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How I Killed My Wife

March 3, 2009
The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories

The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories

The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories
By Leo Tolstoy
Transl. J.D. Duff, Aylmer Maude

There is a moment in every reader’s life, when he or she is holding a novel and suddenly thinks, “I am in the mind of a genius.” I am struck with this electric realization every time I read Tolstoy. The man is a master, matchless throughout the canon of literature. His characters are these eternally surprising strikes to the heart; their stories evade cheap categorization. One is continually receiving little gifts with every page.

This collection of short novellas punctuated my late winter, which would have been almost unbearably dull otherwise. Every night, I was grateful to crawl in bed with the ailing Ivan Ilych and his nagging wife.

For this short review, I want to talk about why I particularly loved two of the stories, “Family Happiness” and “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

Family Happiness (transl. Duff)

This novella, written in 1859, is a mini-bildungsroman for the narrator, a young girl named Masha. At first, I wasn’t much impressed. It seemed like it would run like every other emotional-growth-of-a-young-woman plot: she is vain, proud; falls in love; heart breaks; character develops; blooms into a full woman. But Tolstoy won’t let you have it so easily. He toys with this familiar narrative line by letting Masha tell her own story. Masha tells us about how she fell in love with Sergey Mikhaylych, an old family friend; the waxing and waning of their romance; their marriage; and, finally, a subtle misunderstanding that threatens to shake the very foundations of their relationship.

When she is still young, Masha tries to approach this feeling of love in her own words:

I felt that my dreams and thoughts and prayers were live things, living there in the dark with me, hovering about my bed, and standing over me. And every thought was his thought, and every feeling his feeling. I did not know yet that this was love; I thought that things might go on so for ever, and that this feeling involved no consequences.

What is especially remarkable to me is how persuasive Masha’s voice is. I’ve read very few male authors that truthfully channeled a woman’s perspective. Many make admirable, and even believable, efforts (Per Petterson and Henry James come to mind). But no one, in my memory, has written as truly and convincingly as Tolstoy in Masha’s voice. His insight is tremendous. He portrays Masha as a living woman, a mix of virtue and vice, but completely real, completely beyond female stereotypes. It’s a remarkable story, for this quality alone. 

The Kreutzer Sonata (transl. Maude)

Published 30 years after “Family Happiness,” this novella provides the reader with the full text of a long conversation between two strangers on a train. One man is telling the other why and how he murdered his wife. “The Kreutzer Sonata” only further reinforces Tolstoy’s divine gift of being able to fully inhabit his characters. The man telling the dark tale of a marriage gone to hell, Pozdnyshev, is chillingly acute and intelligent; he seems so sincere that it is almost hard not to like him. Only Tolstoy could make a murderer affable.

As he tells his companion, who only interjects a few bewildered questions, this is the heart of his terrifying story:

“I am telling you how I killed my wife. They asked me at the trial with what and how I killed her. Fools! They thought I killed her with a knife, on the 5th of October. It was not then I killed her, but much earlier. Just as they are all now killing, all, all…”

The other salient quality of this novella is Tolstoy’s unbelievable progressiveness and insight into the rights of women and the future fight for feminism. While speaking through Pozdnyshev’s voice, Tolstoy manages to put forth an argument explaining the historical subjugation of women that even modern feminists would hail as accurate:

“Woman’s lack of rights arises not from the fact that she must not vote or be a judge—to be occupied with such affairs is no privilege—but from the fact that she is not man’s equal in sexual intercourse and had not the right to use a main or abstain from him as she likes—is not allowed to choose a man at her pleasure instead of being chosen by him.”

And later on:

“Well, and they liberate woman, give her all sorts of rights equal to man, but continue to regard her as an instrument of enjoyment, and so educate her in childhood and afterwards by public opinion. And there she is, still the same humiliated and depraved slave, and the man still a depraved slave-owner.”

It’s an astonishing pilgrimage through the mind of a man who has justified every action of his life–and won’t rest until you’ve heard all of his answers. Call it an overbold statement, but I think this novella proves, more accurately than even his masterpieces, why Tolstoy is a genius, why he is untouchable.

When I was in high school, I used to declare that I really didn’t care for the Russians. But I kept going back again and again for more. After I finished a Dostoyevsky and swore I’d never go back, I’d be reading Chekhov the next week. Spending time with Tolstoy just reminds me why he and his kinsmen are so impossible to quit.

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