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Lyof Nicolaievitch Tolstoi - The Kreutzer Sonata (1890)

This story is probably the most widely read of the author's writings, after Anna Kargnina, owing to its controversial character. It was published shortly after Tolstoi became interested in the theories of the Shakers, and its strong denunciation of marriage for mere outward attractions, without intellectual union or sympathy, together with its advocacy of celibacy as the only remedy for the ordinary marriage, represents the backward swing of the pendulum from the doctrines advocated in the controversial book that preceded it.

IT was spring. Through passengers had passed two weary days and nights in the train. One of these was a man short of stature, fitful and nervous in his movements, and with curly hair prematurely gray, for he was not old. His eyes wandered rapidly from object to object, as he sat aloof from all the other passengers. From time to time he uttered peculiar sounds, resembling short coughs or laughter just begun and suddenly broken off. During the journey he sedulously avoided making the acquaintance of, or communicating with, his fellow-passengers. To all their attempts at conversation he gave curt and churlish replies, and began to read, to smoke, or to stare out of the window, or to draw forth his provisions and eat, or make tea for himself. His loneliness appeared, to one of the passengers, to oppress him; but this man's efforts shared the same fate as those of the others, until a discussion arose on the subject of divorce. One of the passengers, a lawyer, remarked that the question of divorce was now claiming and receiving the serious attention of the public throughout Europe; and that even in Russia the cases in which it was granted were growing more frequent. A tall, clean-shaven old merchant declared that the first and chief thing to be looked for in a woman is fear—the kind meant by the words: "And she shall fear her husband." A sad-looking lady retorted bitterly that those days were long since past and gone; and that if a woman did not love her husband, she would not learn to love him. To the lawyer's query, what was to be done if a wife proved unfaithful, the old merchant replied that that need not be taken into account at all; one should always take measures to prevent it. A woman never should be allowed to have her own way from the beginning; and, in case of erring affections, she should be given a thoroughly good taming.

At this point the merchant left the train, and the sad-faced lady remarked that it was strange such people did not under-stand that without love marriage is not marriage at all.

Here the gray-haired, lonely man made his peculiar noise, and asked, apparently in great excitement, what kind of love she meant by the love that sanctifies marriage.

"Real, genuine love," the lady replied.

But the man insisted that she should define this love, which she did, as "the preference of one person for another, to the exclusion of everyone else."

Preference for what period of time?" he demanded. "For a month? For two days? For half an hour?"

To her reply, "a long time, sometimes a whole lifetime," he objected that that happened only in novels, never in real life; and that every man felt that sort of love for every pretty woman. He also asserted that love could not be reciprocal. Even if it was admitted that a man could conceive a predilection for a certain woman, and that it could last all his life, it was highly probable that the woman's predilection would be for someone else. Marriage, in our day, he declared, is nothing but deceit; at the end of two months the man and the woman hate each other, and life becomes a terrible hell, from which they endeavor to escape by drinking themselves to death, blowing out their brains, poisoning and killing themselves and each other.

The lawyer, in order to put an end to the discussion, which was becoming too heated, remarked that critical episodes did occur in marriages. Whereupon the gray-haired man said quietly :

"I see you know who I am. I am Pozdnischeff, the person to whom occurred that critical episode to which you allude, the episode that consisted in killing his wife."

At the next station the sad-faced lady and the lawyer arranged with the guard to go to another carriage. The man who had previously tried to relieve Pozdnischeff's loneliness, without avail, remained sitting opposite him but with his eyes closed, in feigned slumber. As soon as he opened them Pozdnischeff entered into conversation with him, offered him some tea, and suggested that he would narrate, if the friendly man wished, how he had been led by that very love to do what he had done. He began by saying that he was a graduate of the University, a landed proprietor, and had been, at one time, a marshal of the nobility. Before his marriage he had lived like everybody else, had considered himself moral, was proud of himself, and had kept carefully free from entanglements. Since the "episode" he had come to look upon these things in a totally different light. At the age of thirty he began to look about for a suitable wife, with whom he could settle down and lead the purest, most ideal family life conceivable, which always had been his ultimate intention. The young girl whom he selected was the daughter of a landed proprietor in Penza, who had once been wealthy, but at that time was ruined and in straitened circumstances. Like men in general, because she was beautiful he straightway decided that she was a paragon of wisdom and morality; and after a moonlight boating excursion he proposed for her the next day.

The girl, like other girls, entertained a lofty conception of the thing. When he showed her certain passages in his diary—particularly one about his latest "affair," fearing someone else might inform her—she was shocked, and he could see that she wished to break off with him. He had fallen in love, as all men do; but, in reality, the love was the result of the contrivances of the mamma, who knew that moral qualities had nothing to do with it, and of the dressmaker on the one hand, and of good dinners and inactivity on the other.

