The Kreutzer Sonata | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Kreutzer Sonata | Themes


Lust and Temptation

Lust and temptation are common themes in Tolstoy's works, including the short story "Father Sergius" (1911) and this novella. Both works of fiction describe sexual desire as something a person must overcome in order to be spiritually fulfilled. Father Sergius and Pozdnyshev also both use knives to symbolically kill their lustful feelings, Father Sergius by cutting off his own finger and Pozdnyshev by stabbing his wife.

Pozdnyshev explains to the passenger that lust is ubiquitous. A man can't even escape the sin of lust in his own home. Pozdnyshev tells the narrator that he has come to realize that the words of Matthew 5:28—"that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery"—apply not just to "the wife of another" but to all women, "especially to one's own wife." Even if a man is faithful to his wife, it is not a "virtuous" or "chaste thing" to have relations with her, for sexual intercourse brings nothing but shame and unease. He compares a newly wed couple's honeymoon to the feelings a boy has upon smoking for the first time: "He desires to vomit ... pretending to enjoy this little amusement." But women are "a danger to men," and like a drug they cause men to lose their senses.

The themes of lust and temptation appear frequently in Tolstoy's later work, written during a time when he became increasingly convinced that sexual desire led to immorality and distanced a person from God. In his afterword to The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy states explicitly his belief that a man should make "complete chastity" his goal.

The Power of Music

In The Kreutzer Sonata music serves as the catalyst for Pozdnyshev's jealous rage, which culminates in the murder of his wife. After bearing children Pozdnyshev's wife begins to play the piano again and greatly enjoys playing with other musicians. When violinist Trukhachevsky arrives at their home, Pozdnyshev is instantly jealous, believing that Trukhachevsky is interested in his wife. He believes that "many adulteries" happen as a result of music and fears that his wife will have an affair with the violinist. Nevertheless, he encourages his wife and Trukhachevsky to play a duet together.

The Pozdnyshevs throw a dinner party with music at their home. Pozdnyshev's wife and Trukhachevsky play Beethoven's Violin Sonata no. 9 for the guests. Sonata no. 9 was dedicated to a famous violinist of Beethoven's time, Rodolphe Kreutzer, and is often referred to as the Kreutzer Sonata. Interestingly, Kreutzer did not like the sonata, calling it "outrageously unintelligible." Indeed, it is a very evocative piece and is extremely complicated for both the pianist and the violinist, requiring a "certain intimacy" to play the music together.

Hearing the duet, Pozdnyshev is moved by the music and is transported "into a state which is not [his] own." His jealousy temporarily vanishes and is replaced with a feeling of joy and contentment. Tolstoy often had the same reaction to music; Tolstoy's son, Count Sergius Tolstoy, wrote that music "excited" his father "against his will and even tormented him." In her 1967 essay "The Kreutzer Sonata: Tolstoy and Beethoven," scholar Dorothy Green explores the musicality and structure of the novella as a parallel to the structure of Beethoven's sonata. She argues that the violin and piano represent Pozdnyshev and his wife at times and, at other times, Pozdnyshev's wife and Trukhachevsky. Potentially, there is a way to "listen" to the highly dramatic novella and interpret it as a passionate performance similar to a musical piece, which would be one explanation for the main character's fury and fervor as well as the story's fevered pitch.

Tolstoy was uncomfortable with the ability of music to conjure unbidden passion and emotions within a person. As long as music has existed, it has had this effect on humans. Military marches are used to rouse patriotism and bravery in soldiers. A cheerful song can raise the spirits of someone who is depressed. A sad song can bring tears to a happy person's eyes. As Pozdnyshev says, "That is why music is so dangerous."

Doctors as False Idols

Throughout The Kreutzer Sonata Pozdnyshev discusses his resentment of doctors. He loathes his wife's trust in the doctors "who pretend to aid health." He is of the opinion that women have lost their faith in God and become "savages" who trust in the false idols of medicine.

Pozdnyshev is also jealous when the doctors examine his wife. They feel her "everywhere," and he is angry at having to pay their "high fees" so that they may have the pleasure of touching his wife. He is especially bitter when his wife's doctors tell her she should not nurse their firstborn child, which deprives her "of the only remedy for coquetry." He thinks that breastfeeding prevents a woman from being an object of sexual desire.

Pozdnyshev also laments that "the rascally doctors" teach women the "ways by which not to have children." This angers him not because of his love for his children or for his wife, but because childbearing has become for Pozdnyshev the only guarantor of his wife's fidelity and the only excuse for the couple's misery. At that time in his marriage, he felt that having more children was the only way to justify how wretched their relationship had become. Without that, their "life became baser than ever."

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