A synopsis and analysis of the play by Maxim Gorky

The following essay on The Lower Depths was originally published in The Social Significance of the Modern Drama. Emma Goldman. Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1914. pp. 295-301.

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THE LOWER DEPTHS [or A Night's Lodging] portrays a lodging house, hideous and foul, where gather the social derelicts -- the thief, the gambler, the ex-artist, the ex-aristocrat, the prostitute. All of them had at one time an ambition, a goal, but because of their lack of will and the injustice and cruelty of the world, they were forced into the depths and cast back whenever they attempted to rise. They are the superfluous ones, dehumanized and brutalized.

In this poisonous air, where everything withers and dies, we nevertheless find character. Natasha, a young girl ,still retains her wholesome instincts. She had never known love or sympathy, had gone hungry all her days, and had tasted nothing but abuse from her brutal sister, on whom she was dependent. Vaska Pepel, the young thief, a lodger in the house, strikes a responsive chord in her the moment he makes her feel that he cares for her and that she might be of spiritual and moral help to him. Vaska, like Natasha, is a product of his social environment.

VASKA: From childhood, I have been -- only a thief ... Always I was called Vaska the pickpocket, Vaska the son of a thief! See, it was of no consequence to me, as long as they would have it so ... so they would have it.... I was a thief, perhaps, only out of spite ... because nobody came along to call me anything -- thief.... You call me something else, Natasha.... It is no easy life that I lead -- friendless; pursued like a wolf.... I sink like a man in a swamp ... whatever I touch is slimy and rotten ... nothing is firm ... but you are like a young fir-tree; you are prickly, but you give support.

There is another humane figure illuminating the dark picture in The Lower Depths -- Luka. He is the type of an old pilgrim, a man whom the experiences of life have taught wisdom. He has tramped through Russia and Siberia, and consorted with all sorts of people; but disappointment and grief have not robbed him of his faith in beauty, in idealism. He believes that every man, however low, degraded or demoralized can yet be reached, if we but know how to touch his soul. Lukak inspires courage and hope in everyone he meets, urging each to begin life anew. To the former actor, now steeped in drink, he says:

LUKA: The drunkard, I have heard, can now be cured, without charge. They realize now, you see, that the drunkard is also a man. You must begin to make ready. Begin a new life!

Luka tries also to imbue Natasha and Vaska with new faith. They marvel at his goodness. In simplicity of heart Luka gives his philosophy of life.

LUKA: I am good, you say. But you see, there must be some one to be good.... We must have pity on mankind.... Have pity while there is still time, believe me, it is very good. I was once, for example, employed as a watchman, at a country place which belonged to an engineer, not far from the city of Tomsk, in Siberia. The house stood in the middle of the forest, an out-of-the-way location ... and it was winter and I was all alone in the country house. It was beautiful there ... magnificent! And once ... I heard them scrambling up!...
NATASHA: Thieves!
LUKA: Yes. They crept higher and I took my rifle and went outside. I looked up: two men ... as they were opening a window and so busy that they did not see anything of me at all. I cried to them: "Heh there ... get out of that" ... and would you think it, they fell on me with a hand ax.... I warned them -- "Halt," I cried, "or else I fire" ... then I aimed first at one and then at the other. They fell on their knees, saying, "Pardon us." I was pretty hot ... on account of the hand ax, you remember. "You devils," I cried, "I told you to clear out and you didn't ... and now," I said, "one of you go into the brush and get a switch." It was done. "And now," I commanded, "one of you stretch out on the ground, and the other thrash him" ... and so they whipped each other at my command. And when they had each had a sound beating they said to me: "Grandfather," said they, "for the sake of Christ give us a piece of bread. We haven't a bite in our bodies." They were the thieves, who had fallen on me with the hand ax. Yes ... they were a pair of splendid fellows.... I said to them, "If you had asked for bread." Then they answered: "We had gotten past that.... We had asked and askedk and nobody would give us anything ... endurance was worn out." ... and so they remained with me the whole winter. One of them, Stephen by name, liked to take the rifle and go into the woods ... and the other, Jakoff, was constantly ill, always coughing ... the three of us watched the place, and when spring came, they said, "Farewell, grandfather," and went away -- to Russia....
NATASHA: Were they convicts, escaping?
LUKA: They were ... fugitives ... they had left their colony ... a pair of splendid fellows.... If I had not had pity on them -- who knows what would have happened. They might have killed me.... Then they would be taken to court again, put in prison, sent back to Siberia.... Why all that? You learn nothing good in prison, nor in Siberia ... but a man, what can he not learn. Man may teach his fellowman something good ... very simply.

Impressed and strengthened by Luka's wonderful faith and vision, the unfortunates make an attempt to rise from the social swamp. But he has come too late into their lives. They have been robbed of energy and will; and conditions always conspire to thrust them back into the depths. When Natasha and Vaska are about to start out on the road to a new life, fate overtakes them. The girl, during a scene with her heartless sister, is terribly scalded by the latter, and Vaska, rushing to the defense of his sweetheart, encounters her brutal brother-in-law, whom he accidentally kills. Thus these "superfluous ones" go down in the struggle. Not because of their vicious or degrading tendencies; on the contrary, it is their better instincts that cause them to be swept back into the abyss. But though they perish, the inspiration of Luka is not entirely lost. It is epitomized in the words of one of the victims.

SAHTIN: The old man -- he lived from within.... He saw everything with his own eyes.... I asked him once: "Grandfather, why do men really live?" ... "Man lives ever to give birth to strength. There live, for example, the carpenters, noisy, miserable people ... and suddenly in their midst is a carpenter born ... such a carpenter as the world has never seen: he is above all, no other carpenter can be compared to him. He gives a new face to the whole trade ... his own face, so to speak ... and with that simple impulse it has advanced twenty years ... and so the others live ... the locksmiths and the shoemakers, and all the rest of the working people ... and the same is true of other classes -- all to give birth to strength. Everyone thinks that he for himself takes up room in the world, but it turns out that he is here for another's benefit -- for someone better ... a hundred years ... or perhaps longer ... if we live so long ... for the sake of genius. All, my children, all, live only to give birth to strength. For this reason we must respect everybody. We cannot know who he is, for what purpose born, or what he may fulfill ... perhaps he has been born for our good fortune ... or great benefit."

No stronger indictment than The Lower Depths is to be found in contemporary literature of our perverse civilization that condemns thousands -- often the very best men and women -- to the fate of the Vaskas and Anyas, doomed as superfluous and unnecessary in society. And yet, they are necessary, aye, they are vital, could we but see beneath the veil of cold indifference and stupidity to discover the deep humanity, the latent possibilities in these lowliest of the low. If within our social conditions they are useless material, or vicious and detrimental to the general good, it is because they have been denied opportunity and forced into conditions that kill their faith in themselves and all that is best in their natures.

The so-called depravity and crimes of the derelicts are fundamentally the depravity and criminal anti-social attitude of Society itself that first creates the underworld and, having created it, wastes much energy and effort in suppressing and destroying the menacing phantom of its own making -- forgetful of the elemental brotherhood of man, blind to the value of the individual, and ignorant of the beautiful possibilities inherent in even the most despised children of the depths.

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