A Comparison of A Hero of Our Time and The Vampyre
Mikhail Lermontov’s only novel, A Hero of Our Time, chronicles the adventures of a young officer, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, through second and third-person narrative as well as through his own traveler’s journal. Like many other Russian authors, Lermontov found inspiration in work by Pushkin and Lord Byron, but his work on A Hero of Our Time also bears resemblances to a short story written by John William Polidori: The Vampyre. Lermontov even explicitly refers to the short story and the similarities between characters when Pechorin says that at times he “can understand the Vampire.” Pechorin and Lord Ruthven share physical characteristics, antisocial tendencies, a thirst for beautiful women, and the habit of spreading misery wherever they go, affinities which indicate that Pechorin, too, is a vampire. Polidori’s work also influences Lermontov’s other characters and situations Pechorin encounters.
As the chronological beginning of the novel, the short story “Taman” explains how Pechorin’s vampiric transformation occurred. In the seaside town of Taman, Pechorin and his Cossack companion stay in an “unwholesome” place, a hut perched upon a cliff over the sea, where Pechorin encounters an otherworldly smuggler girl who absorbs him with her wildness and magnetic eyes, attracting him despite her lack of beauty. The unnamed girl manipulates a naïve Pechorin, luring him to the beach with a kiss and then attempting—with superhuman strength—to throw him out of the boat to drown. This girl resembles Lord Ruthven in her pale figure and powers of attraction, and her behavior on the boat mirrors that of the creature in the woods who uses strength which “seemed superhuman” to throw Aubrey to the ground. The encounter with this strange creature changes Pechorin; he begins deceiving others and spreading misery, feeding off of the “feelings, love, joys and sufferings” which he generates, and infecting others with his kiss.
Lord Ruthven appears in society “more remarkable for his singularities, than his rank,” described only as a nobleman. Similarly, Pechorin’s rank rarely plays a role in the story despite his military occupation throughout the novel, vaguely referred to by Maxim Maximych as an officer. Maxim Maximych portrays Pechorin as a bundle of contradictions, fearless on the hunt yet startling at a banging shutter, reserved yet capable of entertaining, an entirely unpredictable man. Even Pechorin’s physical feature suggest a duality with the combination of his childlike smile and traces of wrinkles on his forehead, fair hair but dark eyebrows and mustache, dark eyes and brilliant white teeth. Before his duel, Pechorin explains his inner duality, that one part of him “lives in the full sense of the word, [and] the other reflects and judges him,” a statement which could also apply to Lord Ruthven’s conflicting roles of murderous predator and harbinger of karmic consequences.
Polidori omits any real physical description of Lord Ruthven, instead focusing on the effect he produces on those around him, and in this way providing an idea of his countenance. The subconscious fear which Lord Ruthven’s presence provokes most likely stems from his unusual “dead grey eye,” the gaze of which does not penetrate its subject but rather settles heavily on the cheek “with a leaden ray” that does not pass through the skin. Lermontov takes inspiration from this part of Polidori’s portrait but uses the description of what Lord Ruthven is notas much as what he is. Polidori specifies that Lord Ruthven’s gaze does not “seem to penetrate” or “pierce through to the inward workings of the heart” in order to reinforce the character’s otherness and set him apart from the numerous leading men with an imposing gaze, to show that he is more than a striking nobleman. Lermontov turns this on its head and mentions Pechorin’s “quick, penetrating, sombre [sic] glance” which leaves subjects feeling invaded, because one purpose of the novel is to expose the flaws in the cliché, overused hero mold which Pechorin’s character simultaneously fits and mocks.
Lermontov retains enough of Polidori’s physical vampiric attributes to suggest Pechorin’s supernatural nature. Despite the difference in their gazes, both men have grey eyes which discourage approach, in Lord Ruthven’s case because his eyes appear dead and in Pechorin’s because their cold brilliance resembles that of steel. Pechorin also echoes Lord Ruthven in the lack of feeling in his eyes which never laugh when he does, much like how Lord Ruthven’s “eye spoke less than his lip.” Both men have pale skin, and the kind of unusual yet handsome face which appeals to women, the advances of which generally go unacknowledged.
