Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2191
Although Soviet critics tend to exalt the realism of Maxim Gorky’s works, D. S. Mirsky said that Gorky never wrote a good novel or a good play, while Tolstoy remarked that Gorky’s novels are inferior to his stories and that his plays are even worse than his novels. Maintaining that Gorky’s “tremendous heroic emotions ring false,” Tolstoy criticized Gorky’s lack of a sense of proportion, as Chekhov had noted Gorky’s lack of restraint. It is obvious that Gorky did not know how to limit his stories, that he piles up details along with extraneous dialogue. His narrative technique consists in recounting the life story of a singleprotagonist or the saga of a family. His narratives are always linear, often proceeding from birth to death; the main character yearns for a new life and struggles with a stagnant environment, sometimes experiencing flashes of light. Thus, the typical Gorky novel is a tireless and often tiresome documentary on a single theme.
Gorky’s weak narrative technique is counterbalanced by excellent characterization. True, he is guilty of oversimplification—his characters are types rather than individuals, figures from a modern morality play—but he introduced into Russian fiction a wide range of figures from many different walks of life rarely or never treated by earlier novelists. Though not highly individualized, Gorky’s characterizations are vivid and convincing, imbued with his own energy.
Gorky sees people as social organisms, and therefore he is especially conscious of their role in society. He was particularly familiar with the merchant class or the meshchane, because he grew up among them, in the Kashirin and Sergeyev households. They form some of his most successful portraits, representing not only the petty bourgeoisie but also the barge owners, grain dealers, mill owners, and textile manufacturers, the Gordeyevs, Artamonovs, and Kozhemyakins. Gorky represents them as self-centered individualists, characterized by envy, malice, self-righteousness, avarice, and intellectual and spiritual torpor. Their decadence is symbolic of the malady that ravages prerevolutionary Russia.
In contrast to the merchants are the lonely and downtrodden, not always idealized as in the novels of Fyodor Dostoevski but presented, rather, as the ignorant victims of society and its lethargic sycophants. The corrupt and indifferent town of Okurov in The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin symbolizes Russia’s decadence, as do the thieves and vagabonds of Kazan, the flophouse of The Lower Depths, and the orgies of the theology students in the houses of prostitution. More Dostoevskian are the bosyaki, the barefoot tramps, such as Chelkash and Makar Chudra, who are the heralds of the future. Along with them, yet very different in spirit, is the revolutionary intelligentsia, the new heroes created by Gorky. They are Pelagea Nilovna, the “mother”; her son, Pavel; and his friends, Mansurova in The Life of Matvei Kozhemyakin and Derenkov and Romas in Gorky’s own life. It is for such characters that Gorky is exalted by the Soviets, though to foreign readers they are usually the least attractive.
Gorky’s best characters are presented without excessive ideological trappings. They range from his saintly grandmother, Akulina Kashirina, perhaps his most unforgettable character, to Queen Margot, the idol with clay feet. They include Smoury, the cook on the steamer, who first encouraged Gorky to read, and many other simple people whom Gorky was to meet, “kind, solitary, and broken off from life.” They also take the form of figures such as the merchant Ignat Gordeyev, the image of the Volga, vital, seething, creative, generous, and resolute.
Most of Gorky’s women are victims of violence, beaten by their husbands and unappreciated by their families, such as Natasha Artamonova and the wife of Saveli Kozhemyakin, who is beaten to death by him. Love in Gorky’s novels is either accompanied by violence and brutality or idealized, as in Queen Margot or Tanya in the story “Twenty-six Men and a Girl.” It ranges from tender devotion in Mother to drunken orgies on Foma Gordeyev’s Volga steamer. Gorky’s own experience of love was unhappy, and he was ill at ease when portraying sexual scenes. Even his coarsely erotic scenes seem to be tinged with a moralizing intent.
