Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Debating Narrativity and Agency in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

              In the introduction to his translation of Nikolai Leskov’s novella, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1865), Richard Pevear notes that Soviet critics of the 1930s “saw the heroine as the embodiment of protest against a corrupt and stultifying bourgeois society” (Pevear 569). Pevear refers to the novella’s eponymous protagonist, Katerina Lvovna, who is dubbed as Lady Macbeth by local townsfolk after she murders her father-in-law, husband, and nephew in hopes of making her love affair with the servant Sergei permanent. Her dalliance with Sergei unlocks “the full breadth of her expansive nature,” allowing her to gain control of her husband’s capital and thus her future (Leskov 14). Critics and readers alike have linked Katerina’s shameless pursuit of love and overt sexuality to female agency, empowerment, and resistance[1]. While her sexual liberation may very well be a form of rebellion against the economic and sexual subordination dictated by bourgeois notions of marriage and family, her “protest” ends there. Katerina does not necessarily prioritize her new-found agency; instead, Katerina remains single-minded – intent on securing and, more importantly, maintaining Sergei’s affections. If anything, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk stresses the patriarchal forces that thwart her from becoming the agential, subversive woman critics believe Katerina to be. While Katerina’s interactions with Zinovy and Sergei are the most obvious illustrations of gender and class imbalance, it is the narrativity of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk itself that both emphasizes Katerina’s lack of independence and completely robs her of it.
            Both the narrator and narration of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk immediately place Katerina in a position of exhibition, making her a fetishized object by the novella’s own narrative frame. Elizabeth A. Wells characterizes the novella’s narration as straightforward and its tone “objective,” which she likens to a “crime report” (Wells 165). However, the novella’s opening paragraph suggests otherwise. The narrator remarks at the beginning of the text, “Now and again in these parts you come across people so remarkable that, no matter how much time has passed since you met them, it is impossible to recall them without your heart trembling” (Leskov 3). The opening line’s reference to “these parts” and “local gentry,” along with its use of “our” indicates that the narrator is an insider or inhabitant of the Russian countryside. This local perspective complicates the “objective tone” Wells assigns to the text because of its frank admission of collective sensitivity to the subject at hand. But it is not until the following line that any notion of narrative impartiality is disrupted when the narrator frames Katerina as a local mythic figure, stating “One such person was Katerina Lvovna Izmailova, a merchant’s wife who was once the centre of a drama so terrible that our local gentry, taking their cue from someone’s light-hearted quip, took to calling her ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” (Leskov 3). By equating her to Lady Macbeth and employing words such as “drama,” the narrator paints Katerina as the tragic heroine of some sensationalized folk tale. This description reduces Katerina to merely a figure for entertainment, thus offering her as spectacle for both the townspeople and the reader.
            Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’s narrativity further subjects Katerina to spectacle as the narrator emphasizes Katerina’s physicality to the point of sheer objectification in the following paragraph. In the first direct characterization of the novella’s protagonist, the narrator remarks:

Katerina Lvovna was not exactly a beauty, but there was something pleasing about her nevertheless. She was only in her twenty-fourth year; she was short but shapely, with a neck that could have been sculpted from marble; she had graceful shoulders and a firm bosom; her nose was straight and fine, her eyes black and lively, and she had a high white forehead and black, almost blue-black hair (Leskov 3).

