A Hero of Our Time
Understanding Pechorin as a Byronic Hero: The Contributions of Each Narrative Voice on Storytelling
In literature, the opinion of a character seems to not solely derive from the perspective of one narrator. A holistic characterization of an individual requires a multitude of viewpoints, as each person notices distinct nuances of a persona that others narrators might not recognize. Within the novel A Hero of Our Time, Lermontov’s inclusion of distinctive narrative voices enhances the quality of story telling by offering multiple perspectives in order to characterize the protagonist Pechorin as a Byronic hero. The viewpoints of characters such as the unnamed narrator, Maxim Maximich, and Pechorin himself highlight features of a Byronic hero through descriptions of the physical appearance and personality of the protagonist throughout the story.
Initially, through the perspective of the unnamed narrator, readers can examine Pechorin’s aristocratic demeanor. In accordance with the description given within the introduction of A Hero of Our Time, Pechorin appears to accurately resemble the proud, aristocratic appearance of a Byronic hero (qtd. in Lermontov xiii).The apparel that the unnamed narrator first discovers Pechorin wearing insinuates his upper-class status, “… his dusty velvet jacket, fastened only by the two bottom buttons, allowed one to view his blindingly white linen, which bespoke of the habits of a proper gentleman; his soiled gloves seemed sewn expressly for his small, aristocratic hands…” (48). The white linen, velvet jacket, and tailored gloves all indicate Pechorin’s aristocratic standing as he appears able to afford luxurious clothing that the lower classes might not possess. Additionally, the perspective of the unnamed narrator demonstrates the patrician tendencies of Pechorin’s behavior. His privileged lifestyle reveals itself to readers through the explanation the unnamed narrator adds on the protagonist’s travel style. When the narrator first locates Pechorin, they notice that immediately, “Pechorin’s valet comes out to meet him and report that they were about to begin harnessing; he handed [Pechorin] his cigar case, and after receiving several instructions, bustled off” (48). In comparison to the way Maxim Maximich and the unnamed narrator travel, Pechorin appears to prefer, as well as afford, a more luxurious and comfortable experience. As the unnamed narrator continues to observe Pechorin does not appear concerned with the process of preparing for travel. He instead relies on his lower-class servants to handle the difficult work while he relaxes and smokes a cigar. In the end, the unnamed narrator illustrates the aristocratic portion of Pechorin’s character, which aligns in accordance with the introduction’s definition of a Byronic hero.
Furthermore, Pechorin’s Byronic characteristics of an antisocial, individualistic personality present themselves through Lermontov’s incorporation of Maxim Maximich’s perspective. Pechorin first exhibits his unsocial disposition when he reunites with Maxim Maximich after many years of separation. Upon leaving the house of Colonel N, “Pechorin was absorbed in thought, gazing at the blue jags of the Caucasus, and seemed in no hurry whatsoever to get going” (50). Despite not appearing rushed, once Maximich appears and invites him to dinner, Pechorin rudely responds, “Truly, I don’t have anything to tell you, dear Maxim Maximich. But farewell, it’s time for me to go … I’m in a hurry” (51). Pechorin’s antisocial tendencies appear conspicuous in this example. The moment that Maximich arrives and attempts to converse with Pechorin, he suddenly remembers that he must leave immediately. Even worse, he fails to provide his old friend with an explanation for his abrupt departure. Moreover, the perspective of Maxim Maximich also demonstrates Pechorin’s individualistic nature, a prominent feature of a Byronic hero. According to Maximich’s experience with the protagonist, “whatever [Pechorin] wants, give it over; you could see he’d been spoiled by his mama as a child” (37). In the story Bela, Maximich illustrates Pechorin’s individualistic qualities when recounting to the unnamed narrator his time with Pechorin at the army fort. One day, Maximich visits Bela only to realize that Pechorin seems missing, not leaving any sort of explanation,
“‘But where’s Pechorin?’ [Maximich] asked.‘Hunting’‘He left today?’ [Bela] said nothing, as if she were having trouble getting the words out.‘No yesterday,’ she said, finally, sighing deeply” (33).
