The Lady MacBeth

In Nikolai Leskov’s famous short story “Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk Uezd”, the main character, Katerina Lvovna Izmailova, is a young woman, formerly of the peasant class, trapped in an unhappy marriage to a much older merchant.   She falls in love with a handsome and clever young servant, Sergei, and stops at nothing to try to marry him, even murdering members of her own family. When she and Sergei are sentenced to Siberia for their crimes, he falls in love with another prisoner. In her jealousy, Katerina leaps off a cliff into the sea, taking Sergei’s new lover with her and killing them both.

The character of Katerina Lvovna is certainly an interesting one. She is in a way a representation of a typical Russian woman of her class, yet has several marked differences. One way in which she is different is how she was born into a lowly peasant class, but was able to migrate upward by marriage into the slightly higher merchant class. As a result of her change in social position, she often felt out of place with her husband’s friends, as “they were all strict people: they watched how she sat, and how she walked, and how she stood” (Leskov, The Hudson Review). This is an example of how the different social estates in Russia had different customs, and how it was not easy to move between them without sticking out a bit.

Katerina’s intense love affair with Sergei is an example of how women in Russia did not have much autonomy during the late nineteenth century. Forced to marry a man she did not love because of financial reasons, it is unsurprising that she fell in love with a servant who was far closer to her in age and came from a similar social background as she did. Her marriage is described as something she could not refuse, as “she was a poor girl and could not choose her suitors” (Leskov). Katerina is under almost complete control of her husband and father-in-law. The only time she is seemingly free is when they both have to leave town to attend to business; even then, the other townspeople keep an eye on her and question her relationship with Sergei. Additionally, the Izamailova’s childlessness is blamed on Katerina Lvovna, despite the fact that her husband’s first marriage was also childless. This assumption that the infertility is due to the fault of the woman is typical of societies where women are seen as inferior.

The reader almost feels sympathetic to Katerina and Sergei when they kill her father-in-law, and even perhaps her husband. However, it is likely that the reader loses the sympathetic feelings when she murders her young cousin-in-law in cold blood, and then abandons her child without any second thoughts before leaving for Siberia to serve her sentence. The reader does likely feel pity for Katerina when Sergei leaves her, however; it is a twist that the reader likely suspected since the introduction of Sergei’s character, but is a sad twist nonetheless. The ending of the short story was a surprise, and shows how a woman like Katerina would feel like she was completely alone in the world without a man, as that would have been the way of the world she was brought up in.

The story is definitely a sad one, both due to the events that take place during it, as well as the fact that it reminds the reader of how few rights Russian women of the nineteenth century had, and how few choices they were allowed in controlling their own fate. The character of Katerina is a hard with which to sympathize, but at the same time it is almost completely impossible to condemn her for trying to control and better her own life.

Source:  Nickolai Leskov, “The Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk”, The Hudson Review,