Last Updated on November 29, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 608
Although Mother achieved international acclaim, it is often acknowledged as one of Maxim Gorki’s earliest—and therefore least ideologically refined—works. It is, however, lauded as the first in an extended lineage of Soviet Social Realism, an artistic and literary genre focused on the lives of workers and peasants for which Gorki is often credited as founding. Published in 1906, just a year after the failed Russian revolution of 1905, Mother espoused a collection of themes that the Bolsheviks (a faction of Russian socialists, who would later form the Communist party) would borrow in years to come. In this early realist novel, Gorki critiques the harsh and restrictive sociopolitical climate of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Russian society. Borrowing Marxist values and intermingling his own scathingly commentary, the author paints a portrait of a society in turmoil and an economic structure on the brink of disaster.
Mother focuses on the lives of Pelagueya, a widowed mother, and her politically active son, Pavel. Through the Vlasov family, Gorki discusses the obfuscating veil of contemporary socioeconomic conventions, which blinded Russians to their oppression. The mother and son duo act as tools for the author’s socioeconomic commentary: Pavel is a teaching mechanism, offering insight into Socialist ideology and literature, while Pelagueya is an everywoman whose political awakening indicates the enlightenment Gorki wishes upon his readers. In short, the main characters are outlets for Gorki to inform and encourage, providing the necessary information for a reader to understand the pitfalls of their current life, the potential for a better life through Socialism, and how they might, like Pelagueya, learn to embrace such unfamiliar ideas.
Often, twentieth-century Russian literature relies on metaphorical or slightly obscured scenarios which allude to the political values of the revolutionary era. Gorki’s style is unconventional for the time, as he chooses to display his argument with actions and trappings characteristic of the time. He relies on the public activities of the activists—such as the May Day demonstration and other such events—as well as their educational efforts through leaflets and pamphlets. It is an accurate portrait of Russian life leading up to the revolution and offers an authentic insight into the inciting social ails that led the masses to embrace Socialism.
Moreover, he relies on the dedication of his characters to indicate that their actions are necessary. Throughout, Pavel and his comrades are jailed. Ultimately, they are exiled to a Siberian prison camp. Not only are they punished, but so too is Pelagueya; the novel ends as she chokes out a final cry, futilely striving to warn passersby of the dangers of accepting their lives. In chronicling the radicalization of one older woman, Gorky emphasizes her maternal care not only for her child but for all workers and peasants, and by extension makes her the symbolic mother of Russia itself. Each character accepts their fate without regret, certain that their efforts to enlighten the public were worthwhile. Gorki’s tragic ending forces readers to consider the sobering martyrdom of the Vlasov family and their comrades, explaining that a free and fair life is worth such immense personal costs.
While Mother is an ideological triumph, many have noted its simple prose and occasionally one-dimensional characters. It is clear that the book aims for moralizing rather than literary effect, and Gorki’s unembellished, straightforward style reaffirms this focus on ideology over aesthetics. Above all, Mother offers an authentic image of a nation on the precipice of reconstruction, identifying the taut lines of conflict stretched almost to their breaking point. Gorki’s novel provides an honest picture of turn-of-the-century Russia, foreshadowing the revolution—and the style of literary propaganda—to come.