Academic journal article Tolstoy Studies Journal

Genre and the Temptations of Narrative Desire in Kreutzer Sonata

Academic journal article Tolstoy Studies Journal

Genre and the Temptations of Narrative Desire in Kreutzer Sonata

Article excerpt

As Tolstoy was completing Anna Karenina in 1877, he began to experience the spiritual crisis that he later chronicled in A Confession. This led to his well-known repudiation of the vast majority of his previous works and a period during which he abandoned fiction entirely, writing only religious works. When he returned to fiction in 1882, it was to write a series of didactic novellas or povesti, Death of Ivan Il'ich (1886), The Devil (1889), Kreutzer Sonata (1889), Father Sergius (1890) and Master and Man (1895). These works are marked by an uneasy orientation towards their own fictional status. Characterized by a dogmatic narrative voice and the use of the kind of authoritative non-novelistic statements that Gary Saul Morson has called "absolute language," they seem to attempt to avoid the ambivalence and moral equivocations that Tolstoy had begun to associate with the realm of fiction ("Absolute Language" 667-687). Kreutzer Sonata stands out from the rest of the 1880s-1890s novellas in its narrative framing: The dogmatic voice is not that of the narrator or implied author, but rather that of the protagonist, Pozdnyshev. A murderer who claims to have been driven to kill his wife by the unbearable nature of relations between the sexes, a moralist whose ideas about marriage and sexuality are unmistakably shared by his creator, and a narrator with contempt for novelistic description, Pozdnyshev is, on the one hand, a stand-in for Tolstoy's own ambivalent attitude toward fictional narrative in this period. On the other hand, Pozdnyshev seems to embody the very ambivalence that so disturbs Tolstoy. As the story of a narrative transaction between Pozdnyshev and the unnamed frame narrator, Kreutzer Sonata dramatizes the act of storytelling itself, forcing the reader to consider Pozdnyshev's and Tolstoy's narrative motivations as well as his or her responses to the story being told.

This article builds on the studies of Charles Isenberg and Kare Johan Mjor in its examination of how Kreutzer Sonata's status as frame narrative binds together Tolstoy's project with that of his protagonist, linking the act of murder with the narration of that act, embedding in the act of narration the reanimation of the desire that originally led to the murder, and implicating Tolstoy and the reader in the narrative fulfillment of that desire (Isenberg 79-108; Mjor 67-105). My study follows in the tradition of scholarship that sees Kreutzer Sonata as reflecting Tolstoy's anxieties about the relationship between art, adultery, and fictional truth. These anxieties would find their clearest expression in his 1898 treatise, What Is Art? (Coetzee 195-205; Rischin 43-54; Herman 20-36). Unlike these other critics, however, I argue for Kreutzer Sonata as an expression of Tolstoy's discomfort with narrative fiction itself, specifically with what Peter Brooks has referred to as its "erotics," the way that narrative, particularly in longer genres such as the novel, arouses in its reader a desire to know the end of the story that is akin to sexual desire (37). I place this discomfort in the context of the contested realm of genre in Tolstoy's post-conversion phase, particularly his move from the novel to the didactic novella (povest) in the 1880s-1890s. (1) I argue that Kreutzer Sonata constitutes an attempt to banish the erotic potentiality from the sphere of narrative even as Tolstoy himself recognizes the impossibility of that goal within a work of narrative fiction. The novella also stands as a formal atonement for Anna Karenina, the clearest example of Tolstoy's own earlier narrative promiscuity. Even as he embraces a generic form that seeks to resist the dangers of his novel of adultery, Tolstoy keeps Anna Karenina continually in mind. Structured within Kreutzer Sonata, with its injunction against adultery, is a warning about the analogous dangers of narrative itself, and above all of the seductions of the novel.

Prohibiting Desire: The Epigraphs of Kreutzer Sonata

Kreutzer Sonata begins with a pair of epigraphs that make clear the story's didactic intent, framing it as an attack on uncontrolled sexuality. …

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