The Spider in Russian Symbolist Art and Literature

Eugenia Kapsomera Walton, University of Kansas

This paper investigates the image of the spider, which appears as an emblem in the work of the Russian Symbolists. The traditional imagery surrounding the spider includes the demonic, the entrapping, the violent, the creative, the illusionary, and the metaphysical. In many ways, this imagery resonates with the environment in which the Symbolists lived and wrote, a time of strikes, wars, revolts, and suicides, but also a time of artistic creativity and re-evaluation of traditional values.

Three representative examples of spider symbolism reveal the different ways in which the Symbolists employed this unusual image: Zinaida Gippius' pessimistic, even suffocating poem, "Pauki" (1903), Mstislav Dobuzhinskij's horrifying picture, "D'javol" (1906), and Andrej Belyij's Theosophical novel, Serebrjanyj golub' (1909). Spiders are central to all three works, and they generate overlapping meanings that allow us to make some conclusions about the role of spider imagery in Russian symbolism.

A close examination of spider imagery in these three works clarifies the significance of the spider for the Symbolists. First, the spider image captures the aura of decay and degeneration characteristic of the Russian fin de siècle. As the spider in its web, evil entraps man in the world (vide the sinister image of spiders spinning in Svidrigajlov's cosmic bathhouse). Second, the spider is an overt reference to the Buddhist idea of Maya, the Spider who spins the web of World Illusion, which can be transcended only by the initiated. And finally, the spider has a creative aspect as the maker of the microcosmic web, a distinct world, as the spinner of fate and life and art. The powerful symbolism of the spider reveals not only the Symbolist's despair about the world in which they lived, but also their hopes of transcending it.