The Flawed Nature of Gorki's Characters

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1683

The Lower Depths is typically characterized as a masterpiece, but one that is glaringly flawed. The flaws most often cited are Gorki’s tendency to impose upon his characters language which rings false or is agenda-driven, and the fact that certain characters are viewed as unconvincing or unbelievable. Luka and Sahtin in particular generate these criticisms. From the first appearance of the play, critics have taken issue with inconsistencies in Luka’s behavior, which weaken the moral objective around his character. Gorki himself gave conflicting interpretations of Luka’s purpose in the story. Critics have also questioned Sahtin as the mouthpiece for truth and mankind’s potential, since this advocacy comes so late in the play and seems incongruous in a previously minor character.

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Inconsistent as Luka and Sahtin may be, they are the most developed characters in Gorki’s group portrait. As such, they are ambiguous, and in their ambiguity, quite human. Gorki has been criticized consistently for creating characters whose believability is compromised for the sake of his work’s political messages. In this case, however, although Luka and Sahtin do convey strong political messages, and Sahtin delivers speeches which are slightly implausible, their ambiguous natures—the fact that they do not act in prescribed, consistent ways— make them more like real people, and thus more believable. In this way they also reflect the very ambiguous, conflicted nature of the author, who was known both for his political radicalism and for being profoundly sentimental. The conflicted nature of The Lower Depths is what has provoked debate and discussion over the years, and in so doing, kept both the characters and the play alive.

Richard Hare, in Maxim Gorky: Romantic Realist and Conservative Revolutionary, reports that ‘‘According to Gorky, Luka should have been a sly old fellow, who had become soft and pliable through having been kicked around a lot.’’ Hare continues, ‘‘Luka’s rule of conduct was that men wanted to forget hard facts and be consoled; they had no need of truths which did not help them. If truths were so painful that they destroyed self-confidence, let them remain concealed.’’ The Actor’s experience with Luka exemplifies this; Luka comforts the alcoholic actor with promise of a clinic where he can be cured, although he cannot tell him where it is. The Actor is expected to gain solace from this promised clinic, without the benefit of actual, substantial support. As the advocate of the ‘‘consoling lie,’’ Luka comforts characters with his stories, but leaves them even more disheartened after his departure. In the case of the Actor, he is so disheartened he kills himself.

In Maxim Gorky, the Writer, F.M. Borras suggests,

The influence of Gorky’s particular view of Tolstoy upon his concept of Luka is . . . unmistakeable. . . . Gorky regarded Tolstoyan theories of self-perfection, self-simplification, and non-resistance to evil as spiritual opiates through which the great man encouraged thinking people to devote their attention to problems of personal life instead of to revolutionary activity; Luka appears from nowhere in the dark dosshouse of the brutal, tyrannical Maikhail Kostylev, filled with human wrecks, and indulges their fancy with dreams of escape from the unbearable reality of their lives, instead of urging them to overthrow the tyrant who exploits them.

Luka’s promises of a utopian tomorrow suggest the dangers of such ideology; rather than incite the lodgers into action to change their circumstances, he lulls them into complacency. This is most clear when Luka consoles Anna with promise of peace after death. When Anna suggests that she might live a little longer, Luka laughs and replies, ‘‘For what? To...

(The entire section contains 7708 words.)

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