            This description of Katerina, punctuated by semicolons, syntactically mimics the male gaze; the narrator is slowly scanning the length of Katerina’s figure as he hyper-fixates on one part of her body before flitting to and eroticizing the next. Katerina’s body, then, is portrayed as the site of narrative pleasure and sensuality. Her characterization, chiefly driven by male sexuality, positions her as the erotic object of desire that serves to titillate the novella’s male narrator, characters, and reader. The heroine’s agency, then, is undermined and contradicted by the narrative’s own representation of her liberation, which is heavily reliant on male-coded language. Katerina’s character continues to be limited to and defined in terms of sexuality throughout the text, with the narrator frequently referencing her “firm bosom” and “voluptuous,” “supine” figure (Leskov 8, 17–19, 43). As a result, Katerina remains objectified under the scrutiny of the narrator, and in turn, reader, thus further reducing her character to salacious spectacle and fetishized object.
            Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’s narrativity takes one last step in axing Katerina’s purported agency and subversiveness by providing little insight into her life. Without this, Katerina lacks complexity and depth. Instead, Katerina is portrayed as either sexual and lovelorn or cruel and jealous, diminishing her character to feminine caricature drawn by the hand of the male narrator. In the moments when we are privy to Katerina’s thoughts — which are few — we see that her mind is plagued by images of her dead husband and father-in-law, reflecting the ways in which male authority continue to structure and haunt Katerina’s life despite her attempts to aggressively eliminate those forces through murder (Leskov 25, 61). Interestingly, the absence of Katerina’s interiority is seemingly offset at the beginning of the text when the reader gets some understanding of the heroine’s background. We come to understand several things — her marriage to Zinovy is one of convenience because “she, being poor, could not afford to be choosy”; she is blamed by her husband and father-in-law for Zinovy’s impotence; and, with no child to raise, Katerina is left alone in an empty, silent house for many hours of the day while Zinovy and Boris run the family business (Leskov 3). Though this awareness of her subjection and loneliness appears to be an illustration of sympathy for the protagonist, this brief glimpse into Katerina’s life instead emphasizes the submissive role expected of women in nineteenth-century European society. Instances of insight such as this reinforce rather than simply demonstrate the patriarchal forces that influence Katerina’s actions.
            Stripped of interiority and treated as spectacle, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk inevitably robs Katerina of subversiveness and agency through its own narrativity. And when Katerina tries to push against these patriarchal constraints by exercising her autonomy through her sexuality, her agency is immediately undermined by the eroticizing gaze of the male narrator and tainted by Sergei, Boris, and/or Zinovy’s influence. By the end of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Katerina is ultimately punished for resisting economic and sexual subordination and stepping out of the prescribed gender boundaries. While the original text fails to fully endorse and depict an agential woman of the nineteenth-century, modern adaptations of Leskov’s novella such as Dmitri Shostakovich’s 1934 opera and William Oldroyd’s 2017 film have remedied this mistake, granting Katerina the complexity, interiority, and, most importantly, freedom that was robbed of her from the start.  

Fornari, Roberta. “Lady Macbeth in the Mtsensk District by Nikolaj Leskov.” La Lettrice Immaginaria, 28 Oct. 2018,

Leskov, Nikolai. Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: A Sketch. Translated by Robert Chandler, Hesperus Press Limited, 2003.

Pevear, Richard, et al. “Introduction.” Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: A Sketch. The Hudson Review, vol. 64, no. 4, 2012, p. 569.

Sneider, Eve. “Until Death Do Us Part: Making Space for Female Subjectivity in Nikolai Leskov and Fyodor Dostoevsky.” Process, 2018,

Wells, Elizabeth A. “'The New Woman': Lady Macbeth and Sexual Politics in the Stalinist Era.” Cambridge Opera Journal, vol. 13, no. 2, 2001, pp. 163–189. JSTOR,
[1] Roberta Fornari likens Katerina to other “transgressing and subversive female figures” such as Anna Karenina, Hester Prynne, and Emma Bovary in her review of the novella (Fornari 2). Fornari writes, “…the young Katerina Lvovna […] embodies all the power and subversion of a fierce passion (Fornari 2). She is a woman that should be imagined not only as a real character but also the prototype of the indomitable and sulphuric female overwhelmed by her passion and aware of a special force.” Eve Sneider characterizes Katerina in a similar way in her article, “Until Death Do Us Part: Making Space for Female Subjectivity in Nikolai Leskov and Fyodor Dostoevsky,” calling the heroine a “fierce agent” (Sneider 9). Sneider further argues that “[t]he narrator could have portrayed her […] as a silly woman or cunning vixen. Instead, he has reminded us of her ability to control her fate and harness her own power” (Sneider 7).

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