Nikolai Leskov’s storyteller begins his tale with a description of the oppressive boredom of the provincial Russian merchant household, where the men leave to conduct their business and the women are left in a latter-day harem, to look after the children—if there are any—and the larders. Katerina Izmaylova, the young wife of Zinovy Borisovich Izmaylov, is attractive, spirited, and quite unprepared by her poor but free and simple childhood for the stultifying narrowness of her husband’s way of life. Her five-year marriage has brought no children, and despite the fact that Zinovy Borisovich’s first wife bore no children either, Katerina is reproached for her barrenness, for “ruining her husband’s life.” Passive, languid, Katerina wanders the silent house, sleeps, watches the servants from her attic window.
It is from that attic window, her bedroom window, that Katerina looks out on the spring garden in the sixth year of her marriage and decides to go for a stroll. She hears laughter near the barns and finds her father-in-law’s clerks teasing the fat cook by hoisting her into a flour vat to weigh her. The chief culprit is Sergey—young, handsome, insolent, and more than ready to test Katerina’s boast of her strength. In doing so, he embraces her—and a flustered Katerina leaves but not without finding out that Sergey is a newcomer, fired by his last employer for carrying on with the mistress.
That evening, Sergey appears at Katerina’s door, complaining of loneliness and boredom. He has little trouble sweeping Katerina off her feet and into bed, and the two lovers spend every night together for the week thereafter. Then Boris Timofeyevich, Katerina’s father-in-law, catches Sergey sliding down a pillar beneath the attic window and takes the unrepentant sinner to the storeroom, flogs him brutally, and locks him in. He sends for his absent son, and in the face of Katerina’s pleas and brazen lack of shame, decides to send Sergey to prison.
On the day of his decision, however, Boris Timofeyevich falls ill after eating his porridge and mushrooms, and toward evening dies “just like the rats in his...
(The entire section is 879 words.)