The Lower Depths

by Maxim Gorki

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Places Discussed

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Tenement basement

Tenement basement. Cellarlike rooming house accommodating a varied group of inhabitants, located in an unspecified Russian town along the Volga River. Representative of the kind of living conditions for a large percentage of Russia’s population in the early twentieth century, the setting of the play is a further statement in protest against inequalities.

The play’s stage set represented a combination of elements actually present in slum apartments, of which there were many. Russia was not a nation of great wealth, natural resources, or manufacturing, and its short growing season further increased its poverty. Many citizens considered themselves fortunate to find shelter even in such conditions as those depicted in the play’s damp, dim, sooty, cavernlike communal living area. Privacy, such as it was, occurred only when residents hung blankets or curtains to form cubicles. The setting reminds the audience of a den or a lair where harried and exhausted animals hole up to regain their strength. The setting has the impact of a purgatory in which the denizens wait, caught between life and death, for whatever happens next. At the same time, the residents must pay dearly for their shelter, so that nearly every penny that they make must go to pay their greedy landlords, leaving little money for anything else.

Historical Context

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The period in which Gorki lived and wrote The Lower Depths was the end of a long period of repression and unrest in Russia, during which the czardom increasingly became an autocracy which governed by force. In 1861, under the Edict of Emancipation, Alexander II freed peasants from serfdom. Serfs were emancipated from servitude to nobles in much the same way blacks would soon be released from slavery in the American South: with little or no support to smooth the economic transition. Freedom afforded the peasantry was extremely limited, and although they were no longer considered chattel, peasants had access to even less farmland than they had before Emancipation. This new freedom imposed harsh economic conditions on the peasantry, and as a result, many moved to cities and centers of industry for work. Gorki’s youth as a tramp on the move fits the description of many of the newly displaced, looking for work.

Emancipation effectively opened the doors for industrialization of Russia, and factories underwent phenomenal growth. Waves of peasants in an unfamiliar, urban environment, were, naturally, exploited. Factory work conditions into the turn of the century were far worse than those revealed in the famous investigations of English factories, including child labor, interminable workdays and unsafe, unhygienic conditions. Cities were newly crowded and could not accommodate the influx of people with suitable housing. Recurrent crop failure resulted in severe and widespread famine, which was at its peak in 1891. Poverty, already the norm in the days before Emancipation, was compounded by a severe trade depression in 1880, resulting in the dismissal of thousands of workers. Between 1880 and the turn of the century, unemployment was a huge problem, and created the community of drifters such as those depicted in The Lower Depths. In Maxim Gorky The Writer, An Interpretation, F. M. Borras points out that ‘‘Klesctch of all Kostylev’s [Kostilioff’s] lodgers most richly deserves compassion, because he does not dream of escape from the depths through a miracle, but plans to achieve it by means of hard work and yields only when he realizes that this most reasonable of all purposes, because of social conditions, cannot be fulfilled. In the years of industrial recession, 1899-1903, such men as Kleshtch, wishing to work but unable to find jobs, would strike a chord with...

(This entire section contains 700 words.)

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the audience.’’

As a writer and an intellectual, Gorki was not among the working class who were so impacted by Russia’s social conditions, but he was extremely sympathetic to the plight of the masses, having been a drifter as a child and a young man. His use of socialist realism in The Lower Depths is geared toward representing both the terrible living conditions and the feeling of unrest in the country at the time. The fantasies of release and escape, such as Pepel’s dream of running away to make a new life with Natasha, reflect the utopian dream which was universal in Russia, especially among the working class, who were influenced by Marxism. The tension between the utopian fantasy that Luka instills and the brutal truths and self-reliance that Sahtin advocates reflects Gorki’s view of forces at work in Russia. His didactic tone in Luka’s and Sahtin’s speeches, while characteristic of his own style, reflects his agenda of social reform. Around the same time, Tolstoy, another famous Russian author, had taken on a similar tone in what amounted to propagandistic writing.

Production of The Lower Depths preceded the Russian Revolution of 1905 by just over two years. This revolution was characterized by strikes, assassinations, and peasant outbreaks in protest of the corruption of the czarist government, although little reform resulted from the event. World War I resulted in massive food shortages and such widespread civilian suffering, however, that a new revolutionary climate was created by the end of 1916. Lenin and Trotsky led the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which resulted in many radical reforms, such as abolition of private property and introduction of workers’ control into factories. The Russian Civil War followed, between the Bolsheviks (Reds) and anti-Bolsheviks (Whites), from 1918 to 1920. The Bolshevik party was victorious, but the country was devastated, and the Soviet regime which followed largely perpetuated Russia’s legacy of repression and suffering.

Literary Style

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Realism As a realistic play, characters, plot and setting are crucial components of The Lower Depths. Socialist realism entails lifelike depiction of characters’ behavior and speech for purposes of conveying a political message. In The Lower Depths, characters speak and behave in somewhat fragmented, lifelike patterns and what they do and say are not romanticized to elicit audience emotions. Instead their various words and behaviors, however unappealing, are aimed at being realistic and provoking an impulse toward change or revolution. In The Lower Depths , some characters provoke contempt, others compassion, but the general sense at the end of the play is that social change is necessary. For example, when Nastiah complains that she feels superfluous, and Bubnoff confirms that everyone is superfluous, the response of the reader or audience is reflexively that a world should exist in which people do not feel superfluous.

Setting Setting in The Lower Depths is minimal, as are stage directions. In Acts I, II, and IV, the set is dark and cavernous, with very little furniture aside from a few bunks and benches, suggesting a prison or a pit. The set in Act III is a depressing vacant lot, with various piles of rubbish and a wall which blocks out the sky. There is little or no color, and stage directions give the sense that characters are dressed in rags. Both settings convey a sense of the impoverished conditions of the lodgers, and attribute to them a feeling of desolation and despair. They generate in the audience the sense that these conditions are inhumane and should be changed.

Point of View Throughout The Lower Depths, the audience gathers opinions about key characters, especially Luka, through the points of view of other characters. Every time Luka offers solace or tells a story, some character engages him or criticizes him, and especially in Act IV there is a detailed conversation analyzing him. In this way, the audience is offered multiple options for interpreting this provocative character, and for developing a personal opinion of the central moral question. This structure also keeps the audience from developing a strong emotional identification with any one character, which makes for more even-handed political assessment.

Monologue Monologue is used to similar ends in the play. The most important monologues are delivered by Sahtin in Act IV to convey his opinion on the importance of the truth. Use of this device draws attention to the subject matter by making it stand out from the rest of the lines. In this case Sahtin voices a response to discussion of Luka’s ethics, and in so doing establishes himself as Luka’s moral foil. The monologues in this act depart from the realistic structure of the play in the sense that people tend not to speak in such substantial chunks in a conversation. In this case the author’s moral agenda takes precedence over realism.

Foreshadowing Foreshadowing is the use of symbols, lines or events to suggest something that will happen later in the play. In The Lower Depths the main events are foreshadowed before they occur. First, in Act II Pepel and Kostilioff are arguing heatedly, and as the conflict comes to a head, Luka makes his presence known, ostensibly to prevent Pepel from striking Kostilioff and getting himself into trouble. This foreshadows the fact that Pepel will in fact strike Kostilioff in Act III and inadvertently kill him. Earlier in the same scene, Luka tells a story of a man who believed in a land of justice, but when he learned it didn’t exist, he killed himself. Later, in Act IV, the Actor interjects into the conversation that soon he will be gone, and quotes, ‘‘‘this hole here . . . it shall be my grave. . .’’’ Shortly afterward he actualizes those words, and, like the disillusioned man in Luka’s story, commits suicide.

Symbols Gorki provides few physical props to serve as symbols in The Lower Depths, but those he does provide resonate with meaning. The lower depths themselves are symbolic of the conditions for the lodgers, as a grave, as prison, and as hell. The bunks and lack of furniture also speak of a prison or hell. One item stands out from the drab, minimalist setting, and that is an old Russian stove. The characters cluster around the ornate piece of antiquity for warmth in much the same way they gain solace from reminiscing about their pasts. The stove suggests a connection with the romantic Russia of the past. Above and beyond the presence of physical objects, human characters serve as symbols in The Lower Depths. Luka and Sahtin represent the philosophies they embody and, some critics would conjecture, conflicting beliefs of the author. The ridiculous, ostentatious Baron stands for all of aristocracy, in much the way that Medviedeff’s silliness pokes fun at law enforcement in general. Kostilioff stands for anyone who lords power over others, while the Actor plays a fool. The characters represent components of Russian society as well as the moral messages each advocates.

Compare and Contrast

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1861: Alexander II emancipates serfs from landed nobility. Upon release, they are provided with less land than they previously held, and many were forced into the corrupt factory system and an even more brutal quality of life.

Today: Virtually no signs of the antiquated class system of peasantry and nobility exist.

Mid-1860s: Emancipation gives rise to industrialization and, as a result, the beginnings of capitalism in Russia. It is squelched by the Bolshevik Revolution, after which workers gained control of factory management.

Today: Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, Russia has been moving in the direction of capitalism. Although some conditions have improved, Westernization of the former Soviet Union has recently been disastrous for its economy.

