Pechorin and Bazarov: the Fatal Power of a Cynic in Love

The characters of Pechorin and Bazarov, the protagonists of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, are both men who are, in a sense, doomed. One voluntarily wanders the globe, waiting and finally meeting an unnoticed end, and one finds himself fatally and irrevocably infected. The two are similar not only in the fact that they live and die with scorn and indifference, but more importantly in the fact that they do this to themselves. Both men are driven, consciously or unconsciously, to self-destruct—and the great hand in their doom is ultimately love. One man is loved but cannot love in return, and another loves a woman who in turn cannot love him; and whatever reasons the two men might claim to believe, nothing spurs them more strongly to their ends than their tortured encounters with love. Pechorin’s relationship with Vera might be described as that of a man who cannot help himself. From the very moment that Vera is introduced, the master manipulator lets slip to his reader that she has a real hold over him; upon first sighting her, thinking of her already, he finds himself crying her name “involuntarily” (87). This woman clearly has a hold on him, and the reader can sense this immediately, though Pechorin himself goes to a great deal of trouble to conceal it. Indeed, immediately after he recounts their surprising reunion and its “long-forgotten thrill” (87), he sets out on a monologue about his absolute power in matters of love: “It’s always puzzled me that I’ve never been a slave to the women I’ve loved,” he says. “In fact, I’ve always mastered them, heart and soul, without even trying” (89). Pechorin is trying to convince himself of something here—and the reader as well, if he can manage it. He admits that his dominance in affairs of the heart confuses him, in an academic sort of way, but the cold way in which he examines the phenomenon gives the very clear impression that he’s not much bothered by it. This is something recognizable in Pechorin throughout the novel; when he confronts the idea of commitment, he gives a soliloquy on marriage. When he’s accused of heartlessness, he reels off an almost biographical explanation of it. In short, whenever Pechorin is faced with a matter of the heart, even of the soul, he makes sure to examine it all in as soulless a way as possible. This reflection on Vera is no exception and, in keeping with his routine, Pechorin throws out several ideas on why he never lets himself be mastered by a woman. Is it, he says, the fault of the women? Is it the force of his strong personality? He isn’t sure, and doesn’t care, but he does seem most held by one of his theories—that he doesn’t want to love, so much as to be loved. “I’ve passed that stage in life when all one seeks is happiness and when the heart feels the need to love someone with passion and intensity. Now all I want is to be loved, and by very few people at that. I think I’d even be content with just one lasting attachment—such is the heart’s pathetic way” (89).There is an air of confession about this passage that suggests, for once, that this is really how Pechorin thinks of himself. He makes his case bluntly and abruptly, even going so far as to imagine how he might someday be happy. It’s very unlike Pechorin to even consider contentment for himself—the entire novel, after all, is basically about how very discontented he is—but here he finds himself revealing what could very well be the last dream he has left. This is “the heart’s pathetic way,” he says—suggesting, even in passing, that he has a heart as well. Why, then, is Pechorin dissatisfied with Vera? If his one remaining goal is simply to be loved by someone else, no other woman could serve better than Vera. In the midst of his seduction of Princess Mary he asks, “Why this womanish coquetry? Vera loves me more than Princess Mary will ever love anybody” (102). He even goes so far as to say that Vera not only loves him more, but also understands him more than any woman he’s ever known—and, as such, that he “could never deceive her” (89) as he does all other women. One would think that such an arrangement would be an ideal one in love, since we all want to find someone who both knows us and loves us. Pechorin, however, seems to be more disturbed by this than anything. “I really can’t think why she is so fond of me,” he says, “especially since she’s the only woman who’s ever properly understood me and all my petty weaknesses and unhealthy passions. Can evil be so attractive” (101)? Confused, bored, and even a little repulsed, he pushes Vera away—pursuing another girl whom he admits he doesn’t care about, because he can’t understand how anyone could care about him. It is this perception that Pechorin has of himself that sends him down such a violent path. After all, he purports more than once that he considers himself to be evil—that all he wants is affection for himself—and that the only thing he can offer is unhappiness for others. Of course, not everything Pechorin allegedly “reveals” can be taken at face value; his vacillation between apparent candor and complete indifference mark him out as a showman keeping a mystery to himself. Yet there is at least one moment in his story that is undoubtedly sincere because, if nothing else, Pechorin admits for the first time that here he finds himself both shameful and ridiculous. The event comes after Pechorin’s duel with Grushnitsky, when