Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The search for truth and an earthly paradise are well-worn themes in nineteenth century Russian literature, and The Foundation Pit owes something both to Nikolai Leskov’s eccentric folk geniuses and provincial settings and to Fyodor Dostoevski’s dreams (or nightmares) of the Golden Age. Still, there is an eerie, surreal quality to Platonov’s new world, a pervasive hopelessness and desolation that those two masters lack.

A grandiose project on the edge of a nameless provincial city in the heart of Russia, the foundation pit would seem to hold the promise of a Utopia—Dostoevski’s Crystal Palace, the workers’ paradise, a massive home for the masses. That is how Engineer Prushevsky sees it. Yet its projected dimensions keep expanding while its work crew keeps shrinking, and it seems unlikely ever to reverse its direction—to grow up instead of down. The Utopia is not only unfinished but also is in the process of becoming its own vertical opposite.

What makes the novel alternately dreamlike and nightmarish is the irony of theory versus practice but, more than that, the uncertainty of time and space. The city, village, and river are all unnamed, the landscape a lunar wasteland where, despite the presence of buildings and houses, the characters seem isolated and homeless in the middle of the windy steppe, sheltered only by their scanty clothing and occasionally by one another. Voshchev and the others follow Party directives and...

(The entire section is 426 words.)