Letter to Liza Pozdnyshev, From Her Mother: A Re-Telling of Tolstoy’s ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’

17 Aug

I originally wrote this as a final paper for a class called European Women’s History.  The assignment was to write a short story using what we had learned about women’s lives in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.  One of our readings had been the Kreutzer Sonata, a first person account by Leo Tolstoy of a man going insane with jealousy over his wife.  As much as I love Tolstoy’s writing, the story itself rubbed me the wrong way, and I could only finish reading it by imaging what the wife’s perspective might be.  Here is my rendition of her tale:

I am well aware that your father has already told you the story of my death.  I am sure that he vilified me, making me sound like a loose and shrew-ish woman, but I am also aware that this is my only chance to impart my wisdom to you and I hope that you will bear me out.  My hope is that you will find here a sketch of your mother that will convince you that I was loving and kind, and did not deserve the fate that I have suffered, or at the very least give you an independence of mind that your father will undoubtedly have restrained to the best of his abilities.  If my dreadful tale does not alter your beliefs about me, at the least I hope it will teach you some truths about the world that my own mother failed to teach me.

I was sixteen years old when I first laid eyes on your father.  Sitting in a row with all the other girls, we giggled behind our hands at the men who strutted before us, all the while flashing jealous eyes at our competition, the rest of our pretty sex.  My father had been a landowner in Penza but misfortune had reduced our station and even though I wore my finest gown, I knew it told that tale.

So it was a great surprise to me when a pair of trousers stopped directly in front of me and held out a gloved hand.  His dark silk vest showed a glittery gold watch chain and, unlike many of the other men, the swallowing of his neck by the cravat he wore accentuated his aristocratic face.  Behind his smile were enticing secrets.

And oh! I was an innocent who thought those secrets would not rob me of my purity!

The ball itself was dazzling but even more dazzlingly, he called on me again and again.  He made me feel like a goddess, drawing me into his world until everything else fell away and there was only him.  When he wasn’t near, I lay sick in bed, but sprang from it at the first mention that I might see him.  He didn’t come often, but when he did, he brought me expensive presents and said the most enchanting things.  I know now that he was experienced in seducing women –yes, I was not the first woman for him as he was the first man for me!—but then I believed him that it was my singular beauty and twinkling eyes that had drawn him to me.  My mother taught me that the highest praise was that of a man in love, but if I hope to teach you anything in this brief letter, it is that “flattery is like friendship in show, but not in fruit.”

Your father appeared to be an honorable man in all respects and so when he asked me to marry him, I agreed.  It wasn’t until too late –the night before the wedding—that he revealed his true state of depravity.  He allowed me to read his diaries, full of vile accounts of the most awful acts.  I could not have read them all if he hadn’t stood over me, arms crossed and eyes strangely lit, forcing my attention back to them each time I pleaded to stop.  At last he took them back and returned to his own room, but I could not sleep, disturbed as I was by the images of those horrific acts that continued through my mind.  I know now that this was what he intended, that he took great joy in debasing my innocence, yet had it been so clear to me even then, I could not have stopped the wedding, which was already completely arranged.

Indeed, this was the first indication of the kind of cruel manipulation that characterized our years of marriage.  The gentleman who courted me disappeared in that instant, returning only when he had tortured me thoroughly into submission.  He would frequently start fights with me and then claim that I had started them.  He would request the most unreasonable things at unreasonable hours, knowing that I would refuse and he could then rebuke me.  At first, I believed him.  I took the blame upon myself, believing that I had not been a virtuous or obedient enough wife to him.  But when your brother was born, rather than being pleased with the heir I had finally given him, he began to accuse me of all manner of sexual licentiousness.  I began to realize that nothing I could do would ever satisfy him.  Whether I fought against him or gave in, he scolded me.  If I had done nothing wrong, he found something else of which to indict me.  His happiness was entirely dependent on my misery; he could not be happy without it.

I had no idea what to do but to ignore him.  If reaction was his pleasure, I would take that pleasure away.  I began to call on the girls with whom I had sat in a row when we were silly young women, all grown and married now as well.  He had previously admonished me into abandoning them but I did not reunite with them out of spite for your father, only a desperate desire for pleasant companionship when he had turned my own children against me.  They were pleased to invite me into their company again, which pleased me because it meant being alone with your father less and less.  In public, he was forced to play his old gentlemanly role and, if he sometimes did not, I could avoid him through reasonable excuses.  Simultaneously, I re-discovered my love of the piano, which I had long before put aside in favor of homemaking and taking care of my darling children.  I played for long hours in fact, for he would not disturb me as long as my fingers plucked the keys; music can, indeed, I have found, “soothe the savage beast.”

And yet this cost me worse, for it enraged him even more, so that he began to threaten violence.  This is why I write you now, because I have seen that look in his eyes more and more often, and I feel within my soul the inevitability of it.  Your father will be the death of me.  I see the devil in his eyes, hear the serpent in his tongue, and know that his irrational hatred of all that I am is too powerful for him to contain it for a lifetime.  I tried to do it for him once, drinking a phial of opium if you remember, but you rescued me.  I was compelled by honest gratefulness to make amends to your father, for the frightened look I saw on your guileless face convinced me that I should live as long as I could for my children, even if fate might see fit to shorten my existence.

As if in answer to my prayers begging for something to sustain me when I felt I could barely carry on alone, your father introduced me to Mr. Trukhachevsky one night.  He plays the violin, and is delighted that I am able to accompany him on the piano, especially in playing the Kreutzer Sonata; he says his mother and father used to play it together.  For both he and I, this is the first time in a very long while where we felt we have found a companion with whom we can speak our own thoughts truthfully and plainly.  I am happiest in a cloud of musical notes, with Mr. Trukhachevsky’s violin singing, for then it seems as though the whole world can be nothing but this beauty.  The quiet failure of my marriage and the passionate hatred of my husband fall away –the world in fact becomes distant—and I feel as though I am living in the pure breath of God Himself.

Naturally, this upsets your father to no end.  He believes I am having an affair with Mr. Trukhachevsky, in spite of my assurances that I entered into marriage with the utmost seriousness.  I would try to explain to him the incredible repulsion I truly feel of Mr. Trukhachevsky’s body –I accidentally brushed his hand once and found it to be as dull as wax—but your father would only believe that I was deceiving him, trying to assuage him with what he wanted to hear while being false.  You, my darling child, must know that your mother would never lie to you, that I will have no reason to lie with my honor already questioned with my very lifeblood.  The friendship that Mr. Trukhachevsky and I have is deep and precious, but it is also as pure as the life of a Bishop.

Your father is the one who will have to answer for his sins.  His lecherous youth and the hateful way he has dealt with his wife are known by God.  My inevitable death will only be another mark on his soul.  But I beg you not to allow that callous and depraved man to turn you from me or convince you that I was not a decent wife and mother.  I have regrets of my own, for which I will surely answer, but I have always maintained my own chastity outside of our marriage and sought to shelter my dear children from the evil of their father.  I write you this letter to show you the blood on your own father’s hands, and try to impart some of the knowledge of the male sex that I have gained before I am slain.  Please believe me when I say that most men want nothing more than the very virtuousness and incorruptibility of mind that you guard so closely, and will do anything to destroy it.  Those who flatter best are the most dangerous, for they rob you of that watchfulness and convince you of their purity by exalting your own.  A man such as this can only come to despise you, as your father came to despise me, through no fault of your own.

I am entrusting this letter to my sister, to give to you when you come of age, in the case of my early death.  I will watch you from heaven,

Your loving mother,

Sofya

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