Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Maxim Gorki’s Mother was a pioneer work of Russian Socialist Realism. Characterized by its often bleak authenticity and true-to-life style, the genre aimed to elevate and praise the mundane lives of workers and peasants. Gorki honed the style throughout his literary career, using his scathing works of social commentary to praise Russian socialism, espouse Marxist ideology, and honor the proletariat. Mother embraces these common themes, as it is loosely based on the events of the failed 1905 Russian revolution.
The novel follows the gradual radicalization of Pelagueya Nilovna Vlasova, a widowed Russian woman living in the small factory community of Nizhni-Novgorod. After the death of her physically abusive and emotionally distant husband, Michael Vlasov, Pelagueya worries that her son, Pavel, will follow in his footsteps. She fears that, like Michael, the hard labor, poor wages, and unfortunate circumstances that factory workers face will mold her son into a violent drunk. However, her fears fail to materialize, as Pavel seems to be a different sort of man. A prolific reader who grows obsessed with Marxist ideology, Pavel stands firm in his convictions. He does not allow the back-breaking labor of his daily life to wear him down; instead, he reads voraciously, first learning the ideology of revolutionary socialism, then putting it into practice.
Initially, Pelagueya is mistrustful, worrying that this subversive literature will lead her son astray. One afternoon, Pavel begs his apprehensive mother to meet some of his friends, who are also devout Socialists. Until this point, Pelagueya’s life was one of unconscious acceptance and quiet misery; her ignorance is symbolically akin to the circumstances of the oppressed and uneducated proletariat that Gorki seeks to uplift. However, her son’s socialist awakening is not an isolated event. She, too, experiences a sense of enlightenment and certainty, embracing her son’s values entirely. Overnight, their lives are transformed, as their working-class hovel becomes a buzzing center for revolutionary activity.
Many of Pavel’s friends join the mother-son duo, writing and distributing pamphlets, conversing with other villagers and workers, and seeking to strengthen support for their cause. When the factory decides to impose a one-kopek tax on the workers to fund the drainage of the mosquito-infested swamp by the factory, Pavel leads the worker's protest and is jailed. He accepts this hardship stoically. Emboldened by the imprisonment of her son, Pelagueya takes up the mantle. She takes a job as a caterer and begins to smuggle the group’s pamphlets into the factory under the guise of food delivery. Shortly after, Pavel is released, and the group resumes their activities.
Though it means another arrest, Pavel decides to carry the banner at the head of the May Day demonstrations. Despite her reservations, Pelagueya supports her son’s choices, continuing her revolutionary work in his stead. At his trial—which occurs several months later—Pavel gives an impassioned speech, arguing that the proletarian uprising is inevitable and revolution is unavoidable. He tells the presiding judges that he and his comrades are “uncompromising enemies” of them and the socioeconomic milieu they represent. Pavel holds nothing back, barbing his speech with the bitter venom of a man willing to martyr himself for his cause. In response, the court sends him into exile in Siberia.
Comrades throng outside the courtroom, praising Pavel's speech, and Pelagueya secretly records his words. Later, she prints them into a pamphlet. As she distributes her son's words alongside anti-regime literature and struggles to rouse the sullen masses to revolution, Pelagueya recognizes a police spy watching her. Knowing she is trapped, she presses through the crowd in a fruitless attempt to escape. When the police reach her, they grab her by the collar and tell her to leave. She ignores their commands, continuing to hand out Pavel’s speech. Despite the blows raining down upon her, Pelagueya does not falter; she continues to speak, crying out, “You will not drown the truth in seas of blood. You heap up only malice on yourselves, you unwise ones! It will fall on you" Her voice falters as someone begins to choke her; in a hoarse voice, she utters the last words of Mother: “You poor, sorry creatures.”