When Pechorin ventures on his hunting trip, he neglects to tell anyone his whereabouts or when he might return. This, therefore, indicates that Pechorin has little concern for the feelings of others around him. Upon returning from his hunting trip, Maxmich recounts that the protagonist does not attempt to apologize for his negligence and acts as if all seems normal, “Bela threw her arms around his neck, and not a single complaint, not a single reproach, for his long absence. Even I became angry with him” (33). Ultimately, from the viewpoint of Maxim Maximich, readers can understand the antisocial, self-centered personality of the protagonist of A Hero of Our Time, Pechorin.
Additionally, Lermontov includes Pechorin’s own perspective since it discloses the Byronic hero qualities of appearing marked by fate and suffering from irreparable misfortune. In the personal diary he keeps, Pechorin reveals to the readers a crucial detail from his past, “When I was still a child, an old woman told my mother my future; she predicted for me death at the hands of an evil wife…” (127). This disclosure serves as an explanation for Pechorin’s behavior around women. Throughout A Hero of Our Time, readers observe his peculiar conduct regarding women. He appears to possess boundaries that prevent him from getting emotionally close to any female he may fancy, “But the word “marry” has a magical power over me; no matter how passionately I love a woman, if she lets me only feel that I should marry her – farewell love! – my heart turns to stone, and nothing can warm it again” (126-127). An application of this statement appears in the protagonist’s reaction to Bela tragic death. Pechorin does not mourn too long for her loss; he instead moves on with his everyday life a short while later. A similar response occurs when Pechorin realizes he might possess feelings for Princess Mary. When she finally admits her own feelings for him, Pechorin denies his feelings and leaves her heartbroken. In addition to appearing marked by fate, Pechorin seems to possess the Byronic feature of experiencing misfortune. In his recount of a conversation with Princess Mary, Pechorin divulges that he suffers from a dark past that significantly influences his character,
Everyone has read the marks of bad traits on my face, traits that were not there, but they were assumed- and so they were born. I was modest, and they accused me of being cunning; so I became secretive. I deeply felt good and evil; no one cherished me, everyone insulted me; and so I became vindictive. I was gloomy while other children were cheerful and talkative; I felt superior to them, and they placed me lower; I became envious. I was prepared to love the whole world, but no one understood me; so I learned to hate… I spoke the truth and people did not believe me; so I began to deceive…. I became a moral cripple (110).
In addition to the bullying, Pechorin also suffers the loss of his mother and a parting from his father. All of these irrevocable tragedies appear to account for his treatment towards women as well as other individuals around him. Pechorin builds firm, emotional barriers so that he never experiences that type of pain again. In the end, Lermontov’s inclusion of Pechorin’s own narrative voice exposes that he possesses the Byronic qualities of appearing marked by fate and irreparable misfortune.
Lermontov incorporates a variety of perspectives in his novel A Hero of Our Time in order to provide multiple viewpoints to characterize his protagonist Pechorin. The unnamed narrator, Maxim Maximich, and Pechorin himself all present different qualities in order to provide a complete depiction of Pechorin’s character. By presenting features of his personality, behavior, and appearance, readers can deduce a holistic characterization of Pechorin. Despite depicting dissimilar aspects, each narrative voice utilizes descriptors of a Byronic hero in order to typify Pechorin.
How Nationality, Social Status, and Gender Affect Pechorin’s Interactions with Individuals
During the 1830’s, the cultural movement of Russian Romanticism evoked a multitude of intense feelings amongst the Russians, in particular a fervent sense of nationalism. This inspiration occurred incongruence with an enormous Russian victory. At this time, Russia triumphed in the first half of a tenacious war with the tribal people of the northern Caucasus Mountains. The Russian nationalism includes a strong sense of superiority, as seen in many works of Romanticism during this time period. In the Russian novel A Hero of Our Time, gender and status trigger Pechorin’s Byronic quality of superiority towards those around him. Lermontov highlights the protagonist’s arrogant attitude specifically through his interactions with mountain tribes, women, and peers.
