Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Come you spirits that tend on mortal thought, unsex me here,” says William Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth as she steels herself for Duncan’s murder. There are no such words from Leskov’s merchant murderess, Katerina Izmaylova, as she dispatches first her father-in-law, then her husband, then her nephew—and finally her rival and herself. She neither reflects, nor rehearses, nor suffers remorse. No abstract notions of power or kingship rule Katerina’s actions—her lover Sergey can bring her nothing in the way of authority or status—nor, until the third murder, does she show any trace of greed. When the authorities ask her why she has committed these crimes, she answers simply, nodding at Sergey, “For him.” The source of Katerina’s newfound strength of will, so murderously directed, is passion itself—purely physical, sexual passion, inseparable from her femaleness.

Leskov had originally intended his Katerina to be one of a series of female types from the area along the Oka and Volga rivers, types to be taken from the peasant, merchant, and gentry estates. His series of sketches never materialized, but “Lady Macbeth” has become one of Leskov’s best-known, most powerful tales. This “dark kingdom,” the patriarchal, superstitious merchant milieu, was mined by other Russian writers of the mid-nineteenth century, such as Aleksandr Ostrovsky in his plays and Fyodor Dostoevski in Idiot (1868; The Idiot, 1887), but...

(The entire section is 534 words.)