Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

by Nikolai Leskov

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

If I were to identify some of the major themes of Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, I would focus on 1) the tragic hero, 2) social inequality and the oppression of women, and 3) the evils of human nature.

One prominent theme to consider is the theme of the tragic hero, which is a hero whose actions inadvertently lead to his or her own demise. In this story, Katerina, who falls in passionate love with her farmhand, becomes so wrapped up in her affair that she is willing to do anything to keep her relationship alive, which leads to her own tragic fate. She is an also an appealing character in spite of her faults and evil deeds because the audience can identify with her feelings.

Of course another overarching theme is that of the woman’s subservient role during the nineteenth-century Europe (as well as in the rest of the world). Katerina, like most women during this time period, is powerless and relegated to the role of bearing children and running the household. Not only that, she is unjustly blamed and held responsible when she and her husband fail to have children. Through this story line, the author strives to show the suffering that women endured, including the abuse, blame, guilt, and loss of free will. This can then be contrasted with Katerina’s overwhelming and uncontrollable emotions once she finally feels what it is like to love and make her own choices.

Finally, the question of human nature permeates the story. For example, can the innate feelings of love and passion that every human feels be controlled? Does every human deserve to have those feelings and therefore give in to them? In the story, Sergei is able to bring about a spark in Katerina that makes her feel alive, yet he is also able to destroy her with that same passion. Is it better to truly love and lose than to never love at all, yet be safe and secure? And what about greed? Don’t all humans strive to better themselves when given the chance? If given the opportunity, how many people would be driven to wrongdoing in order to improve their status or just to save themselves?

Now it’s your turn to decide: which of the themes is the most significant to you and why? Which themes are similar to themes in other stories you have read? For example, how are these themes similar to those of other famous tragedies, such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth?

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