Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744
Foma Gordeyev is Maxim Gorky’s first novel. Some see in it the ebullience of a young writer flexing his wings, exhibiting shortcomings typical of a novice; others see it as his best novel. Interestingly, this early work harbors both Gorky’s favorite themes and the main characteristics of his style. It can be said that the changes in Gorky’s artistic style after this work were only a matter of degree.
From the outset, Gorky was preoccupied with social themes. At the end of the nineteenth century, Russia found itself in the throes of a rapid rise of the merchant class and of industry, while the huge peasant and working masses sank deeper and deeper into poverty and despair. This development led straight to the revolution of 1917 and to Communist rule for seven decades. Intellectuals played a significant role in this, and Gorky was one of the leading writers with revolutionary and Marxist leanings. He was determined to help right the wrongs and to bring about a better life for all people, especially the downtrodden. He chose the pen name Gorky (“bitter”) to underscore the intensity of his feelings. He was basically an idealist, a humanitarian who wanted to achieve his altruistic goals with love and kindness, not with fire and sword. His moderate attitude often brought him into conflict with the less forgiving revolutionaries, although he remained a supporter of the revolution to the end.
All this was to come later in his life. In 1899, his revolutionary development had just begun. For that reason, Foma Gordeyev lacks the purposefulness of his later works, yet the contours of his ideological profile are discernible already. The novel deals with the rise of the merchant class, embodied in Ignat Gordeyev and his son, Foma. The two will eventually evolve into opposing poles. Ignat, an owner of boats and barges on the Volga River, is a powerful, ruthless, volcanic man whose brutal strength and merciless treatment of people under him enable him to amass great wealth. Even a seven-year-old Foma seems to understand his father’s true nature when he asks, “But you are a robber, aren’t you, father?” Although Foma admires his father’s success, he also feels sorry for him because success does not bring him happiness.
Foma develops into the opposite type of person. He grows into a reserved, taciturn young man, self-confident, upright, with a fine sense for justice. After his father’s death, he gradually brings on a demise of the family fortunes, despite the efforts of his godfather, Mayakin, to steer him in the “right” direction. Foma’s greatest obstacle toward success is his idealization of the working class and his tendency to look for compassion in people. The end result is Foma’s failure in the eyes of the merchant society and his descent into the limbo of a displaced, superfluous man who is declared insane and who spends the rest of his life roaming the streets in rags. In some ways, Foma echoes Gorky’s own thoughts and desires, especially his hope that life can be changed for the better with love and understanding.
Gorky tells his tale in the fashion that would become his trademark: straightforward realism, buoyed by warmth and concern for every human being. He creates credible scenes, in which characters unburden themselves of their concerns freely. Gorky’s proverbial gift of observation, seen perhaps at its best in his recollections of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, enlivens the descriptions and dialogues. On the debit side, the novel is burdened by some of the notorious weaknesses of Gorky’s writing habits. His characters philosophize too much, talk profusely, and state the obvious repeatedly. Even his realism sometimes slides into romanticism and sentimentality. The characters are frequently so concerned with their own thoughts that they seem to lose touch with others. Unlike the economy of words in his short stories, the descriptive profusion in Gorky’s novels dilutes the overall striking effects that abound in the novel.
Despite these shortcomings, Foma Gordeyev is a colorful novel, with powerful characterization and with a vivid picture of the life in Russia at the turn of the century and of the merchant class that was the backbone of the Russian society just before the revolution. Some chapters offer the best pages Gorky has written and a few characters, such as Foma, his father Ignat, his godsister Liuboff, his aunt Anfisa, and the firebrand intellectual Ezhoff, are indeed unforgettable.
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