Friday, December 16, 2011

role of sin in Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk

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Sin in Lady MacBeth

In the early stages of civilization there was a small city-state called Babylon in what is now called Mesopotamia that developed the first set of written laws. These laws were based on the idea of an eye for an eye, meaning that a crime was punishable by an infliction of the effect of the crime on its perpetrator. The adage is still visible today, although in a different context, through the idea that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This idea of an equal and opposite reaction is very prevalent in the short story Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk by Nikolai Leskov, in regards to the actions of the stories central figure, Katerina Izmailova. In Lady MacBeth Katerina is guilty of committing a number of sins, some of which she initially gets away with. Katerina is not allowed however, to put her misdeeds behind her as she is punished in the end, both by the state and the author, in a way that provides an equal and opposite reaction to those of her actions that went against the prevailing religious and moral standards of her day, most of which Leskov had a wholehearted faith in.

In Lady MacBeth the main character and woman alluded to in the title of the story is Katerina Lvovna Izmailova. Katerina is the bored housewife of a wealthy merchant who owns a large estate with his father. To work this estate Katerina’s husband employed a number of men who came from a low rank of Russian society. While these serfs worked the land of the estate, Katerina’s husband, Zinovy Izmailov, and her father-in-law, Boris Izmailov, were often away on business, leaving Katerina alone on the estate with the serfs. It was while Zinovy and his father were on such a trip that the troubles of the story begin. Being bored Katerina took to wandering around the estate in order to pass the time when her husband was away. On one such walk Katerina met a man named Sergei who worked on her husband’s estate. Sergei was a handsome and charming man and because of this and the loneliness she felt while her husband was away, Katerina was drawn to Sergei.

From this chance encounter an improper relationship developed between the two of them that saw Katerina break her marital covenant and Sergei follow the path that had gotten him fired from his previous job. Their fulfillment of lustful desires through their improper relationship was soon discovered by Katerina’s father-in-law, who locked Sergei up and planned on informing his son of his wife’s infidelity upon Zinovy’s arrival back at the estate. This development of her father-in-law’s awareness left Katerina with the option to end her relationship with Sergei and go back to being the bored housewife or take drastic measures and maintain her enjoyable relationship with Sergei. Katerina chose to take drastic measures in hopes of being able to continue her relationship with Sergei. These drastic measures Katerina took put her on a path that would end with an ironic twist, as Katerina would suffer through the same pains she put her victims through. These pains, in keeping with theme of an equal and opposite reaction, differed for each of the sins she committed to reflect what it was that she was guilty of.

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The first sin she committed was the breaking of her marital covenant. For this she was punished much as she punished her husband after he learned of her affair. When Zinovy returned from his trip he confronted his wife about her affair with Sergei. At this accusation Katerina initially became indignant and denied the whole encounter. But once it was obvious there was no denying their relationship, Katerina began to flaunt the intimacy of the relationship to Zinovy and even called Sergei into the room. This display had a devastating emotional affect on Zinovy, but Katerina was not done with attacking her husband. She then began a physical assault, in addition to the emotional assault she had cast upon Zinovy. This physical assault left Zinovy dead and with Katerina having committed another sin in addition to the sin of adultery. Unfortunately for Katerina the punishment she was to receive for these sins very closely mirror the abuse she directed upon her husband.

The punishment took place after Katerina was sent with Sergei to Siberia for their murderous crimes. During their imprisonment Sergei lost all desire for Katerina and started a relationship with another female convict. Sergei initially tried to keep this new relationship a secret but realized it was useless, so instead of hiding the relationship he began to flaunt it. This act by Sergei seems to have caused Katerina emotional damage very similar to that which she inflicted on her husband that night in their bedroom. So at the hands of Sergei, Katerina was punished, by the author, for the breaking of her marital covenant in a manner very similar to the way in which she caused her husband emotional pain. Katerina also murdered her husband that night, and in keeping with the pattern of the book, deserved some sort of punishment that fit that crime. For murder the only equal reaction would be for death to embrace Katerina, and ironically it does in much the same way it did her husband. Katerina’s physical attack on her husband was fueled by her relationship with Sergei and ironically the actions that led to her own death were fueled by her desire to not let Sergei at any price. So instead of dealing with the loss of Sergei she took her own life and balanced the equation she began with the murder of her husband.

The above sequence is an ironic twist that fits the equal and opposite reaction idea discussed in the introduction. This idea of an equal and opposite reaction was however, not used only in response to Katerina’s actions in her bedroom on the night she killed her husband. It was also used to punish Katerina for the greed she exhibited after her husband’s death. This greed was centered on Katerina’s young nephew Fyodor, and the fortune she believed she was entitled to after her husband’s death. Fyodor laid claim to Zinovy’s fortune because Zinovy’s father had borrowed money from young Fyodor to finance some of the estate’s business. This enraged Katerina because without anyone knowing what she had done to Boris and Zinovy, everyone thought Katerina was entitled to take over the estate. But with Fyodor she and Sergei would have to share, and this did not sit well with Katerina. So like before when she killed her husband to keep her relationship with Sergei alive, Katerina was again willing to do whatever it took to satisfy her desires, this time for wealth. For the sin Katerina would commit to keep her hold on her husband’s estate Katerina was sent to jail, but this was only punishment for the act of killing young Fyodor. The punishment the author sentenced Katerina to for her greed was delivered again at the hands of Sergei, the same man who instigated her to commit all her sins. This punishment, which again occurred during Katerina’s imprisonment in Siberia, was based on a pair of stockings. Sergei requested the stockings from Katerina saying that he needed them to protect his ankles and Katerina, in a bid to win him back, obliged his request. But the stockings requested were not for Sergei, they were for his new love interest. Here Katerina’s greed and lust for the man drove her to try everything and sacrifice everything she had in order to get what she wanted. She obviously failed and now not only had to deal with the emotional pain that Sergei had inflicted on her through the knowledge that he had abused her for his own gain, much as she had abused Fyodor for her own gain. But also with the physical pain that came from the sores and blisters she would develop without the proper foot protection.

In each of the situations described above Katerina’s lover Sergei was both the inspiration for the sin and the deliverer of the punishment the author saw fit to be delivered as a result of the sin. This ironic twist was a blow to Katerina that came in addition to the punishment she received based on her breaking of the state’s legal code. With each punishment Katerina received, the idea of an equal and opposite reaction was enforced. Leaving Katerina a broken woman that in the end favored death over the pain associated with seeing the one she risked so much for taken from her.

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