Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1326
Maxim Gorky’s short stories offer a composite portrait of a writer dedicated to his craft but also to the solution of the pressing problems of his society. The main features of this portrait reveal Gorky as an idealist, a humanitarian, a revolutionary, and a realist. Often, several of these traits are combined. There is a distinct constancy in his views and attitudes and in his desire to lend his talent to the service of both his literary vocation and the bettering of the lives of his compatriots.
“The Song of the Falcon”
Gorky’s idealism is best illustrated by the short-short story, actually a poem in prose, “Pesnia o sokole” (“The Song of the Falcon”). In this early story, his belief in human beings’ dignity, yearning for freedom, and lofty aspirations is manifested by the glorification of a stately bird, a falcon, which soars majestically through vast blue expanses. At the same time, a snake on the ground is bound to its low-level existence, and when it tries to imitate the falcon, it falls from a cliff from which it attempted to fly. With the help of these symbols, Gorky expresses a notion that human beings’ destiny can resemble the soaring flight of a falcon if they strive for it; if not, theirs is the lot of a snake. It is an act of faith on his part, perhaps more of a hope, that humankind can realize its lofty aspirations. This faith or hope reveals Gorky’s tendency to romanticize human potential, prompting some critics to call him a romantic idealist.
Further examples of this romantic idealization are found in three other early stories, “Makar Chudra” (English translation), “Starukha Izergil” (“Old Woman Izergil”), and “Chelkash” (English translation). Makar Chudra tells a story of a young Gypsy who kills the girl he loves rather than submit to her demand that he crawl before her if he wants to be her lover. Gorky extols here human beings’ determination to preserve freedom and dignity, sacrificing all other considerations. In the second story, “Old Woman Izergil,” based on Russian folklore, Danko is leading his people out of a dark forest by taking his heart out of his chest and using it as a torch. Freedom, Gorky preaches, is not cheap and often requires the ultimate sacrifice, like that of the Gypsy in the preceding story. Gorky’s admiration for bravery and boldness is brought to a head in “Chelkash,” where the characters of two vagabonds, a thief and a peasant, are contrasted. The thief Chelkash acts like a rapacious beast, whereas the peasant is driven by common greed. Gorky’s sympathies are clearly on the side of Chelkash because he follows blindly his instincts, thereby displaying character strength, while the peasant is moved by low, selfish interests.
“Twenty-six Men and a Girl”
Gorky further believes that yearning for freedom and better life, no matter how sincere and justified, is futile if it is not accompanied by resolute action. In perhaps his best story, “Dvadtsat’shest’ i odna” (“Twenty-six Men and a Girl”), he confronts twenty-six bakery workers with an opportunity to satisfy their yearning for freedom and beauty in the person of pretty, sixteen-year-old Tanya, who purchases baked goods in their shop every day. To them, Tanya is like a sun, a symbol of life, beauty, and freedom which they crave in their wretched lives but cannot obtain because of their position but also their passivity. When a dashing soldier takes advantage of Tanya’s infatuation with him, the workers feel betrayed and leer at her humiliation. Gorky chastises, in symbolic fashion, the passivity of an entire class that, even though it knows what it needs and deserves, will remain frustrated without decisive action.
“A Man Is Born”
This story points at other characteristics of Gorky: his humanitarianism, his revolutionary spirit, and his interest in social issues. Love for human beings and belief in their sanctity have always been the cornerstones of his creed. Nowhere is this better depicted than in his short story “Rozhdenie cheloveka” (“A Man Is Born”), in which a traveler, a persona representing Gorky, assists a mother in delivering her baby in the bushes, amid the bleak background of famine and hopelessness. Yet, by ushering a new man-child into the world, Gorky expresses hope that better days are in store if human beings are willing to help one another.
The revolutionary spirit, which informs many of Gorky’s stories and novels, is best manifested in his prose poem “Pesnia o Burevestnike” (“The Song of the Stormy Petrel”). He again resorts to nature to symbolize the feelings of human beings, in this case their determination to solve their problems by force, if necessary. While other birds are cowering in the storm, the stormy petrel flies majestically (like the falcon in the earlier prose poem), “laughing at the storm-clouds,” which will never obliterate the sun, and crying out, “like a prophecy of triumph”: Let the storm break in all its fury. This poem in prose has been adopted by revolutionaries as the hymn of the revolution, prophesying the victory.
“One Autumn Night”
Preoccupation with social themes pervades many of Gorky’s works. Such stories, written in a straight, realistic style, show, more than any others, the quintessential Gorky: his love and respect for humankind and his concern for social injustice but also his realization that poverty and injustice have lowered some human beings to the level of beasts. At times, Gorky is preaching, but most of the time, he depicts settings and simple characters to act out his messages, as in the story “Odnazhdy osen’iu” (“One Autumn Night”), in which two young, hungry, cold, and ill people console each other under an overturned boat; the woman warms the man with her body, a few minutes after she has expressed hatred for another man who has grieved her. Not all stories of this kind are sentimental; sometimes they show callousness and brutality precluding any hope. Such is the story “V stepi” (“In the Steppe”), in which three young tramps (from Gorky’s gallery of vagabonds), tortured by hunger, strangle a sick man who has given them food because they want more food and money. As the oldest among them explains, “Nobody is to blame for anything, because we are all beasts.” Such pessimistic stories are not common with Gorky; his granite faith in a better life usually prevails.
A good number of Gorky’s stories are devoid of moral preaching and ideological colorations. They are concerned mainly with human characters and situations, with an interesting plot for its own sake, and with whatever it is that urges a writer to write a story. Most of such stories are from Gorky’s later years. In an early one, “Na plotakh” (“On the Rafts”), a father takes over his son’s wife, regretting that he had not met her before. “Suprugi Orlovy” (“Orlov Married Couple”) presents a drunken husband who beats his wife until they both go to work in a hospital. There, she finds her vocation, while he is incapable of mending his ways and leaves in rage and defiance. “Varen’ka Olesova” (“Varenka Olesova”), the only story by Gorky that is favorable to the landowning class, presents a landowner who despises Russian novels because of their overly realistic depiction of daily life, exhibiting weak, timid characters, while the woman in the story prefers the adventurous heroes of the French novels, who take her out of the miserable life surrounding her.
In his later stories, Gorky showed that he could rise above mundane topics, as in “Golubaia zhizn”’ (“Sky-Blue Life”), whose character copes with approaching insanity but eventually recuperates. “O pervoi liubvi” (“First Love”) is an autobiographical story of lovers who part after realizing that they are not meant for each other. Such stories prove that Gorky was a true artist. It is this artistry that built and preserved his reputation as one of the best Russian writers.
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