Characterisation of Women in Maxim Gorky’s Novel "Mother". A Marxist Feminist Perspective

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2017

16 Pages





Literature Review

Debate and Discussion




Maxim Gorky is one of the great portraitists of typification of women in Russian as well as in world literature. He presents a panoramic gallery of female characters such as Nilovna, Sophia, Natasha, Sasha and Ludmilla in his debate-raging novel “Mother”. These female personages belong to the various social classes of the Russian social formation but they possess universality in their personalities whom we have often met every day and everywhere in our daily life. Gorky endows them with class-consciousness, which enables them to involve in the revolutionary proletariat movement, considering Socialism the only way of woman’s emancipation and enfranchisement as well as class-liberation. This paper tends to focus on the re-evaluation and investigation into Maxim Gorky's realistic depiction of these women to delineate their revolutionary roles in the structure of his novel as well as in the Russian Communist politics and social formation form a Marxist Feminist perspective in a new and innovative way. How these female figures are developed from their bourgeois and petty-bourgeois class-milieu to the level of radical Marxist activists and militants. How they liberate themselves from their cowed, wretched and oppressed living conditions into which they have been subjugated, tortured and beaten by men.

Key Terms: Political radicalisation, Oppression and subordination of women, Male violence, Capitalism and Socialism


Aleksei Peshkov Maxim Gorky was born in Nizhny Novgorod on March 16, 1868. His father was a journeyman upholsterer. He died of cholera and Gorky became orphan at the age of five. His grandmother reared him in the wretched and impoverished environment. After few years, his mother also died of tuberculosis. His grandfather forced Gorky to leave school and to do job. He underwent a variety of apprenticeships in shoemaking and an icon painting Afterwards, he worked as a petty thief and rag picker. However, he went away from home, wandering around Russian empire, changing jobs to live until he became a journalist in the Caucasus in 1892. Gorky emerged at the literary scenario in the Golden Age of Russian literature in the late 1890’s in the shadow of the giant writers such as Anton Chekov, Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. In 1899, he joined the Sreda (Wednesday), a literary Circle of a group of realist authors who discussed their on-going work in it. He soon became the leading literary person in the circle. In 1903, he edited the Znanie anthologies, publishing the works of the members of the circle. His popularity of artistic achievements and accomplishments crossed the national boundaries in subsequent years.

Gorky was deeply involved in Marxist politics, supporting the Bolsheviks to provide them editorial guidance in their party organ Iskra. After the Bolshevik Revolution, he contributed to save Russian heritage of art and culture from the wanton devastation, and he inspired and guided many young writers. He helped the Soviet government to establish projects of publishing the works of writers, taking care of their economic requirements, he founded many “houses” that provided them food rations and shelter. After leaving the Soviet Union in 1921, he carried out his journalism abroad. In the last years of his life, the Russian people and writers revered him as the doyen of Soviet art and literature. He saw his native town Nizhni Novgorod renamed in his honour. Many theatres, schools, institutions, universities and a main street in Moscow were renamed in his honour in the former Soviet Union. Gorky died of pneumonia in Moscow on June 18, 1936. He was buried in Red Square with full Soviet honours. Some literary historians and critics doubted that Gorky had been slain by his doctors, acting on Joseph Stalin’s behalf. As Martin Seymour-Smith writes that, “…he died under mysterious circumstances---probably poisoned on Stalin’s orders” (Seymour-Smith, M., 1975, p. 188). In fact, Genrikh Yagoda, chief of secret police confessed at his own trial in 1938 that he had ordered Gorky’s assassination. However, no any such proof was found in the KGB literary archives in the 1990s.

Gorky worked as writer, journalist, publisher, editor and political activist throughout his life, in every genre, novels, short story, play, essay, memoirs and autobiography. His famous novels are “Foma Gordeyev” (1899), “Decadence” or “The Artamonov Business” (1927). His last novel “The Life of Klim Samgin” (1930-1938) remained incomplete. His famous plays are “Nadine “(1902), “Vassa Zheleznova” (1945), “Yegor Bulychev and Others” 1937), “Children of the Sun” (1906), “Barbarians” (1906), “Enemies” (1945), “Queer People” (1945) and “Old Man” (1924). Out of Maxim Gorky’s most famous short stories are “Chelkash” (1895), “Malva” (1897) and “Tales of Italy” (1958?). He wrote autobiographical trilogy “My Childhood” 1915), “In the World” (1917) and “My Universities” (1923). His memoirs of literary friends, his letters and other documents are invaluable assets in the literary history of Russia. His much critical acclaimed masterpieces are his reminiscences of his literary friends such as of Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy, Korolenko, Karonin, Kotsubinsky and Leonid Andreyev. In addition, he wrote many essays, articles and reviews on different literary, social and political topics.

