Yekaterina Lvovna is bored with her tedious life and loveless marriage. Boris Timofeyevich, her father-in-law, reproaches her for not yet having given his son, the rich merchant Zinovy Borisovich, an heir. Zinovy Borisovich arrives with news that a dam at the mill has broken and needs immediate repair. He personally goes to oversee the work. Before leaving, Zinovy Borisovich introduces to his father a new foreman named Sergei. Boris Timofeyevich insists that his son make his wife swear an oath to be faithful while he is away.
The cook, Aksinya, gossips that the handsome Sergei was dismissed from his last job because the mistress fell for him.
The male servants are molesting Aksinya. Katerina appears and steps into the breach, threatening to have Sergei beaten for inciting the others. Sergei challenges her to a fight, but in the heat of the moment Boris appears, threatening to tell Zinovy about his wife’s behavior, and sends all of them back to work.
Katerina is in her bedroom. Sergei unexpectedly knocks at her door, interrupting her loneliness. He pretends to be asking for a book and gets Katerina into a conversation about the sad lot of women, but these are only pretexts to make a pass at Katerina, which leads on to passionate lovemaking.
Boris Timofeyevich cannot sleep, convinced that there are thieves around. Remembering his youth when he used to seduce other men’s wives, he decides to revive old habits and sets off to see Katerina. But as he approaches her window he sees Sergei kissing Katerina good-bye. As the young man is climbing down, Boris Timofeyevich grabs him and shouts for help. After summoning Katerina to watch, he flogs Sergei who bravely does not let out a single cry. When Boris Timofeyevich gets tired of this amusement, Sergei is locked in the storeroom. Boris Timofeyevich demands something to eat and Katerina serves him mushrooms with rat poison. As the old man writhes in agony, she takes off him the keys to the storeroom. Katerina tells the priest who comes to hear her father-in-law’s dying confession that he “ate mushrooms at night, a lot of people die after eating them, you know”.
Sergei is dismayed by forthcoming arrival of Zinovy Borisovich: he does not want to be Katerina’s secret lover. Katerina calms him, but she is worried herself: she has visions of the ghost of Boris Timofeyevich, cursing her for having poisoned him. Behind the door barely audible steps are heard — her husband has returned. Katerina hides Sergei. On noticing a man’s belt left in her room, Zinovy Borisovich begins to beat his wife with it. Sergei jumps out at Katerina’s cries, together they strangle Zinovy Borisovich and hide the corpse in the cellar.
The murder gives Katerina no peace. Even on the day of her wedding with Sergei, she stands around the cellar, thus alarming Sergei: “people will notice”. As they leave for their nuptials, a drunken Shabby Peasant, in search of liquor, breaks down the door to the cellar and on finding the decaying corpse in horror runs off to the police.
Police station. The Sergeant is offended that he has not been invited to the wedding feast. When the Shabby Peasant bursts in with the news that he has found a corpse in the Izmailovs’ cellar, the Sergeant and his men, glad for an excuse to spoil the celebration, hurry off to investigate.
The wedding feast is in progress in the Izmailovs’ garden when Katerina notices that the padlock on the cellar door has been broken. She tells Sergei that they have been found out and must leave immediately. As he goes to get money from inside the house, the policemen enter the garden. Katerina, realizing there is no point in feigning innocence, holds out her wrists to be handcuffed. Sergei tries to escape but is captured.
A convoy of shackled convicts stops for a rest. Bribing a sentry to let her go to the men’s column, Katerina finds Sergei, who rebuffs her, blaming her for his predicament. Meanwhile, Sergei flirts with another convict named Sonyetka, who promises Sergei she will be his if he can get her new stockings. Sergei goes to Katerina to trick her out of her stockings and gives them to Sonyetka. The two run off together, leaving Katerina in despair, as the rest of the women taunt her. An officer orders everyone to get ready to continue the march. Katerina goes over to Sonyetka, pushes her into the river and jumps in after her. Both women are drowned.