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The publication of The Kreutzer Sonata in 1889 was a significant intellectual event worldwide. Censored in Russia, it set off an explosive international debate on matters relating to sexual abstinence and the hypocrisy of marriage. The novella emphasizes Tolstoy's controversial view on sexuality, which asserts that physical desire is an obstacle to relations between men and women and may result in tragedy. The Kreutzer Sonata has been recognized as among the best examples of Tolstoy's art of storytelling.

Originally inspired by Beethoven's sonata with the same name, it has in turn inspired many artists since, most notably, another musician, Janáček.