Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

The Kreutzer Sonata

The Kreutzer Sonata
Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy

PLOT SUMMARY: On a train ride in early spring, the unnamed narrator of The Kreutzer Sonata listens in on a conversation between several passengers and an old man, Pozhdnyshev, who argues that women must not be trusted and that the others’ ideals of love and marriage are false. After Pozhdnyshev nonchalantly reveals that he murdered his wife, the conversation ends, but the narrator decides to sit next to him anyway. Pozhdnyshev begins telling the narrator about his personal experience with love and marriage, as well as his animalistic jealousy that culminated in him murdering his wife. He initially describes to the narrator how he first had sex at an early age in a brothel, and as many men did, continued to spend his money on gambling and prostitutes until he settled down and had children. He offers a conflicting answer to “the woman question,” claiming both that women cannot be free until men stop viewing them as objects of desire and that women stay at the top of society through manipulating men.

     After marrying his nameless wife and having five children with her, the wife starts using a form of contraception, which disgusts Pozhdnyshev to the extent that he begins to believe that there is no longer any sanctity in their marriage. The wife, who plays piano, becomes friends with a violinist named Troukhatchevsky, with whom she plays at their house. Despite a complete lack of evidence, the narrator becomes convinced that his wife and Troukhatchevsky have begun an emotional and sexual affair behind his back. Pozhdnyshev becomes obsessed with his baseless jealousy and goes on a trip, returning early because he cannot stop thinking about the alleged affair. When he returns home and finds her playing music with Troukhatchevsky, he takes a dagger and stabs her to death as Troukhatchevsky flees. As the wife lays dying, she refuses to forgive Pozhdnyshev for killing her. Pozhdnyshev loses custody of their five children, and the court acquits him of murder on the grounds of him wanting to protect his honor. After Pozhdnyshev finishes telling the narrator his story, he becomes embarrassed and pretends to sleep for the remainder of the journey.

ANALYSIS: The Kreutzer Sonata is a tale about crime and punishment, though not about incarceration in its most literal sense. In the eyes of Pozhdnyshev, whose views on sex and the importance of chastity mirror those of Tolstoy during his later years, the very existence of women is a contradiction and a crime. Despite the extreme nature of his motivation and crimes, when Pozhdnyshev describes himself as an everyman in portraying his misogynistic philosophy as indicative of how all men necessarily think and feel. On one hand, in the eyes of Pozhdnyshev, women are responsible for holding society in shackles by demanding that labor be allocated to produce luxuries and attacking the rationality of men simply by existing (33). On the other hand, both types of women in Pozhdnyshev’s false dichotomy of womanhood — “women in our society… [and] women in the brothels” (27) — comprise the dregs of society because they cannot choose men and must instead be chosen as the sexually inferior partner. These extreme contradicting opinions ultimately demonstrate that Pozhdnyshev sees women as intrinsically criminal second-class citizens. Because he so fervently believes that women are solely responsible for their own oppression, he bars himself from critically reflecting on his own role in perpetuating the social incarceration of misogyny.

     Because of these views (which Pozhdnyshev spends roughly half of the novella explaining in excruciating detail), Pozhdnyshev takes it upon himself to punish the “criminal” closest to him — his wife. To him, the sole means for women to “save [themselves] from coquetry” is to bear and breastfeed their children for the benefit of men, and when his wife cannot breastfeed her first child or have a sixth child, he further disdains her and blames her doctors for ruining his life. He despises her to the extent that he mentions the name of the man with whom he thought she was having an affair, but not her name. He acknowledges that the jealousy that commanded him to stab his wife to death is “stupid” (83), but his desire to punish his criminal wife for existing is stronger than the appeal of logic. It is only after he stabs her that for the first time he “recognize[s] the human being in her,” (117) because in the ordeal of dying, she has finally atoned to him for her cardinal crime of existing as a normal woman. Even then, he sees himself as the primary victim of the murder, because he is unable to undo his actions. The tale of murder and jealousy in The Kreutzer Sonata elucidates how systemic discrimination such as misogyny can serve not only as a driving force behind carceral systems, but how they are implicit carceral systems in and of themselves, maintaining a social chokehold over marginalized populations and allowing oppressors to walk free after committing unforgivable crimes against those they have deemed as intrinsically criminal.


“‘All the luxury of life is demanded and maintained by women. Count the factories! A vast proportion of them are manufacturing useless adornments—such as carriages, furniture, trinkets—for women. Millions of men, generations of slaves, perish in slave work in factories merely to satisfy the caprice of women. Women, like queens, hold ninety per cent of the human race as prisoners in slavery and hard labor.’” (33)

“‘It [married life with children] was no kind of a life. It was a perpetual hazard, rescue from one peril followed by a new peril; then new and desperate endeavors, then a new rescue—all the time as if we were on a sinking ship! It sometimes seemed to me that this was done on purpose, that she was pretending to be troubled about her children as if to get the upper hand of me, so simply and pleasingly were questions decided to her advantage.” (57)

“‘I looked at the children, at her bruised and discolored face, and for the first time forgot myself, my rights, my pride. For the first time I recognized the human being in her. And so petty seemed all that had offended me, all my jealousy, and so significant the deed I had done, that I had the impulse to bow down and say, ‘Forgive me,’ but I had not the courage.’” (117)  

BIOGRAPHY: Count Lev (Leo) Nikolayevich Tolstoy was born in 1828 into a family of old Russian nobility that emerged in 1353 (Gerbovnik), the name “Tolstoy” bestowed upon the family by Grand Duke Vasily Vasilyevich. His mother died when he was two years old, and after his father died seven years later, the Tolstoy children’s aunt took them to Kazan. As a young adult, Tolstoy studied at both Kazan University and Petersburg University, but never graduated (Pevear vii).

