Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 505

Dominating the first part of the story is Gorky’s sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden workers in Russia. His initial description of the bakers accentuates the oppressive effects that a life of relentless toil can have on the human spirit. His pretzel makers seem barely human. Deprived of sunlight and freedom, they have nothing to say to one another, and they do not even have the energy to curse one another. Even their songs, which are the only vehicle of transcendence or release that they possess, are permeated with the sorrow and yearning of slaves.

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Complementing Gorky’s compassion for the oppressed is his anger toward the oppressor. The pretzel makers’ boss is never seen in the story. He seems to exist as an invincible force who has placed numerous restrictions on the workers but who does not deign even to visit them. Instead, the huge stove which looms so large in the bakery stands as a silent emblem for the boss and his rapacious, insatiable appetite. All he cares for is productivity: during the two-week period in which the workers were preoccupied with the dandy’s pursuit of Tanya, the boss managed to increase their work by an additional five hundred pounds of flour a day.

Gorky’s story offers more than an exposé of difficult working conditions in pre-revolutionary Russia. His treatment of the complex emotional attitude demonstrated by the workers toward Tanya reveals a sensitive understanding of human psychology. In the workers’ early reverence for Tanya one finds a basic human desire for objects worthy of adoration, and in their willingness to subject their idol to a test one sees a characteristic human weakness: a perverse impulse to submit one’s idols to outside challenges. As for the dandy, Gorky indicates that his eagerness to prove his power as a ladies’ man belies a deep-rooted sense of insecurity. Many people, the narrator declares, are so needy of having something distinctive in their lives that they will even embrace an illness or a vice rather than risk seeming average or ordinary.

Finally, in the workers’ outraged reaction to Tanya’s conduct at the end of the story, Gorky reveals the astonishing excesses to which people will go when their cherished assumptions are undermined or overturned. Tanya never asked these men to put her on a pedestal, nor did she ever pledge not to become infatuated with an attractive man. It is they who engineered a shallow test for her, and, as the final scene of the story indicates, it is they who are acting basely, not she. Tanya herself perceives this, and thus she walks away proud and undefiled, while they are left alone, bitter and abandoned. Gorky’s story is filled with pathos and irony. Weighed down by the burdens of oppressive labor and confinement, these men make a feeble attempt to demonstrate that they possess something of worth in the midst of their wretched environment. As it turns out, however, this gesture only contributes further to their inescapable misery.

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