If “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is the best known of Nikolai Leskov’s works outside Russia, that is owing mainly to the opera Dmitri Shostakovich made of it in 1934. Like Soviet critics of the time, Shostakovich saw the heroine as the embodiment of protest against a corrupt and stultifying bourgeois society and therefore justifiable in her actions, if not exactly innocent. To make that reading more persuasive, he eliminated the third and most terrible of her crimes. Andrzej Wajda did not go so far in his film version, A Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962), but he did make the third victim a selfish and manipulative little creature and therefore “deserving” of his fate. Leskov’s story allows for no such simplifying social explanations. It is a dramatic portrayal of the amoral, ambiguous, elemental force of sexual passion, as intense in its heat as in its coldness. In stylistic directness and narrative concentration, it is unique among his works. He wrote it while visiting relatives in Kiev, where he was given space in the university’s punishment room. He later described how his hair stood on end as he worked on it alone in that unlikely place and swore he would never describe such horrors again. The story, one of Leskov’s earliest, was first published in Dostoevsky’s magazine Epoch in 1865. Richard Pevear
The first song brings a blush to the cheek.
In our parts such characters sometimes turn up that, however many years ago you met them, you can never recall them without an inner trembling. To the number of such characters belongs the merchant’s wife Katerina Lvovna Izmailova, who once played out a terrible drama, after which our gentlefolk, in someone’s lucky phrase, started calling her the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.
Katerina Lvovna was not born a beauty, but she was a woman of very pleasing appearance. She was only twenty-three years old; not tall, but shapely, with a neck as if carved from marble, rounded shoulders, a firm bosom, a fine, straight little nose, lively black eyes, a high and white brow, and very black, almost blue-black hair. She was from Tuskar in Kursk province and was given in marriage to our merchant Izmailov, not out of love or any sort of attraction, but just so, because Izmailov sent a matchmaker to propose, and she was a poor girl and could not choose her suitors. The house of Izmailov was not the least in our town: they traded in white flour, kept a big rented mill in the district, had orchards outside town, and in town had a fine house. Generally, they were well-to-do merchants. Besides, the family was very small: the father-in-law, Boris Timofeich Izmailov, was already nearly eighty, a long-time widower; his son, Zinovy Borisych, Katerina Lvovna’s husband, was a little over fifty; then there was Katerina Lvovna, and that was all. In the five years of Katerina Lvovna’s marriage to Zinovy Borisych, she had had no children. Nor did Zinovy Borisych have children from his first wife, with whom he had lived for some twenty years before becoming a widower and marrying Katerina Lvovna. He thought and hoped that God might grant an heir to his merchant name and capital from his second marriage; but in that he was again unlucky with Katerina Lvovna.
This childlessness greatly distressed Zinovy Borisych, and not only Zinovy Borisych, but also old Boris Timofeich, and even Katerina Lvovna herself was much grieved by it. For one thing, exceeding boredom in the merchant’s locked-up tower, with its high walls and watchdogs running loose, had more than once filled the merchant’s young wife with pining, to the point of stupefaction, and she would have been glad, God knows how glad, to nurse a little child; and for another thing, she was also sick of reproaches: “Why marry, what’s the point of marrying; why bind a man’s fate, barren woman?”—as if she really had committed some crime against her husband, and against her father- in-law, and against their whole honorable merchant family.
For all its ease and plenty, Katerina Lvovna’s life in her father-in-law’s house was most boring. She went visiting very little, and if she did go with her husband to call on his merchant friends, that was also no joy. They were all strict people: they watched how she sat, and how she walked, and how she stood. But Katerina Lvovna had an ardent nature, and when she had lived in poverty as a young girl, she had been accustomed to simplicity and freedom, running to the river with buckets, swimming under the pier in nothing but a shift, or throwing sunflower husks over the garden gate at some young fellow passing by. Here it was all different. Her father-in-law and husband got up as early as could be, had their tea at six o’clock, and went about their business, while she dilly-dallied from room to room alone. It was clean everywhere, it was quiet and empty everywhere, icon lamps shone before the icons, and nowhere in the house was there a living sound, a human voice.
