The focus of my thesis is iconic representations in Dostoevsky’s post-Siberian fiction and I argue that the transforming potential of iconic beauty is vital to a full understanding and appreciation of the writer’s works and religious philosophy. This study therefore aims to develop and affirm the theological and artistic importance of the concept of transformation through Dostoevsky’s characterisation and narrative in the post-Siberian works. Particular emphasis is placed on the ways in which the plot and characters of the major novels embody the ideal of the iconic archetype characterising Orthodox theology and artistic representation, and the extent to which iconic beauty creates transformation in these works. A crucial aspect of my research findings is that the icon-like characters of these works are equally capable of transforming and regenerating their sinful environment but do not always receive the necessary response that is essential for transformation or theosis to unfold. Theosis is a central tenet Orthodox theology and refers to the “transformation of believers into the likeness of God,” making it interchangeable with transformation. To illustrate this point, both Sonia and Dasha embody the spiritual ideal of iconic beauty, but it is the lack of response from Stavrogin, in contrast to Raskolnikov, that creates a different conclusion for each novel. Similarly, both Myshkin and Alyosha are manifestations of compassionate love, but the response they encounter to their invitation to love ultimately determines their transformation. The thesis also considers the historical and theological importance of icons as a reflection of the Russian Orthodox Church’s belief system, and incorporates a biographical perspective that explores the role of icons in Dostoevsky’s life and their influence on his creative endeavours.
I have chosen to concentrate on the religious-aesthetic dimension of Dostoevsky’s fiction as I believe it is of crucial importance to our understanding of his conception of art, religion and literature, culminating in the great works of the post-Siberian period. My topic builds on the works of other scholars, particularly Robert Louis Jackson, Sophie Ollivier and Tatyana Kasatkina, who have examined the role of beauty and icons in Dostoevsky’s philosophy of art. The relevance of the subject is highlighted by the recent publication of Rowan Williams’ Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, which calls for further examination of the role of icons in the author’s works.
The first half of the thesis consists of an investigation into the historical and biographical context in which Dostoevsky developed as a writer, as well as providing an overview of the relevant critical literature which has contributed to our understanding of the significance of icons in Dostoevsky’s mature works. It also presents a conceptualisation of the transformative aspects of moral beauty depicted through iconic representations. The second half presents a critique of the selected works, drawing parallels between the iconic characters of the narrative and the spiritually-transformative components of the iconic image. The methodology employed derives from an examination of the aesthetics of icons which links the tradition of religious beauty expressed through icons with Dostoevsky’s understanding of iconic beauty as articulated through the characters and narratives.
I show that the transforming power of iconic beauty was of vital importance to the evolution of Dostoevsky’s creative thought and artistic expression, crystallising a theological outlook which emphasises iconic beauty as the spiritual ideal or obraz towards which humanity strives. More specifically, this preoccupation is articulated through the interaction between the iconic ideal embodied by characters like Sonia Marmeladova and Alyosha Karamazov, who point the way to salvation with compassionate love, and the amoral characters that inhabit the narrative. Moral beauty is embodied in the textual features of symbolism, metaphors, narrative structure, dialogue and setting which are analysed with reference to their literary, aesthetic and theological contexts. My research provides the basis for a deeper understanding of the function of transformative beauty in Dostoevsky’s works during an important period of his creative output and contributes to a reviving interest in the conceptualisation of beauty within a theological and literary framework.