     Death and mortality followed Tolstoy throughout much of his early adulthood. Following his unsuccessful attempts to earn a university degree, he joined the army in 1852 as an officer and fought in the Crimean War from 1854-1855 (Beard). He spent his time drinking, gambling, and hiring sex workers (Tyler) before returning to the remnants of his family home in 1856 (Pevear viii) to write and teach peasant children. After his time in the military, Tolstoy witnessed a public execution in Paris in 1857 (Beard) and the death of his beloved brother Nikolai from tuberculosis, which he described as “the strongest impression in my life” (Pevear viii). After marrying Sofya Behrs in 1862 at the age of thirty-four, he again returned to his estate, Yasnaya Polyana, and wrote his first epic, War and Peace, from 1863 to 1868. He then published Anna Karenina in installments from 1873 to 1877 (Rothman). Both of these novels, in addition to The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) and Tolstoy’s other works, focus heavily on mortality and reflections about the process of dying.

     Tolstoy was an early adopter of several techniques that have become essential to modern writers, including the deathbed monologue (Orwin 206) and detailed explanations of characters’ psychological processes as certain feelings and past experiences evolve into new thoughts and emotions (207). The way that Tolstoy used his observational abilities to give all of his characters rich inner lives influenced later authors including James Joyce and Virginia Woolf (208), who called Tolstoy “the greatest of all novelists” (Britannica).

     In the last few decades of his life, Tolstoy’s worldview and sense of purpose changed drastically. He converted from atheism to a personal interpretation of Christianity around 1880 (Medzhibovskaya xi). After his conversion, he stopped writing secular novels and wrote prolifically about his faith and other beliefs, culminating in Resurrection (1899).  He became an outspoken critic both of the Russian empire and Russian Orthodox Church, the latter ex-communicating him in 1901 (Beard). He also came to reject the extent of his literary success, referring to Anna Karenina in the 1880s as “an abomination that no longer exists for me” (Beard). By 1892, he opened over 200 soup kitchens by 1892, as well as over 100 homes for peasant children (Biriukov 124). He had transformed completely by 1900, renouncing his title and estate, living like a peasant, and proclaiming that property was theft (Green 176-177).

     The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded for the first time in 1901, and regretting that it was not awarded to Tolstoy, dozens of members of the academy sent a proclamation to Tolstoy referring to him as “the most revered patriarch of today’s literature” (Nobel Prize). Tolstoy was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1902 to 1906, as well as the Peace Prize three times (Nomination Database).

     Tolstoy died of pneumonia in 1910. After his death, his teachings of nonviolence and state-sanctioned oppression became sources of inspiration for both Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian subcontinent (Hellman) and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the southern United States (King et. al 269). Despite the disdain that he developed for his earlier works later in life, he is remembered by many as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, writer in history.


Beard, Mary. “Facing Death with Tolstoy.” The New Yorker, 5 Nov. 2013,

Biriukov, Pavel Ivanovich. The Life of Tolstoy. Creative Media Partners, LLC, 2016.

“First Publications.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.,

Green, Martin. “Tolstoy as Believer.” The Wilson Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 2, 1981, pp. 166–177.

Hellman, Martin E. Resist Not Evil, Stanford University, This web page contains a copy of an essay that was originally published in a book called World Without Violence, edited by Arun Gandhi and published by the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in 1994,

King, Martin Luther, et al. The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Vol. 5, University of California Press, 2005.

Medzhibovskaya, Inessa. Tolstoy and the Religious Culture of His Time A Biography of a Long Conversion, 1845-1885. Lexington Books, 2009.

Nomination Database,

Orwin, Donna Tussing. The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

“Proclamation Sent to Leo Tolstoy after the 1901 Year's Presentation of Nobel Prizes.”,

Rothman, Joshua. “Is ‘Anna Karenina’ a Love Story?” The New Yorker, 23 Nov. 2012,

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Vintage, 2017.

Tyler, Anne. “The Private Life of Count Tolstoy.” The Washington Post, 19 Jan. 1986,

Герб Рода Графов Толстых,


Herman, David. “‘What Did I Want?’: Theatricality and the Crisis of Modern Subjectivity in Tolstoi's Kreutzer Sonata.” Russian Literature, vol. 91, 2017, pp. 47–95., doi:10.1016/j.ruslit.2017.09.003.
Herman argues in this article that despite Tolstoy’s conviction that theatricality is antithetical to authenticity of the self, The Kreutzer Sonata is as dependent on theatricality and characters’ affectations as on internal dilemmas such as lust and jealousy. He suggests that many readers and analyses of the story overlook moments when character behave performatively, rather than as an expression of the true self.

Pettman, Dominic. “Tolstoy’s Bestiary: Animality and Animosity in the Kreutzer Sonata.” Angelaki, vol. 18, no. 1, 2013, pp. 121–138., doi:10.1080/0969725x.2013.783446.
In this essay, Pettman analyzes Tolstoy’s implicit endorsement of human exceptionalism throughout The Kreutzer Sonata. He argues that Tolstoy’s promotion of celibacy as an ideal for humanity relies on contrasting animality and animosity in a way that connects humans to God at the expense of non-human creatures.

Wyman, Alina. “Discourse and Intercourse in The Kreutzer Sonata: A Schelerian Perspective.” Christianity & Literature, vol. 64, no. 2, 2015, pp. 147–170., doi:10.1177/0148333114567266.
Wyman examines the motivations of The Kreutzer Sonata’s protagonist, Pozdnyshev, through the lens of Max Scheler’s phenomenology of emotions. She argues that the central moral question in The Kreutzer Sonata is that of empathy, and that Pozdnyshev fundamentally misunderstands the concepts of love and compassion in his retelling of how he murdered his wife.

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