1917: The Romanoff family, czarist heirs of the Russian Empire, along with many other heads of state, are executed as the Bolsheviks take power. Today: Boris Yeltsin resigns from power with diplomatic immunity.

1917: Milyahov, the first foreign minister under the new government after the Bolshevik Revolution, is forced to resign based on his insistence on continuing the war effort.

Today: Yeltsin is pressured to resign, and is replaced by Vladimir Putin, a former unknown, who is propelled into leadership based on his enthusiastic support of war in Chechnya.

Media Adaptations

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The Lower Depths was adapted as a Chinese film entitled Ye ’dian or Night Lodging in 1948. It was first performed on stage in 1946. Both stage and screen versions were banned in China during the Cultural Revolution.

In 1957, Akira Kurosawa directed a Japanese film adaptation of The Lower Depths (translated as Donzoko) starring Toshiro Mifunge.

In 1936, Jean Renoir directed a French film adaptation of The Lower Depths entitled Les Bas, or The Underworld. At the time the film was made, the French social climate resembled pre- Revolutionary Russia in its utopian yearnings.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Bassett, Kate. ‘‘The Arts: Modern Depths Hit Heights,’’ in The Daily Telegraph, August 26, 1999.

Borras, F. M.Maxim Gorky the Writer: An Interpretation,Oxford University Press, 1967.

Clarkson, Jesse D. A History of Russia, Random House, 1961, p. 364.

Gorki, Maxim. The Lower Depths, Branden Publishing Company, 1906, pp. 7-108.

On Literature, University of Washington Press, 1973, pp. 16, 22, 363.

Jones, Sumie. ‘‘Gorki, Stanislavsi, Kurosawa: Cinematic Translations of The Lower Depths,'' in Explorations: Essays in Comparative Literature, University Press of America, 1986, p. 189.

Longenbaugh, John. ‘‘Diving the Depths,’’ in Seattle Weekly, November 19-25, 1998.

Scherr, Barry P. ‘‘Gorky The Dramatist: A Reevaluation,’’ in 50 Years On: Gorky and His Time, Astra Press, 1987, pp. 40-41.

Zamyatin, E. I. A Soviet Heretic, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Further Reading Borras, F. M. Maxim Gorky the Writer: An Interpreta-tion,Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 167-177. Borras discusses much of Gorki's work, and The Lower Depths in particular, in detail.

Becker, George J. Realism In Modern Literature, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 151-162. This book both provides analysis of Gorki's work and contextualization of that work in his life. Unger Publishing Co, 1980, pp 151-162. This book provides a short discussion of Gorki's work and substantial information on realism.

Levin, Dan. Stormy Petrel: The life and Work of Maxim Gorky,Appleton-Century, 1965, pp.88-95. This book both provides analysis of Gorki’s work and contextualization of that work in his life.

Hare, Richard. Maxim Gorky: Romantic Realist and Conservative Revolutionary, Greenwood Press, 1962, pp. 56-61. Hare discusses Gorki’s work in the context of his life, with focus on the influences of Romanticism and Realism over his writing.


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Borras, F. M. Maxim Gorky the Writer: An Interpretation. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1967. One of the more astute interpretations of Gorky’s works, especially of his novels and plays, including The Lower Depths. Borras emphasizes Gorky’s artistic achievements rather than focusing on biographical or political issues.

Hare, Richard. Maxim Gorky: Romantic Realist and Conservative Revolutionary. London: Oxford University Press, 1962. The first substantial study of Gorky in English since Alexander Kaun’s 1932 book. Hare combines the political aspects of Gorky’s biography with critical analysis of his works. Includes an analysis of The Lower Depths (pp. 56-61).

Kaun, Alexander. Maxim Gorky and His Russia. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1931. This first book on Gorky in English is supported by firsthand knowledge of the writer. Covers literary and nonliterary aspects of Russia’s literary life and of the atmosphere in Gorky’s time.

Levin, Dan. Stormy Petrel: The Life and Work of Maxim Gorky. East Norwalk, Conn.: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965. A general source that covers his entire life, thus completing Kaun’s study. Levin discusses The Lower Depths on pages 86-95.

Muchnic, Helen. “Circe’s Swine: Plays by Gorky and O’Neill.” Russian Writers: Notes and Essays. New York: Random House, 1971. A comparative study of Gorky’s The Lower Depths and O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, with some keen insights.

Weil, Irwin. Gorky: His Literary Development and Influence on Soviet Intellectual Life. New York: Random House, 1966. The most scholarly book on Gorky in English, skillfully combining biography with critical analysis. The Lower Depths is discussed on pages 37-43.


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