(Short Story Criticism)

Maxim Gorky 1868-1936

Also transliterated as Maksim; also Gorki and Gor'kii; pseudonym of Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov) Russian short story writer, novelist, dramatist, essayist, autobiographer, diarist, and poet.

Recognized as one of the earliest and foremost exponents of socialist realism in literature, Gorky, in his brutal portraits of Russian life and sympathetic depiction of the working class, inspired the oppressed people of his native land. From 1910 until his death, Gorky was considered Russia's greatest living writer. He was likewise acclaimed in the Soviet Union as the voice of the proletariat and the model for all future writers. This was in large part due to the publication of his famous Mat' (1907; Mother), the first Russian novel to portray the factory worker as a force destined to break down the existing order. And, while Gorky is typically remembered for his Detstvo (1915; My Childhood), V liudiakh (1916; My Apprenticeship), and Moi universitety (1923; My Universities), considered among the finest autobiographies in the Russian language, many scholars believe his short stories represent his most enduring literary accomplishment. In these gritty, yet romantic, tales Gorky dramatized the figure of the bosiak, a carefree vagabond, thereby introducing a new type of hero, drawn from the dispossessed masses of a slowly and painfully industrializing society at the turn of the century, into the history of Russian literature.

Biographical Information

Gorky was orphaned at the age of ten and raised by his maternal grandparents. He was often treated harshly by his grandfather, and it was from his grandmother that he received what little kindness he experienced as a child. During his thirteenth year, Gorky ran away from Nizhniy Novgorod, the city of his birth (later renamed Gorky), and lived as a tramp and vagrant, wandering from one job to the next. Frequently beaten by his employers, nearly always hungry and ill-clothed, Gorky came to know the seamy side of Russian life as few writers before him. At the age of nineteen he attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest. The event became the turning point in Gorky's life; his outlook changed from one of despair to one of hope. Within a few years he began publishing stories in the provincial press. Written under the pseudonym Maxim Gorky ("Maxim the Bitter"), these stories stressed the strength and individualism of the Russian peasant. When they were collected and published in Ocherki i rasskazy (1898-99), Gorky gained recognition throughout Russia. His later volumes of stories, known collectively as Rasskazy (1900-10), along with the production of his controversial play Na dne (1902; The Lower Depths), assured his success and brought him acclaim in western Europe and the United States. Gorky's fame in the West coincided with increasing suspicion from Russian authorities, however. In 1901 he was briefly jailed for publishing the revolutionary poem "Pesnya o burevestnike" ("Song of the Stormy Petrel") in a Marxist review. Ultimately, negative reaction to his political radicalism, including his establishment of the Znanie publishing firm to provide a forum for socially conscious writers and his activities during the failed 1905 revolution, necessitated that Gorky flee into exile abroad. Allowed to return home in 1913, he resumed his revolutionary activities and actively supported the 1917 Revolution. Subsequently, he left Russia one last time and settled on the island of Capri for health reasons. In 1928 he returned to a national celebration of his literary, cultural, and moral contributions to the socialist cause, which took place on his sixtieth birthday. His death several years later, allegedly by poisoning, is still enveloped in mystery.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Gorky's short stories generally portray the subjugation of the Russian peasantry and the dismal lives of social outcasts—tramps, small-time hoods, and other down-and-outers. Many of these tales, such as "Makar Chudra" and "Chelkash," are based upon actual peasant legends and folk allegories. "Makar Chudra" (Gorky's first short story, originally published in 1892) follows the brief life of Loiko Zobar, a young man who falls in love with and marries a willful gypsy woman. Rather than become enslaved to her, he stabs her. Learning of this, the gypsy's father vindicates her death by slaying his son-in-law. In "Chelkash" Gorky champions the wisdom and self-reliance of his prototypical vagabond while criticizing the brutality and pettiness of the decaying bourgeoisie. Though a thief, Grishka Chelkash honors the request of his one-time accomplice Gavrila for a share of their ill-gotten loot, even after he learns that this man had planned to kill him and seize all of the spoils. One of the most accomplished of Gorky's stories, "Dvádtsaf shest' i odná" ("Twenty-six Men and a Girl," published separately in 1902) details the pitiful lives of twenty-six bakers forced to suffer in sweatshop working conditions. In an effort to transcend this dreary existence, the men focus their attention on a lovely and innocent young seamstress, Tania. Rather than offering them moral enlightenment, Tania disappointingly succumbs to the seductive advances of a swaggering ex-soldier. Disillusioned by her lost purity, the bakers sink back to their original, degraded state. Many of Gorky's other stories also introduce topics that he was to explore more fully in his subsequent novels and plays, although critics observe that he rarely did this with an equal degree of artistic success. "Konovalov" represents such a tale by describing the life of a "superfluous man," a common figure in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russian literature.