In the beginning of the novel, Lermontov Pechorin’s superiority over the Caucasian mountain people arises due to the popular belief among Russians during the 1830’s. In order to protect routes to new Trans-Caucasian possessions, Russia desires to assimilate the region into their own territory holdings. Upon winning the first half of the war, “the widespread attitude towards the mountain tribes was the same as that towards savages, who they saw as either outside culture altogether or at its lowest level” (Durylin 127-128). This attitude appears exceedingly prevalent amongst Russian army, including Pechorin. His racist mindset presents itself in his relationship with the tribal princess Bela. Since Pechorin considers her people inferior, he believes that his kidnapping of the princess seems justifiable, “… that wild Circassian girl should be happy to have such a sweet husband…” (Lermontov 21). Due to his notable status, Pechorin reasons that Bela should feel grateful that she can live an ameliorate life as opposed to one she might live back in her village. Moreover, Pechorin’s superiority translates into a feeling of ownership over Bela. In his mind, his supremacy asserts his right over the princess and confirms his ability to control her. Pechorin explains to Maxim Maximich, “[The innkeeper’s wife] knows Tatar and is going to look after [Bela] and accustom her to the idea that she is mine, because she will never belong to anyone else” (24). Since Pechorin believes he possesses supremacy over Bela, he refuses to give the “savage king” his daughter back since he no longer controls her. Ultimately, the superior attitude that Pechorin exhibits within the novel A Hero of Our Time reflects the typical attitude held by most during the time of the Russo-Circassian War.
Additionally, within the novel, Lermontov depicts Pechorin as a male chauvinist throughout his exchanges with women. Pechorin insinuates that women serve only as objects for conquering, as opposed to actual human beings. His mindset originates from a prophecy he receives during his childhood, which predicts “death at the hands of an evil wife…” (127). From that point on, Pechorin refuses to allow any woman to overtake him as he describes in his journal, “One thing I have always found strange: I have never become the slave of a woman I loved. On the contrary, I have always acquired over them, through my will and hear, invincible power, without the slightest effort” (93). Pechorin enhances his overall sense of superiority by dominating women before they discover an opportunity to overtake him. His most notably conquest of a woman appears in his interactions with Princess Mary. Throughout their time together in Pyatigorsk, Pechorin believes that his relationship with the princess seems like nothing other than a game he tries to win, “But I have guessed your secret, dear princess so take care! You wish to repay me in the same coin, to prick my vanity. You shall not succeed! And if you declare war on me, then I shall be merciless” (105). Pechorin does not appear to possess any feelings for Princess Mary; instead, he attempts to get the upper hand in their relationship before she does. Furthermore, every milestone that Pechorin accomplishes in his game to win Princess Mary seems like an emotionless victory, “She is displeased with herself. She is accusing herself of coldness! Oh, this is the first, the main triumph. Tomorrow she will want to make it up to me. I know all this by heart already, and that is what is so boring” (111). Perchorin does not feel any love as his relationship with Mary develops. Dominance and boredom seem like the only sensations he notices. All in all, the male chauvinistic behavior that Lermontov utilizes to depict his protagonist’s interactions with women stem from Pechorin’s childhood prophecy as well as his desire to surmount them.