he receives a farewell letter from Vera. The letter is heartfelt and tragic, and full of insight; Vera knows just how he looked on her, “as a chattel,” (142), and just how much love she had to give him. Even now, now that her reputation has been ruined by Pechorin, she says that she loves him still, and—most remarkable of all—proves that she really does know him much better than anyone, better even than himself. “No one,” she says, “is so persistent in his desire for love. In no one is evil so attractive…And no one can be so genuinely unhappy as you, because no one tries so hard to persuade himself that he isn’t” (142). Here Vera gives, like a bolt of lightning, Pechorin’s reason for his unhappiness. Despite all that he says, what Pechorin truly wants is to love—not merely to be loved. Being loved alone is not enough, as only Vera can prove to him, because Vera is the one woman who can love him best of all. Her letter and her departure trigger something in Pechorin, perhaps even making him realize that she has pinpointed the force behind his doom, his apparent inability to love. Ironically enough, this seems to spur Pechorin to his most desperate and sincere act in the novel, and he chases her “like a madman” (143), hoping merely for a glimpse of farewell. But forces beyond his control are at work as well here; his horse falls beneath him, and his legs fall beneath him. He can do nothing as Vera travels away from him forever. His fate, then, is sealed, and he knows it either consciously or unconsciously, because after he indulges in his grief he returns to his old self. He gets up, dusts himself off, and continues as he was before. Vera is thus both his salvation and his damnation; she offers him the chance for the contentment he seeks, but she offers him the ability to understand the chance only when it’s too late. “My position, as you’ll doubtless agree, is ridiculous” (81). Thus speaks Bazarov of his ill-fated love for Anna Sergeevna. There is much here, certainly, that smacks of the ridiculous; Bazarov is, after all, a nihilist, a man “who does not bow to any authorities, who does not take any principle on trust, no matter with what respect that principle is surrounded.” Much of his time in the novel is spent flaunting his lack of faith and ridiculing others for theirs; he doesn’t believe in aristocracy, doesn’t believe in sentiment, doesn’t believe in beauty, and certainly doesn’t believe in love. While Arkady waxes sentimental about Anna, Bazarov comes forth with lots of bluster about his indifference. “ ‘If you like a woman,’ he used to say, ‘try to gain your end; if that’s impossible—well, never mind, turn your back on her—there’s plenty of fish in the sea’” (71). This more or less describes Bazarov’s attitude towards love before he meets Odintsova, and perhaps even after—for a time. But before long he finds that as a conquest, she’s impossible, that he wouldn’t ever gain his end:To his own amazement, however, he lacked the strength to turn his back on her. His blood caught fire as soon as he thought about her; he could’ve easily coped with his blood, but something else had taken root in him that he’d never been able to admit, something he’d always mocked, something that irritated his pride. (71)In short, Bazarov is in love. As a nihilist, there is no way that he can justify this within himself, and herein lies the root of his problem. Thus regardless of what comes later, regardless of Anna’s refusal of him and of his untimely death, a part of Bazarov has already died, and this in the very act of falling in love. Even so, at this point Bazarov is far from hopeless. He’s bewildered by, even ashamed of his feelings for Odintsova, but not so much as to renounce her entirely. His confession of love for her, desperate as it is, reveals that he still has some hope in how she might react. He may no longer live as a nihilist, yes, but he waits for her response before going any further; in his pause lies an admission that he might have been willing to live another kind of life, one more like those lived by the fathers before him. But horribly, tragically, he is denied this chance at happiness; Odintsova and Bazarov, as they both often admit, are too much alike. It’s therefore not surprising that Odintsova regards Bazarov’s love with as much terror, and even disgust, as he does. When he comes towards her she hesitates briefly, “but a moment later, she was standing far away in the corner, looking at Bazarov from there” (80). Although Anna continues to waver on her rejection of Bazarov even after this scene, her decision here has ultimately already been made. For the sake of serenity, for independence, and for the type of woman that Anna regards herself as being, she sacrifices her feelings for Bazarov—and in so doing seals his fate. From this point onward, Bazarov is on a path to the end. Bazarov the nihilist fell with his love for Anna, and Bazarov the romantic fell with her rejection of it. Before Anna “romantic” was to him the most ridiculous, nonsensical of words—in one conversation with Arkady, he interchanges it with “nonsense”—but now he finds it inescapably real. Before he often protested an indifference to nature (a trait, coincidentally, that he shares with Anna) but now he suddenly takes a kind of scoffing interest in it. On his arrival at home, he notices his father’s birch grove—and then barks at a servant to fill his pipe. His father mentions “the trees beloved by Horace” (92) and Bazarov