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 and classical. It is spiritually coherent, beautiful, merging like a mist with nature. When the night is over a sweep of sadness causes the young nobleman to ask himself, “What is the meaning of it all? Is it a great joy or a great misfortune that has befallen me?” But then he remembers that everyone does it and he turns over and falls asleep.
Naturally the young man goes away, as he must, since all of his life is before him. It is a life at once free and fixed. Years and experience leave room for the accidental, the free flowing of existence; form and structure draw the Prince inevitably into the anxious considerations of a man of his class. Shall he marry the shallow Princess Korchagina, whom he cannot even see without a feeling of impatience and weariness; shall he break off his affair with the wife of a friend; what to do about his estates?
For Maslova, the young girl, his first love, the seduction is a catastrophe. It is not a disillusion that will be washed away by time, but a tragic circumstance from which enormously varied lifelong sufferings begin to follow. She becomes pregnant, is turned out of the house; the child dies, and through poverty, ill-treatment, and despair Maslova finally becomes a prostitute and is accused of murdering an old client. The worst of her sense of abandonment comes when the Prince does not even get off the train as it passes through the village some months after their affair, when she is already aware of her condition. Her horror is an intellectual crisis as much as a personal deprivation and pain. God and His laws are a deception. The Prince who had treated her so heartlessly was the best person she knew; “all the rest were still worse.” It came to her, as the train pulled away, that everyone lived for himself alone and she began to accept an existence encircled by melancholy, redeemed by a willed anesthesia toward the past, enriched only by the communal traditions of prostitution.
The novel’s moral judgments lie upon the soul of the Prince. Maslova has remained alive somewhere in his consciousness, a dormant germ of remembered feeling and guilt. They meet again when the Prince is called to jury duty and Maslova is in the dock, her fate at the end of the trail that began long ago in a beautiful scene, a snowy midnight Mass in the village. The Prince is overcome by a violent turmoil that shakes his whole being; he is seized with the wish for a grand restitution, a sacrifice, a determination to share Maslova’s degradation and suffering as a prisoner in Siberia. This cannot merely be a flight of fancy. To face the dragon of responsibility would engage his whole life, his estates, his money, his friends, his career. All of the arrangements and assumptions of society went into his seduction and abandonment of the poor orphan on his aunt’s estate. His expiation cannot be selective. In the end, Maslova refuses his sacrifice and will not marry him. It is too late for them.
Tolstoy was in his seventies when he wrote Resurrection. The indulgences of his youth thus presented themselves to his imagination as moral and social delinquencies, rather than as mere instances of man’s inevitable practice. For this reason and despite the marvelous truthfulness of a great deal of the novel, it relies upon the silky transcendences of persons in the grip of a spiritual idea, characters who must go from flaw to virtue under the rule of justice and ethical revelation. However, it is certainly never Maslova’s suffering and resignation we question. It is only Prince Nekhlyudov’s profound sense of obligation, his heeding the affliction of memory, the bite of the past, that strike one as abstract, programmatic, untrue to life.
The title of the novel is accurate—drastic breaks with the customs ruling men and women are to be understood as a “resurrection,” a surpassing. It is, after all, only an ideal, the dream of an old man in love with humility and longing to achieve a personal reformation upon which a reformation of society might begin. The novel was based on an incident that appeared in the press and stirred Tolstoy’s thoughts and imagination. In spite of this, it is realistic only in the grand, elevated Russian novel sense, in that landscape where obsession and transfiguring guilt and expiation are real. No subsequent novel decided to gaze so directly into the abyss of sexual responsibility, to turn a limpid, childlike, old-man’s eye upon the chaos of youth, to undertake a day of judgment accounting.
Richardson’s Clarissa is openly, and at great, fascinating length, about seduction. Naturally, only a person who thought of himself as a moralist could sit down to write volume after volume of consummation threatened and delayed, assault planned and outwitted. Richardson thought, or told himself that he thought, of his brilliant creation as a sort of encyclopedia of male guile and treachery, an elaborate, defensive karate, by which the menaced girls of the eighteenth century could learn to protect their virtue. The detail is intricate, the postponements and escapes are frenzied, the characters extraordinarily well-matched in their odd strengths. All of the action is accomplished under the strict baton of sexual suspense.
Clarissa is a disturbing mixture of wit and sentiment, of surface and disguise. A good deal of emotional anxiety accompanies the modern reader along the way here. The novel that caused all of England and Europe to cry—Rousseau yes, but Diderot!—and opened the seams of sensibility and romanticism, as if discovering new minerals in the soul, is harsh, ugly, and grotesque, concerned with a purely sexual conception, of virtue and villainy, a conception heavily under our suspicion.
Insolence and courtesy, or at least an elaboration of manner passing for courtesy, are so closely interwoven in the style that they represent an aesthetic exhilaration. The wit, the speed, the expressive, fantastical elegance of the letters that tell, with the wonderful, lost slowness of past times, this violent story are the vehicle for an unmotivated need for sexual humiliation on the part of Lovelace and a need to encounter but avoid the violation on the part of Clarissa.
Clarissa is a bourgeois heroine, the defiant but deeply alert and prudent daughter of rich parents who have not reached the point of trusting the sentiments. (Clarissa’s prudence is sexual; otherwise she makes every mistake possible to a clever, bossy, morally vain young girl.) The rich, handsome, brilliant rake, Lovelace, seeks to marry her, partly to unite her father’s money with his own name and lands. Another suitor, whose property is close to that of the Harlowe family, is produced for Clarissa, but she does not love him. He is not lovable and she, asserting the dominance of feeling over calculation, refuses to marry him. She says she would rather remain single and in many ways this threat appears to be, in fact, a condition Clarissa could have endured with a pleasure equal to fortitude. But the compulsion the stupid family puts her under is so great, the challenge to Lovelace is so sportingly exciting that he abducts her, and the intense, quivering drama of seduction and escape begins. Clarissa’s virtue and Lovelace’s determination: this is the balance of the longest novel in English.
The fact that the novel is written in letters is of the greatest importance. The depravity of the plot is in that way kept at a distance. And the use of letters modifies the inner life of the characters as we know them. A letter is not a dialogue or even an omniscient exposition. It is a fabric of surfaces, a mask, a form as well suited to affectations as to the affections. The letter is, by its natural shape, self-justifying; it is one’s own evidence, deposition, a self-serving testimony. In a letter the writer holds all the cards, controls everything about himself and about those assertions he wishes to make concerning events or the worth of others. For completely self-centered characters, the letter form is a complex and rewarding activity. Both Clarissa and Lovelace are self-centered. They must tell their story, must objectify everything, even sexual assault. Reality lives in words.