The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy is a work of great peculiarity. It is not of the first interest imaginatively, and there is a dense, frantic distortion in this pedagogic monologue on sex and the ills of marriage. It is a tract, inchoate, and yet noble, impractical, original. There are moments of dramatic genius: a wracking vision of marriage as jealousy nourished, hatred voluptuously fed, rage taken for breakfast. The whole of a man’s sexual life comes under Tolstoy’s agitated scrutiny—from the arrogant encounters of youth to the fevered tournaments of conventional unions. Tolstoy sees the line of “immorality” beginning in the young man’s first relations with prostitutes and girls toward whom he feels no obligation; from there all of the later life of the sexes is either grossly or subtly poisoned. Life among men and women is a debauch the young are led to accept, even to expect, by custom, example, social convenience.
The actions the nineteenth century gathered together under the name of “debauchery” are never, in fiction, made entirely clear, but it seems very likely that many of them are understood in our time as healthy exertions of vital being. Debauchery, of course, still exists in our minds as a designation of brutal excess and deviation, even if it cannot stand as the name of the experiences of the man in The Kreutzer Sonata. “I did not understand,” he says, “that debauchery does not consist simply in physical acts…real debauchery consists in freedom from the moral bonds toward a woman with whom one enters into carnal relations….”
No doubt it is spiritual vanity and overreaching to hope to enchain the baffling, exciting, fleeting movements of the senses. Every moment of the present is rushing into its fate as the past. To give the past pre-eminence, sanctity, supreme right is insupportable, a mad dislocation in the economy of personal experience. Nevertheless, the past is not a blur of memory, but a forest in which all of the trees are human beings, rooted, breathing, sustaining the axe, or withering. To think of the past as a series of agreements with others that make an everlasting claim on us is unreal, and yet it is one of the most interesting questions ever asked about the subject matter of so much art: youthful love. It is a radical questioning of the way society understands the flow of life, the rules it has made for the human collisions that are, finally, our biographies. It is a question that goes beyond an answer.
Resurrection is a much greater and more moving asking of the same question. The pure situation of this novel contains the essence of the theme of seduction and betrayal. Every balance is classical. A man, a nobleman, falls in love in youth with a serving girl on his aunt’s estate. She is lovely and pure; he is generous, kind, better than most young men. The scene of their first coming together is tenderly ardent …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.