Moreover, the author demonstrates that Pechorin tends to gravitate towards superiority over those around him because he enjoys the feeling of dominance. In a journal entry, the protagonist confesses that “If I considered myself to be better, mightier than anyone else on earth, I would be happy…” (107). The attitude that Pechorin embodies in this quotation appears in a specific relationship with one of his army colleague, Grushnitsky. Once Pechorin recognizes his peer’s feelings for Princess Mary, he immediately attempts to win the princess for himself, just to prove his superiority. He finds pleasure in watching Grushnitsky lose the affections of Mary as she begins to fall in love with Pechorin, “I look at others’ sufferings and joys only with respect to myself, as on food sustaining my emotional strength… my principle satisfaction lies in bending to my will all that surrounds me” (107). Pechorin recognizes his colleague’s love for the princess, thereby making his suffering exceedingly enjoyable to the protagonist. Additionally, the desire for superiority justifies why Pechorin does not possess any true friendships. Even in a relationship with only one other person, the protagonist believes that an opportunity for inferiority presents itself, “… I am incapable of friendship: of two friends, one is always the other’s slave, although often neither will admit to this. I cannot be a slave…” (83). Instead of friendships, Pechorin prefers to have enemies since they offer him a chance for superiority and dominance. After uncovering Grushnitsky’s plan for revenge, Pechorin admits that, “[Enemies] amuse me, stir my blood. To be always on guard, to catch every glance and the meaning of every word, to guess intentions, spoil plots, pretend to be deceived…that’s what I call life!” (117). The rush of adrenaline that Pechorin senses after victoriously conquering those around him prevents him from engaging in conventional friendships. Ultimately, the enjoyment of a superior status elucidates Pechorin’s interactions with those around him, specifically his relationship with Grushnitsky, and also explains why he never engages in any normal friendships.
As seen in Lermontov’s novel A Hero of Our Time, the gender and status of those Pechorin encounters greatly influences how he chooses to interact with them. The Caucasus mountain tribes, women, as well as peers, in particular, suffer the consequences of the protagonist’s desire for superiority. Pechorin acquires a pleasurable sensation of supremacy by inflicting racist, chauvinistic, or dominant feelings on those he meets. The concept of superiority appeared frequently during the time of the novel’s publishing, 1830. Russian Romanticism often incorporated that feeling because of the events occurring at the time.
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.
The Historical Context of “A Hero of Our Time”
Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time not only represented the movement in which it appeared, known by some as Russian Romanticism, it also developed parallel to what was occurring historically in Russia during the first half of the 19th century. In fact, in order to grasp a full understanding of romantic movement artists, it is vital to understand the historical context, as well as the life and upbringing of Mikhail Lermontov himself. The “superfluous man” role that A Hero of Our Time’s main character Pechorin exemplifies, not only can be traced back to aspects of Lermontov’s own personality, but possibly also to characteristics of the one in power during this time, Nicholas I.
Mikhail Lermontov was born in Moscow in the year 1814, and because his mother passed away when he was a child, he was raised by his wealthy, aristocratic and controlling grandmother somewhere in Central Russia (Terras 248). Many can agree that he left behind, “a literary legacy of considerable size and richness”, not only due to his innovative and creative writing style, but also because of his contributions to the romantic movement (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 316). As in the novel A Hero of Our Time, Lermontov often wrote about life in the Caucasus region of Russia, because he was sent there a couple of times after being prosecuted for various “crimes”, (in the modern sense they were not really crimes) (Terras 249). Additionally, he spent some time in this area serving in the army, only further solidifying his passion and interest in the stunning landscape of this region and its intriguing people (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 316-317). Lermontov possessed a rather unfavorable demeanor, as many would say, and due to his arrogance and mocking attitude, he grew to have many enemies, one of which eventually led to his premature demise and death (Terras 249). Lermontov died in his 20s in a duel, being shot just like the main character Pechorin of his novel A Hero of Our Time, ironically (Terras 249).
