Friday, March 21, 2008

"The Kreutzer Sonata" by Leo Tolstoy

I just finished the third short story in The Death of Ivan Illych and Other Short Stories, "The Kreutzer Sonata." Again, I am thoroughly impressed with Tolstoy's insights into why people do what they do.

The plot of "The Kreutzer Sonata" circles around a discussion between strangers sitting near each other on a train. When the discussion turns to the education of women, Pozdnyshev (one of the passengers) argues that current "developments" in Russian culture have been meaningless and that women were not better off with education. Pozdnyshev says that educated or not, men still treat women merely as sex objects. Therefore, he argues, the educated women of Russian society are simply more educated, more valuable sex objects. Until men and women learn to control their sexual passions, it doesn't matter if women are educated because they will be treated the same. He then recounts how and why he killed his wife--he married her for her looks and then was overcome by jealousy when another man caught her interest.

One thing to keep in mind in this story is that Pozdnyshev is a scoundrel and that his views aren't necessarily Tolstoy's. However, even the scoundrel's ideas can be profound (as in Raskolnikov in Doestoevksy's Crime and Punishment). Just as I felt "Family Happiness" accurately described the ways women are dissatisfied in relationships, "The Kreutzer Sonata" accurately portrayed a failed marriage from a male perspective. My favorite line of the whole story was Pozdnyshev's thoughts after he stabbed his wife in a fit of jealous rage. The wound was mortal, but it would take a while for her to bleed out. So, Pozdnyshev had some time to reflect on what he did before she died. He recounts to the narrator what he thought when he looked at his dying wife:

"And so petty seemed all that had offended me, all my jealousy, and so significant the deed that I had done, that I had the impulse to bow down to her hand and to say, 'Forgive me,' but I had not the courage."


Pozdnyshev blames his lust and jealousy for driving him to kill his wife. He says that he never really loved his wife in a true way, only in a romantic way. He says that this is true of most men across the board. This got me to thinking, How much progress have we made as a culture when it comes to gender relationships? Do men see women as equals, or is Pozdnyshev right? As a way of measuring, Pozdnyshev offers the following question. Would a woman rather have a man see her: (A) doing an evil deed, or (B) looking ugly. Pozdnyshev says that most women know how men are and would rather be caught doing something wrong than looking bad.

(In case it's not clear, I am not advocating Pozdnyshev's position, it just got me thinking.)

No comments: