Leo Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata"

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"The Hidden Weakness in Sexual Union"

The Kreutzer SonataTolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata.[1] is a gut-wrenching tale of the hidden weakness in sexual union. A brilliant observer and recorder of human nature, Tolstoy realized that there was indeed an addictive cycle to conventional sex.

I had become what is called a voluptuary; and to be a voluptuary is a physical condition like the condition of a victim of the morphine habit, of a drunkard, and of a smoker.

He also recorded how the "hangover" part of sex's addictive cycle was at the heart of the disharmony that erupts between men and women. Had Tolstoy known more about neurochemistry, he might have put it all together for himself, because he realized that the mood shifts in his marriage correlated with passionate encounters, both in number and intensity.

youthful TolstoyTolstoy's wife Sofia These periods of irritation depended very regularly upon the periods of love. Each of the latter was followed by one of the former. A period of intense love was followed by a long period of anger; a period of mild love induced a mild irritation. We did not understand that this love and this hatred were two opposite faces of the same animal feeling.

How right he was! He perfectly describes the symptoms of high dopamine and the subsequent shutdown after over-stimulation of the pleasure/reward center of the primitive brain. Sadly, like most lovers, he concluded that the flashes of love between him and his wife were illusory, and their recurring post-passion antipathy was the reality.

Love was exhausted with the satisfaction of sensuality. … I did not realize that this cold hostility was our normal state, and that this first quarrel would soon be drowned under a new flood of the intensest sensuality. I thought that we had disputed with each other, and had become reconciled, and that it would not happen again. But in this same honeymoon there came a period of satiety, in which we ceased to be necessary to each other, and a new quarrel broke out. It became evident that the first was not a matter of chance.

Indeed he says,

Tolstoy ninety-nine families out of every hundred live in the same hell, and … it cannot be otherwise." "But… all, like myself, imagine that it is a misfortune exclusively reserved for themselves alone, which they carefully conceal as shameful, not only to others, but to themselves, like a bad disease.…

Tolstoy never found the solution (making love in a way that preserves the magnetism - and love - between partners). Yet he wisely recognized that the constant bickering was not about the issues of the moment, and that the root cause of his disharmony with his wife was passion.

[After the honeymoon] the periods of what we call love arrived as often as formerly. They were more brutal, without refinement, without ornament; but they were short, and generally followed by periods of irritation without cause, irritation fed by the most trivial pretexts. We had spats about the coffee, the table-cloth, the carriage, games of cards, - trifles, in short, which could not be of the least importance to either of us. As for me, a terrible execration was continually boiling up within me.

SofiaAnd what was marriage like for his wife, Sofie? Although The Kreutzer Sonata is fiction, scholars believe it is largely autobiographical - a conclusion borne out by Sophie's diary. She endured his outbursts of passion...always followed by long periods of coldness. She "hated his coldness, his terrible coldness, which only changed when he wanted intercourse again." However, back to the tale of The Kreutzer Sonata: husband and wife barely spoke. She grew obsessed with details of running the household.

I saw clearly that to her all this was, more than anything else, a means of forgetting, an intoxication, just as hunting, card-playing, and my functions at the Zemstvo [senate] served the same purpose for me. It is true that in addition I had an intoxication literally speaking - tobacco, which I smoked in large quantities, and wine, upon which I did not get drunk, but of which I took too much. Vodka before meals, and during meals two glasses of wine, so that a perpetual mist concealed the turmoil of existence.

Sometimes the turmoil surfaced.

Tolstoy and Sofia All husbands who live the married life that I lived must either resort to outside debauchery, or separate from their wives, or kill themselves, or kill their wives as I did. If there is any one in my case to whom this does not happen, he is a very rare exception, for, before ending as I ended, I was several times on the point of suicide, and my wife made several attempts to poison herself.

To his credit, Tolstoy recognized that nothing short of a fundamental change would heal the situation. He insited that mankind would have to overcome the obstacle of sexual passion in order to reach enlightenment.

The object of Man, as of Humanity, is happiness, and, to attain it, Humanity has a law which it must carry out. This law consists in the union of beings. This union is thwarted by the passions. And that is why, if the passions disappear, the union will be accomplished. Humanity then will have carried out the law, and will have no further reason to exist….In the meantime it will have the sign of the unfulfilled law, and the existence of physical love. As long as this love shall exist, and because of it, generations will be born, one of which will finally fulfill the law. When at last the law shall be fulfilled, the Human Race will [evolve into a state it is impossible for us to conceive of.]

Perhaps because of the influence of the Church, he saw only one possible path toward this higher union: celibacy within marriage - a goal he was never able to achieve. He supports his conclusion with a mixture of Marxist analysis about the exploitation of women and religious guilt. Possibly because of his Marxist bent (and condemnation of treating women like property), the possibility of sexual continence during intercourse as a path to unity (and harmony) never occurred to him. He should have read his own writing more closely:

Tolstoy 'Let those who can, contain,' said Christ [sic. St. Paul said this]. And I take this passage literally, as it is written. That morality may exist between people in their worldly relations, they must make complete chastity their object. In tending toward this end, man humiliates himself. When he shall reach the last degree of humiliation, we shall have moral marriage. But if man, as in our society, tends only toward physical love, though he may clothe it with pretexts and the false forms of marriage, he will have only permissible debauchery….

Tolstoy met Alice Bunker Stockham, author of Karezza. Yet he apparently never read her book recommending lovemaking without orgasm, which was published nearly a decade after The Kreutzer Sonata. It is tragic how close he came to the answer without hearing it. However, from behind the heavy cloud of misery in the saga of Leo and Sophie, shines a glimmer of the potential that lies in the magnetism between yin and yang. Despite their hostility, they continued having sex until a year before his death at age 82. He reproached himself for his desire, and felt like a dreadful hypocrite, but he had sex with her anyway. Possibly he sensed that his wellbeing was tied to union. The Kreutzer Sonata

In retrospect, Sofia must have benefited from their intimate contact too, although she had left his bedroom a dozen years earlier. Certainly her condition grew far worse when at last he pulled away from her sexually. Ultimately she was unable to sleep or eat properly, cried uncontrollably, was even more irritable, hostile and nervous, and finally diagnosed as paranoiac and hysterical.

I believe there is a link between their powerful connection - marred as it was by painful turmoil - and their incredible productivity. He was a prolific writer of extraordinary genius. She transcribed most of his diaries and books (including The Kreutzer Sonata). She also managed his estates, his money, his copyrights, and published his books - pleading with the censors, and even the Czar, when necessary. In addition, she endured 13 pregnancies, fed, nursed, and educated her children, suffered the death of 6 of them, and for most of their marriage remained in the marital suite despite the emotional friction.

Truly, one wonders what they might have accomplished together had they enjoyed more harmony and the control of their procreative powers.


  1. The Kreutzer Sonata, by Leo Tolstoy (1889). Electronic versions are available here (pdf file).