Although meeting his fatal end prematurely, Lermontov inspired many other artists throughout Russia and beyond, contributing a few notable works to the diversity and dynamic of Russian literature. A Hero of Our Time appeared late in the author’s career, somewhere around 1840-1841 (Terras 373). Some scholars would claim that this novel served as part of the Russian Romanticism period (Terras 372), while others describe it as a push towards the Russian realistic novel, introducing elements of the Russian Romantic realism movement (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 317). Regardless of its categorization, A Hero of Our Time contained a few specific, unique elements that made it stand out from other works during its time, as well as adding to its distinct influence on literary history. First of all, the novel can be described as a psychological one, broken down into 5 cycles of inner thoughts, each described through the voice of different narrators (Terras 250). This element not only keeps the storyline fresh and interesting, it provides an inner glimpse into the minds of the characters, as well as a witnessing of multiple perspectives. These perspectives are presented journal entry style, which adds to the honest nature and real depiction of the events that unfold. As with Lermontov’s other works, A Hero of Our Time vividly expresses the stunning landscapes of the Caucasus region, with passages that are descriptive, gorgeous and captivating for the reader. The novel’s main character Pechorin, is what literaries describe as the Byronic hero and “superfluous man”, with each of the 5 cycles adding another complex layer to the protagonist’s personality (Terras 250). Eventually, by the end of the novel we witness Pechorin’s demise, as he slowly digs his own grave in many ways, appearing as more manipulative, self-absorbed, self-critical and in turn isolated, than in any of the prior chapters (Terras 250). In the beginning, it is not difficult to like Pechorin as a character, but by the end of the novel you not only can see the ugliness of his disposition, you just feel sorry for the guy.
Even if it did not last long, only for about the first half of the 19th century, beginning at the turn of the century, Russian Romanticism can best be described by a few common trends; Romantics strived for independence and in some ways rebelled from the constraints of their ultra-controlling and oppressive rulers, but in ways that remained subtle enough to not get them into too many legal troubles. They did so by attempting to establish independence from the Romantic movements of other European countries, so that Russian culture could be liberated from the “slavish imitation” of European models. Additionally, Romantic writers often supported nationalism; they felt Russian art contained a beauty of its own, which should be honored and respected, just as other countries honor and respect their own works. They felt their movement served as a way to encourage national originality, or narodnost (Terras 372-373). National originality became such a major dynamic of this time, that some would even say it was synonymous with Russian Romanticism. For many, the romantic period in Russia was an intensely dynamic and confusing time. Many people developed their own opinions and thoughts about certain aesthetic and philosophical questions, which produced a massive jumble of alliances. Even if Russian romantics wanted to stand out from the likes of other European romantic artists, many of their values related to those of the Europeans. Russian romantics still valued themes such as, love, rebellion, passion, death, madness, escapism, magic, the supernatural, murder, heroes, heroines and individual isolation, they simply implemented their own Russian settings and characters (Terras 373-375).
The “superfluous man” is an intriguing aspect of the Romantic era, and of Mikhail Lermontov’s own literary works, for it is not only blatantly apparent in A Hero of Our Time, but in some ways Lermontov possibly felt it represented aspects of his own personality and eventual demise. In some ways, A Hero of Our Time was an instance of when life imitates art. The term was originally coined in print by writer Ivan Turgenev, but this phrase grew to represent many literary heroes of the Russian Romantic movement (Emerson 54). The “superfluous man” contains many complexities, but three parameters in specific tend to define this individual: he normally fails to win over the woman he loves, he fails to find an actually productive niche in society (often retreating into deep isolation and alienation), and he normally fails to thrive health-wise (Emerson 54). In A Hero of Our Time, these 3 aspects do connect to Pechorin; for he fails to win over Bela (she dies), he never truly discovers what in society will bring him real happiness (and continues to constantly chase something new during that process) and his mental health is by all means questionable, especially when we witness the extent of his obsessive and manipulative tendencies by the final section. This “superfluous man” can possibly also be described as the anti-hero, and sometimes with this character it is challenging to say whether they fall under the role of the protagonist or the antagonist throughout the story. Some scholars relate the appearance of this anti-hero to the historical happenings during this time, claiming it may be a result of the nation-wide restrictive control of Nicholas I, “they quite sincerely recognized their duty to play their part in public life, but in the conditions of life under Nicholas I could find nothing to do” (Schapiro 160).