Katerina Lvovna would wander and wander about the empty rooms, start yawning with boredom, and climb the stairs to her marital bedroom in the small, high mezzanine. There, too, she sat, looked at how they hung up hemp or poured out flour by the storehouse—again she would start to yawn, and she was glad of it: she would doze off for an hour or two, then wake up—again the same Russian boredom, the boredom of a merchant’s house, from which they say you could even happily hang yourself. Katerina Lvovna was not a lover of reading, and besides there were no books in their house except for the lives of the Kievan saints.
Katerina Lvovna lived a boring life in the rich house of her father-in-law during the five years of her marriage to her unaffectionate husband; but, as often happens, no one paid the slightest attention to this boredom of hers.
In the sixth spring of Katerina Lvovna’s marriage, the Izmailovs’ mill dam burst. At that time, as if on purpose, a lot of work had been brought to the mill, and the breach proved enormous: water went under the lower sill, and to stop it up slapdash was impossible. Zinovy Borisych drove people to the mill from all around and sat there constantly himself; the business in town was managed by the old man alone, and Katerina Lvovna languished at home for whole days as alone as could be. At first she was still more bored without her husband, but then it came to seem even better to her: she felt freer by herself. Her heart had never really gone out to him, and without him there was at least one less commander over her.
Once Katerina Lvovna was sitting at the window on her upper floor, yawning, yawning, thinking of nothing in particular, and she finally felt ashamed to be yawning. And the weather outside was so wonderful: warm, bright, cheerful, and through the green wooden lattice of the garden various birds could be seen flitting from branch to branch in the trees.
“What in fact am I yawning for?” thought Katerina Lvovna. “I might at least get up and go for a walk in the yard or a stroll in the garden.”
Katerina Lvovna threw on an old damask jacket and went out.
Outside it was so bright and the air was so invigorating, and in the gallery by the storehouses there was such merry laughter.
“What are you so glad about?” Katerina Lvovna asked her father-in-law’s clerks.
“You see, dearest Katerina Lvovna, we’ve been weighing a live sow,” an old clerk replied.
“This sow Aksinya here, who gave birth to a son Vassily and didn’t invite us to the christening,” a fine fellow with a handsome, impudent face framed in jet-black curls and a barely sprouting beard told her boldly and merrily.
At that moment the fat mug of the ruddy cook Aksinya peeked out of a flour tub hung on a balance beam.
“Fiends, sleek-sided devils,” the cook swore, trying to catch hold of the iron beam and climb out of the swinging tub.
“Weighs two hundred and fifty pounds before dinner, and once she’s eaten a load of hay, there won’t be weights enough,” the handsome young fellow again explained, and, overturning the tub, he dumped the cook out onto the sacking piled in the corner.
The woman, cursing playfully, began putting herself to rights.
“Well, and how much might I weigh?” Katerina Lvovna joked, and, taking hold of the ropes, she stepped onto the plank.
“A hundred and fifteen pounds,” the same handsome young Sergei said, throwing weights onto the balance. “Amazing!”
“That you weigh over a hundred pounds, Katerina Lvovna. I reckoned a man could carry you around in his arms the whole day and not get tired out, but only feel the pleasure it gave him.”
“What, you mean I’m not a human being or something? You’d get tired for sure,” Katerina Lvovna replied, blushing slightly, not used to such talk and feeling a sudden surge of desire to loosen up and speak her fill of merry and playful words.
“God, no! I’d carry you all the way to happy Araby,” Sergei replied to her remark.
“Your reckoning’s off, young fellow,” said the little peasant doing the pouring. “What is it makes us heavy? Is it our body gives us weight? Our body, my dear man, means nothing in the scales: our strength, it’s our strength gives us weight—not the body!”
“In my girlhood I was awfully strong,” Katerina Lvovna said, again not restraining herself. “It wasn’t every man who could beat me.”
“Well, then, your hand please, ma’am, if that’s really true,” the handsome fellow asked.
Katerina Lvovna became embarrassed but held out her hand.