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Katie van Schaijik

Sofia Tolstoy and feminism

Oct. 4, 2010, at 9:02pm

I’ve just read a book review of The Diaries Sofia Tolstoy that fills me with an inexpressible sadness.

Who can read it without sympathizing with feminism?

On Nov. 13, 1863, the young wife describes her existence:
“I am left alone morning, afternoon and night. I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture. I am a woman. I try to suppress all human feelings. When the machine is working properly it heats the milk, knits a blanket, makes little requests and bustles about trying not to think—and life is tolerable. But the moment I am alone and allow myself to think, everything seems insufferable.“

She admires her husband’s gifts of insight and expression, and feels most at peace when she’s able to help him his work by typing his manuscripts, sometimes repeatedly.

Yet, as she poignantly remarks, “If he had one iota of the psychological understanding which fills his books, he would have understood the pain and despair I was going through.”

Her life is filled with enervating child-rearing and household cares. In the introduction to the book (which I found at Amazon.com), Dahlia Lithwick makes clear that Sofia Tolstoy was a typically modern woman, in exactly the sense Jules discusses below—in her self-awareness, her brooding restlessness and discontent.

...why am I not happy? Is it my fault? I know all the reasons for my spiritual suffering: firstly it grieves me that my children are not as happy as I would wish. And then I am actually very lonely. My husband is not my friend: he has been my passionate at times, especially as he grows older, but all my life I have felt lonely with him. He doesn’t go for walks with me, he prefers to ponder in solitude over his writing. He has never taken any interest in my children, for he finds this difficult and dull.

Sofia longs for new landscapes, intellectual development, art, contact with people: “To each his fate. Mine was to be the auxiliary to my husband…”

Lithwick makes the likewise typically modern and back-firing mistake of seeing birth control as the solution to Sofia’s problem:

Like most women at the time, Sofia was at the mercy of her reproductive system—the advent of the pill was still almost a century away.

But to me, even without yet having read the diaries, it seems clear that the real source of her suffering was much deeper, and had everything to do with her sense of subordination, instrumentalization and thwarted personal selfhood. The consolation is that her suffering and her husband’s gifts have been part of awakening the world to problem.


Josef Seifert • Oct 9, 2010 - 2:24 am

Dear Katie,

I would be extremely cautious in my opinions about this book and its author, nor sympathize with the young wife of Tolstoy against him right away, without reading the whole diaries and other testimonies as well. The author’s attitude towards motherhood and household chores I find rather horrific, for example when she writes: “Her life is filled with enervating child-rearing and household cares.” The same applies to her comment of praise of the pill and slanted view of motherhood as a kind of machine.  The few quotes from her book you cite would not immediately make me have sympathy for feminism but I rather feel horror of its negative view of the wonderful gift of being granted to cooperate with the coming into being of new human persons destined for eternity. The negative view of motherly duties and the total absence of any love from the words of Tolstoi’s wife for her great husband in her quotes makes it necessary to read at least the whole book and other testimonies on Tolstoi before knowing whether his wife or he was so exceedingly selfish. Thus I recommend: study the case more carefully before making judgments about persons!

Katie van Schaijik • Oct 9, 2010 - 3:29 pm

Dearest Josef, I do not judge Sonya or Tolstoy.  I only feel her misery.  And, two other points:
1) Though I agree with you entirely about the incomparably high dignity and beauty of motherhood, I also think it can and does happen that women experience themselves (with some justice) as being instrumentalized by their sexuality, even in marriage and motherhood.  The only remedy for that is love.
2) It is possible to be a great, great novelist and also a terrible husband, no?

Josef Seifert • Oct 10, 2010 - 12:52 am

Dearest Katie,

thank you for your good reply.
1) It is certainly the case that a woman may feel being instrumentalized by her partner’s sexuality, even in marriage and motherhood, and that this may have some justification in the case of a ruthless egotistic husband who does not care about possibly legitimate wishes of his delicate wife, who does not lover her but just lust for her, or does not respect legitimate wishes of hers not to have one child after the other. (Even the Catholic Church allows in such cases for natural family planning without using contraceptives through which the inner and sacred meaningful bond between spousal love and procreation, and divine creation and human cooperation with it, would be violated.
However, even assuming that Tolstoy was such a fellow, the remedy of love that you mention seems completely absent from the attitude of Tolstoy’s wife as described in the book you quote. Moreover the author of the book appears to represent a horrific “feminist” attitude so widespread today where the mere fact of not having pills or abortions available is considered a kind of instrumentalization and where the child is seen not as a gift but as a sickness, as in Obama’s new health plan.
2. Certainly also a grandiose novelist and noble genius as Tolstoy, though it does not ring very plausible, might have been a terrible husband or father, but I believe before accepting that that is what he was or feeling pity with his “poor miserable wife”, one ought to examine the justice of these reproaches and see whether the description of Leo by Sonya was true or itself the consequence of an extremely selfish and egotistic attitude. While we never can dare an ultimate judgment on this, we may nevertheless study it more and the general way things are presented in the book you quote certainly seems slanted and untrue. At any rate, Sonya was not a poor woman with 27 children (as Saint Catherine of Siena’s – also not poor - mother who loved all of them and never thought herself abused by her husband, Saint Catherine being the last of her children),  but the wife of a wealthy author and count in whose household she had probably a staff of servants as in the household of Kitty and other wives Tolstoy describes in Anna Karenina. Thus the author`s presenting Sonya as a poor woman abused by her many pregnancies for a lack of a pills is not only inherently wrong and without any “remedy of love” but is doubly questionable as an accurate historical account of her life.

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