As one could have guessed, the early 19th century was a complex and challenging time for the Russian people, for numerous reasons. Simultaneously, it is also described as Russia’s “golden age”, because many artistic styles adapted and transformed, bringing about new, original forms and ideas (like the Romantics), even amidst the insanities of rampant autocracy and power-fueled strict censorship (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 309). The Rise of “intelligentsia” also appeared, as more and more individuals strived to become educated and informed, raising the overall quality of aspects such as art and literature (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 310). There were two individuals in power during the first half of the 19th century, beginning with Alexander I, who ruled from 1801 until 1825 (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 265). This oppressive dictator genuinely believed order equaled happiness, and he wanted this system to be implemented all over Russia. The primary issue was his unpredictable personality, which led to him becoming suspicious of people and ultimately dissatisfied with life (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 267). He sometimes spoke of establishing a constitution, but steps towards this were never implemented, because he likely did not actually want a constitution, for it worked in his favor not to have one (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 270). Alexander I failed to reform Russia, likely because he was so focused upon diplomacy and war, which did not really give the Russian people any chance for growth (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 273). He eventually died in 1825 (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 273), and his brother Nicholas I was next in line to take over the throne. Nicholas I ruled from 1825-1855, and unlike his brother, his personality was rather predictable and well-established. He possessed an incredible determination and iron-will, which was in some ways beneficial, and in other ways detrimental for the Russian people (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 285). Like his brother, he also believed that order was vital for success, supporting loyalty and discipline as well. Nicholas I was religious, but unlike many individuals that searched for the truth of the world with God, this ruler held a strong faith and trust in God (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 286). Nicholas I supported nationalism, like the Romantic literaries did, but instead of it bringing about a sense of freedom and individuality, for him it was more of another side to autocracy, and he viewed the Russian people as kind beings that also needed a ruling hand (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 287). This nationalism expressed that every country had its own “unique genius”, with Russia’s genius being considered by Nicholas I as, “the unique bond of love and devotion between the people and the tsar” (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 288). This is probably also not how Romantic literaries viewed the term. Nicholas I was especially determined to fight any signs of rebellion, but by the end of his regime, this obsessive determination grew to become his downfall (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 288). He became so terrified of any revolution happening, that he implemented some especially restrictive policies that further removed any freedom for the Russian people. Russians were no longer allowed to travel abroad, academic freedom and the autonomy of universities shrank sizeably and people were censored, both in everyday life and also in their modes of expression. Nicholas I tried to introduce reform, but failed miserably, because of his intent to preserve his autocracy, his fear of eliminating serfdom and his general distrust of his own people (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 291). Even though capitalism began to appear during this time and prior social constructs were slowly melting away, Russia remained behind developmentally when compared with other countries in Europe, and the tight control of Nicholas I could certainly have been to blame for Russia’s lack of economic developments, while the rest of the world seemed to be thriving (Riasanovsky and Steinberg 301).
Just like Pechorin in A Hero of Our Time, both Nicholas I and Mikhail Lermontov met their eventual demise, much of which was due to their own personal inferiorities, as is the case with a literary anti-hero. Nicholas I, in particular, could not set aside his own egotistical, power-hungry beliefs to support his people when they needed him the most. Lermontov’s egotism was, perhaps nowhere near the degree of Nicholas I, but his arrogance did lead him towards the duel that led to his death, just like his main character, the “superfluous man”, Pechorin.
Emerson, Caryl. The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature. 2nd ed., Cambridge UP, 2013.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V, and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. 9th ed., Oxford University Press, 2019.
Schapiro, Leonard. Turgenev: His Life and Times. Harvard UP, 1982, Accessed 23 Oct. 2018. Terras, Victor, editor. Handbook of Russian Literature. New Haven, 1985.
