Books — 12 February 2012

by
Julia Hones

Leo Tolstoy’s short stories and novellas reflect the development of his ideas over time. There is an ever-present concern in his work about how to live life. “Living for others” is at the heart of this concern.

The Kreutzer Sonata

One of his most controversial stories, “The Kreutzer Sonata”, was censored by the Russian Government. It was read aloud at social gatherings throughout Russia and other countries igniting extensive debates. This scandalous story is told in third-person narrative by a man who, while traveling by train, witnesses a discussion about marriage, love and sex. During this conversation, a lady is asked what love means. She replies that it is the exclusive preference which a man or woman feels for one person out of all the rest in the world, and it lasts a lifetime. The passenger who asks her the question, Pozdnyshev, believes that this is not possible. He thinks that most marriages are shams, and that most people see nothing in marriage except copulation. According to him, most of them result in deception or violence. Then, Pozdnyshev confesses that he murdered his wife and was acquitted by the jury. He proceeds to tell his story to the narrator. Pozdnyshev expresses that the true aim of mankind is to unite all human beings in universal love and he believes that sexual passion is an obstacle to this purpose. These thoughts offer some insight into Tolstoy’s ideas of human brotherhood and Christian love.

Through this character Tolstoy also shares his views on women in society. Some of them are still relevant today: “And now they emancipate women, they give her all rights the same as to men, but they still continue to look on her as an instrument of enjoyment, and so they educate her with this end in view, both in childhood and by public.”
“Gymnasia and universities cannot change this. It can be changed in the way men regard women and the way women regard themselves.”

Pozdnyshev explains how he murdered his wife, in a state of jealous frenzy, when he was convinced that she was having a love affair with a musician friend. It is important to clarify that Pozdnyshev does not blame his wife for his rage. He blames his own lust for what he did to her. The Kreutzer Sonata was written in 1889, twenty-seven years after Tolstoy’s marriage to Sophie Behrs, with whom he had thirteen kids. Five of them died in childhood.

Family Happiness

Earlier in his literary career, three years before marriage to Sophie, Tolstoy wrote “Family Happiness”. This is his only story written from a woman’s point of view in the first person. Masha is a seventeen-year old woman who, after losing both parents, is living with her younger sister, Sonya, and their governess, Katya. Their future is entrusted to her father’s friend, Sergei Mikhailych, a thirty-six year old man with whom she falls in love. Tolstoy explores, from her viewpoint, the nature of their love, passion, and the evolution of their marriage. In this story, the concern about “living for others” is also present, and is made clear when Masha feels guilty about the peasants working hard while she enjoys all the luxuries that her life has to offer. She prays fervently and gives money to a poor family anonymously. However, her concern for others is at odds with her vanity and her impulse to go to important parties where she becomes the center of attention.

The main theme of this story is the love between Sergei and Masha. Their passionate feelings and the wild delight that she goes through at the beginning of their relationship eventually transform into a more realistic type of love.

The Death of Ivan Ilych

“The Death of Ivan Ilych” (1886) is a novella about a member of the Court of Justice who suffers an incurable illness. As a result of it, he is assailed by physical and mental pain. During this agonizing period he goes over his whole life, wondering if it should have been different. He dwells on the absurdity of life and the pain inflicted upon him. There is a subtle resemblance between the futility of his situation and that of “The Stranger” by Albert Camus when the main character approaches his death sentence.

As we go back to his past we learn that Ilych’s marriage to Praskovya Fyodorovna was a matter of convenience determined by the expectations of the society in which he lived. His marriage turned into a difficult ordeal due to his wife’s exacting nature and the constant disputes that she triggered between them. “Very quickly, not more than a year after his wedding, Ivan Ilych had become aware that conjugal life, though providing certain comforts, was in reality a very intricate and difficult business towards which one must, if one is to do one’s duty, that is, lead the decorous life approved by society, work out for oneself a definite line, just as in the government service.”

The hostility of their relationship made him seek refuge at work where he found solace. As he dies slowly we witness his loneliness, despair, hope and fears. It is through Ivan Ilych that we are led to experience the inevitable journey that detaches the character from his surroundings. Before that stage of detachment, however, Ilych is in desperate need to feel the affection of others. “He longed to be petted, kissed, and wept over, as children are petted and comforted.” The beauty of this story, in my opinion, lies in the realistic approach with which we go through his thoughts, emotions and past experiences when death is gradually approaching him. We enter the world of a person who is reaching the end of his life.

Tolstoy embraced the pacifist doctrine of non-violent resistance. His ideas inspired Mahatma Gandhi in his struggle towards India’s independence from British control. Mahatma Gandhi wrote on his autobiography: “I made an intensive study of Tolstoy’s books. ‘The Gospels in Brief, What to Do?’ and other books made a deep impression on me. I began to realize the infinite possibilities of universal love.”

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(1) Reader Comment

  1. What a great review. Before now I had not read any of Leo Tolstoy’s short stories and novellas but Julia Hones’ review is a great introduction to anyone that might be thinking of reading them. She breaks down the most important themes really well. I love the fact that the review looks at the different aspects of life, love and marriage as depicted in the stories, and also what might go through one’s head when approaching death. In short, these short stories and novellas touch on a lot of life’s issues and dig deeper to places often left untouched.
    Julia Hones definitely did a fantastic job in extracting from the stories just the right amount of information to whet the appetites of Leo Tolstoy’s future readers or to further the understanding of his current readers.
    I look forward to more reviews from this author.
    Liz

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