Critical Reception

The first national publication of the story "Chelkash" in 1895 brought Gorky considerable notoriety. The appearance of the majority of his short fiction over the course of the next decade soon secured his position as Russia's most popular writer at the turn of the century. Later, he was hailed as the father of Soviet literature and the originator of proletarian humanism. Such laudatory titles, however, have since taken on a somewhat ironic tone as critics have reassessed Gorky's reputation, noting the limitations of his often sentimental, coarse, and careless style, seemingly motivated by ideology rather than artistry. In response, some scholars have endeavored to instead accentuate Gorky's political and social influence, while others have focused their attention on Gorky's autobiographical texts and early short stories. In these, many contend, Gorky most fully realized his artistic powers. Critics have since observed in this shorter fiction Gorky's skilled blending of romanticism, realism, and social criticism, as well as his compelling characterizations and evocations of atmosphere. And, though they are occasionally marred by a moralizing tone and stylistic flaws, many commentators find in these early works, and their depiction of the sordid lives of those at the bottom of society, Gorky's most artistically significant fictional accomplishment.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Ocherki i rasskazy. 3 vols. 1898-99

Rasskazy. 9 vols. 1900-10

Orlóff and His Wife 1901

Dvádtsaf shest' i odná [Twenty-six Men and a Girl] 1902

Creatures that Once Were Men 1905

Chelkash, and Other Stories 1915

The Story of a Novel and Other Stories 1925

A Book of Short Stories 1939

Other Major Works

Foma Gordeyev [Foma Gordeiev] (novel) 1900

Meshchane [The Smug Citizens; also published as The Petty Bourgeois] (drama) 1902

Na dne [The Lower Depths] (drama) 1902

Dachniki [Summer Folk] (drama) 1904

Varvary [The Barbarians published in Seven Plays of Maxim Gorky] (drama) 1906

Mat' [Mother] (novel) 1907

Ispoved [A Confession] (novel) 1908

*Detstvo [My Childhood] (autobiography) 1915

*V liudiakh [In the World; also published as My Apprenticeship] (autobiography) 1916

Vospominaniya o Lve Nikolaieviche Tolstom' [Reminiscences of Leo Nicolayevitch Tolstoi] (memoirs) 1919

*Moi universitety [My University Days; also published as My Universities] (autobiography) 1923

Zametki iz dnevnika. Vospominaniya [Fragments from My Diary] (diary) 1924

Delo Artamonovykh [The Artamonov Business] (novel) 1925

Zhizn' Klima Samgina. 4 vols. [Published in four volumes: Bystander, The Magnet, Other Fires, The Specter] (novel) 1927-36

Sobrante sochinenii. 4 vols. (short stories, novels, dramas, essays, and poems) 1928-30

Yegor Bulychyov i drugiye [Yegor Bulichov and Others, published in The Last Plays of Maxim Gorky] (drama) 1932

Zhizn' Matveya Kozhemyakina (novel) 1933

The Last Plays of Maxim Gorky (dramas) 1937

Seven Plays of Maxim Gorky (dramas) 1945

Orphan Paul (novel) 1946 Reminiscences (autobiography) 1946

*These works were published as Autobiography of Maxim Gorky in 1949.

Prince D. S. Mirsky (essay date 1926)

(Short Story Criticism)

"Maxim Gorky," in Contemporary Russian Literature 1881-1925, Alfred A. Knopf, Reprint, 1972, pp. 106-20.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1926, Mirsky examines Gorky's life and literary reputation, as well as his short stories from the years 1892 to 1899.]

