Until Death Do Us Part: Making Space for Female Subjectivity in Nikolai Leskov and Fyodor Dostoevsky
Eve Sneider is a senior at Yale University majoring in American Studies with a concentration in visual, audio, literary, and performance cultures. Her studies center on twentieth and twenty-first century American literature and cultural history. Outside of the classroom, Eve has written and edited for numerous campus publications, most recently serving as Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Herald, Yale's only weekly publication. She also works as an undergraduate writing partner at the Yale College Writing Center and as a student coordinator for the Yale Journalism Initiative.
To write a story is to determine the selfhood and subjectivity of a real or fictional other. It’s a tremendous power. And inevitably, perspective requires that the writer elevate some characters and relegate others. Who gets to tell their story? Who gets to be understood? Reading “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” by Nikolai Leskov and “The Meek One” by Fyodor Dostoevsky side-by-side provides a striking example of how creating the space for a woman to be a subject changes how her story is read and remembered. In these short works, we see two radically different renderings of women who bear a remarkable resemblance to one another, in life and in death. Leskov’s Katerina Lvovna and Dostoevsky’s Krotkaya are both victims of their social circumstances and their genders. But where Leskov’s narrator paints Katerina Lvovna as a powerful agent, Dostoevsky’s tortured and self-absorbed protagonist turns Krotkaya into an object even as he tells her story.
“The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” is the tale of Katerina Lvovna Izmailova, the twenty-three-year-old wife of an affluent, fifty-something merchant, Zinovy Borisych Izmailov. She “was given in marriage to our merchant Izmailov… because [he] sent a matchmaker to propose, and she was a poor girl and could not choose her suitors.” At the story’s outset she is penned up and childless, five years into an unhappy marriage. But when her husband goes away on business, the circumstances of her life take a dramatic turn; “without him there was at least one less commander over her.” Free to walk about as she pleases, she encounters a handsome clerk named Sergei, and the two begin a hot, heavy, and unholy love affair. When her father-in-law catches the lovers together, he whips the clerk and promises his daughter-in-law a similar fate awaits her upon her husband’s return. In response, she kills him. When her husband returns home, she kills him too.
Katerina Lvovna quickly becomes pregnant by Sergei, only to have the son of her father-in-law’s cousin emerge to stake his claim on the family estate. He is sweet and little, but Katerina Lvovna wants the fortune for her and her own, so with Sergei’s help she murders the young boy. But this time, townspeople catch them in the act. Katerina Lvovna’s young child is given over to an aunt and the two murderers find themselves in a band of prisoners heading north. Travelling with the prison party, Katerina Lvovna is as infatuated with Sergei as ever, but the newly branded clerk spurns her, starting an affair with Sonetka, another convict. At the close of “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” Katerina Lvovna throws herself and Sonetka overboard as the prisoners cross the Volga on a ferryboat.
Dostoevsky’s Krotkaya, like Katerina Lvovna, is a young woman of little means who finds herself in a dismal and unsatisfying marriage and meets her own untimely end. When Krotkaya, just sixteen, visits the pawnshop to sell her meager belongings, the pawnbroker develops an interest in her. The two wed, but it isn’t long before the pawnbroker discovers that Krotkaya is not nearly as gentle and meek as he assumed: “That meek face was becoming bolder and bolder,” he notes, “and there was no doubting the fact that she had fits of temper.” The two alternately quarrel and live in stony silence; Krotkaya makes plans to begin an affair but her husband catches her. The following morning, the pawnbroker wakes up with his wife pressing a gun to his head.
However, unlike Katerina Lvovna, Krotkaya does not follow through with the murder of her husband. Instead, she retreats, falling terribly. She and the pawnbroker hardly interact with each other, until one day he is suddenly overcome with affection and the need for Krotkaya’s companionship. He falls to his wife’s feet, kissing her and soliloquizing about how different their marriage will be. The following day, while the pawnbroker is out of the house, Krotkaya clutches an icon of the mother of God and leaps to her death.
