Katerina, the young wife of the merchant Zinovi Izmailov, is bored: she loathes her husband, has no children and is driven to distraction by household chore. Her father-in-law, Boris Timofeyevich, is old but lustful and covets the young woman's body. He reproaches her, saying that after five years of marriage, she has still not produced an heir. Her husband Zinovi has to be away from home for several days in order to repair a dam at one of the family's mills. The servants snigger knowingly, since the Izmailovs' unhappy marriage has long been an open secret. Boris Timofeyevich stages an exaggerated farewell to Zinovi and forces Katerina, in the presence of the whole household, to swear to be faithful to her husband during his absence. Aksinia the Cook draws Katerina's attention to a new worker, Sergey, who has been hounded from his former job following an affair with his previous employer's wife. Here is a man who could help dispel Katerina's boredom.
A group of laborers molests Aksinia, manhandling the somewhat ungainly woman and threatening to turn the brutal joke into a full-scale rape, with Sergey playing a prominent role. Katerina intervenes. She defends the honor of women in general and berates Sergey for his behavior. He challenges her to a trial of strength and leaves her in no doubt which of them is the stronger. But Katerina finds herself attracted to him, as Boris intervenes.
Boris Timofeyevich keeps a watchful eye on Katerina. In her frustration, she complains that tenderness exists even among animals and in nature; she alone remains unsatisfied. With the excuse that he wants to borrow some of her books, Sergey forces his way into her room, and they consummate their union.
Tormented by sleeplessness and lost in lecherous memories, Boris Timofeyevich keeps watch over house and courtyard but chiefly over his daughter-in-law. He decides to perform his son's marital duties for him. At that moment, Sergey clambers out of Katerina's window and straight into the clutches of the old man, who now proceeds to test his strength not in Katerina's bed but on Sergey's back, beating him senseless in the presence of the entire household and beneath the eyes of Katerina, who has no choice but to look on from her locked room. Boris then orders Sergey to be locked up in the storeroom. His appetite roused, he orders Katerina to bring him some of the leftover mushrooms from the day's meal. She laces them with rat poison. As the old man dies an agonizing death, Katerina removes the key to Sergey's place of confinement. The laborers are heard setting out for the fields, at the same time as a priest arrives to assist the dying man. Katerina sings the requisite dirge over her victim's body, while the priest rants senselessly.
Katerina shares her marriage-bed with Sergey. While her lover dozes, she is tormented by pangs of conscience. The ghost of Boris appears and curses her. Katerina's husband, Zinovi, returns and demands entry, calling her to account for her infidelity. Katerina and Sergey murder him and conceal his body in the cellar.
Katerina is marrying Sergey, her husband having been declared missing. While Sergey looks to the future, Katerina sees only the past. With noticeable frequency and with fear in her eyes, she keeps on looking in the direction of the cellar. While all are at church celebrating the wedding, the Shabby Peasant breaks into the cellar, thinking from his employer's anxious glances that there must be good wines hidden there. But instead of the drink he was hoping for, he finds Zinovi's corpse and rushes off to report his discovery to the police.
The Police Sergeant and his men are offended at not having been invited to the wedding. They help to while away the time by humning their own importance and persecuting intellectuals: a teacher is interrogated and accused of being a nihilist. News of the discovery of the body in the cellar gives them an excuse to attend the wedding uninvited.
In the course of the wedding celebrations, Katerina discovers the broken lock on the cellar door, but it is too late for her and Sergey to make good their escape. The murderers are arrested.
Katerina and Sergey have been found guilty of murder and are now on their way to a labor camp in Siberia. In the encampment set up for the night men and women are segregated. Katerina bribes a sentry into allowing her to approach Sergey, whom she looks upon as her only support in time of need. But he reproaches her for being the cause of his present misfortune. The former merchant's wife has lost all her previous attractiveness for him. He tries instead to win the favors of a younger convict Sonyetka. As a proof of his love, Sonyetka demands that he obtain a pair of warm stockings for her. Taking advantage of Katerina's weakness for him, Sergey manages to obtain the stockings from her. When she realizes they are intended for Sonyetka, Katerina pushes her rival into the river and then jumps in after her; both women are drowned. The convicts are marched away.