The greatest name in the realistic revival is Maxim Gorky's. Next to Tolstoy he is to-day the only Russian author of the modern period who has a really world-wide reputation and one which is not, like Chekhov's, confined to the intelligentsias of the various countries of the world. Gorky's career has been truly wonderful; risen from the lowest depths of the provincial proletariat, he was not...

(The entire section is 3162 words.)

Elizabeth Bowen (review date 1939)

(Short Story Criticism)

"Gorky Stories," in Collected Impressions, Alfred A. Knopf, 1950, pp. 153-56.

[In the following review, originally published in 1939, Bowen presents a balanced assessment of style, technique, and theme in Gorky's collected short fiction.]

Short story writers form a sort of democracy: when a man engages himself in this special field his stories stand to be judged first of all on their merits as stories, only later in their relation to the rest of his work. The more imposing the signature, the more this applies. The craft (it may be no more) of the short story has special criteria; its limitations are narrow and definite. It is in the building-up of the short...

(The entire section is 1244 words.)

George Lukács (essay date 1950)

(Short Story Criticism)

"The Human Comedy of Pre-Revolutionary Russia," in Studies in European Realism: A Sociological Survey of the Writings of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Tolstoy, Gorki and Others, translated by Edith Bone, Hillway Publishing Co., 1950, pp. 206-41.

[In the following excerpt, Lukács examines Gorky's portrayal in his short stories of the erosion of personality and society caused by capitalism.]

Like most great story-tellers, Gorki began his career with the short story; that form which has for its theme a strange, out-of-the-common, surprising event—an event so conceived that its surprising aspect gives a both personally and socially characteristic picture of one or more...

(The entire section is 6327 words.)

Marc Slonim (essay date 1953)

(Short Story Criticism)

"Gorky," in Modern Russian Literature from Chekhov to the Present, Oxford University Press, 1953, pp. 125-52.

[In the following excerpt, Slonim surveys the style and subject matter of Gorky's short stories.]

'Men do not know how to live,' says the old gypsy who is the narrator of Gorky's first tale, 'Makar Chudra' (1892); they work and die like slaves, and in this they do not resemble the proud men of his own tribe. The hero, Loyko Zobar, had fallen in love with the beautiful and willful Rodda, and wound up by killing her, since she wanted to dominate him and he refused to surrender his freedom—even to love. Izerghil, whose brave lovers defied law and convention,...

(The entire section is 3181 words.)

Richard Hare (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

"The Lure of the Vagabond," in Maxim Gorky: Romantic Realist and Conservative Revolutionary, Greenwood Press, 1962, pp. 25-37.

[In the following essay, Hare explores Gorky's varied depiction of the tramp figure in his early short stories.]

Gorky's standpoint when he began to write his stories bears a striking affinity to Nietzsche, whom he had read in the early eighteen-nineties. His friend N. Vasiliev had translated Thus Spake Zarathustra into Russian in 1889. Indeed some of Gorky's illiterate tramps talk oddly as if they had learned to echo purple passages from Nietzsche. Yet one should not exaggerate the influence of single books and outside sources, when...

(The entire section is 4691 words.)

F. M. Borras (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

"The Short Story," in Maxim Gorky the Writer, Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 59-94.

[In the following essay, Borras studies the range of Gorky's short stories from those inspired by folk legends and the lives of vagabonds to his later tales concerned with "the disintegration of human personality."]


During his youthful wanderings Maxim Gorky was an indefatigable collector of folk legends. When he became a writer, convinced of the didactic purpose of literature, he had recourse to his knowledge of folk-lore to assist him in communicating to his readers the moral lessons he wished to teach them. He did not, however, think that the legends...

(The entire section is 12049 words.)

Jeffrey Bartkovich (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

"Maxim Gorky's Twenty-six Men and a Girl': The Destruction of an Illusion," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. X, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 287-88.

[In the following essay, Bartkovich briefly observes the themes of idealization and disillusionment in Gorky's "Twenty-six Men and a Girl."]

