In the Russian novel A Hero of Our Time, translated by Vladimir and Dmitri Nabokov, author Mikhail Lermontov relates the travels of the alienated and manipulative Pechorin, an upper-class military officer struggling with fate in his attempts to interact with women. In the novella “Princess Mary”, Pechorin writes that he views his fate, predicted by an old woman as “death from a wicked wife”, as an “ineffable presentiment”; he is convinced that it will come true, and as such, he carries in his soul an “insuperable aversion” to marriage (Lermontov 137). As such, Pechorin’s relationships with women are marked by his ever-present awareness of his supposed fate, and it is this fear that drives his treatment of them. His treatment of women can be interpreted as heroic, for his respect for them, especially in comparison with his peers—but also as indicative of an antihero, for his manipulation of them. By portraying Pechorin’s relationship to women as an expression of his fear of fate, Lermontov suggests that there is no such thing as a hero: the complexity of human nature prevents an evaluation as such.
Lermontov’s depiction of Bela as exotic and foreign paints Pechorin as or neither heroic nor unheroic, but also distinctly human in his desperation over his fate, suggesting that such a delineation is nonsensical. From the beginning, Bela is exotified: Lermontov introduces her in a quasi-ethnic “Asiatic” wedding, where she is repeatedly described as a “gazelle” (Lermontov 25). This objectification frames Pechorin’s lust for her as a strange and foreign beauty, which nevertheless appears crude and shallow. Lermontov furthers this impression when Pechorin calls Kazbich a “bandit” while he himself is a “husband” (Lermontov 31). This trademark arrogance seems unfounded, especially as Pechorin himself was the one who engineered the deal to steal Bela in the first place. Needless to say, Lermontov’s initial presentations of Pechorin are ones of ignobleness, of shallowness—not heroism. Later, however, he gifts her with Persian fabrics, an act that seems rather unheroic in its attempt to “buy” her love—but Maksim Maksimych is correct in saying that “it is not at all the same thing” as doing so with a Russian girl (Lermontov 36). Maksim’s aside about Bela as strange and exotic is indicative of something else: culturally, a gift of fabrics is a symbol of intent—of marriage. For the first time, Lermontov characterizes their relation as more than simply exotic sex appeal; rather than keeping her as a concubine, as the previous pages would suggest, Pechorin respects her enough to deem her his wife—commendable, perhaps even heroic, in itself, but especially in consideration of what would have been recent events. Chronologically, “The Fatalist” would have occurred directly before “Bela”, and at the conclusion of that story, despite being convinced of predestination, Pechorin never “reject[s] anything decisively, nor trust[s] blindly” (Lermontov 169). As such, the gift is an act of desperation—neither heroic nor unheroic, but simply human—of trying to “test fate” as he had in “The Fatalist” with the Cossack, and willing the prophecy to be disproven. Lermontov’s image of a laughing Pechorin after the death of Bela, then, depicts not a man unmoved by the death of his lover but one broken by the confirmation of his fate. Pechorin’s laugh is neither representative of a hero moving on nor unheroic indifference, but of a complex human being.
