured soul is an understatement. Tolstoy’s novella is decidedly strange. “The Kreutzer Sonata” is the story of a man on a train who confesses to a fellow passenger that he murdered his wife in a jealous fit, believing she was having an affair with a violinist. After it was published in Russia in 1890, he was bombarded by letters from readers who either disagreed with his conclusion or couldn’t fathom what he was trying to convey.

The protagonist takes pages and pages to explain his philosophy (also Tolstoy’s) that sex is a sin whether or not one is married. He addresses the issue of the end of the human race if everyone practiced abstinence, but says that is of no matter since the end of the world is coming anyway.

Tolstoy wrote this in response to the letters: “A Christian…cannot view the marriage relation otherwise than as a deviation from the doctrine of Christ—as a sin…this is the Christian view of marriage and there cannot be any other for a man who endeavors to shape his life in the teachings of Christ.”

Admitting that he wrote the novella without knowing where it was going, Tolstoy said he was surprised by his conclusion—and even frightened by it—but that in the end, he had to “harken to the voice of my reason and my conscience.”

Scholars of Tolstoy admit his message is confusing, but it is usually interpreted as questioning the institution of marriage and celebrating the ideals of chastity and sexual abstinence.

President Theodore Roosevelt called Tolstoy a “sexual moral pervert.”  While there was an initial ban on the novella by the U.S. Post Office, the state courts of Pennsylvania and New York struck down that ruling and it was widely read by the public.

My take: I wonder what Tolstoy’s wife thought about her husband’s philosophy.