Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832
Mikhail Kostilyoff (mih-hah-IHL kohs-tih-LYOHF ), the greedy and corrupt landlord of the flophouse in which the characters live and the action takes place. Suspicious of his wife, he trails her constantly. A superstitious hypocrite, he says pious platitudes and then raises the rent on Kleshtch, an...
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Mikhail Kostilyoff (mih-hah-IHL kohs-tih-LYOHF), the greedy and corrupt landlord of the flophouse in which the characters live and the action takes place. Suspicious of his wife, he trails her constantly. A superstitious hypocrite, he says pious platitudes and then raises the rent on Kleshtch, an impoverished tenant. He cowers before Pepel, to whom he owes money for stolen goods, and he bullies his sister-in-law, Natasha. No one misses him in the slightest when he is killed during a brawl.
Vassilisa Karpovna (vah-sih-LIH-sah kahr-POHV-nah), his wife, a malicious woman who cuckolds Kostilyoff in an affair with Pepel. Plotting her husband’s death, she tries to involve Pepel by offering him Natasha. She is intensely jealous of Natasha, however, and whips the girl at every opportunity. When her husband is killed, Vassilisa readily turns Pepel over to the police, but both Pepel and Natasha accuse her of complicity in the crime, and she sits in jail as the play closes.
Natasha (nah-TAH-shah), Vassilisa’s sister, a decent, pretty girl who is little more than a servant in Kostilyoff’s flophouse. She yearns for dignity but despairs at her hopeless position. When Pepel offers to take her away, she is hesitant. Natasha later gets the impression that Kostilyoff’s death was premeditated by Pepel, and she goes into a fit of hysterics. She disappears after her release from the hospital where she was taken after being beaten by Vassilisa.
Vaska Pepel (VAHS-kah PEH-pehl), called Vassily (vah-SIH-lih), a young thief burdened by his past and his relationship with Vassilisa. He hopes to overcome his squalor by beginning a new life with Natasha. Vaska is clever and spirited, and although he rejects Vassilisa’s murderous proposal, his good qualities come to nothing when he angrily knocks Kostilyoff down during a brawl that starts after Vassilisa savagely beats Natasha.
Luka (LOO-kah), an old traveler without a passport. A gentle, compassionate liar, he comforts the others by subscribing to their pathetic dreams of wholeness and dignity. Recognizing the savagery of truth, Luka prefers the misleading aspects of the imagination. In some measure, everyone is touched by his presence, but few are changed by it. In the confusion that surrounds Kostilyoff’s death, Luka disappears.
Satine (sah-TIHN), a cynical young cardsharp and jailbird. At once shrewd and easygoing, Satine provides the final comment on Luka’s personality and influence. Men like Luka, he says, are significant only because people are weak and need lies; nevertheless, he admits that Luka served as a kind of purgative.
Andrei Kleshtch (an-DRAY klehshch), a down-and-out locksmith who holds his fellows in contempt. Unable to bear his wife’s dying, he goes out to get drunk. After her death, he succumbs to fits of anger and torpor, but he ends by achieving fellowship with the other tenants.
Anna Kleshtch (AHN-nah), his wife. On the verge of death, she cannot accept the notion of a just afterlife. Luka tries to comfort her before she dies.
The actor, a nameless, alcoholic, and verbose man who dreams of taking the cure. He gets encouragement from Luka, but after Luka disappears, he is unable to maintain his self-respect. In the end, he hangs himself.
The baron, a poseur and cardsharp who pathetically boasts of his family’s past wealth and nobility. He obtains satisfaction by ridiculing the dreams of Nastya, the prostitute who supports him.
Nastya (NAH-styah), a prostitute who reads sentimentally romantic novels, wishes for a fatal love affair, respects Luka’s compassion, and adds to the general bickering in the tenement.
Bubnoff (boob-NOHF), an ill-natured capmaker, ignorant and sardonic, who has made a place for himself in the loose camaraderie of the flophouse.
Abram Miedviedieff (ah-BRAHM mehd-VEH-dehf), Vassilisa’s uncle, a mediocre, seedily respectable policeman who pesters Luka about his passport, hopes to arrest Vaska Pepel for thievery, and explains away such matters as the gossip about Vassilisa and Vaska, Kostilyoff’s activities as a receiver of stolen goods, and Vassilisa’s cruel treatment of Natasha by saying that these are family affairs. He leaves the police and takes to drink after his marriage to Kvashnya, a street vendor.
Kvashnya (kvah-shnyah), a sharp-tongued, boisterous seller of dumplings and meat pies. In her rough way, she is kind to Anna and tries to give food to the dying woman. Although she claims that she was overjoyed when her first husband died and that she will not be bothered with another, she marries Miedviedieff, the policeman, and bullies him with tongue-lashings and beatings.
Alyoshka (a-LYEW-shkah), a reckless, happy-go-lucky young shoemaker. When he is drunk, he lies down in the middle of the street and plays gay tunes on his concertina.
Hassan (HAHS-ahn), a Tatar porter. His hand is crushed while he is at work, and he is afraid that amputation may be necessary.
Krivoy Zob (krih-VOY zohb), Hassan’s friend and fellow porter.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1275
The Baron is a slightly ridiculous, cynical character, once an aristocrat, now a resident of the lower depths who reminisces on his former status. His philosophy is ‘‘all is past’’, and he expects little from the world although he retains his aristocratic bearing. A great deal of animal imagery is associated with this aristocrat who has fallen to the level of beast.
