Academic journal article Tolstoy Studies Journal

"Though This Be Madness": Sofia Tolstaya's Second Response to Kreutzer Sonata

Academic journal article Tolstoy Studies Journal

"Though This Be Madness": Sofia Tolstaya's Second Response to Kreutzer Sonata

Article excerpt

Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be breakthrough. It is potentially liberation and renewal as well as enslavement and existential death.

R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (1967) [...] when a heroine goes mad she always goes into white satin[...].

Richard Sheridan, The Critic (1779)

Lev Tolstoy's controversial novella The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) is a fictional narrative that takes the form of a heart-rending confession by a conscience-stricken Russian aristocrat. Years earlier, the hero Pozdnyshev had married a much younger woman, partly to satisfy his intense physical desires; over time, he becomes pathologically jealous of her non-physical, but deeply emotional, relationship with a musician. In a fit of fanatical rage, Pozdnyshev murders his wife and is subsequently condemned to recite a brutally frank account of his crime to any interested listener. In Tolstoy's telling of the tale, the reader is the captive listener, figured as a fellow railway passenger addressed by Pozdnyshev on an all-night journey.

Tolstoy's faithful and devoted wife of nearly fifty years, Sofia Andreyevna Tolstaya (nee Behrs) (1844-1919), not only repeatedly and laboriously copied her husband's story each time he made revisions to satisfy the censors, but also wrote at length about it in her own letters, diaries, and her voluminous autobiography. She disagreed markedly with Tolstoy's emphases and conclusions at almost every turn; moreover, she was deeply embarrassed that the reading public had construed the story as a reflection of her own marriage to the famous writer. In a most extraordinary and intriguing twist of events, Sonya turned to writing fiction herself. She composed two "counterstories," her own literary challenge to The Kreutzer Sonata, texts that remained in manuscript form, buried in her archive until a few years ago.

In the second of her stories, "Song Without Words" (1898), Sofia Andreyevna explored the relationship of a talented composer and musician with members of the Tolstoy family circle. In fact, during the summers of 1895-97 Sergei Taneyev (1856-1915), who had studied composition with Tchaikovsky and piano with Nikolai Rubenstein, visited the Tolstoy estate in Yasnaya Polyana. Sonya developed a deep attachment to him that evidently embarrassed her children and enraged her husband. Taneyev himself, it seems, was more attracted to men than to women, and remained largely unaware of the intensity of Sonya's affection.

In Sofia's story, the young heroine Sasha, distraught after the death of her mother, emerges from her mourning only to become consumed by an interest in music, and by a man who both composed and performed it. When the musician consistently rebuffs her advances, the heroine, manifesting an array of strange symptoms, sinks into madness. The tale ends when she finally decides to have herself committed to a "University Clinic for Nervous Diseases." Sofia Tolstaya's story reveals a deep understanding of a woman's psychology: her depression, her obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and suicidal tendencies.

Madness as both a fact of life and a theme in literature has been investigated thoroughly. Foucault's classic study Madness and Civilization (1965) describes the shift from the medieval period when insanity was considered part of everyday life: Fools and madmen (and women) walked the streets freely. He argues that it was only in the early 1800s that such people began to be considered a threat, resulting in the building of asylums to house them, thus erecting literal and metaphorical walls between the "insane" and the rest of society.

Whereas Foucault generally ignored the issue of gender, Phyllis Chester, in her book on Women and Madness, remedied that deficit. She notes that as early as the sixteenth century, women had been "shut up" in madhouses by their husbands. By the seventeenth century, special wards in France's most famous mental asylum, Salpetriere, were being reserved for prostitutes, pregnant women, poor women, and young girls. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.