19th century, summer, the fictional town of Kalinov on the banks of the Volga. All events take place over the course of several weeks. The action titles are conventional.
Very brief synopsis
Katerina lived in a small town on the Volga.
Her mother-in-law was a widow and wealthy merchantess. Katerina's husband was completely subject to her overbearing and cruel mother, and she tyrannized both her son and his unhappy wife in every possible way.
Katerina fell in love with the nephew of a cruel and greedy merchant who lived in the same town. When Katerina's husband left town on business, the woman began to date the merchant's nephew.
When her husband returned, she could not bear the strain of her conscience and confessed her adultery. After this, her mother-in-law began to put even more pressure on the woman.
Soon the merchant's nephew had to leave: his uncle sent him to Siberia. He could not take Katerina with him, because he was completely dependent on his uncle. When Katerina said goodbye to her beloved, she realized that she could not go back to her husband and mother-in-law, jumped from a cliff into the Volga River and died.
A Detailed Retelling by Acts
Act 1. Boris and Katerina
Kuligin and Kudryash and a friend were strolling in the public garden of Kalinov, set on the high bank of the Volga.
Kuligin admired the beautiful view, but Kudryash did not share his enthusiasm: he did not care.
In the distance, the merchant Dikoy scolded his nephew Boris.
Kudryash regretted that there were few strong fellows in town who could pull together and wean the Wild One from "mischief." He thought, that merchant's wife Kabanova is better than Wild: "She, at least, does everything under the guise of piety, but this one is off the chain". Kudryash himself was not afraid of Dicky and answered his scolding bravely.
After scolding his nephew, Dikoy left. Boris went up to Kuligin. He asked why Boris lived with his uncle and endured his scolding. Boris told him that his father, Dicky's own brother, had married a noblewoman against his mother's wishes and gone to Moscow. There his parents sent Boris to the Commercial Academy and his sister to a boarding school, and they died of cholera.
Boris and his sister were left destitute. They soon learned that their dead grandmother had bequeathed them a small fortune with a condition: they would receive the money after adulthood if they were respectful of their uncle. Boris had to leave his sister with his mother's relatives, move in with Wild, work for him for free, and endure his bullying.
Boris understood that he would not get any money or "some little money," but he put up with it for his sister's sake all the same. Savage tyrannized not only his nephew, but his wife and daughters as well. Once he got angry in the morning, he would not calm down all day and the family hid from him in attics and closets.
Boris complained to Kuligin that it was difficult for him, he could not make himself at home in Kalinovo. Kuligin replied that there are "cruel morals" in the city. The people are poor, and the rich use their labor to get even richer. Kuligin's dream is to invent a perpetual motion machine, get an award for his invention, and give work to the city's bourgeoisie.
Kuligin left. Boris reflected on his unenviable situation, worsened by his love for a married woman whom he once saw in church and never spoke to. After noticing this woman from afar, accompanied by her husband and mother-in-law, Boris left.
The Kabanov family was returning home from church. Kabanova was nagging her son Tikhon for not respecting his mother and loving his young wife Katerina more.
After a lot of grumbling, Kabanova went home. Tikhon reproached his wife for always getting his mother because of her, but his sister Varvara interceded for Katerina.
Tikhon has gone to drink at Dicky's. Katerina and Varvara stayed in the garden. Katerina complained that, having got married, she had completely wilted. She would like to be a free bird and fly away.
...why don't people fly like birds? You know, I sometimes feel like a bird. When you're standing on a mountain, you're drawn to fly. Just like that, I'd run up and raise my arms and fly.
At her mother's house, Katerina had an easy life. She was not burdened with work, she prayed out of the call of her heart and not out of compulsion, she had magical dreams and now she dreams that she is going to die soon.
Katerina confessed to Varvara that she had fallen in love with another man. Varvara saw nothing wrong in this and promised to arrange a date for Katerina as soon as Tikhon left on her mother's instructions. Katerina would not even hear of this, for cheating on her husband is a grievous sin.
A storm was beginning to break out. Fearful Katerina was afraid she would be struck by lightning and she would appear before God with a black sin on her soul. Tikhon came back, and everyone hurried home.
Action 2. Katerina's husband leaves
Feklusha comes to Kabanov's house.
Talking to the maid, Feklusha first boasted of her righteousness, then began to tell absurd fictions about distant lands she herself had never been to: about unjust sultans and men with dog-heads. The maid believed the wanderer: only she brought news from the outside world to their remote corner. After surprising the maid with her tales, Feklusha left.
Tikhon got ready for his journey. Kabanova locked herself in her room with her son to give him his last instructions. Katerina and Varvara waited their turn to say goodbye to Tikhon.
Varvara guessed that Katerina loved Boris: when she saw him the woman changed her face. Varvara long ago learned to pretend and hide everything from her mother. Katerina could not do this: she did not want to meet Boris, afraid that later she would not be able to live in Kabanikha's house and would throw herself into the Volga.
Tikhon came out. Kabanova made her son admonish his wife before the departure, in the old fashioned way: that she should honor her mother-in-law, not sit idly by and not look at boys. Then the couple were left alone. Katerina was sad - she had a premonition of trouble. Tikhon advised his wife to skip Kabanova's scolding, but Katerina threw herself at her husband and asked to take her with her. He refused: he wanted to walk free, so that at least for two weeks there would be no storm over him.
