Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

by Nikolai Leskov

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is a tragic novella about how passion and freewill can lead to one’s downfall. The story is set in nineteenth-century Russia during a time when women were powerless, oppressed by society and forced to be homemakers. The main character, Katerina Ismailov, a beautiful woman who grew up poor, has been married to her wealthy merchant husband, Zinovy, for 5 years. Unfortunately, she has failed at her only duty as a woman—to bear children—and as a result, has been scorned and abused by her husband and father-in-law, Boris. While she is taken care of financially, she lives a boring, uneventful life as her husband is always traveling and she is forced to be under the watchful eye of her father-in-law. However, Katerina’s fate changes when she meets the new, handsome farm laborer of their estate, Sergei, who teaches her what it’s like to feel alive and do what one pleases. When her suspicious father-in-law catches on to their affair, he punishes Sergei brutally and calls on his son to come home. However, Katerina, having finally tasted freedom for the first time, is not ready to give it up, which leads her to commit a string of murders to keep her affair and fortune going. When her actions finally force her and her lover on the run, Sergei turns unfaithful, which tears Katerina apart, fills her with jealousy and rage, and leads to her own demise. In the end, the story is a cautionary tale about what people are willing to do for freewill and fortune.

The question for you as the reader is, how is this story similar to Shakespeares’s Macbeth and the motivations, desires, and actions of the character Lady Macbeth? Consider comparing Katerina’s murderous desires, plans, and actions as well as her feelings about them with those of Lady Macbeth. What are their motivations? Do they feel guilty for their actions?

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