Against a background of resplendent nature, the Volga, the sea, or the steppe, Gorky depicts the eruptions of violence and brutality, the orgies and the squalor, the pain and the harshness that, says Muchnic, are at the heart of his work. One has only to read the opening pages of My Childhood to feel its force. His own weight of harsh experience impelled him to force others to look at the bestiality that he saw rampant in Russia and to urge them to exterminate it. Ever the champion of social justice, Gorky felt the need to fight ignorance, cruelty, and exploitation.
Gorky’s first and best novel, Foma Gordeyev, is set along the banks of the Volga, a region well known to the author. It is the story of the Volga merchants, represented here by the Gordeyev and Mayakin families. Rich, greedy, and passionate, both families represent the iron will and the domination of the merchant class. Gorky’s merchants are of peasant origin, unsophisticated and uneducated. In Foma’s revolt, Gorky shows the decay of society at the end of the nineteenth century and the impending Revolution, as yet only dimly anticipated.
Foma, the only son of Ignat Gordeyev, a self-made barge owner and one of Gorky’s richest character sketches, is brought up by his godfather and his father’s business colleague, Yakov Mayakin, whose family has owned the local rope works for generations. Foma shows no talent for or interest in business and, after his father’s death, wastes his money on debauchery, drink, and wanton destruction. At first dimly attracted to Lyubov Mayakina, he is unable to conform to her educated tastes, and she, in obedience to her father’s wishes, marries the respectable and highly Europeanized Afrikan Smolin. Foma continues his wild rebellion, actually a search for self and meaning, not unlike that of Mikhail Lermontov’s Pechorin. Finally institutionalized for apparent insanity, Foma becomes an enlightened vagabond.
Foma Gordeyev follows the story line generally adopted by Gorky: the life story of the hero from birth to a crisis. Although it is weak in plot and characterization, it is readable, especially powerful in its evocation of the Volga, the elemental force that intoxicated the wealthy Ignat. Ignat is a finished portrait of the boisterous, dynamic businessman Gorky knew so well—vital, creative, and resolute. He is one of Gorky’s most sympathetic portraits, along with Yakov Mayakin, who shows the characteristic traits of the Russian merchant that go back to the sixteenth century Domostroy (a book on social conduct). Foma, though not so well drawn, represents the rift in generations and the universally disturbed mood that pervaded Russia on the eve of the abortive Revolution of 1905. The whole novel attempts to assess the flaws in the capitalistic system and thus is very modern in spirit.
Mother, written while Gorky was in the United States after the 1905 Revolution, reflects his disillusionment with both czarist and capitalistic social structures and his desire “to sustain the failing spirit of opposition to the dark and threatening forces of life.” The novel was published first in English, in 1906, by Appleton’s Magazine in New York, and then in Russian in Berlin. It became the symbol of the revolutionary cause and was widely read and acclaimed, even after the Revolution, as a model of the socialist novel. Translated into many languages, it became the basis for other novels and plays, such asBertolt Brecht’s Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder (1941; Mother Courage and Her Children, 1941). As a novel, it is one of Gorky’s weakest in characterization and plot, yet its optimistic message and accessible style have assured its continuing popularity.
Written in the third person, through the eyes of the courageous mother, Pelagea Nilovna Vlassova, the novel relates her encounter with the Social Democratic Party, inspired by her son, Pavel. Pelagea suffered mistreatment from her husband and seems destined to continue in the same path with her son until his “conversion” to socialism. Pavel becomes a champion of the proletarian cause, the acknowledged leader of a small group of fellow revolutionaries who study forbidden books and distribute literature among the factory workers in their village. After Pavel’s arrest, the illiterate Pelagea continues Pavel’s work, stealthily distributing pamphlets and becoming a mother to the other members of the group: Sasha, who is secretly in love with Pavel; the “God-builder” Rybin; Andrei, the charming and humorous khokhol; the misanthropic Vesovshchikov; and the open-hearted urban intellectual Nikolai. Pavel’s release from prison is immediately followed by his bold leadership in the May Day demonstration, for which he is again imprisoned. The mother’s work becomes more daring and widespread as she passes to other villages like the holy wanderers so common in Gorky’s early work. After Pavel’s condemnation to exile in Siberia, Pelagea herself is arrested as she prepares to distribute the speech her son made prior to his sentence.
