Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1112
Ignat begins as a water pumper, but, by the time he is forty years old, he is a rich owner of barges and tugs and a determined and a ruthless trader. At times, however, he is subject to fits of depression, and he carouses with the dregs of the city; sometimes, he exults fiercely when one of his barges burns. He is a huge man with boundless energy. His greatest disappointment is that he has no son; his wife bears only daughters who die in infancy. When he is forty-three years old, his wife suddenly dies, and, within six months, he finds a young bride. Natalya is tall and handsome, dutiful but mysterious. Although ordinarily submissive, she has strength of character that makes boisterous Ignat afraid to beat her. She dies after the birth of Foma, Ignat’s long-desired son.
Until he is six years old, Foma is reared in his godfather Mayakin’s house. Under the watchful, stupid eye of a female relative, he plays unimaginatively with Liuboff, Mayakin’s daughter. Ignat then takes back his son, and Foma’s Aunt Anfisa looks after him. Anfisa tells him many fanciful tales that whet the young boy’s imagination.
At the age of eight, Foma discusses the family business with Ignat and is disappointed that his father is only a river merchant instead of a pirate. To clear up his misapprehensions, Ignat takes the boy on a business trip down the river. Foma gets along well with the peasants until he tells his father how one worker was uncomplimentary to the capitalistic class. Ignat strikes the worker. This incident always seems brutal to the boy.
At school, Foma makes two friends: Smolin, a fat, rich boy, and Ezhoff, a quick-thinking poor boy. Foma progresses well in his classes because Ezhoff helps him study and prompts him during recitations. In and out of school pranks, Foma is a daring leader. His courage is due in part to his father’s wealth, but he is also truly honest and fearless. As he grows up, Liuboff is the only girl he knows. Mayakin hopes that they will marry and unite the two family fortunes.
When Foma is not yet twenty, Ignat puts him in charge of a trading expedition and tells the tug captain to keep an eye on the young man. Foma quickly establishes his superiority over the older captain and takes complete command. He does quite well, except that he is often too generous in giving grain to the peasants. He notices on deck one night a peasant woman with attractive eyes. Although she is older than he, Foma desires to meet her, and the captain arranges to have her come to Foma’s cabin at night. The woman is thirty years old, delightfully mature to the naïve Foma. He leaves her with regret when Mayakin sends a message requiring him to come home as soon as possible.
Mayakin tells Foma that his father is in the clutches of a conniving woman who already got large sums of money from him. At first, Foma is afraid that Ignat took a mistress. To Mayakin, the situation seems even worse; Madame Medynsky induced Ignat to give liberally to charity. Mayakin has no use for charity. The merchant class, he thinks, should use its money to make more money. For a time, Foma helps his father and faithfully attends to business. It is hard work for him, although he is far from stupid. He can see no point in trading, no excuse for amassing a fortune. Liuboff confuses him when he talks with her. She reads books, to Foma a foolish pastime, for in them he finds no answers to his questions. Foma never reads much; in polite society, he is always ill at ease.
When Ignat dies, Foma feels more insecure. Attending a public gathering to dedicate a building to which his father contributed, he leaves before the ceremony is over. Nevertheless, he is greatly interested in Madame Medynsky, the moving spirit in his father’s philanthropies. He visits her often, and she is very gracious to him, for he is handsome as well as rich. All the while, however, Foma feels troubled, for she seems to play with his affections. When Foma hears she is an abandoned woman, he refuses to believe the tales. In fact, one night he soundly thrashes an official who speaks slightingly of her chastity.
When Mayakin tries to quiet the affair and to set Foma back on the path of commercial rectitude, Foma rebels. He goes on a spree with several others and finally winds up on a raft in company with coldly attractive Sasha. Drunk enough to be affected greatly by Sasha’s duets with her sister, he cuts the mooring lines. As the raft floats away, Sasha swims to shore. She and Foma laugh immoderately as the others in the party float helplessly down the river.
After some days, he and Sasha come upon one of his barges, and Foma forces the captain to let him take command. He promptly steers the barge into a collision, and the craft sinks. It is an expensive and scandalous business to raise it. In the midst of their liaison, Sasha leaves Foma. She cannot stand his continual questioning as to the purpose of life. When Mayakin hears what happened to the barge, he takes a power of attorney and leaves Foma to his own devices.
By chance, Foma encounters Ezhoff, now a brilliant, satirical journalist. Fascinated by his former schoolmate, he is puzzled because Ezhoff had so little worldly success. Once he goes with Ezhoff when the journalist makes a revolutionary speech to a gathering of printers, but mostly the two drink together. At last, Foma goes home, soberer but scarcely wiser. There he learns Liuboff is engaged to Smolin, who turned into an unctuous, polished trader. Mayakin, still hoping to redeem Foma, takes him to a ship launching. As he listens to the laudatory speeches and hears the blatant congratulations to the owner, Foma loses control of himself. He compels the rich businessmen to listen as he probes beneath their smug shells of respectability. One man barely escapes trial for seducing a little girl, another falsely accuses his mistress and has her sent to prison, a third turns out his nephews to starve, and still another owns a brothel. As Foma bawls out his terrible accusations, the men fall on him and bind him. His godfather has him confined in an asylum. Years later, he can be seen in the streets of the town, shabby, half-witted, and intoxicated. He lives in a little wing off Liuboff’s courtyard.