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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 420

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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?

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534

“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 Leskov’s treatment is unsurpassed—all the more so, because, unlike Ostrovsky, he does not set out to draw a genre picture or an expose of this pious and ignorant but shrewd and pragmatic class, a class whose domestic customs and habits date back to Byzantine books of instruction on the proper conduct of households, wives, and children. That Katerina is unjustly reproached for her childlessness, that her relatives inspect her every move for signs of waywardness or impropriety, that her husband threatens to torture the truth out of her—these things Leskov presents as a matter of course, as givens. What interests him and what interests the reader is not so much sociology or psychology as character—human nature, Katerina’s nature.

Leskov does not sentimentally justify Katerina’s crimes, but it is clear that she is neither fundamentally evil, nor weakly corrupt, nor cruel. Like many another Leskov character, she seems a potentially heroic figure somehow gone wrong. Fate may masquerade as society but really fools no one. In her energy, vitality, and sensuality, she is far more appealing than either her victims or her partner-in-crime; her obsession, her “possession,” is an honest one, which she herself neither rationalizes nor justifies. The instincts that Sergey awakens in her are not all murderous—for the first time in her married life she really sees, hears, and smells the beauty around her. The very strength of her feeling leads to her downfall.

It is no accident that Sergey and Katerina’s first bantering exchange is a challenge of strength. The old peasant weighing the flour says, “Our body . . . counts for nothing on the scales. It’s our strength that weighs, not our body.” In the end, it is Katerina’s tragic strength, not inert weight, that pulls both herself and her rival beneath the waves.