asks what kind they are—before stifling a yawn. Lying under a haystack with Arkady Bazarov points out an old aspen which he believed in his childhood to have magical powers—and a short time later he provokes Arkady into a fight. He even finds poignancy in an ant crossing the ground, comparing the ant to himself and the fly it’s dragging to Anna:“Look! Here’s a heroic ant dragging away a half-dead fly. Go on, brother, pull! Don’t pay any attention to her resistance; take advantage of the fact that as an animal you have the right not to feel any compassion, unlike us, self-destructive creatures that we are!” (98)This quote is interesting not only in its connection with nature, and not only in the obvious anguish it contains, but also because Bazarov finds himself admitting that he, as a human, simply feels more than an insect ever can. He bemoans his fate and curses the half-dead fly, but he also seems to recognize that he is suffering because of compassion—and that his suffering will lead him to destroy himself. Arkady seems to catch on to his hinting as well, because his response to Bazarov is here full of fear and concern: “You shouldn’t say that, Evgeny! When have you tried to destroy yourself?”Bazarov raised his head. “That’s the only thing I’m proud of. I haven’t destroyed myself, and no woman’s going to destroy me. Amen! Finished. You won’t hear another word about it from me.” (98) Ultimately, of course, Bazarov is unable to keep his promise. Caught between two worlds, no longer belonging to either one, his behavior becomes increasingly reckless. When Pavel Petrovich challenges him to a duel, Bazarov accepts even though he recognizes that a duel can serve no definite purpose. “From a theoretical standpoint,” he says, “dueling is ridiculous; but, from a practical standpoint, well, that’s a different matter.” The nihilist in him never would have been dragged into something that’s literally useless, but his newfound romanticism drives Bazarov to engage in something that’s very dangerous. After he agrees to the duel Bazarov tries to turn to his microscope only to find that he cannot concentrate; the coolness that reflection requires is no longer his—and, tellingly, Bazarov has a nightmare about the duel in which Pavel appears to him as a forest, an image of nature that reoccurs again as the type of sentimental life he never wanted to lead. Bazarov’s own death is, obviously enough, the ultimate act of self-destruction. Whether or not he realizes it, the end that Bazarov meets is indeed a kind of suicide; his foolhardy and voluntary autopsy on a highly contagious corpse, made when Bazarov was out of practice and terminated when he cuts himself in apparent carelessness, is more Bazarov’s doing than anyone else’s. The fact that his demise comes in an act of scientific research is also significant, since it signals his attempt to return to the fact-bound existence that he had previously led. And the fact that Bazarov cuts himself, instead of being cut by another, is telling if only on a symbolic level; his morbid calmness after the event suggests that he’s long accepted a fate of oblivion. (“Never miss a chance to practice your trade!” (145) he says, cheerily, to his horrified father.) This is not to say, of course, that Bazarov doesn’t mourn himself a little bit; lying in fever, he reflects that an older man than he would have time “to get used to the idea of leaving life behind” (148). Yet Bazarov is, in many senses, an old man already; he is spent in his way, although his body remains young. “If you know too much, you’ll die too soon,” (82) he comments early on in the novel—and whether or not he can face this on his very deathbed, a part of Bazarov realizes that the so-called knowledge he has gathered, about faith and love and their power over him, has made his demise inevitable—and he acquired it, largely, on account of his love for Anna. Her own final appearance to Bazarov is a poetic testament to her role in his fate. Responding to his message, she comes to him immediately; Bazarov’s parents remark that she seems to them to be an angel from heaven. The promise of love that she represents to him is ultimately the last thing that Bazarov wishes to see. Yet when she enters the room and finds Bazarov as he is, she is “simply seized by a cold, enervating terror” (151). Bazarov informs her that his disease is contagious, and in response she rushes hurriedly to the other side of the room—much as she did earlier in their relationship, when his confession of love forced her into a corner. Bazarov’s “disease” is, on a deeper level, love—and here, as before, Anna does not want to catch it. Nevertheless, Anna’s final act displays the mercy that she still possesses. Despite his warnings, she eventually comes to Bazarov’s bed and leans directly over him; Bazarov begs her to “blow on the dying lamp and let it go out…” (153). In shocked obedience she essentially does just that, leaning down still further to kiss him gently on the forehead. It is this final act of love, more openly made than any before it, that represents both the cause of Bazarov’s death and the only way it could have been prevented. Just as Vera leaves Pechorin forever in one final letter, leaving him to wander dimly until he dies, Anna offers Bazarov a promise that makes him realize the life he could have led—and pronounces a sentence that makes him feel as if his end was meant to come.

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