The Lower Depths

by Maxim Gorki
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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 998

The ‘‘Truth’’ vs. the ‘‘Consoling Lie’’
The main philosophical issue in The Lower Depths is the central theme of the work, the merits of the truth versus the consoling lie. Luka, the pilgrim, embodies the philosophy that people need lies as buffers against the hardships of life. The first instance in which he demonstrates this conviction is when he soothes the dying Anna with promise of peace after death. His conversation later with Bubnoff and Pepel indicates that he may not believe in such an afterlife, but, rather, is committed to consoling one who suffers. Through Acts II and III Luka bolsters the hopes of characters who are downtrodden and suffering, by kindling hope with potentially insubstantial information. For example, he is quick to assure Nastiah that he believes her love story although it is clearly not true, in the interest of protecting her feelings. Similarly, he tells the Actor that he can be cured of his alcoholism at a free clinic in an unnamed town, if only he resolves to change. The Actor does achieve some personal change in the short term, and for a while he is inspired and can recite lines of poetry as in days of yore. In much the same way, Nastiah is comforted by Luka’s moral support, and Anna dies more contented than she would have otherwise. However, once Luka disap pears, and with him his encouraging stories, the characters are disappointed and more downcast than they were before he came.

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Different characters question Luka’s soothing fabrications throughout the play. When he consoles Anna, Pepel asks Luka if he believes his own words. Bubnoff, Kleshtch, and Medviedeff also question Luka, but Sahtin most fully embodies his foil as a character in pursuit of the truth. During most of the first three acts, Sahtin operates as a background voice projecting skepticism and harsh realism, as at the end of Act II, when he responds to sentimentalism with ‘‘The dead hear not. The dead feel not.’’ In Act IV, however, he is thrust into the foreground with three monologues concerning the power of the truth for mankind. Although he appreciates Luka’s motives for showing compassion to people who suffer, he does not advocate compassion himself. Rather, he asserts that ‘‘The lie is the religion of the servant and master . . . the truth is the inheritance of free men!’’ He continues in this vein to praise man and credit him with the ability to advance himself through the pursuit of truth. The disparity between Sahtin’s wild optimistic humanism associated with the truth and the human need for sympathy and compassion is the life-giving center of the play.

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Hell/Prison
The theme of life in the lower depths as like prison or hell circulates throughout the text. The title is immediately telling; these scenes from Russian life are about what is dark, underground, buried. Lower depths, as opposed to height or the heavens, suggest hell by sheer proximity, and the miserable lives of the residents make this connection clear. Lack of light also suggests the dark side, or hell. So does lack of meaningful work, or progress, as suggested by Kleshtch’s ceaseless scraping at a lock that can never be mended. In Acts II and IV, Bubnoff and Krivoi Zoba sing a song about being in prison, never seeing the sun rise or set, and this sets a tone for life in this underground cavern. Even in Act III, which is set outside, a brick wall is described as blocking out ‘‘the heavens.’’ The fact that there is little or no private space, and that benches and bunks operate as beds further serve as prison imagery. Different characters throughout the play make reference to release from this life, as if they are serving time. Anna awaits death as relief from a life of suffering, Kleshtch waits for her to die so he can be free of the boardinghouse, and Natasha fantasizes that someone will come and rescue her. None of the characters are released except by death, and in fact two characters actually go to prison. Kleshtch in particular is even more firmly rooted in the lower depths once his wife dies, because he must sell his work materials to cover funeral costs. The song about prison is the last impression before the announcement of the Actor’s suicide at the end of the play. The fact that Sahtin responds with, ‘‘He must spoil our song . . . the fool’’ suggests that, like the sinner condemned to an eternity in hell, he may not have any insight into his own condition.

Men as Animals
Degradation is a part of life in the lower depths, and the undercurrent theme of people as animals or beasts indicates this condition. Early in Act I the Baron calls Nastiah a ‘‘silly goose’’ for reading romances, humiliating her in front of the rest of the boarders. Moments later the former aristocrat dons a yoke for carrying containers to market, suggesting he is a workhorse. Shortly afterward, Kleshtch sarcastically suggests Kostilioff ‘‘Put a halter around my neck. . .’’ to use and degrade him further. All this imagery so early in the text sets the tone for the play, in which people are degraded and treated inhumanely. The lodgers’ social and economic circumstances have reduced them to subservience to their landlord, but the way they behave toward each other also reflects inhumanity and a survivalist, animalistic mentality. For example, the fact that most characters are unmoved by Anna’s suffering and death, aside from how it hurts or benefits them in a practical sense, reflects a lack of feeling that distinguishes human from other animals. In addition, much of the time the lodgers display a lack of intelligent insight into their own situations, but rather compound their problems by getting drunk and gambling away their money or getting beaten up. Subsisting in the underground cavern like animals in a den, the lodgers cannot see beyond their circumstances, but huddle together for survival.

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