Literature Review

Gorky is one of the initiators and pioneers of Socialist proletarian literature. He wanted to represent the bitterness of the socio-economic, cultural and political conditions of his times. Possessing revolutionary fervour, he wrote for the betterment of the proletarians and landless peasants. He set new social realism best suited for his revolutionary mission. His masterpiece “Mother” is a turning point in the literary history of Russia. It is one of the most important novels of the twentieth century which was written in (1907) in America, on the historical eve of the first Russian peasant-bourgeois Revolution of 1905. It depicts the emerging class-conscious revolutionary proletariat class in Russia. It enjoyed enormous popularity and success and was considered as a model for the socialist proletarian fiction prior and after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Russian critics hailed Gorky as a true proletarian writer and his novel “Mother” as the model of Socialist proletarian literature. Vladimir Lenin remarks that, “It is a book of the utmost importance; many workers, who have joined the revolutionary movement impulsively, without properly understanding why, will begin to comprehend after reading Mother” (Gorky, M., 1960, Vol.29, Pp.7-8). Mikhail Bakhtin notes that, “After 1905, Gorky knows that Russia is also on the path to revolution” (Bakhtin, M., 1981, p. 23). Francine Du Plessix Gray considers the novel as “the literary model for the Socialist Realist portrayal of women” (Gray, F. D. P., 1989, p.711). Eugenia Knipovich wrote an essay entitled “The Socialist Humanism of Maxim Gorky” (1937) in which he stated about Gorky’s female characters as portrayed in his fiction, that, “Similarly, in women’s lives, Gorky lays bare their torment. They are beaten not out for cruelty alone but because on them the men folk avenge their own sufferings—the anguish and humiliation of their degraded and oppressed lives. Such is the fate of Nilovna (Mother), Orlova (The Orlov Family), Nikon’s mother (Summer), etc.” (Knipovich, E., 2007, p. 20).

In addition, Chrystyna Marta Hnatiw wrote a dissertation entitled “Women in Gorky’s Prose Fiction 1892 – 1911” (1967) in which she discussed Gorky’s female characters as depicted in his novels and short stories written from 1992 until 1911. Virginia Bennett wrote an essay entitled “Maxim Gorky’s Mother’: A Primer for Consciousness Raising” (1987) which focuses on the textual analysis of the novel. She states that, although the structure of the novel is pedagogically calculated, starting with its division into two parts (before radicalisation and after), each of which contains 29 chapters. It “meant to be read a few pages at a time and ... intended for serialisation in newspapers or for distribution in leaflet form to be easily assimilated by the unskilled reader in a relatively short period of time” (Bennett , V., 1987, Pp. 86-87). Sarah Elizabeth Pickle wrote a doctoral dissertation under the title of “The Form of Learning is The Learning of Forms: Models of Socialist Aesthetic Education in Gorky, Hacks, and Muller” (2014) in which she conducted a comparative study of Maxim Gorky’s “Mother” (1907), Peter Hacks’ “Das Poetische” (1966) and Heiner Müller’s “Mauser” (1970). Dr Neelam Bhardwaj wrote a research paper entitled “Maxim Gorky’s Mother through the Lens of Marxist-Feminism” (2016) in which she discussed the novel from a classical Marxist-Feminism, focussing on Marxist paradigm presented in Fredrick Engels’ epoch-making book “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. She did not mention the modern and Post-modern theories of Marxist feminists as well as Marxist belonging to second and third wave feminisms to strengthen her argument in her article. Dr Mohammed Humed Mohammed Bulghaith wrote a research article entitled “The Woman as Archetypal Figure of Challenge and Fortitude in Maxim Gorky’s Mother: A Critical Appraisal” (2014), in which he focussed on characters of women as portrayed in the novel.

Much has been written on Gorky’s novel “Mother” in the form of books, dissertations and articles from different theoretical lenses and analytical perspectives, focusing on Pavel, the male protagonist of the novel, socialism and class-conscious revolutionary proletariat class movement of Russia. No researcher concentrates on the revolutionary role of women as embodied in the female figures of the novel from Marxist feminist perspective and the above-mentioned research on the subject seems scanty. Therefore, the on-going research is an attempt to fill the research gap and it will hopefully motivate the research scholars on the subject. This is a qualitative study based upon textual and character analysis of females portrayed in the novel under investigation on the bedrock of Marxist feminist hermeneutics. Marxist feminism is a theory of power and its unequal distribution. For the Marxists feminists every social formation is based on class-conflicts of interests between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as well as gender discrimination between men and women. They want to establish and defend equal socio-economic and political rights of women. They also believe that the conflicts and differences between man and woman are not sociological but naturally biological. The purpose of Marxist feminists is to overcome women’s subordination, subjugation, exploitation, gender-discriminations, and the patriarchy by replacing capitalism with socialism.