Both Krotkaya and Katerina Lvovna marry out of one unfortunate situation and into another, and both of them know it. Neither one is oblivious to the constraints that accompany being a married woman from a poor (or else nonexistent) family in nineteenth-century Russia. The two women are both biting and feisty, willing to go (or contemplate going) to murderous lengths to ensure their salvation from these dire circumstances. Even their deaths mirror each other. They both jump holding onto another woman: in the case of Krotkaya, a religious icon, and in the case of Katerina Lvovna, her lover’s new lady. The primary difference between them, then, lies in the way their stories are told.
Tellingly, “The Meek One” is narrated not by Krotkaya or an impartial third party but by her husband, the pawnbroker. This story, Dostoevsky tells us in an introductory note, is written to mimic a man’s monologue as he sits beside his wife’s corpse, processing aloud the events that led up to this moment. “Of course, the process of telling goes on for several hours, in bits and snatches, and in incoherent form: now he talks to himself, now it is as if he addresses an invisible listener, some judge,” he tells us. We, the readers, are meant to imagine that a stenographer was present to record the pawnbroker’s speech, which Dostoevsky then polished after the fact. This is the reason for the work’s subtitle, “A Fantastic Story.” In the words of biographer Joseph Frank, this stenographic premise “serves as [an] illustration of Dostoevsky’s unalterable conviction that the ‘truth’ of reality could not be conveyed without some admixture of ‘the fantastic,’ whether formally (as in this instance) or thematically in some visionary glimpse of a transcendent ideal.” Dostoevsky makes use of implausible circumstances to tell a realistic story of one man’s desperate quest to make sense of what has happened to him, narrated in real time.
Thus, from the outset it is clear that while “The Meek One” is named for the young woman, she is simply a vessel for her husband’s reflections, misinterpretations, and fantasies. The pseudo-transcribed narrative framework ensures that we only ever see Krotkaya’s words, actions, and character refracted through the pawnbroker’s eyes. According to Frank, this narrator is “Dostoevsky’s most finely modulated portrait of his ‘underground man’ character type. Nowhere else is he presented so fully as a sensitive and suffering human being, whose inhumanity derives from a need for love that has become perverted and distorted by egoism and vanity.” The pawnbroker is wildly self-absorbed and deeply insecure, still trying to compensate for his shameful expulsion from the army and ensure his own financial security. Krotkaya is at once an object and an enigma, a vehicle for his narcissism and a chance to fulfill his desires.
From the pawnbroker’s earliest encounters with Krotkaya, he cannot help but project onto her what he wishes to see rather than regarding her as a person in her own right. For instance, when he name-drops Faust in one of their first conversations, she remarks, “‘You’re somehow strange.’” He, however, is convinced, “She wanted to say: I didn’t expect you to be an educated man, but she didn’t say it, though I knew she was thinking it; I pleased her terribly.” His impressions of her consistently overwrite any opportunities she has to express herself within the story. As soon as she utters something, the pawnbroker’s monologue encroaches. The reader has no room to interpret Krotkaya’s words without the additional frame of her husband’s read on them.
The chasm between Krotkaya and the pawnbroker’s understanding of her (and their marriage) grows wider as the story progresses. In the episode when she almost kills him (titled, within the story, “A Terrible Memory”), his monologue has less to do with the fact that he might die and more to do with Krotkaya’s psychology. He wonders whether she has realized he is awake and waxes poetic about the nature of human thought and decision-making. He thinks to himself, “if she had guessed the truth and knew I was not asleep, then I had already crushed her by my readiness to accept death, and her hand might now falter.” Even as he projects his own ideas and insecurities onto Krotkaya, he is aware that his observation and narration fall short of rendering her three-dimensional. This line of thinking continues as she falls ill. The two barely speak to each other, and though this hardly seems to bother the pawnbroker at all, he cannot help but wonder what is going on inside his wife’s head. “[W]e kept silent,” he says, “but every minute I was preparing myself for the future. I thought she was doing the same, and it was terribly entertaining for me to keep guessing: precisely what is she thinking now?” He is endlessly curious about Krotkaya, despite the fact that he does not give her the room to be a person in his narration, or in their married life.
