Maxim Gorky Long Fiction Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 2191 words.)