‘Her Lover’ by Maxim Gorky: Short Story Analysis
‘Her Lover’ is a socialist realistic short story penned to critique the growth of industrialization in Russia during the Tsars’ rule. The story is written by Russian writer Maxim Gorky. Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, also known as Maxim Gorky, was one of the finest Russian writers of the early twentieth century. He was the proponent of the literary writing style of Socialist Realism. Socialist Realism is a style of idealized realistic art developed in the Soviet Union and was the official style in that country between 1932 and 1988 and in other socialist countries after World War II. Socialist Realism is characterized by the depiction of communist values, such as the emancipation of the proletariat. ‘Her Lover’ is a story of a prostitute socially isolated by the industrialized urban Muscovites during the Tsarist regime. To find comfort, she pretends that she exchanges letters with a lover called Boles. She makes Maxim Gorky’s acquaintance, the narrator of this story, write letters from Boles to her and her to Boles. In this way, she feels less isolated and more of a human being with a lover who cares for her. This short story titled ‘Her Lover’ also depicts the way the ‘haves’ or the elite, in their self-sufficiency, the false impeccability of character, and socially approved virtues, ignore people like the prostitute Teresa, thus, highlighting the need for change which took place in the form of the October Revolution of 1917.
Teresa has no lover because people despise her as she is a prostitute and a woman of questionable reputation. Gorky highlights that the industrialization of Tsarist Russia and especially the industrialization of Moscow had alienated the common people from the ‘haves’ and the community feeling that should represent each individual who belongs to a society. In this process of Russia’s industrialization, Teresa has lost her contact with that which would give her more than just physical and monetary comforts. She longs for someone to give her emotional support and so conjures in her mind the character of her ‘so-called’ lover Boles. The acquaintance of Gorky’s was a student in Moscow who used to write these letters for Teresa while she, in turn, would not sexually satisfy him but instead mend his socks, shirts, and other articles of clothing. The acquaintance was not benevolent. For a long period:
- He looked down upon Teresa as a woman with a bad reputation.
- He looked at her poverty in disgust.
- He never greeted her when he came across her as they entered or left their homes.
- He even considered changing his location because he loathed her presence.
It was only when the truth of Teresa’s loneliness was brought home to him in the frankness of Teresa’s uncivilized but blunt and highly romantic tongue that he stops belittling her in his mind and helps her in this odd way. He realizes that in this urbanized world of modern twentieth-century Russia, people were dying not only from want of bare necessities but also from psychological and emotional deprivation. Gorky hints at the end of this short story that the only way to solve Teresa’s issue was through a Marxist revolution. The acquaintance of Maxim Gorky is a suitable definition of all young university students during the time of the Bolshevik Revolution:
- He was idle most of the time and given to spending great lengths of time in self-reflection and self-analysis. This was probably because he was not satisfied with his education. Like the rest of the youth and young revolutionaries in Russia, he looked for a better reality for their country.
- He was a student in Moscow living in a rented room opposite the wretched garret of Teresa, the prostitute. He wanted to change residence but decided to stick it out because of the excellent view outside his window. This is indicative that the acquaintance was lonely himself and was a solitary soul. He was as lonely, in fact, as Teresa. But whereas Teresa tried to cope with her loneliness through Romanticism, the acquaintance takes recourse to Marxism.
- He was one of those University students who were fond of bunking lectures and was often found idling away in his room pondering what excuse to make for his absence the following day.
- He is ready to use his knowledge, though at first grudgingly, to help his poor and unlettered countrymen.
Teresa was a migrant staying in a garret in Moscow, the hub of the new and fast industrializing Moscow of Tsarist Russia. She was a Pole and even pretends that her make-believe lover is a Polish boy called ‘Boles’. She mentions he stays at Svieptziana on Warsaw Road. This was probably her own address, and now there was no one left for her in her original home to send and receive letters. Migrants are a significant offshoot of industrialization, and Teresa was one such migrant to Russia. She yearns for her family and often indulges in drinking alcohol to alleviate her condition. She lives in a much poorer condition than the acquaintance of Gorky but is respectful towards him, mainly because he is a student. Teresa is much older than the acquaintance, and he uses severely sexist and offensive language to deride Teresa’s:
- Old age and looks.
- Her muscular and large body. Gorky focuses on a lot of body shaming in this part of the narrative.
- Her dark complexion. He mocks her calling herself a dove when she was black as soot or as dark as a dove who had spent some time in the chimney.
- Her hatchet-like face and frame.
- Gorky describes her dark eyes as bestial, maybe to indicate the rakish hunger of a sex worker. I personally feel it was the drink and loneliness that caused the look.
- Her bass voice made her appear like a cabman or a fisherwoman to Gorky’s acquaintance.
Notice how he paints a somewhat biased image of a street woman. However, Gorky’s acquaintance does not find that his yearning for her is equally questionable. Thus, even in a short story that is supposed to be focused on class equality, there is a severe lack of gender equality.
At first, Teresa does not tell Gorky’s acquaintance that there is no one called Boles. Later, when he is told the truth, it takes time for him to process all that she has to say about her being more fulfilled and less lonely when she hears letters written to her and about her. The acquaintance then realizes how selfish he has been and allows Teresa the privilege of making him write letters to and from Boles twice a week. He sympathizes with her, and more than that, he equates her situation on a deeper level to the social condition of the whole of modernized Russia still in the grip of a Tsarists Monarchy.
He empathizes with Teresa, but more than that, he sympathizes with the proletariat and denounces the false virtues of the upper middle-class, elite, and royal, aristocratic sections of society. He deduces that industrialized and urbanized societies create divisions and barriers between people of different classes. The ‘haves’ are always clothed in their self-security of:
- Self Sufficiency.
- Impeccable character.
- False virtues.
He says that the people of his time were so caught up in these illusional realities that they were ignoring the true essence of what the Orthodox Church, through the teachings of Lord Jesus, was trying to drill into the heads of the elite. Gorky is frank in his verdict that Christianity teaches about the basic and fundamental humanity shared by all human beings. But its fruits have not percolated down to the people who need them the most. In other words, Gorky feels that people like Teresa will never get succor from the rich or the religion of the rich. This is because:
- She is not the ‘fallen folk’ or the ‘fallen class’ but that the rich and the ‘haves’ are the fallen class. They have fallen in Gorky’s acquaintance’s estimation in the realm of humanity.
- The elite has fallen into the abyss or pit of self-sufficiency and a conviction of their superiority. Despite the teachings of humanism of the Orthodox Church, they still revel in their safe cocoon. Ironically, they are ‘turning the other cheek’ to the poor, oppressed, and the underprivileged.
It is not only Maxim Gorky who writes about the fundamental ethics taught by Lord Jesus throughout his three-year ministry. Another highly acclaimed Russian writer Leo Tolstoy also highlighted these basic Christian ethics in his short stories. I have analyzed some of these short stories on my blog, which you can check out here.
The short story ends on the note that Teresa has no lover and, like most people in those turbulent years in Russia, was jailed and probably died without anyone to mourn for her. Sadly, the USSR, which came after Teresa, was even more inadequate in succoring those who were oppressed and needy. Maxim Gorky, through this short story, depicts the invisibility of people like Teresa as a class and how they looked for a better life but would never achieve it because of the inadequacies of their social structures.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing this short story by Russian writer Maxim Gorky. He is one of my all-time favorite writers, and I have his whole collection. They are part of my library of 32,000 books, and most of them are kept in my office-cum-writing hut. If you want to know more about my life in books and with books, you can check out my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai on my blog’s products page. I hope to review more short stories by Maxim Gorky soon.
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