Even when the tides turn and the pawnbroker resolves to love Krotkaya and devote himself to her entirely, he is completely incapable of seeing beyond himself and thinking about his wife as a sentient person. This myopia “is the source of the tragedy recounted in the story, which arises from the narrator’s pitiless attempt, in a hopeless search for love and understanding, to impose his own self-conception on another,” Frank explains. After the pawnbroker’s moment of revelation, he practically assaults Krotkaya in his efforts to convey the depth of his feelings. “[I] kept mumbling to her that I loved her, that I wouldn’t get up, ‘let me kiss your dress… let me worship you like this all my life…’… and suddenly she began sobbing and shaking; a terrible fit of hysterics came. I had frightened her.” Though he notices the way his wife reacts to him, he does not understand her as a subject, and thus cannot figure out how to salvage their marriage. His inability to see outside of himself determines how we read him and, more importantly, Krotkaya.
A suffocating sense of claustrophobia pervades “The Meek One.” The pawnbroker is incapable of moving beyond his obsessive egotism and, consequently, Krotkaya does not have the space to be an actor in her own right. Her silence becomes louder and her person more impenetrable as her husband’s narration becomes harder to bear. Even the stenographic style of Dostoevsky’s writing mimics this stifling feeling on the sentence level. The pawnbroker is thinking out loud—after all, he is telling this story while seated next to his dead wife—and sometimes this means speaking in circles. An example of this reads, “The outcome was just exactly what I anticipated and expected—though without being aware that I was anticipating and expecting it. I don’t know whether I’ve expressed myself clearly.” The next line begins, “The outcome was this.” The outcome has been couched in so much digressive perambulatory language that the reader is already dizzy. What the outcome is does not even matter. One can only imagine what it would be like to share his home. It follows that the last place left for Krotkaya to go is out the window.
Katerina Lvovna, by contrast, has plenty of room within Leskov’s story to roam free. Like Dostoevsky, Leskov writes heavily saturated, thickly descriptive prose. But where Dostoevsky’s narrator is stuck at the level of the internal and psychological, Leskov takes a different approach. “There is no direct authorial commentary, no analysis, no psychological interpretation in Leskov’s work,” translator Richard Pevear writes, “the real author’s point of view does come through quite forcefully, though it takes some discernment to see what he sees.” In particular, the key to understanding Leskov’s work lies in the details, of which there are many. Even the title of his story, “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” reveals his tendency to ground his work in the nitty-gritty of real life. He names specific places—like Mtsensk—and attempts to sketch real types, in this case playing with how the literary archetype of Lady Macbeth might present in the real world. Even the fact that his characters have names sets this story apart from “The Meek One,” indicating that Leskov’s narrator approaches them as subjects worthy of careful examination.
Who this narrator is, however, remains somewhat ambiguous. As Pevear points out, “The question of the author’s presence in Leskov’s stories is a complicated one, because Leskov most often screens himself behind the figure of a narrator who stands for the author.” In “The Meek One” Dostoevsky positions himself vis-à-vis his narrator. But Leskov opts instead to make himself invisible. It is hard to know where he is in the story. And the narrator, while distinct from Leskov, is also a shadowy figure. The closest we get to an explicit revelation of the narrator’s identity comes in the very first lines of the story: “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.” This narrator is meant to be a person of the people, someone who understands Katerina Lvovna’s circumstances and surroundings, but perhaps from afar. Leskov’s narrator, an onlooker, is matter-of-fact, describing bluntly the world as he sees it.
