Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 216

Tenement basement

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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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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 700

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...

(The entire section contains 2564 words.)

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