Pozdnischeff was wealthy, and flattered himself that he was an angel, because he was firmly resolved to be faithful to his wife. During the brief engagement they found almost nothing to say to each other. The honeymoon was irksome, miserable, and inconceivably wearisome; though he had held his peace at the time, he would say that frankly now. Three or four days after the wedding they quarreled, but made it up, after exhibiting positive hatred of each other. Before the month was out a more bitter quarrel occurred, soon followed by a third and a fourth, all accompanied by the same manifestations of mutual hatred. Pozdnischeff clearly recognized that these quarrels were not the result of accident or misunderstanding, but the outcome of necessity; that it could not be otherwise; and that they would recur again and again. His heart froze within him at the prospect. He imagined that he alone lived with his wife in such continual discord; that other couples were more fortunate than they. But he came to believe that this was the common lot. In short, his marriage, instead of being a happiness, was a burden almost too heavy to bear.

Presently, after the birth of her first child, coquettishness, which had hitherto lain dormant in his wife, awoke; and Pozdnischeff began to be tortured with the agonies of jealousy, which never had given him a moment's rest, and now grew unbearably excruciating. Only when his wife was nursing her children (she bore him five in eight years) was he freed, for a single moment, from this maddening jealousy. Between that and the worry about the health, food, education, and so forth, of the children, not a moment was left for happiness. Even under the most favorable circumstances, he averred —that is, when in thriving health—children are a torment; but when they fall ill life is positively not worth living, it is simply a hell on earth. More-over, the children served Pozdnischeff and his wife as a fresh pretext for quarreling, each having a favorite child.

In this manner they continued to live, their relations growing gradually more hostile, until at last it was no longer difference of views that produced enmity, but settled enmity that engendered difference of views. No matter what opinion his wife might put forward, no matter what wish she might express, Pozdnischeff always dissented in advance; and she treated him in the same way. In the fourth year of their marriage they tacitly came to the conclusion that there was no hope of their ever being able to understand each other, and so they ceased to make any further attempts to come to an agreement. They left the country and went to live in the city, where unhappy persons breathe much more freely and are constantly occupied with the social round as well as with the needs and education of the children. After they had lived in town three or four years, Madame Pozdnischeff began to grow handsomer, more attractive, so that, wherever she went, she drew the glances of men, magnetized them, as it were. She began to worry less about the children, and would often maintain, half seriously, half in jest, that it is a pity to sacrifice one's youth for one's children, instead of taking one's own share of the joys of living. She began to pay much attention to her personal appearance, to her pleasures; sought to perfect herself in various accomplishments, and set herself again to practise music, having formerly played the piano with a certain technical skill and delicacy. Then it was that "that individual" appeared on the scene.

This man was a musician, partly a professional, partly a fashionable amateur, whose father was a neighbor of Pozdnischeff's father, who had ruined himself financially many years before. As a boy he had been sent to his godmother in Paris, where he studied in the Academy of Music, came out as a violinist, and took part in public concerts. When he returned to Russia, he called upon Pozdnischeff, and was inclined to strike up a tone of familiarity to the full extent that the circumstances seemed to justify. He was good-looking, though rather frail in physique, good-humored, and well dressed. When he made the acquaintance of the Pozdnischeffs, quarrels had grown very frequent between them, and they were unusually savage. Pozdnischeff declared that, had this man not come upon the scene someone else would have played his part quite as effectually. If one pretext for jealousy had not been forthcoming, another would have been unearthed. The state of affairs was such that, before the catastrophe which this man brought about, Pozdnischeff had several times been on the point of committing suicide, and his wife had more than once tried to poison herself. Some-thing of this kind had taken place not long before that catastrophe. They had quarreled bitterly about a dog in the Exhibition, which one of them said had obtained a medal, while the other insisted that it was merely honorable mention. It ended in Pozdnischeff shouting:

"I wish you were dead like a dog!" and in his wife going to her sister's house.

During her absence Pozdnischeff went so far as to consider how he might best rid himself of her altogether, how he might bring about a divorce and then marry another lovely woman. Nevertheless, his rage at her for not coming home that night alternated with fear lest something might have happened to her. The next morning her sister arrived as her envoy, said she was in a terrible state, asked what it was all about, and declared that things could not remain in that condition. Pozdnischeff vowed that he would not make the first advances; if they were to separate, let them separate. But when his sister-in-law had de-parted and he beheld the sad and frightened faces of his children, he was willing to take the first step. When she came home in the middle of the afternoon and said she had come to take away the children, as it was impossible for her to live any longer with him, another quarrel ensued. His wife rushed off to her room and took opium. And so it went on. Once Pozdnischeff applied for a foreign passport, but eventually he did not go abroad.