The Tartar has little role until the final act, when his hand has been mashed and he has little hope of supporting himself without it. Before then he participates in a game of cards and repeatedly advocates fair play. He offers such practical insights as ‘‘someone can have the bed’’ when Anna dies. In Act IV he champions Luka’s reputation and tells the others that the Koran leads his heart, while for Russians religion is law. When the actor asks him to pray for him, he replies, ‘‘Pray for yourself,’’ suggesting both practical, personal advocacy and lack of brotherly love.
The actor is an alcoholic whose addiction has obliterated his memory. His hypochondria is humorous, and he shows compassion for the ailing Anna, but he is a pathetic character who pines for his past. He gets some false hope from Luka that his addiction can be cured, and attempts some restraint, but ultimately he fails and commits suicide at the end of the play.
Alyoshka is a comic character, often drunk, who shows up largely for comic relief. He is provocative and tells rumors about people in authority, namely Wassilissa and, later, Kvaschnya.
Bubnoff is a capmaker, whose first line in the play is a grunt of skepticism. This foreshadows his role as one of several cynical voices throughout the play. For example, when he hears that Anna is dead, his response is ‘‘There will be no more coughing.’’ At more than one point in the play, Bubnoff and others sing about life as a prison, offering a sense of his world view.
Wassilissa is the young, bitter wife of Kostiloff. She wishes for freedom from her circumstances and tries to achieve it by coercing her lover Pepel to murder her husband. When Pepel refuses and she learns of Natasha’s intent to run away with him, she brutally beats her sister. This leads to Pepel’s accidental murder of her husband. Natasha accuses Wassilissa and Pepel of conspiring to the murder, and Wassilissa ends up in jail.
Anna is the terminally ill wife of Kleshtch. She both wants to die and escape the misery of her life, and is afraid to die, but she takes some consolation from the ministrations of Luka. When she dies nobody cares very much, aside from concern about the smell and the authorities.
Andrew Mitritch Kleshtch
Kleshtch is a locksmith who is always working on a lock that can’t be mended. He sets himself apart from the others on account of his work ethic, which they do not share. He is extremely bitter, and claims he will be free from his circumstances when his wife, Anna, dies. When she finally does die, he has to sell his anvil and other tools to cover funeral costs, and so he can neither move on nor work. He is an angry man with no sense of brotherhood, and says in Act III, ‘‘I hate everyone.’’
Michael Ivanowitch Kostilioff
Kostilioff is the hypocritical, corrupt landlord of the lodging house. He preaches religion, salvation from hardship, and brotherly love, but he takes his tenants for all they are worth. Although he purchases stolen goods from Pepel, he treats him with suspicion and disdain, and is always trying to confirm the suspected affair with his wife. In Act III, Pepel comes to Natasha’s defense when Kostilioff is beating her, and accidentally kills him.
Krivoi Zoba is part of the same chorus of skeptical voices as Bubnoff. He too sings the song of disaffection and life as a prison, and when Anna dies he asks, ‘‘Will she smell?’’
Kvaschnya is a spirited middle aged woman who, at the opening of the play, sermonizes on why she will never marry again. She shows up sporadically, generally pouring forth on the same theme, but when the play closes she is married to the policeman and running the boardinghouse.
Luka is the central catalyst of the play. He is an old man, labeled a pilgrim, who arrives in Act I, greeting the decrepit lodgers with ‘‘Good day, honest folk.’’ Throughout three of the four acts, he maintains this role of champion of mankind, but his methods of support are shifting and problematic. While he bolsters the Actor’s hope and resolve with a story of a free clinic where he can be cured, for example, he can never tell him where it is, and thus appears to advocate self-deception. Because of his shifting messages, Luka is the most problematic character in the play. Having set in motion the conflict in Act III, Luka disappears, leaving the remaining characters, except for Sahtin, disheartened and changed for the worse.
Medviedeff is a policeman and the uncle of Natasha and Wassilissa. He is generally ineffectual and some characters make a mockery of him, but he ends up marrying Kvaschnya and running the lodging house with her.
Nastiah is a prostitute who pines for a lover, real or imagined, left behind. She reads romance novels and tells improbable stories of this lost lover with shifting accounts of his name. Nastiah is strongly impacted by Luka, and in the course of the play her view of life grows increasingly dim. By the end of the play she says she is disgusted with everyone.
Natasha is the younger sister of Wassilissa, who abuses her throughout the play because Pepel fancies her. While she wishes to be rescued from her life of drudgery, she is leery of Pepel’s advances. In general she is a kind, compassionate character, but after she is beaten in Act III she turns on her protector, Pepel, and her accusations send him to jail. It is revealed that once she is released from the hospital, she disappears from the area.
Pepel is a young thief who sells his goods to his landlord and has an affair with Wassilissa, his landlord’s wife. He is a good man at heart despite his life of crime, and aspires to marry Natasha and make a better life. When Wassilissa and Kostilioff brutally beat Natasha, he comes to her defense and accidentally kills the landlord. Natasha turns on him and accuses him of planning the murder with her sister. When the play ends, Pepel is jail.
Sahtin is a former convict who apparently was once well-educated and is a lover of words. At the opening of the play he has been beaten after losing a card game. Throughout most of the play he is drunk and gambling, but he generally offers witty, intelligent, and provocative wordplay. He challenges Luka for pacifying people with lies and philosophically is his opposite, but after Luka leaves he says he understands his impulse to comfort and soothe the troubled. In Act IV he delivers three monologues about the righteousness of mankind and the theme of ‘‘truth’’ versus the ‘‘consoling lie.’’ His assertion is that compassion and the consoling lie are necessary for the weak, but the truth is the way of the free man. In the final act of the play, Sahtin is the only character who has not been changed by having given in to illusions of hope provided by Luka.