The Kreutzer Sonata, named after Beethoven’s violin sonata no. 9, is a novella written by Leo Tolstoy in 1889. As the anti-hero, Pozdnyshev, relays his life story to the audience on the train, he introduces a conflict between human nature and spirituality, what one is versus what one should strive to be, and challenges the corruptive influences of society.
While Pozdnyshev comes to controversial generalizations about women, love, and marriage, the purpose behind his story is to serve as a warning to others and ultimately to protect women from exploitation and to better mankind. The structure of the novella lends credence to Pozdnyshev’s revelations; the first two-thirds of the novel are his reflections on the cause of his state of mind that led to the murder of his wife. His moralizations are both a consequence of the event and serve as preparation to understand the event as he relays it in the last third of the novella.
Before describing “the abyss of delusions in which we live concerning women and our relations toward them,” Pozdnyshev points out that it is “not because of the ‘episode,’ as he termed it, which occurred to me in connection therewith, but because ever since it took place, my eyes have been opened, and I see things in quite a different light” (74). Even though during the telling of the murder, he delves back into his jealousy and contradictory points of view, which portray him as irrational and unreliable, he is describing how he thought at the time of the murder.
It is after he killed his wife, during the eleven months he awaited trial in prison, that he found clarity and understanding of his state of mind and began his attack of society’s functions and the relations between the sexes. In the first chapter, the passengers on the train converse about women and love before Pozdnyshev inserts himself into the conversation. This interaction shows that there is societal support for some of his ideas and some truth to his claims outside of himself. The merchant cites the Bible in saying, “As Eve, the woman, once was created from man’s rib, so she will remain till the end of time” (67).
This passage emphasizes that men still objectify women and treat them as possessions. The merchant goes on to say, “She will be made to love him,” illustrating the fact that he believes a man has absolute control over his wife (68). In a sense, Pozdnyshev’s wife is in fact treated as a possession according to the law, when he is acquitted of her murder and she is denied justice for his crime because she allegedly committed adultery against him. Were the roles reversed, with him committing adultery and she the murder, she would have not been acquitted of the crime because of inequality between the sexes.
Pozdnyshev attributes man’s innate sexual desire for women as one of the main reasons women are not treated as equals to men. He posits that sexual desire causes men to see women as objects, and he laments the memory of when his view of women was changed at the age of sixteen, after his first sexual encounter. He shows disdain for the societal influences on his behavior, “At all events, I never heard from any of my elders, whose opinion I respected, that what I was doing was wrong. On the contrary, I heard from people whom I esteemed that I was doing quite right” (75).
He criticizes the way boys are raised to embrace their sexual drive, rather than abstain from it. His motive for killing his wife was jealousy, but jealousy is born of passion, and that is why passion is “to be combated, not fostered, as it is in our society. ” (89) When he realizes the cause of his jealous rage was his sexual desire, he tries to eradicate man’s sexual drive and promote celibacy. Pozdnyshev sees marriage as a vehicle for sexual intercourse, and in order to protect women from being seen as property, he believes they shouldn’t marry.
He maintains that marriage is a condition to be met, “the fulfillment of which entitles [the man] to take possession of a certain woman” (86). In order to free women from under men’s thumb, they must suppress their sexuality. Women will never attain equality so long as they are seen as objects of desire. While the contradictory statement that follows is that women rule the market and thus have power over men, they still are not treated as human beings with equal rights, and their control over the market is still in the best interest of men.
Society dresses women to seduce men, and Pozdnyshev sees this provocation of passion as dangerous because it can lead to feelings of possessiveness and jealousy in men. In relation to women’s power over men and the danger it imposes on both of them, he said, “Can it for a moment be pretended that that bedecking of the human body which our society connives at in women, and which is calculated directly to provoke passion, is devoid of social danger? ” (85) When Pozdnyshev’s wife began taking contraceptives and looking beautiful and vibrant again, he became jealous of the attention she could potentially draw.
He realized when he had been quarreling with his wife, he was fighting for control over her, and he hated that she was not his to control. “A very revolting feature in all this was, that I was convinced I possessed an indefeasible right to my wife, just as if she were myself, and at the same time I felt that I could not possess her, that she was not mine, and that she could dispose of herself as she liked, and that she was minded to dispose of herself in a manner that I did not approve. (129) Tragically, Pozdnyshev didn’t realize until after he murdered his wife that she was another human being and not his possession. He seeks to destroy sexual desire because it prevented him from seeing her as a person, instead causing him to see her as a thing meant for his gratification, and he wants his experience to serve as a warning to others. Although Pozdnyshev places blame on women for their exploitation in playing an active role in seducing men, he also blames society’s upbringing and encouragement of the behavior and the way gender roles have been defined.
He argues against the manipulation and propagandizing of women’s sexuality by society as a whole. From a young age, a girl is told what she will be, not asked what she wants to be; she may be given a toy doll and taught that she should prepare for motherhood and she must compete for a man’s affections so that he chooses her. Pozdnyshev describes how “the only persons who are really deceived in all this are the unfortunate girls. The mothers, initiated by their husbands, see through it all, and, while simulating belief in the purity of men, act in a manner wholly incompatible with such a belief. (79) Women raise their innocent daughters in a way that promotes sexual desire and seduction, to undo the purity of men and consequently corrupt their daughters. Pozdnyshev’s story affects the narrator on both an emotional and an intellectual level. Though the majority of the novella is told through Pozdnyshev’s extended monologues, the narrator plays the role of an active listener, asking questions and occasionally challenging Pozdnyshev’s points of view.
When Pozdnyshev promotes abstinence, the narrator counters, “If everyone were to accept this doctrine as a law of practical conduct, the human race would soon cease to exist” (87), giving Pozdnyshev an opportunity to further explain himself. He shows continued interest in Pozdnyshev’s reflections and his story until the very end. When the train arrives at the narrator’s stop, he wakes Pozdnyshev to say goodbye. “He stretched out his hand and smiled, almost imperceptibly, but so piteously that I was moved almost to tears” (140).
The narrator finds sympathy for Pozdnyshev, having understood his reasoning for what he did and seeing the tragedy in his realizations. The narrator walks away from the train with a new perspective on life and love, and whether it directly changes the way he acts or not, it’s clear that it does have an effect on him. While Pozdnyshev places blame on men for pursuing women and women for seducing men, he is saying the obstacle to women’s independence lies in the concept of women driven by society’s expectations and gender roles.
At the root of all of Pozdnyshev’s arguments is that one human being should not be used by another to his own ends and purposes. Pozdnyshev calls for a drastic overhaul of society’s values and social conventions to protect women. While his argument is sometimes contradictory and radical, he still reaches the same conclusion, and his insights are reflective of societal truths – that women are objectified and not treated as equals to men.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Kreutzer Sonata. new york: Dover Publication, 1993. Print.