While it would be a stretch to argue that the narrator depicts Katerina Lvovna in a positive light, he does not deny her her humanity, even in her most cold-blooded moments. We are meant to understand that she is a powerful agent first and a criminal second. For example, when her husband is killed, the storyteller makes a point of situating Katerina Lvovna above the fray, reigning over the men in her life: “Katerina Lvovna, pale, almost breathless, stood over her husband and her lover; in her right hand was a cast-iron candlestick, which she held by the upper end, the heavy part down. A thin trickle of crimson blood ran down Zinovy Borisych’s temple and cheek.” The scene is both chilling and thrilling. She stands triumphantly above her husband, his blood still warm on the hands of a man who has killed at her behest. The narrator could have portrayed her here as a silly woman or a cunning vixen. Instead, he has reminded us of her ability to control her fate and harness her own power.
What’s more, there is something uniquely feminine about Katerina Lvovna’s strength, dominance, and selfhood within “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” Later, when she and her lover kill her nephew, Fedya, her sex is integral to the act—“Sergei held Fedya by the arms and legs, and Katerina Lvovna, in one movement, covered the sufferer’s childish face with a big down pillow and pressed it to him with her firm and resilient breasts.” She is not lethally powerful in spite of her womanhood but because of it. Unlike Krotkaya’s pawnbroker, Leskov’s narrator has no difficulty understanding Katerina Lvovna as both a woman and a person.
The narrator also seems to understand the ways in which Katerina Lvovna is limited by her gender. At times, he operates as a social diagnostician, spelling out for the reader how his protagonist’s treatment is determined by the unfortunate realities of her time. At the story’s outset, he emphasizes these conditions to frame her upcoming rogue and passion-driven rampage: “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; as often happens, no one paid the slightest attention to this boredom of hers.” Later, when she takes matters into her own hands, sleeping with and killing whomever she wants, we can see that she is rectifying the unsatisfying life that was forced on her. She is a woman working hard to loosen the shackles of nineteenth century Russian gender roles.
The narrator’s diagnosis extends into the later moments of the story, as well. As Katerina Lvovna and Sergei are arrested and adjust to life as criminals, we are forced to pay attention to how their treatment is determined by their genders. When the two lovers are put on trial and punished, it is noted off-hand that “Sergei for some reason aroused much more general sympathy than Katerina Lvovna.” Later, both move north in the same band of prisoners, and Sergei grows cold to his still-infatuated mistress, even taking up with other women, notably two named Fiona and Sonetka. The more Katerina Lvovna tries to hold onto Sergei, the crueler he is to her. One night, upset by Sergei’s dalliance with Sonetka, she goes to Fiona for comfort. “On [Fiona’s] full breast, where so recently Katerina Lvovna’s unfaithful lover had enjoyed the sweetness of debauchery, she was now weeping out her unbearable grief, and she clung to her soft and stupid rival like a child to its mother. They were equal now: both were equal in value and both were abandoned.” We are reminded once again: to be a woman is to be spurned and scorned, to expect the short end of the stick time and again.
Nonetheless, even in these abysmal circumstances Katerina Lvovna finds a way to come back into her own as a strong, defiant, and wild force. As the group boards a ferry and begins to cross the Volga, Sergei and Sonetka taunt Katerina Lvovna. She does not respond, choosing instead to look stoically out at the water. She sees the faces of the men she has killed, mirage-like among the waves, and tries to pray. But all that comes out is “‘What a good time you and I had, sitting together of a long autumn evening, sending people out of this world by a cruel death.’” Without further thought, she grabs Sonetka and jumps overboard. It is a breathtaking moment. Indeed, the initial reaction of the rest of the group is not horror or anger; rather, “everyone was petrified with amazement.” Katerina Lvovna is an awesome power.
