Analysis of Maxim Gorky’s The Mother

Among the important novels by Maxim Gorky (1868–1936), The Mother remains the best known and, ironically, one of the most flawed aesthetically. Gorky wrote the novel while on a trip to the United States in 1906, when the defeat of the first Russian revolution of 1905 became apparent, and expressed in it a clear political agenda of raising the spirit of the proletarian movement and combating the defeatist moods among the revolutionaries.

The novel is based on real-life events that took place in 1902 during a May Day demonstration in Sormovo, a shipbuilding town near Gorky’s native town of Nizhny Novgorod (now Gorky). Anna Zalomova, the mother of Piotr Zalomov, followed her son into revolutionary activity after his arrest by the tsarist police. A distant relative of Gorky, Anna Zalomova visited his family when he was a child, so Gorky felt a personal connection to the story.

The Mother portrays the typical life of a Russian factory woman: hard labor, poverty, hunger, and sickness. Nilovna’s husband drinks heavily, physically abuses his wife, and dies early, leaving her to raise her only son, Pavel, who would repeat his father’s life. The change comes when Pavel is drawn into a revolutionary circle: He stops drinking and starts bringing home books. Nilovna, his mother, illiterate and apolitical, is at first scared by Pavel’s activity but wants to help him nevertheless. Gorky shows how an uneducated woman, moved by her maternal feelings, overcomes her fear of the unknown and her political ignorance. With understanding comes the desire to fight consciously against the oppressive regime. While Pavel is the main revolutionary character in the novel, Gorky made Nilovna the real protagonist. The message is clear: If uneducated, downtrodden, and scared old women go into revolution, it is the only way for any person in Russia. Mother and son are united not only by their blood bondage, but, most important, by their joint revolutionary ideals and activities.

After Pavel’s second arrest, he and his comrades are tried in a farcical court, found guilty, and exiled to Siberia. During the court trial Pavel delivers his ardent accusatory speech against the tsarist regime, private property, and lack of political freedoms in tsarist Russia. Pavel’s comrades print his speech in thousands of copies that the mother carries in her yellow valise for distribution among the workers. The novel culminates when the mother is arrested at a train station by the police, who want to confiscate the proclamations. As the police start closing in on her, she feels scared, but above any fear is her desire to give the proclamations with her son’s speech away to people. She starts throwing the flyers out to the people around her while the police try to drag her away, severely beating her.

As with many other novels of social protest, The Mother’s main flaw is its one-dimensionality. Gorky tries to present his characters as models of revolutionary behavior, and most revolutionaries in the novel are larger than life: They never doubt their cause, never deviate from the chosen path, have no fear, and are morally irreproachable. All opponents of the revolution, on the other hand, are senile, unintelligent, and morally corrupt, which is especially evident in the court scene. The mother herself is probably the only character in the novel who psychologically develops from a poor ignorant woman to a person conscientiously fighting for a revolutionary cause.

The novel was first published in an English translation from the Russian manuscript in 1906, and most readers in the United States are probably still more familiar with the 1907 edition. Later Gorky revised the novel significantly, cutting some of the excessive political digressions and unnecessary pathos, which greatly improved the work. In the 1922 version, Gorky changes Nilovna’s age from the 60s to early 40s, making her political transformation into a revolutionary more believable.

In the Soviet Union critics proclaimed The Mother as a model of a new literary genre of socialist realism, the main features of which were representation of reality in its revolutionary development, the leading role of the party, and political optimism. For years The Mother was required reading in all high schools, and generations of Soviet citizens were taught to consider the novel a literary classic. Although with the demise of the Soviet Union political readings no longer form the high school curriculum, the novel is still well known and broadly read. In the West, Gorky’s popularity, especially that of his political works such as The Mother, decreased significantly, while the novel still appeals to social-minded audiences in India, China, and Japan.

Analysis of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths

Barratt, Andrew. The Early Fiction of Maksim Gorky. Nottingham, U.K.: Astra Press, 1993.
Clowes, Edith W. Maksim Gorky: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987.
Ovcharenko, A. I. Maxim Gorky and the Literary Quest of the Twentieth Century. Translated by Joy Jennings. Moscow: Raduga, 1985.
Terry, Garth M. Maxim Gorky in English: A Bibliography. Nottingham, U.K.: Astra Press, 1986. Troyat, Henri. Gorky. Translated by Lowell Bair. New York: Crown, 1989.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Russian Literature

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