Examining the Role of Women in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time
M. Lermontov’s novel A Hero of Our Time utilizes the voice of the main character Pechorin, along with the voice of an unnamed traveler to provide an inner glimpse into the workings of Pechorin’s complex mind, along with the often philosophical, sometimes sensitive and sometimes cynical outlooks this anti-hero possesses. As the reader is exposed to a few impactful and vital accounts in the development of Pechorin’s life and timeline, it is not difficult to see that this hard-to-please character has a negative view of women, in the sense that they are more pawns in his game of chess, rather than human beings deserving respect and equality. Although this type of thinking was not uncommon for the time period in which the book was written (1800s), Pechorin takes this contempt further, by choosing to manipulate certain female characters and grow bored of others. The anti-hero treats “…life as drama”, which only becomes further validated by his actions towards many, among them Princess Mary in the final sections of the novel (Goscilo 1980). This action, in addition to numerous others, some of which will be covered later on, not only exemplify Pechorin’s arrogance, but also his overall dissatisfaction in the way things are. One scholar even goes as far as to claim that Pechorin represents demonic qualities, stating these manifest themselves “…most obviously in his rebelliousness, proud alienation, sense of desolation, and in his estrangement from normal human contacts, feelings, and values” (Leatherbarrow 2004). The disrespectful manner in which Pechorin manipulates and interacts with women throughout A Hero of Our Time, not only exhibits the way in which many viewed/still view the female role in society, but also provides the reader with direct access into the mind of the main character. Even amongst the numerous negative instances, moments of softness and sensitivity are recognizable, adding to the enigma-like nature of Pechorin’s personality.
The earliest example of Pechorin’s arrogance and selfishness being projected onto women in a disrespectful manner, can be seen by the way he essentially steals Bela away from her family, in hopes to marry her (Lermontov 16). After eventually earning her affections, but causing her plenty of emotional distress in the process, Pechorin begins to distance himself from the young woman, admitting to Maxim Maximych that he prefers a life of travel, stating, “My soul has been spoiled by the world, my imagination is unquiet, my heart insatiate…One expedient only is left to me—travel” (Lermontov 28). Even if he did not mean to intentionally play with Bela’s emotions, Pechorin does so by wanting her and then suddenly desiring a different life, for he could not be satisfied with what he had obtained, and still persisted to seek happiness elsewhere.
In another example of the main character’s haughtiness, Pechorin toys with the heart of young Princess Mary, of whom he is well aware he does not love, but throughout the final section of the novel, his personal diary entries detail the way in which he purposely continues to go out of his way to annoy the young royal, eventually leading to her falling in love with this manipulator. Rather than seeing Princess Mary as a fragile, young woman with tender emotions, he figures that she would be a fun conquest to later just throw away. Pechorin proceeds to commit many unpleasant acts to make Mary’s blood boil, one example of which occurred in a shop; “She was bargaining for a marvelous Persian rug…I outbid her by forty rubles, and bought it over her head” (Lermontov 70). Once Mary has fallen in love with Pechorin and he has played with her emotions throughout the summer, he proceeds to finally admit he does not love her, which causes her grief to the point where she becomes very ill. Pechorin announces in one exchange, “I will not justify myself, nor explain my actions: I do not love you”, to which Mary responds “Leave me”, followed by Pechorin, “shrugg[ing] [his] shoulders, turn[ing] round, and walk[ing] away”, completely carelessly (Lermontov 99).
Even though we persistently witness Pechorin’s exploitation of the inner, vulnerable emotions of various women, during certain moments we also see the main character’s softer side, in which he expresses his love, as genuine as it could be, for others. When Pechorin’s bride Bela is captured by the enemy Kazbich, is injured and then begins to deteriorate until her death is imminent, it can be seen that Pechorin is “…grateful to [Bela] for a few fairly sweet moments; [and] would give [his] life for her—only [he is] bored with her…” (Lermontov 28). He does, nevertheless, love Bela and proceeds to stay by her side until she has passed on, displaying a glimpse of compassion and positive human emotion amongst the other complex and self-centered traits of Pechorin (Lermontov 32).
Helena Goscilo. “The Modern Language Journal.” The Modern Language Journal, vol. 64, no. 4, 1980, pp. 488–489. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/325889.
Leatherbarrow, W. J. “Pechorin’s Demons: Representations of the Demonic in Lermontov’s a Hero of Our Time.” Modern Language Review, vol. 99, no. 4, Oct. 2004, pp. 999–1013. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=14856073&site=ehost-live.
Lermontov, M. Y. A Hero of Our Time. Translated by Marr Murray and J. H. Wisdom, PDF , The Project Gutenberg, 2008.