Kabanova did not like the way Katerina said goodbye to her husband. She has long grumbled that her daughter-in-law does not show her grief: she does not howl on the porch according to the old Russian custom.
When Tikhon left, Varvara begged her mother's permission to sleep with Katerina in the garden, in the old gazebo. She gave Katerina the key to the gate leading from the garden to the ravine and promised to tell Boris to come to the gate at night. Katerina hesitated for a long time, but she kept the key after all.
Action 3. Katerina and Boris meet secretly
Feklusha and Kabanova were sitting on a bench in front of the merchant's house. Feklusha said that in other towns life is fussy and "fire snakes" ride through the streets, but here, in Kalinovo, it is quiet and good: just "the promised land".
Drunken Dikoy came in complaining that he had been annoyed again: the men demanded money for his work. In this state, only Kabanova could calm him down. She invited the Wild Man into the house.
Soon Boris came to the Kabanovs: he had been sent to find out where Dikoy was. In front of the house Barbara met him, returning from a date with Kudryash. She covered her face with a handkerchief and whispered to Boris to come at night to the ravine behind their garden.
At night Varvara went out with Kudryash, and Katerina met Boris. They confessed their love for each other. Katerina felt that she would pay for this sin, but was no longer afraid of anything.
Don't pity me, ruin me! Let all know, let all see what I do! If I was not afraid of sin for you, will I be afraid of man's judgment?
They agreed to meet until Tikhon returned.
Action 4. Katerina confesses adultery to her husband
Ten days have passed. The rich townspeople were strolling along the embankment; a thunderstorm broke out; everyone hid in the gallery of an ancient monastery, including Dikoi and Kuligin. The inventor persuaded the merchant to donate money for public needs: he wanted to erect a sundial in the park and provide the town with lightning rods. Dikoy did not give any money. He got angry with Kuligin, who said that the thunderstorm is not God's punishment, but electricity, and lightning rods can protect against it. According to Wild, thunderstorms are sent to people as a punishment, and steel poles can't protect against them.
The rain ended, Kuligin and Dikoy left. Boris and Varvara entered the dilapidated gallery. Tikhon has returned earlier than he promised, and Katerina has "not become herself": she is tossing and crying. Kabanova began to notice this. Barbara was afraid that Katerina would confess everything to her husband.
Again the thunder rumbled. Katerina ran into the gallery, followed by Kabanikha and Tikhon. Kabanikha tells Tikhon that his wife may not be faithful to him. At that moment Katerina saw Boris and became frightened. Varvara intervened and made a sign to Boris to leave.
Agitated and exhausted, Katerina stepped aside to pray, and she saw a fresco on the wall depicting the terrible trial. This was the last straw. Katerina threw herself at Tikhon's feet, repented of her treason and was rendered emotionless.
Action 5. Katerina's suicide
Time passes. Taking an evening stroll in the public garden, Tikhon met Kuligin and complained that his whole family was "in disorder." He loved and pitied Katerina, and even beat her only because her mother told him to. Tikhon blamed Kabanikha for all his troubles: if she had not tyrannized Katerina, she would not have dared to betray him.
Now Kabanikha "eats Katerina up", and she "melts away like wax". Tikhon pities both his wife and Boris, he would forgive them, but his mother is against it. Kuligin advised him to live his own wits and forgive his wife - then she will be faithful to him for life. Tikhon replied that he has no mind of his own, and that he will take the one he has and drink it away - then let his mother babysit the fool.
Boris is sent by his uncle to serve in the office of a merchant he knows for three years "in Tyahta, to the Chinese". Varvara, whom Kabanova has locked up, has run away with Kudryash to God knows where. Tikhon was fed up with the house and was very reluctant to go back.
Then the maid came and said that Katerina had left the house and they could not find her. Tikhon and Kuligin rushed off in search of her.
Katerina appeared. She longed for Boris, longed to say goodbye to him. Now she lived as if in a tomb, and wished that nowadays in Russia they did not kill unfaithful wives.
Boris appeared. He informed Katerina that his uncle was sending him to Siberia. Here he came to say goodbye to the place where they had met. Katerina asked to take her with him, but Boris refused, making the excuse that he was not going of his own free will. Katerina humbled herself, blessed her beloved and let him go. She could only blame herself for what had happened.
Katerina did not go home: better to the grave than to the house of the Kabanikha, who locked and tortured her. She no longer wanted to live. Afraid that she would be caught and forcibly returned home, Katerina ran towards the Volga.
It got dark, people ran out with lanterns, Tikhon and Kabanova showed up. Suddenly someone shouted that the woman threw herself into the water. Kuligin ran there, Tikhon was prevented by his mother.
Soon people came back, one of those who came back said that Kuligin had pulled a drowned woman out of the pool. She rushed from a high cliff into the Volga, hit the anchor and died.
Tikhon ran towards Kuligin, who was carrying the dead Katerina.
Here is your Katerina. Do what you want with her! Her body is here, take it; but her soul is not yours now: it is now before a judge, who is more merciful than you!
Tikhon rushed to his dead wife and began to blame his mother for her death. Kabanova shouted at her son. He fell on his wife's corpse with the words, "Good for you, Katya! And why did I stay in the world to suffer!"
The retelling is based on edition of the play from Ostrovsky's collected works in 12 volumes (Moscow: Art, 1974).