The two characters interact in society yet maintain a distance from their peers which cannot be breached, as if separated from the world by a glass wall. Lord Ruthven attends the nobles’ parties, but does no more than watch, unwilling or unable to participate in the merriment which surrounds him, and mainly acting as a source of excitement for the people he simultaneously frightens and fascinates. He proves an enigma for those around him, absorbed in himself and showing few signs of his observation of anything exterior, so inaccessible that Aubrey cannot form an idea of his character even during their time traveling together. Pechorin also remains unsolved and on the periphery of society. The spring offers a font of social opportunities in “Princess Mary,” though Pechorin interacts mainly with Grushnitsky and Vera until he begins wooing Mary, at which time he entertains and dines with a wider circle to further his plot. He makes superficial connections when they are advantageous, like his relationship with Azamat in “Bela” and even his relationship with Maxim Maximych, which staved off his boredom while they were at the fort together but proved insignificant to Pechorin at their brief and formal reunion. Pechorin brushes off the man who considers him a good friend because he is incapable of emotional connection, this scene acting as a toned-down imitation of Lord Ruthven’s coldhearted seduction and subsequent murder of Miss Aubrey, the sister of the closest thing he could have to a friend.
Lord Ruthven destroys his victims in multiple ways, as a man as well as a vampire. He seeks out vices such as cards and plays, not for his own pleasure or gain, but to beat others, becoming passionately driven upon encountering “the rash youthful novice, or the luckless father of a numerous family,” and acting as an agent of retribution. He leaves the youth devastated and in debt, and the father unable to provide, reaping the consequences of their carelessness; although Lord Ruthven takes no money himself, losing to a more experienced player as soon as he bests his victims. Along the same lines, Lord Ruthven gives generously to vagabonds and beggars, although not to the virtuous, bestowing gifts only upon he who wishes to “wallow in his lust, or to sink him still deeper in his iniquity.” Just like his prey at the gambling table, these men inevitably ruin their lives, ending up on the scaffold or in wretched misery after using Lord Ruthven’s donation to fuel their debauchery. A classic vampire, Lord Ruthven also physically sustains himself by brutally slaughtering and draining the blood of his beautiful young victims. With this he presents a paradox, punishing the sins of those consumed by vice, while himself seducing and murdering women.
Pechorin appears as more of an affective vampire, ruining lives in a similar manner as Lord Ruthven, but subsisting on emotions rather than blood. In a journal entry written while at the spring, Pechorin notes: “I’ve an insatiable craving inside me that consumes everything and makes me regard the sufferings and joys of others only in their relationship to me, as food to sustain my spiritual powers.” Pechorin plays with his victims, knowing exactly how to act in order to make himself irresistible. His former love, Vera, admits that Pechorin has brought her nothing but suffering since they met, yet she admits in her letter that she still loves him and will never love another. Pechorin acknowledges his role as bringer of misery, shown in “Princess Mary” when he contemplates his past and thinks about how many times he has acted as “the axe in the hands of fate,” and “descended on the heads of the condemned,” much like how Lord Ruthven punishes those who succumb to vice. The subjects of Lord Ruthven’s vampiric thirst escape his terror through a merciless death, but Pechorin’s victims live on to infect others and continue the trail of misery. Before leaving them in ruins, Pechorin spreads his condition through a kiss, the recipients of which begin to imitate his destructive tendencies, the same way the girl in Taman changed him.
Several of Pechorin’s adventures in A Hero of Our Time take moments and characters from Polidori’s short story and use them as inspiration for more expanded stories. In “Bela,” the titular character, a dancing foreign girl with noteworthy eyes, is an only slightly altered version of the Greek Ianthe in The Vampyre. Aubrey introduces his Athenian companion as a beautiful and delicate girl whose “eyes spoke” and could be compared to those of an animal, and who “danced upon the plain” like a gazelle. When Bela the Circassian girl first appears, she sings for Pechorin, who says she has eyes like a mountain goat, and Maxim Maximych later reveals that she dances better than any of the girls in Moscow. Polidori’s Ianthe goes along with Aubrey on his excursions for antiquities around the city, and he very quickly falls in love with her innocent charm and beauty, beginning to think of marriage. InLermontov’s version, Pechorin marries Bela and she becomes a companion to Maxim Maximych, who treats her as a daughter and loves her even more than Pechorin. Both girls end up murdered, and Pechorin kills Bela just as surely as Lord Ruthven kills Ianthe, albeit in a more roundabout manner. Lord Ruthven drains Ianthe of her blood in the woods, while Pechorin set into motion Bela’s eventual murder at the hands of Kazbich when he stole his horse as a bride price.