This was the kind of life the couple were leading when the musician, Trookhatschevsky, made his appearance. Pozdnischeff received him when he called, but took an intense dislike to him from the first moment, though they had been on terms of familiarity before the musician's stay abroad. Nevertheless, impelled by some strange, fatal force, he introduced Trookhatschevsky to his wife; whereupon the conversation turned at once upon music, and he offered to accompany Madame Pozdnischeff on his violin. She had been in the habit of hiring a musician from one of the theaters to accompany her, and there-fore was delighted at the proposal. But as soon as she noticed that her husband was watching her narrowly, she altered the expression of her face. Pozdnischeff, instantaneously jealous, pretended to be delighted. "The mutual game of deception all round began," as Pozdnischeff expressed it. He invited Trookhatschevsky to visit them in the evening, to bring his violin, and accompany Madame Pozdnischeff, saying to himself as he looked at his wife: "Do not for a moment delude yourself with the idea that I am jealous of you"; and to the man, mentally: "or that I have any fear of you." His wife looked at him in astonishment, was fluttered and frightened, and tried to decline, saying that she could not play well enough. This refusal irritated Pozdnischeff; he insisted all the more strongly; and as he took leave of Trookhatschevsky in the anteroom, he insisted on his returning that same evening.

Trookhatschevsky came. He played magnificently, and after a few trials the music went well. Pozdnischeff pretended to be interested, but was suffering tortures from jealousy all the evening, quite convinced that his wife would be fascinated by the novelty of the man. In order to keep from yielding to his desire to kill the musician on the spot, Pozdnischeff treated him cordially and invited him to dinner on the following Sunday, saying that he would ask some of his musical friends for the evening, to hear him play with Madame Pozdnischeff.

Returning home from the Exhibition three or four days later, he found Trookhatschevsky playing arpeggios on the piano, while his wife stood by, engaged in conversation. They said they were discussing what music they should play on Sunday; but Pozdnischeff jealously believed that they were discussing something entirely different. It was his conviction that musical studies, prosecuted together, are responsible for far the greatest portion of all the wickedness that takes place in society. Plainly his embarrassment disconcerted the pair; but he pretended to approve all their suggestions, and on taking leave of Trookhatchevsky pressed his hand with unwonted warmth.

All that day he did not speak to his wife; he hated her so that he frightened himself. After dinner he went to his study and lay down; and presently his wife came to him, although she was not used to coming there at that hour. When she said that she saw he was annoyed because she was going to play on Sunday, he retorted with insulting remarks about the honor of the family being dear to him if it was not to her, and the like. Then he ordered her out of the room. She retorted that he had a character which made it impossible for an angel to live with him, and reminded him how he had once treated his sister. (He had lost his temper, and spoken very coarsely to his sister.) He ordered her to leave him, lest he kill her, and she was too terror-stricken to leave the room. Thereupon he seized a paper-weight and hurled it to the floor close to her feet, deliberately taking aim so as not to hit her. As she paused on the threshold, he snatched up various articles from the table-a candlestick, an ink-bottle—and flung them, also, on the floor. She went away, and an hour later the nurse came and said that his wife was in hysterics. He found that she was not making believe, but was really ill. When she calmed down, and they made up the quarrel, Pozdnischeff told her that he was jealous of Trookhatschevsky; whereat, not at all confused, she laughed at the queer idea that such an attachment on her part for such a man should be deemed a possibility. She offered to refuse to see him any more, even on the appointed Sunday, though all the guests had been invited. The only objection to this was that she had too much pride to allow anyone, especially Trookhatschevsky, to imagine for a moment that he was dangerous.

Pozdnischeff knew that she believed what she was saying. So the Sunday musicale took place, and Pozdnischeff did his best to have everything as elegant as possible at the dinner that evening. The music selected was Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata. Apropos of its effect, and the effect of music in general, Pozdnischeff declared that music ought everywhere to be a state concern, as it is in China. For is it to be tolerated, in any country, that anyone who takes the fancy to do so may hypnotize anyone else, and then do with him whatever he has a mind to, especially if this hypnotizer be—Heaven knows who!—an immoral character, for instance? He considered music a terrible weapon in the hands of those who know how to employ it, and the presto of the Kreutzer Sonata furnished, in his opinion, a fitting illustration of his theory.

