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.
Lovelace to his friend:
Her chamber door has not yet been opened. I must not expect she will breakfast with me. Nor dine with me, I doubt. A little silly soul, what troubles does she make to herself by her over-niceness! All I have done to her would have been looked upon as frolic only, a romping-bout, and laughed off by nine parts in ten of the sex accordingly. The more she makes of it, the more painful to herself, as well as to me.
The story moves back and forth in brilliant communications. It comes to a sordid end. Lovelace takes Clarissa to a mean, filthy brothel, finally puts her under the care of two revolting procuresses, has her drugged—and at last rapes her, since she will not have it otherwise. When she recovers, Lovelace wishes to marry her, but Clarissa refuses, wastes away and dies. He is killed in a duel about the affair.
Lovelace is a monomaniac who seeks life through sex. He is somewhat like the sleepless seducers in Restoration comedy, but on a grander scale. His wildness, his nihilism, his brilliance, his boredom, his sexual pride are altogether original and exceptional. There is, as in Don Giovanni, an absence of motive and an exorbitance of obsession. His fascination with Clarissa is usually spoken of as “love,” and yet his determination is not to win her in marriage, although that is part of the plot, but simply to destroy her virtue. It nags him, exhausts him, bores him—but he will not leave off.
The plot moves in the unconscious curiosity Clarissa feels about Lovelace, her paralysis before the hypnotic appeal of his evil, thoroughly deserved, reputation. She says early in the book, “I like him better than I ever thought I should like him and, his faults considered, better than I ought to like him.” What does she like in him? In every way she would wish the chance to reform him, to exercise her will to power in that fashion. A hopeless, ill-placed wish it is, but she is not easily deflected and is ever eager to find reasons for excusing his villainy. Should there be possible a means of interpreting the most dreadful behavior in Lovelace’s favor she will find it, even though she never loses her hard-headed suspicion of him. “You may observe,” Dr. Johnson said about Clarissa, “that there is always something she prefers to the truth.”
Clarissa seems to entertain more hope for Lovelace than we do; at the same time she has none of our fascination with his mind, his cutting irony, his reckless skepticism. She knows little about all of this because she hasn’t read his extraordinary letters—and we have. His driven energy, his interesting ruthlessness do not seem to be the springs of her attraction; she is compelled by his good looks and his bad reputation. It doesn’t appear egregiously modern to speak of her hidden curiosity, her complicity in her own humiliation, her lingering about dangerous premises, the interest of the final drugged immobility which is the long delayed condition of her violation. Her dignity afterward is another thing—her saintly suffering, the apotheosis of degradation which truly ennobles her, like a salvation finally achieved. She is going to die and even that is plausible on the practical level in a world of early deaths, pneumonias, tuberculosis, decline.
Clarissa is not seduced, cannot be seduced, fraudulently led into adultery. She can be raped, just as anyone can be. This is the meaning of the violation in the book, that she is literally unseducible and if the man is bent upon consummation he will finally have to knock her out to have his way. Lovelace hates Clarissa’s family for their bourgeois lack of excess and their hesitation about aristocratic indulgence. This is one of the reasons he grimly wishes to subdue the daughter. Even more he wishes to destroy Clarissa’s will to power through virtue. As a rake, a clever man, he must have known a great deal about the need to dominate in a certain sort of aggressively pure woman. He is himself an independent, spoiled man and Clarissa’s degree of overwhelming virtue enrages him and stabs at his sexual pride.
The frustrations imposed by virtue may annoy a man like Lovelace, but the destruction of them will not redeem him. He is redeemed by Clarissa’s powerful attraction to him, her absolute need for him, her bewildering inability to withdraw from the game of seduction. There is a fire at the inn where they have taken rooms in the flight from her family. This occasion finds her in her bedroom, frightened, half-dressed, “exposed”—and indeed Lovelace sees the emergency as the opportunity to accomplish his wish. Screams, prayers, pleas, tears finally exhaust him, but not before he has behaved violently, heartlessly. What does Clarissa do? She puts him on a one-week probation.