Likewise, Lermontov’s portrayal of Pechorin’s relationship with Princess Mary as an expression of his need to keep control contextualizes fate as a continuing specter haunting their liaisons, suggesting that a “hero” cannot exist. Even before Pechorin and Mary make any contact, Lermontov frames jealousy as a motivator for his interactions with her. Pechorin writes that the earnestness of Grushnitsky “envelops [him] with midwinter frost” (Lermontov 89). The ice of Pechorin’s jealousy parallels the seeming coldness with which Pechorin subsequently manipulates Mary, and momentarily, Lermontov projects him as the farthest thing possible from a hero. As such, their first interactions are characterized by manipulation; Pechorin writes with glee that Mary hates him, noting with a sort of vindictive pride that he is the subject of “caustic, but… flattering” epigrams (96). Lermontov’s juxtaposition of two strongly connotative words emphasizes that what Pechorin finds flattering about these epigrams is precisely their causticness; he relishes the fact that he holds power over Mary, that he is the subject of her anguish and her attention. When Pechorin reflects on why he is toying with Mary so intensely, Pechorin writes that his main pleasure is to “subjugate to [his] will all that surrounds” him (Lermontov 116). Lermontov develops a seemingly despicable, unheroic character, at once self-reflective and proud of his own actions, through Pechorin’s grandiose and arrogant tone as he writes this. But this maniacal desire—to control everything around him—reflects his wish to control his fate. As such, when Pechorin is unable to see Mary when she is ill, he writes with incredulity, “Can it be that I have really fallen in love? … What nonsense!” (Lermontov 127). In his use of ellipses, Lermontov creates a natural pause in the flow of text, emphasizing that the reason Pechorin is so averse to the suggestion that he is in love is because he has lost control; he has fallen in love not of his own volition and manipulation but because it simply happened—not to mention that Pechorin is no doubt aware of his supposed fate. When it becomes apparent that he is expected to marry Mary, then, he finally introduces this prophecy and how it has hung over him his entire life—he asserts that he will not “sell [his] freedom” (Lermontov 137). Lermontov’s construction of the comparison of marriage to the sale of freedom—to slavery—evinces Pechorin’s need to remain the one in control. Moreover, this parallels his fear of fate, which stems from his fear of not being able to control his destiny. What is interesting here is that should fate actually exist, as Pechorin so believes, he has no freedom to sell in the first place.
In the end, however, Lermontov’s illustration of the relationship between Pechorin and Vera reveals Pechorin’s capacity—and, indeed, need—for true love despite his supposed fate; whether or not he is a hero becomes irrelevant. Pechorin himself concedes that Vera is the only one who has completely understood him and his “petty weaknesses and wicked passions” (Lermontov 141). Lermontov’s alliteration of words with strong negative connotations suggests that Pechorin understands why he may be despised, but also emphasizes his appreciation for Vera’s unconditional love. His occasional distance from Vera could be heroic—for respecting her husband—or unheroic—for disregarding for her love—yet the question of heroism is extraneous here; regardless of his actions, Pechorin’s dilemmas are complex and cannot be reduced to a simple yes/no binary. Later, after noting Vera’s jealousy about Mary, Pechorin comments on the illogical female mind. He presents a straw man syllogism: “I must not love him for I am married, but he loves me—consequently…” (Lermontov 132). The omission of the “consequence,” reciprocated love, emphasizes the parallel between the married woman he describes and Vera—suggesting that in the end, though Pechorin does take Vera and her love for granted, he still loves her. His love for Vera is made possible by the fact that she is married, and thus poses no threat of fulfilling the prophecy. When Vera does leave, however, Pechorin is overcome with despair. As Pechorin gallops back in his attempts to see her one more time, Lermontov describes the scenery with such words as black, dark, damp, dull, and monotonous, suggesting his desperation in Pechorin’s dismal projection of a world without Vera—and a world without love (Lermontov 157-8).
Throughout the novel, Pechorin has romantic relations with multiple women, yet none of these relationships succeed. Lermontov characterizes all of these relationships, however, as a product of Pechorin’s fear of his fate, and as such, creates a complex and multilayered character. Fate is central to Pechorin’s behavior—yet he is operating under the assumption that it is true. In the final chapter of the book, “The Fatalist,” however, an unnamed character questions, “If predestination actually exists, why then are we given free will and reason, and why must we account for our actions?” (Lermontov164). For Pechorin, the idea of predestination shapes his free will and reason. For Lermontov, the idea of predestination enables him to create a distinct, controversial, yet multifaceted character. Rather than creating a clear-cut hero (or not) as would have been indicated in the title, Lermontov suggests that it is impossible to evaluate someone with a single word; there is no such designation as “hero”, as it fails to do justice to the complexity of human nature. If there is a “hero of our time”, then, it would be the individual: Each person is his or her own hero, in spite of and because of each person’s flaws—because that person is human.