Monday, July 7, 2008

Back to Classics: Lev Tolstoy and Abstinence

The Writer: Lev Tolstoy

Works and Dates: Крейцерова соната (The Kreutzer Sonata) (1889), Дьявол (The Devil) (1889, published posthumously), and Отец Сергий (Father Sergius) (1890-1898)

Why they’re important: As I read these three novellas, I came to think of them as Tolstoy’s “Abstinence Trilogy” – all three display his tortured relationship with women and his past.

Criticism and Commentary: Tolstoy himself wrote an epilogue to The Kreutzer Sonata. Theodore Roosevelt’s comments in a letter to Upton Sinclair about Kreutzer are interesting. I enjoyed D.S. Mirsky’s praise of The Devil in A History of Russian Literature.

IMHO: This trio of abstinence-related novellas about evils of the flesh make for dour summer reading: taking them to the beach could create a distinctly unsatisfying experience if you are surrounded by half-naked bodies. I read the three pieces in the order listed above and found them increasingly enjoyable. The most interesting aspect of reading one after the other was observing the varied methods Tolstoy uses to convey similar themes.

Kreutzer, Tolstoy uses a framing device: one passenger on a train tells another about how and why he killed his wife. In describing this crime of passion, the passenger, Pozdnyshev, speaks of hypocrisy and moral breakdowns, blaming beauty, music, social standards, and the devil more than himself for his woes.

Unfortunately, the novella reads more like a screed against sex and society than as a piece of literature. Pozdnyshev, with his randy past and extreme jealousy, didn’t quite feel real, which isn’t surprising: Tolstoy focuses with Kreutzer on making and repeating a moral point, not on creating settings or characters.

The Devil, by contrast, with its scenes of country life and temptation, feels almost gentle despite its harsh endings. Tolstoy wrote two conclusions for the story, neither of which leaves the reader with much hope. Still, this short novella about a landowner who cannot set aside his passion for a peasant woman despite his love for his wife, reads smoothly and has an almost fabular feel.

Despite the simplicity of the plot itself, The Devil is quite compelling, probably thanks to the sensation that I was watching a train wreck. Irtenev, the main character, seems quite human in trying to sort out the dualism of his relationships, though, like Pozdnyshev, he displayed an irritating and tragic lack of self-control.

Father Sergius is a much more complex piece that depicts a young man who gives up his fiancée and position in society to become a monk. I’ve already read Father Sergius several times and will certainly read it again. I enjoy the contrasts and comparisons that Tolstoy draws between society and the church, and the novella contains a rather gruesomely memorable scene that I will not detail.

What fascinates me most about Father Sergius is that, even as a person lacking religious beliefs, I relate well to Father Sergius’s struggles with his own pride and the church’s efforts to capitalize on his talents for healing. Each time the world invades Father Sergius’s privacy, I want him to be left alone.

Summary: With Father Sergius, Tolstoy creates far more full-blooded characters and situations than he writes in The Kreutzer Sonata or The Devil. All three contain religious motifs and cautionary tales about lust. If you only want to read one, I’d suggest reading The Kreutzer Sonata if you’re in the mood for a diatribe, The Devil if you want a deceptively simple and almost pastoral story of landowners, and Father Sergius if you’ve always wondered what monks think about.


  1. What a tortured soul must've been the old count! Have you read this wonderful essay from The Atlantic:

  2. You put that very well, Steven! Reading those three pieces in rapid succession was an odd experience. I haven't read that essay but will... it looks like fun, thank you for recommending it.

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