Her experiences throughout the novel are extremely sordid. The inn and the prostitutes are quite startling in the authenticity of their squalor. “The vile house,” Clarissa calls it. She lives in terror of Lovelace—the kind of “terror,” domesticated, part of a risky tournament, a wife long-married might speak of. “He terrified me with his looks, and with his violent emotions, as he gazed upon me…. Never saw I his abominable eyes look as they looked…. And yet his behavior was decent, for he snatched my hand two or three times, speaking words of tenderness through his shut teeth.” Lovelace speaks of Clarissa as a “poor plotter” and we are bound to admit the accuracy of the observation, as she seeks the net she flees from.
Rage and vanity are Lovelace’s traits. Virtue, love of power, and curiosity are the defining marks of Clarissa’s nature. The novelist, Richardson, understands cruelty in his own angular, disguised way. It is only a few plunges downward to Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The two works are connected by their sexual and social brutality. The industriousness of Clarissa, the sense of an indefatigable, brilliant mind (Richardson’s) behind it all, gives the work its outrageously fascinating character. But the power of the story lies in sex. Only on the surface is it a game of marriage and family. Clarissa is drugged and raped—this is the end of the line, a resolution. It may be a crime, but it is not exactly a betrayal of her expectations.
The intention of seduction is evident from the first meeting of Clarissa and Lovelace. Attraction, “love,” is also at stake. If Clarissa is betrayed, she is betrayed in her determination to reform and by her fussy capability, all turned useless because of the undertow of fascination. Clarissa courts danger and then insists upon her safety. She is a middle-class girl, used to the love of her family, secure enough to defy, run away, and yet call upon the higher sensibilities of personal feeling as her judge. In that way she has none of the vulnerability of Tess, Hetty Sorrel, Jane Eyre, all of them poor and alone. After all, Clarissa lives in a social whirl of correspondents; she greets the morning mail as if it were a row of bodyguards. She replies, at length, in a frenzy, and is, thereby, the least isolated of threatened girls. Words are her protection. Her cries to heaven go out in the next post. Her powers are not perfect, but they reduce the insuperable Lovelace to rape, the most unworthy resource. Are they lovers, or opponents? They have furiously, curiously tested each other and the consummation is death.
Tess is the most perfectly conceived of the modern betrayed heroines. Peasant stoicism and a natural refinement of feeling are especially moving in her because of the hard soil they have grown upon. It is not pride that sustains her, that keeps despair from rotting the character. Pride would rest upon disappointed hopes in the matter of respect and consideration felt to be forthcoming, and it is just the absence of such expectation that distinguishes the afflicted heroine in the novel form. Hester Prynne does not have pride; she has endurance and intellectual principles. Maslova, in Resurrection, is supported by her world of the oppressed, accused, imprisoned, and in her earlier years by alcohol and depressed bouts of dissipation. It is part of the magic of Tolstoy’s sympathy that allows her to be a drunken prostitute without losing the essential stoical, enduring heroine quality.
Pride is the way of the tragic Greek heroines, not the answer in the more practical, reduced world of the novel. Here the women must deal with betrayal as a fact of life. Through their experiences, the terms and promises of romantic love are brought into question in the deepest way. Sentimentality is false and shallow, and to rely on it is the mark of an inferior vision of life. Trust will not be honored since it is difficult, in matters of love and sex, for human beings to hold to it. Life will not accommodate.
Hardy saw the necessity of rooting the beauty of Tess’s character in plausible superiorities that would set her apart, without pretension, from her world. She comes late of the old noble line of D’Urbervilles and represents an impoverished thinning out of a dead ancient family. (It is interesting that the rest of her family, rather comically inclined to daydreaming and fecklessness, do not partake of any special qualities because of the thin thread of the blood line.) Her seducer, Alec D’Urberville, does not have as true a claim to the name as Tess, but he is rich and, of course, all of his possibilities, the demands and blemishes of his character, are altered by the inward and outward results of riches.
Tess is also made a high school graduate so that she can be rescued from the benign ignorance of the other farm girls. But she is a farm girl, nevertheless, possessed of an extraordinary naturalness, fineness of nature, with everything rustic and simple and strong that a pure peasant culture could provide. The qualities of her nature, the way she is somewhat set apart, are necessary because she is to receive every blow and, as a heroine, must be worthy of her calamities—sex, love, pregnancy, abandonment, poverty, coarse work, ill luck, and finally execution for murder.