Trookhatschevsky and Madame Pozdnischeff, at the request of the guests, performed several other selections, and Pozdnischeff was cheerful and good-humored the rest of the evening. But his wife's aspect convinced him that she was undergoing the same experience as himself; that feelings new and never before experienced had been revealed to her. Trookhatschevsky, in bidding Pozdnischeff good night, said that he hoped, the next time he came, to renew that pleasure. As Trookhatschevsky was aware that Pozdnischeff was to leave for the country to attend the County Council in two days, Pozdnischeff inferred from this that the man did not deem it possible to visit the house during his absence; and this gave him satisfaction. As it was clear that Pozdnischeff would not return from his journey before Trookhatschevsky's departure from Moscow, they would not see each other any more. The musician took a final leave of Madame Pozdnischeff, and their leave-taking seemed to the husband in the highest degree natural and correct.

Two days later Pozdnischeff departed for the country, in the calmest and happiest frame of mind. Two days later still he received a letter from his wife; and among the items of news she mentioned was, that Trookhatschevsky had called and brought the music he had promised. Pozdnischeff could not recollect that any music had been promised; the news was very disagree-able. He tried to suppress his jealousy. But the next morning he recalled the faces of his wife and the musician as they played the Kreutzer Sonata, and leaped to the conclusion that an under-standing had already been reached between them then, and that he had been very foolish to leave the city. He said to himself that he was half demented, that that could not be. He set out early for Moscow, abandoning his work. An accident prevented his catching the express, so that he reached home toward one o'clock in the morning, instead of at five o'clock in the afternoon. By that time he had worked himself into a terrible state of excitement.

As he drove up he found the windows of his drawing-room and parlor brilliantly illuminated. From the lackey who admitted him he learned that Trookhatschevsky was there—no one else. Then his hatred metamorphosed him into a malignant, cunning, savage beast. He sent the lackey to the railway station for his trunk, which he had forgotten in his excitement; and, with the object of catching his wife and the musician, he went to the drawing-room where they were sitting, not through the parlor, but along the corridor, and through the nursery, walking on tiptoe. The sight of his children unnerved him, and stealing back to his study he flung himself on the sofa and sobbed aloud. But wrath soon got the upper hand. Taking off his boots, he went to the wall where his guns and daggers were suspended, and took down a curved Damascus blade that never had been used and was extremely sharp. Leaving the scabbard where it fell behind the sofa, he stole inaudibly to the drawing-room, and suddenly threw open the door. The moment the two beheld him an expression of mingled despair and terror was depicted on their faces. The man sprang from his seat at the table, abject terror written on his countenance, and placed his back against a cupboard. It seemed to Pozdnischeff that the expression on his wife's face denoted disappointment, vexation at being disturbed, at having the happiness the man's society gave her broken in upon.

"And we were at our music," began the man.

"Well, this is a surprise!" said the woman.

They said no more. The insane frenzy that Pozdnischeff had felt a week previously, the same mania for destroying, took possession of him again, and he yielded himself up to it, body and soul. He flung himself upon his wife, still holding the sword concealed behind his back, lest Trookhatschevsky should hinder him from his intention. Notwithstanding this, Trookhatschevsky seized him by the arm, remonstrated, and called for help. Pozdnischeff freed his arm, and rushed upon the musician, who turned pale as a sheet, dived under the piano, and fled from the room. Pozdnischeff was rushing after him, when he felt a heavy weight suspended from his left arm. It was his wife. He struggled; but she effectually prevented him from moving. Striking backward with his left arm with all the force he could gather, he hit her in the face with his elbow. She released him and fell back on the couch, putting her hands to her bruised face, beseeching him to think of what he was doing, swearing that nothing was wrong between herself and Trookhatschevsky. In his frenzy, he tried to strangle her, and then stabbed her in the side. He knew very well what he was doing, and not for a single second did he cease to be conscious of it, he declared to his hearer. The nurse rushed in to her assistance, having been roused by the noise; and Pozdnischeff went to his study, where he took down his loaded revolver and placed it on the table. When the lackey arrived with his trunk, he bade him tell the house-porter to go and inform the police what had happened. Again he took up the revolver to commit suicide, but again in vain; and after sleeping for two hours he was summoned by his sister-in-law to his wife's deathbed. An expression of cold hatred was on his wife's face, and she declared that he should not have the children; she would give them to her sister; she hated him. Everything—his jealousy and his suspicions--seemed so trivial that he would have been glad to beg her forgiveness, but he did not dare. She died at noon; but at eight that morning he had been taken to the police-station, whence he was removed to the prison. They let him see his wife in her coffin, and only then did he begin to view things in their true light.

He remained in prison awaiting his trial, eleven months. His wife's sister and brother took charge of the children (to whom he gave his fortune), because they considered him an in-sane person. When he told this story to the stranger in the railway carriage, he had been to see the children and was then journeying away from them.

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

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