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.
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