Tess’s love affair with Alec D’Urberville is a sort of seduction, at least from the man’s point of view. Seduction is his aim and he works to accomplish it by flattery, pretense, and finally a rude, overwhelming insistence. It is not the usual seduction because Tess never really likes him. She is not swept off her feet by illusion and hope, and yields only with a hesitant acquiescence. It is life that acquiesces, not her nature or soul. She is much too real in her own feelings to put any trust in the intentions of Alec.
And yet it happens that the night with Alec D’Urberville ruins Tess’s life, even finally takes her life. It is the beginning of the most painful, devastating series of entanglements and misfortunes. There is a child born after the seduction; she humbly takes the responsibility upon herself. The child dies and does not seem to have had great significance for her, perhaps because of her lack of love for the father. It is not the child that casts such a long shadow but the affair itself, her fall, her acquiescence. Through it she loses her real love, Angel Clare.
Angel is the son of a clergyman, and does not wish to go into the professions. He meets Tess when he comes to learn about farming at the dairy where she works. They fall in love, genuinely, truly. They marry. An unvoiced knowledge of human nature causes Tess to be silent about her earlier affair; hesitation is the measure of her hazy acknowledgment of Angel’s limitations, of the narrowness of his break with the pieties of his class. On their wedding night, Angel himself confesses the dissipations of youth and Tess, in a spirit of reciprocity, trust, and wish to unburden herself, confesses her own affair with Alec. Angel is horrified, leaves her, and goes off to Brazil. Like Dimmesdale he cannot ask fundamental questions about life. Any callousness is possible therefore and his crushing rejection of Tess is one of the most cruel things in fiction. The dense brutality of it is felt bitterly because of Hardy’s genius in revealing how great their love was and the miracle of their passing through the falseness of life to find this great and pure love. The deliberate destruction of miraculous love out of regard for—what? A vanity based on the dimmest flutterings of custom.
Dimmesdale’s religion and Angel Clare’s double standard are real enough, but it is not easy to give them an equal right to consideration. Religion was the whole of this life and after to Dimmesdale, and his last action is an “Election Day” sermon. For Angel, a skulking vanity and tribal narrowness caused him to abandon Tess. One feels at this point a certain attraction to the abstract in him; he would not have married Tess if he had not had a generalized, formal picture of her as a beautiful, virgin girl of the peasant classes he alone had discovered. The truth of his real love for her is that he suffers almost as much as she from his abandonment and yet he cannot reverse the course of his pedantic decision. The end of the plot is that Tess kills D’Urberville and is executed for it. That is the last act of the drama that began on the night of her seduction.
Hardy sees Tess as a beautiful, warm soul run down by the dogs of fate, in her case the bloodhounds of sex and love, Alec D’Urberville and Angel Clare. Her acceptance, her endurance of the griefs of experience are of the heroic kind; she meets suffering without losing her capacity for feeling. She is not surprised by loss and rejection and therefore never degraded by it. In Tess’s life every adversity has its double. Her misery over the flight of Angel Clare goes hand in hand with a deepening poverty and a deadening solitude. Toward the end of the book her family is actually starving and it is for that reason she takes up with D’Urberville once more. She is defined by her work. The arch of her existence curves as much with work as with love.
Tess’s early days on the green dairy farm are idyllic, and the fields and cows coincide with youth and love. In the end she is living in the dismal town of Flintcomb-Ash, working at a threshing machine rented by the day. The farm has become a factory and some critics think Tess of the D’Urbervilles is about the death of the English peasantry. The destruction of Tess’s love is like some eternal winter and the scene of her final despair is a bleak and barren epic:
…strange birds from behind the North Pole began to arrive silently on the upland of Flintcomb-Ash; gaunt spectral creatures with tragical eyes—eyes which had witnessed scenes of cataclysmal horror in inaccessible polar regions of a magnitude such as no human being had ever conceived, in curdling temperatures that no man could endure….
