Motif Bank

Russian 206: Motifs
Wei Hsin Gui
6 March  2000

White in Bely’s PETERSBURG

In Petersburg, Bely’s use of white in association with the main characters and other crucial events in the novel presents a challenge to its conventional relation to purity and victory, as presented in the Book of Revelation. No longer is white a motif invested with greatness, grandeur and power; it is now – paradoxically – also symbolic of absence, vulnerability and transience. As the plot highlights incidents and objects with white as a feature, and the characters themselves assume colors beyond their initial state of white, the validity of equating white with  triumph and the immaculate is questioned.

White is a recurring feature in the initial description of the key characters, depicting them in a wholesome, saintly or even divine light. The flighty Sofia Petrovna is described as having a complexion “of pearl iridescent with the rosy whiteness of delicate apple blossom petals” (39), a healthy, cherubic skin tone, possibly with some connection to her nickname, Angel Peri. Apollon Apollonovich, resplendent in his dress uniform, is “all white and gold” (70), and is attributed a god-like demeanor reminiscent of his namesake, the Greek sun god Apollo. Nikolai Apollonovich, in moments of deep thought, is characterized by “the lines of his totally white countenance” (28) which make him look “dry, sharp and cold, iconlike” (70). This reference to white and religious icons establishes a parallel between Nikolai and  Sergei Sergeyevich, who, dressed in “a dazzling white shirt crossed by suspenders” (86), bows in prayer before the icon and its lamp, illuminating his “face, with a sharply pointed goatee and a hand of the same color” (86). It seems as if Sergei is prostrating himself before the icon-like Nikolai, but as will be discussed later, this juxtaposed image of reverence is rudely overturned when Sergei confronts Nikolai in his apartment. At this point, it would be especially tempting (because of the religious associations) to yoke these character descriptions with the references to white and gold in the Book of Revelations. There, The Son of Man wears “a golden sash” (Revelation 1:13) and has head and hair of “white wool” (Revelation 1:14), and the voice of the Lord counsels those who will listen to buy “gold refined from fire…and white garments” (Revelation 3:18).

However, by exploring other key instances aside from character descriptions where white is highlighted, one can decipher certain hints of undermining connotations. The Apollonovich residence has a remarkable statue at the top staircase, “a matte-white pedestal.”  “A Niobe, forever frozen,” with her “alabaster eyes” looking upwards (33) is perched on it. While knowledge of the Greek legend of Niobe will immediately bring out the association between the statue and Apollo(n) as that of a victim and her divine punisher, later in the novel Apollon, in the depths of his mental breakdown, will be “wrapped up in the skirts of his dressing gown…peering out from behind the statue of Niobe” (238). Apollon’s furtive hiding behind the woman who has been damned by his divine namesake degrades his stature – it seems as if the white alabaster statue has replaced his gleaming white uniform as a source of pitiful refuge. The statue also recalls Nikolai’s “totally white countenance” with “his forehead…finely chiselled” (28), implying a similar frozen, ossified state of being. However, as will be discussed later in this essay, Nikolai reaks free of this ossification in the epilogue where he dons muli-colored clothing and grows a beard.

Additionally, the enigmatic “sad and tall one” who is “all swathed in white satin” (118) brings to mind the compassionate figure of the suffering Christ, who, in Revelation, is attired in white. This image is further reinforced by the white domino’s words, “You, all of you deny me. I look after all of you. You deny me, and then you call unto me to…” (119) echoing Peter’s denial of Christ.  Nonetheless, Bely gives the white domino with its corresponding religious connotations a parodic twist when we link this figure to the  characters Sergei, Nikolai, Apollon and Dudkin.

Sofia Likhutina mistakes the white domino for her husband Sergei, and indeed, parallels are drawn between the two. The “arm of the figure wearing the domino proved to be as hard as wood” (119), and Sergei’s features are described as having been “carved from hard wood of some kind” (86). This association is however distorted by Sergei’s miserable attempt at suicide and “mock resurrection” (to use Professor Meyer’s phrase) with Sofia becoming a Mary Magdalene weeping at his feet. Sergei is “transfigured” (222), but instead of the majestic, risen Christ, we have “the blue face of an idiot” who is “gangling, sad, and clean-shaven” (137). While the reunion between husband and wife recalls divine compassion and forgiveness (“God will forgive” (137)), later Sergei confronts Nikolai with “openly satanic joy” (245) and is grotesquely “flushed crimson and with swollen veins” (250). Sergei’s initial pious white has given way to an idiotic blue and an infernal red.

