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?
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...
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