Debate and Discussion

Maxim Gorky was perfect revolutionary author and builder of the new Soviet culture who bridged the two epochs of Russian literature. He is trumpeted as one of the great proletariat fiction writers of the world. He depicts a revolutionary proletariat movement against the bourgeois social formation because he is traumatised, shocked and frustrated by the ignorance, poverty, sufferings of the proletarians and peasants as well as the plights of women. He wants to establish Socialism in the tsarist Russian social formation. His novel “Mother” was well appreciated, and still read by now, focusing on the workers’ demonstrations on the eve of May Day in 1902 in Sormovo, an industrial zone near Gorky’s native town of Nizhny Novgorod (Freeborn, R., 1982). The novel presents a realist gloomy portrayal of the bleak living and working conditions of the factory settlement in which the daily life of the working classes filled with hardship, back-breaking labour, poverty and hard drunkenness. The proletarians celebrated May Day in the form of the mass anti-capitalist protest. The Tsarist authorities mercilessly crushed and dispersed their demonstration. Six of its leaders were sent to exile to death in Siberia in a trial. After his father’s death, Pavel Vlassov, a teenager worker living with his mother, Pelagia Nilovna, started to toil in the factory. He made acquainted with his fellow-proletarians who introduced him with political literature. He began engrossing on radical literature banned in the Tsarist regime.

Maxim Gorky portrayed female characters with a revolutionary fervour and enthusiasm, projecting his socialist thoughts and dreams through them. The figure of Nilovna, the widowed mother of a leader of the factory workers, and the prototype of the heroine of “Mother” is drawn in a realist manner. The novel is set principally around Nilovna’s all-round development of personality. Her thoughts and feelings are central to the plot of the novel. She was an incarnation of an illiterate peasant woman, Anna Zalomov, whom the author knew personally. A young worker, Pavel Zalomov began to think for himself and became involved in socialist revolutionary movement. His mother, Anna, volunteering for the task of distributing political pamphlets, helped in her his revolutionary activity. Nilovna is a fictional person of Anna, whose development of personality started from domestic drudgery, obscurity and poverty to access class-consciousness in the interaction of the revolutionary struggle of the proletarians with whom she established comradeship. Her relation and reaction to the events and people in her life show a clear and vivid picture of her emergence as a revolutionary woman.

In fact, at the beginning, Nilovna is timid, shadowy and indeterminate personage. Her personality is subdued in favour of her alcoholic braggart husband, Mikhail Vlassov who violently beats her. After the death of her husband, she accepts her son's abruptness, just as she had accepted her husband’s cruelty and abuse. Pavel took his drunken lout of a father in both occupation and recreation after the death of his father. However, she has no feelings for her husband. She is fond of her son and thought of his betterment. An initial glimpse of Nilovna’s personality is given through Pavel's image of her personality, based on the recollections of his miserable childhood, as a meek and passive woman. As he recollects that, “…he had scarcely been aware of mother’s existence during his father’s lifetime, so silent had she been, so fearful of being beaten” (Gorky, M., 1971, p. 23). Nilovna also recollects her past life that, “When I think of my own life-oh merciful Jesus! What did I ever live for? Drudgery, beating; never saw anyone but my husband, never knew anything but fear! …..All my thoughts and all my worries were about one thing-to stuff that brute of mine with food, to do his pleasure without keeping him waiting, so’s he shouldn’t get angry and beat me-so’s he’d take pity on me just for once! But I don’t remember that he ever did. He used to beat me as if it wasn’t his wife he was beating, but everybody he had a grudge against. For twenty years, I lived like that.” (Gorky, M., 1971, Pp. 115-116). Nilovna further stated that, “Late one night her husband had returned home dead drunk. Seizing her by the arm, he had dragged her out of bed on to the floor and kicked her inside. Got out of here, you bitch! I’m sick of you! He shouted” (Gorky, M., 1971, p. 236). She told Nikolai and Sophia that, “She unrolled the ribbon of grey days that had made up her former life; recounting the beatings she had received from her husband, marvelling at their inconsequential cause and her inability to prevent them” (Gorky, M., 1971, p. 239). These are the conditions of women in the Russian social formation in which the subjugation and subordination of women were deeply embedded in their unpaid domestic chores, including cooking, cleaning, child-bearing, caring for the aged and sick. These miserable conditions of women are not unlike those prevailing in the other parts of the world. As Christine Delphy notes that, “All contemporary “developed” societies…depend on the unpaid labour of women for domestic services and child-rearing” (Delphy, C., 1984, p. 60).


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Characterisation of Women in Maxim Gorky’s Novel "Mother". A Marxist Feminist Perspective
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Assistant Professor Javed Akhtar (Author), 2017, Characterisation of Women in Maxim Gorky’s Novel "Mother". A Marxist Feminist Perspective, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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