The account in “Princess Mary” generally follows the actions of Lord Ruthven in Italy, supplementing the observations and enquiries of Aubrey to make a clear narrative for Lermontov’s character. Before Aubrey leaves Rome, he joins Lord Ruthven’s social circle to confirm his alleged vicious behavior and finds him “endeavoring to work upon the inexperience” of a young girl. When Aubrey enquires after the girl on his way home from Greece, he finds that she disappeared, leaving her parents in distress and ruin, undoubtedly coming to the same end as Ianthe. Over the course of his time at the spring, Pechorin manipulates Princess Mary into falling in love with him with no intention of marrying her, leading the young girl on a wild goose chase and leaving her emotionally devastated upon the realization that he never loved her. Both Pechorin and Lord Ruthven view women as inferior and treat them accordingly; Pechorin plays with their emotions and admits that he does not like strong women, while Lord Ruthven asserts that “women are frail,” and considers them no more than prey.
Lord Ruthven shows disregard for death because, as Aubrey later finds out, it presents only a minor inconvenience, the most challenging part being witnesses such as Aubrey. In several instances, Pechorin’s words and actions also suggest a resistance to death. In an exchange with Grushnitsky before their duel, Pechorin tells his opponent to remember that one of them will surely be killed, and when Grushnitsky says he hopes it will be Pechorin, Pechorin responds that he is “sure it won’t be” him. This could be a show of confidence and a way of inducing fear, but Pechorin’s annoyance supersedes any worries about the duel, which makes his assertion come off as more than pre-duel intimidation. Pechorin also comes up with the idea to move the duel to the edge of the cliff, a suggestion which also supports the argument of his indestructability. Pechorin proposes the ledge as a location as a way to ensure that one of them dies and that the death remains a secret, but it would also serve as cover for him if Grushnitsky managed a fatal shot. During the duel, Pechorin braces himself to make sure he won’t fall over the edge in the event of a minor injury, but if seriously wounded, Pechorin could fall onto the rocks below and carry out the same kind of regeneration as Lord Ruthven without any witnesses.
Pechorin also hints at a longevity of life and immunity to age, a theme not explicitly stated in The Vampyre, but complimentary to Lord Ruthven’s defiance of death as well as the classic portrayal of vampires as undead and therefore unchanging. Many of his comments sound better suited to a man much older than Pechorin, the age of whom the narrator cannot determine, but places at somewhere between twenty-three and thirty at their meeting. In “Princess Mary,” Pechorin tells his acquaintance at the spring that there is “no one so susceptible to the power of the past” as he is, and that he forgets nothing. When asked about a will on the day of his duel, Pechorin responds that he is past the age of a romantic dying tribute to a sweetheart or friend, and that when he considers impending death he thinks only of himself, continuing on to explain that he has lived by intellect rather than feeling for a long time. In “Bela,” Pechorin recounts his days as a young man, when he tried everything and was bored by it all. Pechorin speaks about his past as if it happened eons ago, yet if he is as young as his appearance suggests, anything of note would have happened ten years previous, at the most. His comments do not fit his youthful appearance and make more sense in a supernatural context, if somehow he ages differently than the average person, or not at all.
Lermontov’s novel and Polidori’s short story exhibit many of the same elements in characters and plot, as well as society’s glorification of villains. Aubrey immediately casts Lord Ruthven as the hero of a romance inspired by his imagination rather than reality, much the same as Lermontov ironically dubs Pechorin “A Hero of Our Time.” The two men share many characteristics with the classic brooding hero, but the authors make no mistake about the destructive nature of their protagonists. Lermontov and Polidori both use vampire stories to criticize the societies they live in; Lermontov just emphasized the society rather than the vampire.
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