Ekphrasis, Russian Style: Visualizing Literary Icons, 1830-1930

Jordan, Yekaterina, Slavic Languages and Literatures - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Herman, David, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines the conflicted relationship between ekphrasis and iconicity in the context of Russian literature. It continues an inquiry into the classical separation of word and image, touches upon the 19th-c. debates regarding the more appropriate means of reflecting reality within the Russian Realist aesthetics, and attempts to outline those aspects of visuality that tie Classical Realism and Modernism in Russian literature.
Since Russian culture differentiates between two types of images – secular paintings and religious icons – an analysis of ekphrasis within a literary narrative must account for the specific type of image that is being referenced. I argue that iconicity determines the object’s role within a narrative and dictates the way in which it must be perceived both by characters within a narrative and by the readers. Although it owes its origins to ecclesiastical sphere, the notion of literary iconicity transcends both the strictly religious sense or Eastern Orthodoxy and Charles Sanders Peirce’s definition of an icon. When a character is endowed with apparent characteristics typical of an Orthodox icon, the effect that this character produces on her surroundings are similar, if not identical, to those of a religious icon.
The tension between ekphrasis and iconicity is presented in Russian literature as an ideological conflict between either male domination and female defiance or between western rationalism and Russian mysticism. When considered through the prism of iconicity, female silence becomes a sign of psychological and spiritual strength, not of submission to male authority. Paradoxically, male protagonists and/or narrators, trapped by their need for verbal expression, fail to recognize the heroines’ iconic properties and therefore miss the opportunity for deliverance from their own misery caused by the feelings of wounded pride, isolation or a lack of direction.
Thus, iconicity becomes more than merely an echo of religious undertones that may or may not be present within a literary work, but a way of deepening the psychological dimension of a narrative and of offering a more challenging yet a more rewarding way of human engagement.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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