Nikolai Leskov’s The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (1865)

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“‘Mm — yes, and you figured she’s just a woman,’ the little peasant said in surprise.” Photo credit: Promotional still of Florence Pugh as Katherine in Lady Macbeth (2016), sourced from http://florence-pugh.net

In 2016, the director William Oldroyd released a feature-length film, Lady Macbeth, starring Florence Pugh as the scheming protagonist. It was not, however, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, but instead an adaptation of a story by Nikolai Leskov, the title of which is usually translated as The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (1865). Oldroyd’s film is filled with eerily sparse settings and subdued colour schemes, and its peculiar genius lies in how Alice Birch’s screenplay transforms Leskov’s story into an unsettling meditation on different forms of power dynamics: gendered, economic, racial, social. By the end of the film, Oldroyd has managed to create a portrait so dark and taut that it becomes nearly impossible to differentiate between the roles of victim and persecutor: Pugh’s Katherine, powerless in some contexts and far too powerful in others, is no longer merely one or the other, but a far more terrifying combination of both.

In revisiting Leskov’s story, the portrait he offers of his heroine is slightly different from Oldroyd’s adaptation, but no less intriguing.

The Plot: Desperate Housewife, 19th-Century Russian Edition

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Unequal Marriage (1880), by Firs Zhuravlev. Photo source: WikiCommons

Katerina Lvovna Izmailova is the unloved trophy wife of Zinovy Borisych, a prosperous merchant who is twice her age and who deeply resents his wife’s seeming inability to produce an heir to the family fortune. Five years of the marital state have brought Katerina no joy: she lives under the thumb of both her husband and her elderly father-in-law, Boris Timofeich, and spends most of her days wandering idly around the near-empty rooms, locked up in a house that offers very little by way of amusement. Leskov describes Katerina’s formerly feisty nature as wilting under “the boredom of a merchant’s house, from which they say you could even happily hang yourself”.

Katerina’s daily routine becomes considerably more lively when business takes her husband away from home for a significant stretch of time, and she finds herself with the perfect opportunity for having an affair with one of her husband’s clerks, Sergei. Sergei is handsome and passionate, and the cook’s warnings to Katerina that Sergei is a mere womanizer fall, predictably enough, on deaf ears. It is this all-consuming desire for Sergei that will lead Katerina into committing a string of murders, driven by an increasingly desperate mission to free herself from the legal and social constraints that prevent a permanent union between the two lovers.

Leskov represents the relationship between Katerina and Sergei in relentlessly unsentimental terms, and what is of the most interest in his depiction lies in the differing motives he attributes to each of the lovers. In Oldroyd’s film, the relationship between the two lovers is, at its height, capable of an odd but seemingly sincere tenderness; in Leskov’s original story, Katerina is deluded from the first. Katerina, starved for excitement and affection in her unhappy marriage, is driven by her overwhelming desire for both sexual fulfilment with the strapping young clerk and an almost hopelessly naïve belief in the existence of a genuine love between them. Sergei has other ideas. Where Katerina sees a grand love affair, Sergei sees first an opportunity for a bit of lighthearted fun, and then – more intoxicating by far – a glimmer of hope of social advancement. While Katerina’s first murder, committed against her father-in-law after he discovers the affair, is undertaken alone and entirely on her own initiative, her next murder – of her husband – is accomplished with the help of Sergei, and inspired by his repeated laments to her of his lowly social standing:

I must say that my most insignificant position has made me consider . . . If I were, so to speak, your equal, a gentleman or a merchant, never in my life would I part from you, Katerina Lvovna. But as it is, consider for yourself, what sort of man am I next to you?

It is Sergei’s implied threat of separation due to their differing social status (“Can there be any permanent love between us?”) that leads Katerina to decide to act against her spouse: “[she] was now ready, for the sake of Sergei, to go through fire, through water, to prison, to the cross”.

The trouble, of course, is that murder begets murder, and no sooner has Katerina rid herself of her inconvenient husband than a nephew, still only a child, turns up with his guardian aunt to claim a share of the family fortune. Katerina, now pregnant with a child of her own, seems resigned to the necessity of dividing the spoils, until Sergei’s goading about how he will never be happy with seeing her have less than the entire fortune soon signs the death warrant of the unfortunate little Fedya as well. The third murder is, however, the pair’s undoing. Passing townsfolk witness the crime through the window, and Sergei breaks down and confesses to not only the murder of Fedya, but of Zinovy Borisych too, implicating Katerina in the process. Both Katerina and Sergei are sent to hard labour in Siberia, and along the way Sergei, now bored and penniless, soon betrays Katerina with two other female convicts. When Sergei tricks Katerina into giving him her last pair of stockings only to then promptly bestow them as a gift upon his new lover, Katerina drowns both her rival and herself in a final, impulsive act of revenge: “[she] threw herself on Sonetka like a strong pike on a soft-finned little roach, and neither of them appeared again”.

The Dilemma: Victim or Vixen?