In the end Tess kills D’Urberville because he ruined her life, even if her real ruin came from Angel Clare. Hardy has great pity for Tess and yet he has not made of her a theme but a whole person, one of the most original women in fiction because of her naturalness, which never exceeds the possible. He takes a view of the social forces working upon her in his subtitle, “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented,” and in chapter headings such as “The Woman Pays.” She is nevertheless a paradox of the kind that seems to come unbidden into the minds of novelists when they face the plot of sex and its destructive force for women. She has, for all the truth that the Immortals are having their sport with her, for all the malign force of circumstance, suffered in a transcendent stoical way, accepting first her child and then the rejection by Angel Clare as a pattern of social destiny, deeply woven into the cloth of life.
The betrayed heroine, unlike the merely betrayed woman, is never under the illusion that love or sex confers rights upon human beings. She may of course begin with the hope, and romance would scarcely be possible otherwise; however, the truth hits her sharply, like vision or revelation when the time comes. Affections are not things and persons never can become possessions, matters of ownership. The desolate soul knows this immediately and only the trivial pretend that it can be otherwise. When love goes wrong the survival of the spirit appears to stand upon endurance, independence, tolerance, solitary grief. These are tremendously moving qualities and when they are called upon it is usual for the heroine to overshadow the man who is the origin of her torment. She is under the command of necessity, consequence, natural order, and a bending to these commands is the mark of a superior being. Or so it seems in the novel, a form not entirely commensurate with the heedlessness and rages of life.
The men do not really believe in consequence for themselves. Consequence proposes to them a worldly loss and diminishment they will not suffer. They will not marry the barmaid or the farm girl or the unvirginal. They will not confess to adultery when their success or their comfort hangs in the balance. They will not live with the mistakes of youth, or of any other period, if it is not practical to do so. Sex is a completed action, not a strange, fleeting coming together that mortgages the future. For this reason perhaps the heroic woman had to be created in fiction. “Ah, she will not speak!” Dimmesdale cries out. When they take Tess away to be hanged and to bury her body under a black flag, she has nothing she can say except, “I am ready.” Maslova, at the end of her story, turns to Prince Nekhlyudov and says, “Forgive me.”
Sex is a universal temptation and activity and a great amnesty will naturally have to attend it throughout life. Scarcely anyone would wish it to define, enclose, imprison a man’s being. Society has other things for him to do, being a soldier for instance—a group notoriously indifferent to sexual consequence. Obligation is so often improvident, against thrift. Still the break with human love remains somewhere inside and at times, under rain clouds, it aches like an amputation. But it is not serious. George Eliot said that she wrote novels out of a belief that a seed brings forth in time a crop of its own kind. How to the point is this metaphor for the plot of the illicit, the plot of love.
Now the old plot is dead, fallen into obsolescence. You cannot seduce anyone when innocence is not a value. Technology annihilates consequence. Heroism hurts and no one easily consents to be under its rule. The heroines in Henry James, rich and in every way luckily endowed by circumstance, are seduced and betrayed by surfaces, misled because life, under certain rules, is a language they haven’t the key to. Feeling and desire hang on and thus misfortune (if not tragedy) in the emotional life is always ahead of us, waiting its turn. Stoicism, growing to meet the tyrannical demands of consequence, cannot be without its remaining uses in life and love; but if we read contemporary fiction we learn that improvisation is better, more economical, faster, more promising.
Sex can no longer be the germ, the seed of fiction. Sex is an episode, most properly conveyed in an episodic manner, quickly, often ironically. It is a bursting forth of only one of the cells in the body of the omnipotent “I,” the one who hopes by concentration of tone and voice to utter the sound of reality. Process is not implacable, mutation is the expedient of the future, and its exhilaration too.
At the end of Nana, the beautiful, harassed courtesan’s death mingles with the agitated beginning of the Franco-Prussian War. “À Berlin! À Berlin! À Berlin!” we hear outside. In her coffin, fouled by small pox, passion and sensuality are reduced to a “bubbling purulence,” a “reddish crust.” It is more than that. It is the death of sex as a tragic, exalted theme. As Zola says, “Venus was rotting.”
(This is the second part of a two-part article.)
June 14, 1973