Who Is Pechorin?: Ambiguity and Unreliability in A Hero of Our Time

The novel A Hero of our Time is a Russian novel about the life of a soldier named Pechorin serving in the Caucasus, written by Mikhail Lermontov and translated in one of its most famous versions by Vladimir and Dmitri Nabokov. Throughout his novel, Lermontov’s different points of view, the unchronological flow of the chapters, and the exclusion of details all prove that appearances can obscure one’s true nature. Lermontov’s multiple narrators; the unnamed traveler, Maksim Maksimych, and finally Pechorin himself, all present Pechorin differently, making it unclear if any of those represent Pechorin’s true nature. Lermontov’s order of the chapters in the novel, rather than the chronologically accurate order of the stories, develops Pechorin’s character at different times of his life, thus making the reasons behind his changes in nature ambiguous. Finally, Lermontov’s exclusion of details in crucial parts of the novel unknowingly obscures Pechorin’s true nature.

Lermontov’s multiple narrators throughout the novel are continually distanced from Pechorin, and thus their descriptions of Pechorin mask his true nature. Maksimych describes Pechorin to the unnamed traveler as “…a little odd…must have been a rich fellow too…” (Lermontov 23). Maksimych, a character that seems to be a close friend of Pechorin’s, is characterized by Lermontov as being oblivious of many of Pechorin’s odd characteristics and backgrounds, despite Maksimych’s frequent and prolonged interactions with Pechorin in the Caucasus, as seen through Pechorin’s apparent richness, that Lermontov displays Maksim as being completely oblivious of, before recounting his events with Pechorin. Therefore, Lermontov uses this limited understanding in order to emphasize the fact that Maksim did not know Pechorin well enough from their frequent interactions, thus giving an inaccurate view of Pechorin’s nature. In addition, when Pechorin was starting to act coldly towards Bela, Maksim simply thought “…no doubt they must have had a tiff…” despite the significant problems that Pechorin was having at the time (Lermontov 44). Lermontov illustrates Maksim as so ignorant of Pechorin that when Pechorin started to undergo major changes in his attitude towards those he previously loved, like Bela, Maksim took it as a simple “tiff,” which usually connotes a quite petty issue or problem. However, Lermontov rather displays Pechorin’s problem with Bela as far deeper than what it seemed to be, as Pechorin believes he is “…a cause of unhappiness for others…” and that “[he has] an insatiable heart” (Lermontov 47). Lermontov actually proves that Pechorin’s problem was no simple matter, yet Maksim took it like one because of his limited knowledge and view of Pechorin. Thus, Lermontov’s word choice and the inaccurate point of view of Maksim help to show the ignorance of other characters in assessing Pechorin’s true nature, thus concealing his true nature. Finally, in the chapter of “Maksim Maksimych,” when Maksim feels sad about Pechorin’s cold treatment of him, the narrator thought, “…just because Pechorin…proffered his hand while Maksim Maksimych wanted to throw himself on Pechorin’s neck” (Lermontov 66). Thus Lermontov illustrates the unnamed traveler as being quite ignorant of Pechorin’s true problems, despite Maksim’s stories of Pechorin. Lermontov employs this ignorance of narrators in order to show that Pechorin’s true nature was unknown to the characters from Pechorin’s appearances.

Lermontov also used the unchronological ordering of the chapters in the book in order to emphasize the idea that appearances obscured one’s true nature. In the story of “Bela,” when Maksimych started to see Pechorin drawing away from Bela, Maksimych felt that this was because they “…must have had a tiff” (Lermontov 44). Lermontov, places the story of “Bela” first, though it is chronologically second to last, simply to create an uncertainty of what happened to Pechorin chronologically before the events in “Bela.” By doing this switch in the chronological order of events, he shows that the inaccurate perceptions that Maksim makes about Pechorin’s nature are simply because of the lack of context that is later gained with events like Pechorin’s love affairs with Princess Mary and Vera in the story of “Princess Mary.” These events that are revealed later in the novel by Lermontov, which happened chronologically before this chapter, would help to explain Pechorin’s true nature, but without this context, the appearances of Pechorin alone only mislead from Pechorin’s true nature. Thus, Lermontov uses the unchronological ordering of stories in the novel to show that appearances can obscure Pechorin’s true nature. Another example of the unchronological structure of the novel obscuring Pechorin’s true nature is in the story of “Maksim Maksimych,” when Pechorin started acting coldly towards Maksim Maksimych, telling him that he “…must say good-bye…[he is] in a hurry…” (Lermontov 63). Though Lermontov’s characterization of Pechorin could be interpreted as a result of Pechorin’s interactions with Bela in the story before, these reactions of Pechorin mainly came as a result of his interactions with Princess Mary and Vera in the story of “Princess Mary,” which are chronologically before the story of “Maksim Maksimych.” This lack of context makes it seem as if Pechorin’s true nature is being revealed by Lermontov, but after being revealed to it, Lermontov is only proving that the appearances of Pechorin before had only led to misinterpretations of his true nature. Thus Lermontov uses the unchronological ordering of stories to prove that appearances are deceiving and cannot be used to accurately determine one’s true nature.

Lastly, Lermontov uses the exclusion of details by the narrator in order to show that appearances can obscure the one’s true nature. When Maksim and Pechorin were with Bela as she was slowly dying, Maksim did not “…notice a single tear on [Pechorin’s] eyelashes: whether he actually could not cry, or whether he was controlling himself, I don’t know” (Lermontov 52). Lermontov uses the limited view of the narrator in order to make some details unknown, like Maksim’s ignorance towards Pechorin at times. This lack of attention to detail and ignorance overall simply demonstrates the fact that Maksim’s view of Pechorin’s nature is inaccurate. Thus, Lermontov’s lack of details in Pechorin’s appearances obscures Pechorin’s true nature. In addition, later when Bela is closer to dying, Maksimych “…closed [his] eyes with [his] hands and began to say a prayer” (Lermontov 53). Lermontov shows through these moments of temporary ignorance, that the narrator, Maksimych, is sometimes unknowing of what is happening around him, like in this moment when he closed his eyes for some time. In addition, when Kazbich visits Maksim and Bela at their house, Maksim asked Bela to “take a look…[she had] young eyes” (Lermontov 46). Lermontov portrays Maksim as oblivious to details sometimes, like this poor vision of his, which could lead to flawed appearances. Lermontov uses this subtle ignorance of detail in order to prove that appearances themselves cannot accurately portray one’s true nature. Thus Lermontov manages to prove, through the novel, that appearances can obscure one’s true nature, as seen through the multiple points of view, unchronological structure of the chapters of the novel, and the exclusion of details in key events. What this really proves, however, is that no character is ever fully known or revealed, even by the end of the novel, and that some characteristics are just never revealed.

In the case of A Hero of Our Time, no one fully understands Pechorin’s character by the end of the novel, even the reader, simply because all of his appearances drawn by Lermontov can be misleading from his true nature. In fact, near the end of “Princess Mary,” when Pechorin’s horse dies, he states, “What was it that I still needed? To see her?…” (Lermontov 158). Lermontov is proving to us that when even Pechorin does not understand his nature fully at times, there is no way of anyone else doing the same. In addition, though appearances can conceal one’s true nature, they end up revealing more about those who made the assumptions, for example, the narrators who make certain assumptions on Pechorin based on what they see of him. Therefore, though appearances can be misleading for judging one’s true nature, those appearances can be quite useful in analyzing the motives and opinions of those infer those appearances about a character.

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