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Lady Macbeth, by George Cattermole (1800-1868). Photo source: Wikicommons

Katerina, eventually christened “the Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” by the townsfolk, shares a strange connection to her Shakespearean namesake. Both Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Katerina (at least initially) are presented as mysteriously childless, and even when Katerina does eventually give birth to Sergei’s lovechild, Leskov makes it clear to the reader that she has no real maternal feelings and is perfectly happy to give up her son before heading to Siberia. While Lady Macbeth urges her husband to murder the king for the sake of attaining the highest level of power, Katerina’s real ambition seems mostly confined to exercising power over her own life and body: as the crisis with Fedya and the inheritance shows, she is not especially materialistic or anxious for high social standing, and what she seems to desire most is sexual autonomy. Leskov is clear in underlining Katerina’s neglect at the hands of her husband (“no one paid the slightest attention to this boredom of hers”), and her eventual mistreatment by Sergei, gesturing towards the ways in which a 19th-century Russian woman was often unfairly marginalized. The implication is that Katerina tends to respond to, and reacts against, stifling social mores imposed upon her, instead of deliberately going on the offensive out of blind ambition as Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth does.

And yet, Katerina is not entirely a victim, for her behaviour is often marked by such a vain and selfish wilfulness that her plight is darkly comic. Apart from acknowledging her insufferably dull life with her husband, Leskov does not attempt to kindle the reader’s sympathy. If anything, he depicts Katerina as a rather uncompelling heroine. She is not especially intelligent, being indifferent to learning and without possessing much insight into the motives or feelings of others. Her plans are barely ever really plans at all, as she tends to act in the heat of the moment and in the riskiest and most thoughtless of ways. The object of her passion is so worthless that we are never once fooled as to the nature of the affair, and so Leskov invites us to laugh at her love instead of being moved by it. She is stubborn to the point of self-destruction: her longing to retain Sergei means that although she wishes to act freely in the face of societal oppression, she consistently fails to act in her own self-interest, rebelling against a boring and domineering husband only for the sake of another man who is just as terrible in his own way. She is, in other words, absolutely not a protofeminist icon. And this is the secret to the story’s bizarre appeal.

Strength in Weakness

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Nikolai Leskov (1888/1889), as sketched by Ilya Repin. Photo source: Wikicommons

In watching interviews with both Oldroyd and Pugh, I was not surprised to hear both director and actress express a sort of admiration for their version of Katherine, who commits awful crimes and yet, at the same time, still manages to inspire a degree of fascination and even sympathy from the audience. It is sometimes difficult to feel the same way about Leskov’s original creation. Pugh’s performance gives Katherine more self-possession and a greater degree of cunning than the literary Katerina has – and the ending of the film is radically different to that of Leskov’s story. I consider both the film adaptation and the source material to be masterful each in their own way, but there is one link between them that is, ultimately, what I find most irresistible in both.

In so much of contemporary feminist criticism, both literary and in terms of film reviews, there is a strange fixation on how “strong” a female character is, with the general underlying assumption being that the more strength and self-determination a female character demonstrates, the more feminist (and therefore acceptable) such a depiction of a woman is. Of course, strength tends not to be defined as synonymous with good or noble behaviour with such commentators, and even terrible behaviour can be interpreted as refreshing so long as it appears to come from a place of strength, even moreso if it appears to be in response to an inherent injustice (such as skewed gender dynamics). Ultimately, though, what I would suggest is that the real interest in a female character like Leskov’s Katerina lies in how she is neither entirely powerless nor powerful, neither strong nor weak, but a flawed creation that enables the reader to both share her distaste for her original constricted lifestyle while also laughing at the increasing foolishness of her behaviour in trying to extricate herself from it.

In the end, Katerina, just like Pugh’s on-screen Katherine, is neither feminist nor antifeminist – she is merely human, a bundle of impulses and contradictions. In many ways, it is this ambiguity in Leskov’s representation of her that adds colour to the story and sparks interest in her dilemma. We remain entertained by the story throughout, not because we are being given a strong statement about her femininity one way or the other, but because she is human, all too human. A wilful, short-sighted, gullible, and shockingly murderous human – and all the more entertaining for that, even a century and a half after Leskov first unveiled her crimes to the world.

Explore Further:

  • Leskov, Nikolai. The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. In print and easily found in paperback.
  • Lady Macbeth (2016 film). Directed by William Oldroyd, screenplay by Alice Birch, starring Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, and Christopher Fairbank. Currently available on DVD and Blu-ray. IMDB link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4291600/

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© Brandy Harrison/Russophile Reads 2019

2 thoughts on “Something Wicked This Way Comes: Nikolai Leskov’s Scandalous “Lady Macbeth”

  1. A great article. I loved both the story by Leskov and the movie by Oldroyd. I thought Pugh was just brilliant there. As a Russian myself, it is great for me to see someone promoting Russian literature and their love of it. I guess I would have been much more into it now if I were not forced from the early age at my school to memorise all these Pushkin’s poems and write on dictation countless nature descriptions from Russian classics 🙂 I do want to explore the work of Anton Chekhov further and in depth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pugh was perfection! It was the first time I ever saw her in a role, and I thought she was an exceptional talent, ideally suited for a role that requires both reckless passion and yet also a steely, sly resolve. The ending of the film is so chilling!

      And I agree that sometimes being forced to study literature in school can make it harder to enjoy it for its own sake! I rarely had the opportunity to study Russian literature much during my own education in Canada, so it was a private hobby that I pursued simply because I wanted to, and that definitely helped to make it special for me. I am jealous of the fact that you can read all these great writers in the original Russian! Learning to read Russian is one of my goals in life, because at the moment I’m dependent on English translations. I hope you will explore Chekhov, and share your thoughts on him on your blog! 🙂

      Like

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