The predisposition for some people to view Gorky as a true humanitarian, a defender of the dregs of society, a moral protestor against the ugly side of reality, and as an artist whose characters depicted the loathsome and filthy, whose major themes exhibited the urge of degraded human beings to find in the world of existence some ray of sunlight and hope, and whose didacticism stressed...

(The entire section is 1153 words.)

L. Michael O'Toole (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

"Plot, Pushkin: 'The Pistol Shot,' Gorky: Twenty-six Men and a Girl'," in Structure, Style and Interpretation in the Russian Short Story, Yale University Press, 1982, pp. 113-41.

[In the following excerpt, O'Toole focuses on plot, theme, and technique in Gorky's "Twenty-six Men and a Girl," calling it "a brilliant and pessimistic revelation of the death in life of the collective consciousness."]

Apart from the key role they played in the cultural life of their time, it would be hard to find two Russian writers whose lives and works contrasted more sharply than those of Pushkin and Gorky. It is intriguing, therefore, to discover in Gorky's "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl" a...

(The entire section is 5548 words.)

George J. Gutsche (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

"Gor'kii's 'Twenty-six and One'," in Moral Apostasy in Russian Literature, Northern Illinois University Press, 1986, pp. 99-116.

[In the following essay, Gutsche undertakes a psychological, thematic, and symbolic analysis of Gorky's story generally translated as "Twenty-six Men and a Girl."]

It seemed to us that we were playing some kind of game with the Devil, and our stakes were Tania.

When Maksim Gor'kii heard that the octogenarian Tolstoi had abandoned home and family to make what was to be a final pilgrimage, this is how he responded:

Well, now he is probably taking...

(The entire section is 8496 words.)

Julian W. Connolly (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

"The Russian Short Story 1880-1917," in The Russian Short Story: A Critical History, edited by Charles A. Moser, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 103-46.

[In the following excerpt, Connolly summarizes Gorky's most well-known short stories.]

[The] writer whose critical vision of the social order gained the widest recognition at the turn of the century was Maksim Gorky (1868-1936). Born in Nizhny Novgorod on the Volga River, Gorky (the pseudonym of Aleksey Peshkov) was raised by his grandparents in an atmosphere of poverty, abuse, and avarice. Forced to earn his keep from an early age, Gorky held a succession of jobs, from picking rags to working as a baker in Kazan....

(The entire section is 915 words.)

Edward J. Brown (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

"The Symbolist Contamination of Gor'kii's 'Realistic' Style," in Slavic Review, Vol. 47, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 227-38.

[In the following essay, Brown argues that Gorky's stories bear closer affinities to modernist/symbolist literature than to the realist works with which they are typically associated.]

I am concerned in this paper with investigating the complex relationship of Maksim Gor'kii with the literature of his day, including the so-called realists, but particularly with the decadents, the symbolists, and other writers generally thought of as alien to Russian realism, whether critical or socialist. The stereotype of Gor'kii still dominant in some quarters...

(The entire section is 7022 words.)

Barry P. Scherr (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

"Literary Beginnings: The Short Story," in Maxim Gorky, Twayne Publishers, 1988, pp. 21-36.

[In the following essay, Scherr offers a thematic and stylistic survey of Gorky's short fiction from the 1890s.]


Gorky's stories have been partially eclipsed in the popular imagination by his novels, plays, and autobiographical writings; and yet include some of his finest achievements. Of particular importance for an understanding of his literary career are his stories of the 1890s. These, his first published works, introduced new themes, new heroes, and new attitudes to Russian literature. What is more, Gorky developed his literary...

(The entire section is 6633 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Troyant, Henri. Gorky, translated by Lowell Blair. New York: Crown Publishers, 1989, 216 p.

Concentrates on the writer's social role as a renowned public figure in Russia.


Clardy, Jesse V., and Betty S. Clardy. "Maxim Gorky." In The Superfluous Man in Russian Letters, pp. 97-114. Washington, D. C: University Press of America, 1980.

Discusses the theme of the "useless man" in Gorky's "Chelkash," "Makar Chudra," and "Twenty-six Men and a Girl."

Clowes, Edith W. "The Revolutionary Romantics." In...

(The entire section is 602 words.)