Zamjatin's and Plato's Caves: Imagery and Reflection

Angele Zebley, Brown University

Zamjatin's short story "The Cave" ("Peshchera") has been interpreted in a number of ways. Those scholars who have investigated "The Cave" have looked at it in terms of a clash of spiritual versus material in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, a clash of old and new cultures, or Zamjatin's reversal on the Revolution and a vehicle for his "neo-realist" literary style. While all of these approaches yield valuable and fruitful interpretations, they neglect to give a global view of the work and its intricate construction. The present paper intends to complement these earlier investigations in several ways: by examining the multiple systems of imagery employed in "The Cave" and how they are intertwined to create an aesthetic and philosophical whole; by re examining the notion that, in writing "The Cave", Zamjatin retreats from his "Scythian" outlook; and by introducing a hypothesis for construing Zamjatin's cave as Socrates' cave, as depicted in Plato's Republic.

In Book VII of Plato's Republic, Socrates depicts people kept in inhumane conditions in a subterranean cavern. With legs and necks fettered from childhood, they may look only straight ahead; far behind them near the entrance to the cave burns a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners, is a low wall. When implements and images of humans and animals are carried past this wall, the shadows from these are cast onto the cave wall in front of the prisoners. The prisoners, mistake these two-dimensional shadows for reality; hearing echoes of voices, they think that it is the shadows producing them. Socrates claims that if one of these cave dwellers were freed and brought up into the sunlight, he would be dazzled and not believe that what he saw before was an illusion. Should he return to the cave after becoming accustomed to the sun, his eyes would be filled with darkness; he would be blinded and unable to discern the shadows. Hence there are two kinds of blindness: one resulting from the ascent into light and the second resulting from the descent into darkness.

Zamjatin uses all of these Platonic elements in the development of "The Cave". Martin Martinych is described as "fettered", the fire in the cave acts as the Platonic fire does, as a false sun, a false god. Masha is described as completely flat, two-dimensional, like the shadows in Plato, and her voice is several times said to be only an "echo" of her former one. Blindness plays an important function in this correlation as well. Martin Martinych clearly suffers from the second type of blindness described in Plato. When the electric light is turned on in Martin's cave, he must squint and turn away. Martin is twice compared to a bird blinded and trapped in unfamiliar circumstances, and is several times described directly as blind. None of these systematic correlations would be particularly interesting if not for the fact that Plato's "cave story" is itself a comment on who is fit to govern. In this way, Zamjatin strongly indicts the new regime.

Does this indictment really constitute "a retreat from the Scythian joy in the destruction of the old world" (Barratt 34) as Andrew Barratt claims? Zamjatin himself wrote that the true Scythian "works only for the distant future, never for the near future, and never for the present. Hence to him there is one way Golgotha and no other, and one conceivable victory to be crucified and no other" (Zamjatin 22). Martin's refusal to live only for the present; his unwillingness to do as others and burn his piano or books, and the harsh consequences that follow from this impracticality, form a picture of Martin as the Scythian: in the new order of things it is Martin who is the nonconformist and a spiritual revolutionary.


Barratt, Andrew. "Adam and the Ark of Ice: Man and Revolution in Zamyatin's "The Cave" Irish Slavonic Studies 4 (1983): 20-37.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Ed. and trans. Mirra Ginsburg. Chicago, 1970.