Next, Nikolai Apollonovich with his white, icon-like countenance belies the purity of the white domino with his own red domino – it seems as if Nikolai is struggling to remove himself from or trying to fill out his “white” with “red.” In donning the red domino, Nikolai becomes a “red buffoon” (46), empowering himself behind this disguise to spite Sofia Petrovna, who “had called him by that name, so a red buffoon had come” (46). Simultaneously, Nikolai has also unwittingly become an agent of chaos and disorder with his antics. They have “unravelled into a series of events that never happened” (38), sensationalized and fabricated by a newspaper editor. Moreover, to his own father, he appears in his red domino as “some prankster with no sense of tact…trying to terrorize him with the symbolic color red” (109) during the ball. It appears as if Nikolai is giving the lie to his seemingly unbesmirched demeanor by  adopting a devilish alter ego.

Moreover, when Apollon looks at his son’s portrait in which he is holding a “white kid glove,” Nikolai is described as “suffering” (249) within the frame. This suffering also brings out Nikolai’s self-righteous sentiment of martyrdom, expressed in Christ-like terms such as “You knew not what you did” (254) and “Denounce me, don’t believe me!” (254), but interestingly he does not recognize the “sad and tall one” (125) as Christ. Rather, Nikolai identifies him as a “police officer” (125) who disapproves of the student by shaking “his little flaxen white beard” (125). We are thus presented with a conflation of images – who is the Christ, Nikolai or the white domino? Is there meant to be only one, or is each a figment of his own particular reality (Sofia’s and Nikolai’s)? And is it really Christ or a police officer? The unquestioned uniformity of associations with white is no longer adequate.

Apollon Apollonovich, who at the height of his power is girded in white and gold, firstly calls the Christian association of white into doubt as his divine demeanor seems to stem from the Greek god Apollo instead. From this great height of white Apollon falls into “a dust cloud” and a mess of “mouse-colored skirts…raspberry-colored tassels” (237), with eyes that are “blue, very blue, childlike, even blank” (272) in the depths of his mental breakdown. The decrepitude which  characterizes this “twilight of Ableukhov” (232) casts a literal shadow over Apollon’s temporal power as opposed to the eternal grandeur of either the sun-god Apollo or the radiant, risen Christ, even though they are all linked by the white motif.

These associative difficulties are further expressed in Dudkin’s possession by the Bronze Horseman. The use of white here is at first prophetic as well as empowering; he sees “motionless white patches [of] drawers, towels, and sheets” (208) before being possessed by the metal statue of Peter, depicted as a “luminous white-hot pillar” (210)., and after killing Lippanchenko he sits astride the corpse with “a laughing white face” (264). Even though there are Christian connotations in this sequence of events, such as the Bronze Horseman hailing Dudkin with “Greetings, my son!” (214) and relating to the Son of Man described in Revelation as having feet of “burnished bronze” (Revelation 2:18), the idea of white as symbolic of holiness and purity can be questioned in two ways. First, the references of “idols of gold and silver and bronze” in Revelation 9:20 adds a troubling factor to the association of bronze with Christ. We know Dudkin has been reading Revelation (56), but is his possession apostolic or satanic, or perhaps both? Moreover, the image of Dudkin astride a horse brings to mind the “white horse” upon which the “Faithful and True” Christ rides in majesty (Revelation 19:11), and the tumultuous legacy of Peter the Great as embodied in the Bronze Horseman. White, with regard to Dudkin, unlocks conflated associations of divine and temporal which deny a simple explanation.

Finally, it is significant that besides the transmogrified Dudkin, the other characters ultimately dissociate from white into other colors, the symbolic values of which will not be discussed here. As mentioned before, Sergei Sergeyevich moves from white to blue and then red; Sofia Petrovna, “all in white” (89), dons a multicolored costume for the ball which is gray, azure, black and silver (110), and is finally reconciled with her husband in an “illuminated” dawn which throws “a pale pink, pale red wedge of light” on them both (137). The Ableukhov father and son undergo distinct changes in appearance – in the epilogue, Apollon is characterized by “his huge cornflower blue eyes” and “stubble showing silver on his cheeks” (293), while Nikolai has grown “a golden spade beard” with “a lock of silver” and wears “dark blue spectacles” (293), “a blue gandurah” and “a bright red Arabian chechia” (291). We should also note that when Anna Petrovna, dressed “all in black” (101), returns to her old home she is struck by the “same oppressive feeling as before, the old hostility,” in the same sentence which mentions the “cold male alabaster figures [and] the slender white columns” (102). The black, weeping Anna Petrovna also provides a striking contrast to the white frozen alabaster of Niobe with dry eyes, thus underscoring the sterility and coldness associated with the Ableukhov household and father and son. With her return to the family, a measure of reconciliation is achieved among all three members, both in the present context of the novel and in the epilogue. Thus, the apparent order and harmony of white as a cohesive power is no longer unassailable; we have seen how white seems to be more of a transitory state from which characters develop according to their temperaments, and that reconciliation and/or redemption is linked with the presence of other colors.