52 pages 1 hour read

Leo Tolstoy

The Kreutzer Sonata

Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1889

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Summary and Study Guide


The Kreutzer Sonata (1886) by Leo Tolstoy is a novella that engages with contemporary debates on morality and gender politics and presents an argument in favor of sexual abstinence. Tolstoy’s realist fiction works reflect and critique Late Imperial Russian high society and weigh in on contemporary moral and philosophical debates.

The novella is titled after Beethoven’s 1803 sonata for violin and piano of the same name (Violin Sonata No. 9 in A major, Op. 47). It consists of 28 chapters and an author’s note entitled “The Lesson of The Kreutzer Sonata” that was added to the main body of the work in 1891 and explains the messages that Tolstoy intended to communicate through the narrative. The story explores themes such as Sensual Passion as a Corruption of Purity, The Subjugation of Women, and Conflict Between Social Expectation and Moral Duty.

This guide uses the 2022 Project Gutenberg e-book edition of Benj R. Tucker’s 1996 translation of The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories. In-text citations reference chapter number and paragraph number.

Content Warning: The source material contains instances of violence against women, domestic abuse, attempted suicide/suicidal ideation, underage sex, and sex work.

Plot Summary

The Kreutzer Sonata follows the protagonist, Pozdnychev, a middle-aged Russian nobleman, as he recounts the history of his relationship with his late wife and the events that led him to murder her in a fit of jealous rage.

The novella begins with a framing narrative wherein an unnamed narrator travels by train, sharing a car with several other passengers. One of the passengers is Pozdnychev, who was recently acquitted of his wife’s murder on the basis of her alleged infidelity. The passengers represent a variety of demographics in contemporary Russian society, and they debate (with several differences of opinion) about prevalent contemporary topics. Conversation turns to the topic of marriage. Without recognizing Pozdnychev, a lawyer raises Pozdnychev’s own recent murder trial as an example of domestic violence. This prompts Pozdnychev to introduce and then excuse himself. Pozdnychev begins the recitation of his life story to the unnamed narrator.

He has sex for the first time at 16 in a brothel, at which point he develops a taste for sensual pleasures that forever soiled his relationships with women. He blames the authority figures in his life for tacitly encouraging such exploits and considering such things acceptable. He remains a bachelor until he is 30, always intending to eventually settle down into a life of monogamy and wedded bliss. He becomes infatuated with his wife-to-be and proposed, believing himself in love. (In retrospect, he now thinks that he was merely seduced by her attractiveness and her mother’s efforts to bring them together.)

Throughout the period of their engagement, Pozdnychev and his wife have difficulty making conversation with each other. Early in their marriage, they come into conflict with each other. Pozdnychev believes that having sex at all is immoral, even within the bounds of socially sanctioned marriage. He likens the honeymoon period to a disappointing sideshow he once visited and claims that this disappointment is common to all newlyweds although none will admit it.

Pozdnychev believes that the only time a woman is not preoccupied with coquetry is when she is pregnant and nursing, so blames his excessive jealousy on the fact that his wife is unable to nurse their first child. His jealousy is one of the major torments of their married life, as are concerns over the health of their children. Pozdnychev and his wife’s arguments continue to escalate as he shows a bellicose hatred toward her sensuality. His wife distracts herself by obsessing over the well-being of the children and household trifles; Pozdnychev distracts himself with vices like smoking and cards. Once this mode of life becomes unbearable, they moved to the city, where the hubbub of daily life and social obligations help them to ignore their misery.

Pozdnychev’s wife is then told by her doctors that she can no longer safely give birth to any more children. In spite of Pozdnychev’s objections, she learns methods of contraception. As a result, she becomes healthier, more attractive, and awakened to the potential joys of life outside of her role as wife and mother. Pozdnychev’s jealousy worsens. In one particular incident, he becomes physically violent with his wife and wishes aloud that she would die, prompting her to attempt suicide. She recovers and they reconcile, but such incidents continue to reoccur.

It is at this point that Troukhatchevsky, a Paris-educated violinist, moves to the city and renews his acquaintanceship with Pozdnychev. Despite feeling paranoia and irrational with jealousy, Pozdnychev introduces Troukhatchevsky to his wife and encourages them with excessive geniality to collaborate on a performance. When his wife approaches him after a meeting with Troukhatchevsky, Pozdnychev attacks her with such fury that she must stay in bed. Chagrinned and ashamed, Pozdnychev admits to his jealousy, accepts her honest reassurances, and encourages her to continue with the planned performance.

On the night of the soiree, Pozdnychev is deeply moved by their performance of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. Afterward, he leaves on a work trip without any impression or suspicion of wrongdoing on either Troukhatchevsky’s or his wife’s part. However, his wife then mentions to him in a letter that Troukhatchevsky visited the house in his absence, throwing Pozdnychev into such an episode of paranoia and fury that he convinces himself that they must be having an affair. He abandons his work commitments to hurry home. Arriving late at night, he is horrified and vindicated but not surprised to learn that Troukhatchevsky is still visiting with his wife. His feelings of self-pity and righteous fury are so strong that he briefly fears that he might die before being able to confront them. Enraged but entirely cognizant of his actions, Pozdnychev attacks the two of them. Troukhatchevsky manages to flee, but Pozdnychev strikes, strangles, and fatally stabs his wife.

He leaves his dying wife in the care of the servants and goes to his study. After briefly considering and then dismissing suicide, he sleeps. He visits his dying wife at the behest of her sister. His wife tells him that he killed her, that the children will go to live with her sister instead of with him, and that all he cares about is her alleged betrayal. He is still feeling justified in his fury and unrepentant of his crime. Only when she begins to weep and the children enter the room does he recognize her as a human being for the first time and begin to understand the extent to which he has wronged her. He asks for forgiveness, but she denies him and dies later that morning.

Pozdnychev only comes to terms with the fact that he killed her when he sees her corpse at her funeral three days later. He spends the next 11 months in prison awaiting the trial which ultimately acquits him. Pozdnychev’s conclusion is that lusting after a woman is itself an act of adultery, especially if that woman is one’s own wife.

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By Leo Tolstoy