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  • Evgeny Zamiatin's "The Cave"
  • Timothy Langen

Evgeny Zamiatin's short story "The Cave," like Fyodor Dosto- evsky's novel Crime and Punishment, has at its dramatic center a single criminal act, and as its philosophical preoccupation the reasons for and the results of that act. The act in "The Cave" is not murder but theft, the theft of scarce firewood from a downstairs neighbor. The result, unlike Dostoevsky's, is rapid detection, confrontation, and then suicide. The reasons, however, are somewhat more complex, and as with Dostoevsky they reach beyond merely topical sensation to touch a paradox that lies close to the heart of human civilization.

The immediate reasons are topical and simple enough. Martin Martinych and Masha live together on the brink of hypothermic death during the predictable cruelty of a Petrograd winter and the exceptional horror of the Russian Civil War. Nearly everyone in the city is freezing and starving, and the precariousness of existence has led people to trade the luxuries of civilized life for the barest essentials of physical survival. Books and sheet music shift imperceptibly from repositories of memory and culture into combustible objects good for a few more minutes of life-saving warmth. Favorite rooms are abandoned as not worth the cost of heating, and Martin Martinych sacrifices his conscience for a few scraps of wood. Indeed, Zamiatin prepares the crime at least as sympathetically as does Dostoevsky: the victim, Obertyshev, is every bit as dislikable as Dostoevsky's pawnbroker; he hoards his considerable supply of wood in total indifference to the suffering of his neighbors. Moreover, Mart's crime, unlike Raskolnikov's [End Page 209] in Crime and Punishment, hardly injures the victim, who seems to suffer a purely mental affront when some of his stash has been stolen. We would like to think that in Raskolnikov's place we would not commit his crime; in Mart's place, however, we might well be excused for following his example and filching a few sticks of wood from a man who doesn't need them.

However, it is not an easy decision for Mart, and Zamiatin describes it as a battle between two Marts, bifurcated by the extreme deprivation of his circumstances into a purely animal Mart, a "caveman" who says only "I must," and another Mart clinging tenaciously in memory, a Mart who used to love the music of Scriabin and who now, standing before Obertyshev's ample woodpile, says "I may not." The caveman prevails, Mart brings the wood upstairs, and he and Masha enjoy a day of warmth. At the end of the day, the chairman of the housing committee confronts Mart, assuring him that he too detests Obertyshev, but advising Mart to return the wood or else face legal consequences. Alas, there is none to return. In despair Mart reaches for a vial of poison that he has apparently reserved for that moment when the suffering of life outweighs the hope—but Masha, who is further gone than he, insists on taking the single portion herself. She instructs Mart to go outside for a little walk while she does the deed. He does so, and here the story ends.

Zamiatin was trained as an engineer and early in his career he worked both as a technical writer and as a writer of fiction, and so it is tempting see behind this story a mechanical vision of human existence that is something like a physical structure. The structure of human civilization, according to this view, is built on an essential framework without which the entire thing would collapse, and to which every other part of the structure must be sacrificed if need be. Physical existence is part of this framework: it is the precondition of any human civilization, and the ornaments of that civilization must when necessary be devoured to ensure the continued survival of human beings. The burning thirst of physical necessity must be slaked before we can irrigate the lush fields of beauty, kindness, and imagination. Books are for reading, but in some circumstances they are more valuable as kindling.

In the writing of some psychologists—most notably Abraham Maslow—there appears a "hierarchy of human needs" that...


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pp. 209-217
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