The Cook in a Messy Kitchen

Nikolai Leskov’s “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” leaves the readers head spinning with the complexities and calamities of the Izmailov household. While the focus of my attention on my first readthrough  was wrapped up in an inter-class romance that eventually spurred a series of irrational decisions, I found one of the less prominent characters to have an intriguing role within the Leskov’s story.

While the plot of the story is driven by a couple unsatisfied with their social standing, Aksinya the cook stands out as one of the few characters that seemed to embrace the role that she had within the household and community. Social and familial relationships within Russian merchant families was a common theme among 19th century artists, and this theme emerges strongly within this piece. Aksinya seems to be complacent with her social position, taking on an advisor role to Katarina.

When Katarina recalls her experience with the cat, she turns to the cook for advice. While it is obvious that Aksinya is aware of the affair that she is having with Sergei, she doesn’t respond as critically to this, instead appearing sympathetic to Katarina’s issues. My first thought was that Aksinya thought her lower social position meant it was not her place to comment on it. After further analysis, I would argue that perhaps the cook feels a connection to Katarina’s situation.

In fact, there is a case to be made that Aksinya may have made the same series of mistakes that Katarina Lvovna proceeds to make throughout the story. In this context, there is a scene that stands out where the house cook seems to be aware of the story that is about to transpire. In the scene where Katarina meets the newly hired Sergei out by the family storehouses, it is revealed by Sergei that Aksinya has a child, and that the child she has came out of “fooling around” and that  “whenever (children) are not wanted, they live”. While there is a limited sample size of dialogue to gauge the cook’s past on, it seems that these rather brief interaction strongly foreshadow Katarina’s events that occur later in the plot.

As a literary device, Leskov provides Aksinya as what seems to be a rather neutral character within this tale of woe, and her nuanced role as an advisor to the mistress of the household is easy to overlook. Where most everyone in Leskov’s story is unhappy with their social position, Aksinya is at peace with her role, but there is an untold backstory that perhaps resembles that of Katarina Lvovna.


2 thoughts on “The Cook in a Messy Kitchen

  1. Your interpretation of Aksinya is fascinating! I’ve read this story a zillion times and never noticed those parallels between her (fairly skeletal) bio and Katerina’s trajectory. But I think you are on to something…When Shostakovich goes back to this story for inspiration for his opera by the same name (in the 1930s), he specifies that he wants to highlight the plight of women before the revolution — how circumscribed they were by their circumstances and familial obligations. Thinking about Aksinia in this way as well makes a lot of sense.
    Also, make sure and check out Joy’s post on Lady M:
    I see lots of resonances in your respective analyses.


  2. Oh wow, I never really payed attention to Aksinya’s role at all in the plot rather than being the occasional girlfriend to Katarina, seemingly the only real friend she had in the household. I did catch the part where Aksinya was telling Katarina about Sergei’s womanizing, I hoped that Aksinya was trying to warn Katarina, but it obviously didn’t work. Good looking out on the part about Aksinya’s love children, didn’t catch that at all!


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