The Kreutzer Sonata
and Other Stories
By Leo Tolstoy
Read How You Want, (2007)
EasyRead Large Print, in 16 Point Font
Genre: Fiction, Classics
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - January 4, 2010
Leo Tolstoy presents radical views on sex and marriage in this magnificent tale, views that raise questions and evoke thought.
Tolstoy's protagonist is mired in a marriage that disintegrates. He kills his wife because of an intense jealousy. The jealousy, in his mind, is as frenzied as the first movement of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata, the fast emotional presto. He has harsh unusual views about women and their relations with men. Some of his comments, that follow, taken from various places in the novel, reflect his bizarre thinking. But, we should ask: are his ideas entirely wrong?
He speaks about having sex with prostitutes. He admits that it is bad, but there is something, he says, that is far worse: having no relations with the person, wife, mistress or prostitute other than physical sex. "Dissoluteness does not lay in anything physical… debauchery lies precisely in freeing oneself from moral relations with a woman with whom you have physical intimacy."
A man who seeks only the physical gratification of sex, he says, "will never have those pure, simple, clear, brotherly relations with a woman."
So far, this seems rational, moral and proper. But he goes on.
Men, claims our murderer, are entranced and fooled by beauty. "A handsome woman talks nonsense, you listen and hear not nonsense but cleverness. She says and does horrid things, and you see only charm."
Men, he says, are so charmed by a woman's beauty, that they do not understand that love may be only an illusion: "love as we call it, depends not on moral qualities but on physical nearness and on the coiffure, and the color of the dress."
And he moves deeper, "You say that the women of our society have other interests than prostitutes have, but I say no." Even the women at the highest levels of society have the same "exposure of arms, shoulders, and breasts, the same tight skirts over prominent bustles, the same passion for little stones, for costly, glittering objects, the same amusements, dances, music, and singing. As the former employ all means to allure, so do these others." And he claims, "Millions of people, generations of slaves, perish at hard labor in factories merely to satisfy woman's caprice."
But he does not quit there. Women, our murderer continues, use sensualities, perfumes, dress, jewels, smiles, tears and other allures to dominate men. Men subjugate and humiliate them in horrid ways. But "they pay us back for their oppression by a financial domination," for they now own most of the nation's wealth. Through "sensuality (a woman) subdues him so that he only chooses formally, while in reality it is she who chooses." He imagines that he has control, while control is in the woman's hand.
Men fool themselves. They offer women "all sorts of rights equal to men, but continue to (focus on her body and) regard her as an instrument of enjoyment." This misplaced attention castrates him and leads to his downfall.
Are these Tolstoy's views or only they the ideas of his protagonist, the man who murdered his wife? Are they true? Are they somewhat true, but exaggerated? Are they the views of a sane man? Could it be that such views caused the murderer to murder? Why, indeed, did he kill his wife?
Even if the murderer's generalities are correct, was his wife the kind of woman he was describing? Or, did he fail to have a real relationship with his wife, focusing on sex rather than deep "moral relations"?
Was she unfaithful? If she was unfaithful, is this a justification for murder? Should a court let him free?
These are some of many unusual ideas in this masterpiece. These are some questions that cause the reader to think about Tolstoy's tale, that make readers partners in how the story should be understood.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.israelbooks.com. The Orthodox Union (OU) publishes weekly samples of the Targum books on www.ouradio.org.