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The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy
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Apr 30, 2012

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This is a novella with an agenda, a fact reflected in the eighty-some-odd pages of supplemental material which follows the text of Tolstoy's story. Any time half a volume is given over to the author's own commentary, it's probably safe to assume that something is amiss. Indeed, this is an uneven work which was problematic in its day, and has only become more so with the passage of time.

An affinity to Shaker thought permeates Tolstoy's ideals regarding sex, marriage, and procreation. Tolstoy himself even references the Shakers directly. Driven by a deeply-rooted piety and an uncompromising devotion to his interpretation of Scripture, Tolstoy posits perfect chastity as the singular goal of the human race. Failing this, he recognizes human weakness only to the extent of not entirely condemning sex, provided it is explicitly performed as an act of procreation by a married couple and recognized as an unfortunate lapse into sinfulness. Thus (by his reasoning) those who cannot control their impulses give rise to a new generation which, being born innocent of all sexual impulse, may have some chance of attaining the ideal state of chastity. Tolstoy, furthermore, rejects marriage as an un-Christian invention of various churches, the crass, thinly-veiled goal of which is to condone wanton sinfulness. To the charge that his philosophy would, if its ideals were achieved, result in the extinction of the human race, Tolstoy simply replies that whether you believe in the Bible or in science, they both predict our demise with equal finality, if for different reasons; therefore, what harm would be done?

Well, this is maddening! Of course, Tolstoy is perfectly correct. Or, to state it more precisely, he is perfectly self-consistent. But we must bear in mind, as he himself acknowledges, that his words are those of an old man who, in his youth, broke, vigorously and without compunction, every rule he is attempting, now, to elevate. Add to this an attitude toward women which is some 130 years less enlightened than ours is today, and we begin to see why he felt compelled to defend the viewpoint expressed in his novella at such length. His message is, simply put: "Do as I say, not as I've done." And for all his curious posturing over the natural proclivities of the sexes, he is ultimately insistent that the male is the superior of the species. Although the novella itself is reasonably well-constructed, Tolstoy might have done better dispensing with the fiction altogether and stating his case in plainer terms from the get-go.
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