Compare this response to the way the townspeople handle Krotkaya’s suicide in “The Meek One.” In his description of her death, the pawnbroker recalls how he was greeted upon his arrival at the scene: “they were all staring at me. First they shouted, but then they suddenly fell silent and everyone makes way for me and… and she’s lying there with the icon.” Krotkaya is a spectacle, a strange curiosity. No one fears her or admires her. All they see is a corpse on the ground with some blood coming out of her mouth, no more alive than the icon clutched to her chest.
“The Meek One” ends with the pawnbroker talking himself in circles, trying to wrap his head around why his wife wanted to die. He imagines the time leading up to Krotkaya’s death—“The whole moment lasted maybe only some ten minutes, the whole decision—precisely as she was standing by the wall, her head leaning on her hand, and smiling. The thought flew into her head, whirled around, and—and she couldn’t resist it.” He tries to reconstruct the scene, to connect the dots. But it’s a hopeless task. He will never be able to understand why Krotkaya jumped, just as he was never able to see her as a person in her own right when she was alive. And because we are trapped within his telling, we do not get to understand, either. In the final line of “The Meek One,” the pawnbroker is alone in his room in the wee hours of the morning, wondering, “’when she’s taken away tomorrow, what about me then?’”
This last word could not be more different from that of “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” Leskov’s story ends on a shocking high that echoes the petrified amazement of the ferry’s passengers. The final lines of the story read: “Sonetka could no longer be seen. Two seconds later, borne away from the same ferry by the swift current, she again flailed her arms; but at the same moment, out of another wave, Katerina Lvovna rose up almost to the waist, threw herself on Sonetka like a strong pike on a soft-finned little roach, and neither of them appeared again.” Katerina Lvovna is not still, silent, or even stoic. She is living and fighting down to her last breath. We understand her this way partly because of the acts she performs, but also because of the way she is rendered by Leskov’s narrator. She is a murderous woman filled with nuance, hypocrisy, and complexity. Because the pawnbroker tells Krotkaya’s story and not a clearheaded third party, we see her through the eyes of her delusional husband rather than as she really is. The narrator seems to send the message that a woman can be reduced to a thing if there is too much going on inside the man’s mind. The damaging effects of this are profound, whether the bumbling pawnbroker can comprehend them or not.
By contrast, Katerina Lvovna is depicted as a fierce agent, a woman who acts rather than allows things to happen to her, in both life and death. Leskov’s narrator highlights this. He understands the power that comes with making choices. After all, he is the one who determines how she will be remembered.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “The Meek One.” The Eternal Husband and Other Stories, pp. 233-277.
Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet 1871-1881. Princeton University Press, 2002.
Leskov, Nikolai, et al. “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” The Enchanted Wanderer, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, pp. 3-48.
Pevear, Richard. “Introduction.” The Enchanted Wanderer, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, pp. vii-xxv.
 This story is sometimes called “The Meek One,” sometimes “A Gentle Creature,” and sometimes simply “Krotkaya,” its Russian title. I will be calling it “The Meek One.” I will call the girl in the story, who is unnamed, Krotkaya.
 Leskov, Nikolai, et al. “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.” The Enchanted Wanderer, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, pp. 3.
 Ibid., 5.
 Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “The Meek One.” The Eternal Husband and Other Stories, pp. 248.
 Ibid., 234.
 Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet 1871-1881. Princeton University Press, 2002, pp. 347.
 Ibid., 350.
 Dostoevsky, 239.
 Ibid., 258.
 Ibid., 260.
 Frank, 347.
 Dostoevsky, 268.
 Ibid., 254.
 Pevear, Richard. “Introduction.” The Enchanted Wanderer, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, pp. xxiv.
 The story bears the subtitle “A Sketch.”
 Pevear, xxiii.
 Ibid., 3.
 Even though this is not Leskov’s own voice, we can safely assume that the narrator is a he.
 Leskov, 25.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 5.
 Ibid., 36.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 46.
 Dostoevsky, 273-4.
 Ibid., 276.
 Ibid., 277.
 Leskov, 46.