The best portrait in this weak novel is that of the mother, the only character to show psychological development. Yet Pelagea passes from one type of religious fervor to another, and her socialist convictions are simply the transferral of her Orthodox beliefs to the kingdom of this world. Even the revolutionaries invoke Christ and compare their work to his. The austere Pavel remains remote and unconvincing, while maternal love is the dominant force in the affectionate and almost mystical Pelagea.
The Artamonov Business
Written in 1924 and 1925 while Gorky was living abroad in Sorrento, The Artamonov Business is a retrospective novel on the causes of the 1917 Revolution. Encompassing three generations and covering the period from 1863 to 1917, it has a much broader base than most of Gorky’s works. Although here, as elsewhere, Gorky fills his narrative with extraneous detail, he draws many convincing portraits of the demoralized merchant class at the turn of the century. Frank M. Borras singles out Gorky’s interweaving of the historical theme with the characters’ personal destinies as one of the merits of the novel.
Ilya Artamonov is the patriarch of the family, a passionate and dynamic freed serf who establishes a linen factory in the sleepy town of Dryomov. His son, Pyotr, inherits his father’s sensuality but not his business skill, and the narrative of his debauchery and indifference to his workers occupies the greater part of the novel. The Artamonov family also includes the more businesslike and adaptable Aleksei and the hunchback Nikita, who becomes a monk though he has lost his faith in God. The women in the novel occupy a secondary and passive role, existing mainly for the sensual gratification of the men, both attracting and repelling them.
Pyotr has two sons and two daughters. The eldest son, Ilya, leaves home to study and, as in Chekhov’s stories, becomes an unseen presence, presumably joining the revolutionary Social Democratic Party. Yakov, the second son, is a sensualist, indifferent to business, and is killed by revolutionaries as he escapes in fear of them. Miron, Aleksei’s son, though physically weak, shows, like his father, an aptitude for commerce. Yet none is strong enough to save the family’s ailing business, weakened by the corruption and indifference of its managers.
Gorky’s symbolism is evident in his characterization of Tikhon Vialov (the quiet one), an enigmatic ditchdigger, gardener, and ubiquitous servant of the Artamonov family. It is Tikhon who at the very end of the story proclaims the Revolution, calling for revenge for the injustices that he has suffered at the hands of the Artamonovs. Quite obviously he symbolizes the proletariat, victim of the bourgeoisie. Aside from Tikhon, Gorky emphasizes much less the oppression of the workers than the empty, selfish, and superfluous lives of the factory owners.
Alternating wild episodes of debauchery, cruelty, and murder with scenes of boredom and superfluous dialogue, The Artamonov Business is both a modern novel and a return to Dostoevskian melodrama. Gorky had planned to write the novel as early as 1909 but was advised by Lenin to wait for the Revolution, which would be its logical conclusion. This story of the progressive deterioration of a family is also a profound study in the consequences of the failure of human relationships.
Gorky was less a man of ideas and reason than one of instinct and emotion. His best works are based on intuition and observation. His truth and reality are humanistic, not metaphysical; they deal with the useful and the practical. Unlike Honoré de Balzac, whom he admired, Gorky did not succeed in investing the sordid with mystery or the petty with grandeur. He wrote a literature of the moment, “loud but not intense,” as Muchnic describes it. It is, however, a literature of the people and for the people, accessible and genuine. Although some of his works are monotonous to today’s Western reader, and no doubt to the Russian reader as well, at their best they are honest portrayals of people, inspiring confidence in humanity’s power to change the world.