Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich (Vol. 47)
Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov
A Hero of Our Time
The following entry presents criticism of Lermontov's novel Geroi nashego vremeni (1840; A Hero of Our Time). For a discussion of Lermontov's complete career, see NCLC, Volume 5.
A Hero of Our Time, Lermontov's only novel, is considered an important developmental work of Russian literature. In it, Lermontov continued the tradition of character study initiated by Alexander Pushkin's "novel in verse," Yevgeny Onegin (1830; Eugene Onegin); the Byronism and European Romanticism of Pushkin's work similarly inform Lermontov's novel. Lermontov, however, owes less to the classicism of eighteenth-century European literature. A Hero of Our Time also introduces elements of psychological characterization distinctive of much subsequent Russian literature, including that of Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Dostoevski.
Lermontov was a renowned poet when he wrote A Hero of Our Time, which was published after his exile for insurrectionary sentiments he expressed in a memorial poem on Pushkin's death. The novel strengthened Lermontov's literary reputation and added to the public perception of him as a brooding, Byronesque iconoclast. This impression was reinforced when he was exiled again, this time for fighting an illegal duel. After his second exile, Lermontov's return to Moscow's literary society reportedly left him bored and dissatisfied. He subsequently provoked a military officer, who critics believe was the model for the character Grushnitsky, to a duel. At the age of 27, Lermontov was shot and killed.
Plot and Major Characters
A Hero of Our Time is composed of five sections: "Bela," "Maxim Maximich," "Taman," "Princess Mary," and "The Fatalist." The second edition includes an author's preface, intended to address critical misperceptions about the work. The first two sections are recounted by an anonymous narrator, who hears stories of Pechorin from an old military officer, Maxim Maximich. The last three sections are known as "Pechorin's Journal." Each section, complete in itself, adds something more to the portrait of Pechorin—a man who, according to Lermontov, is typical of his age. Pechorin is a complex and subtle anti-hero, the type of "superfluous" character who figures in the fiction of Goncharov, Herzen, and Turgenev: a man of great intellect and superior talents who is alienated from his society. Dissatisfied with his own life, which has failed to fulfill his youthful expectations, Pechorin meddles in the lives of others, causing great unhappiness that nonetheless leaves him unaffected; Pechorin pronounces at one point: "The turmoil of life has left me with a few ideas, but no feelings." In a passage from the novel's forth episode, Pechorin explains the genesis of and expresses regret for his own cold nature. Because the passage is key to his deception of another character, however, commentators stress its unreliability.
At the time of its publication, many critics believed that the novel was autobiographical, and that Lermontov was flaunting his own nonconformity. In his preface to a second edition, however, Lermontov answers this charge, stating that he intended Pechorin as a mirror of society's weaknesses rather than a portrait of any individual. Lermontov suggests that his protagonist's failings are less his own fault than the fault "of his own time." Thus, the novel indicts a period of Russian history that was thought by many of its young people to have failed to offer them sufficient opportunities for self-fulfillment.
Although some critics initially questioned the moral stance of A Hero of Our Time, the novel has generally been considered a masterpiece. A Hero of Our Time stands as a landmark volume: the first example of the psychological novel in Russia and an important precursor to the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevski. Lermontov is considered to have successfully depicted a historical epoch of singular superficiality and to have ushered in the greatest age of Russian literature.
SOURCE: "Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov: A Hero of Our Time," in A Man of Letters: Selected Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1985, pp. 269-73.
[Pritchett, a modern British writer, is respected for his mastery of the short story and for his judicious, reliable, and insightful literary criticism. In the following essay, originally published in 1942, he focuses on Lermontov's portrayal of his protagonist, Pechorin, as typical of "the fashion and idiosyncrasy of a generation" of young Russians.]
Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov was born in the year before Waterloo and was killed in a duel twenty-seven years later, a year after the publication of the novel which brought him fame throughout Europe. The extraordinary duel in the last chapter but one of A Hero of Our Own Times is said to have been exactly prophetic of the manner of his death. Lermontov had declared through his chief character that life was a bad imitation of a book; and the episode, if true, looks like some carefully planned Byronic legend.
A Hero of Our Own Times belongs to that small and elect group of novels which portray a great typical character who resumes the fashion and idiosyncrasy of a generation. Pechorin, the 'hero', is consciously a Russian Byron. He is cold, sensual, egoistical, elegant. He is neurotic, bored and doomed. Only one passion is unexhausted—and this is the making of him—the passion for...
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SOURCE: "The Byronism of Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time," in Comparative Literature, Vol. I, No. 2, Spring, 1949, pp. 140-46.
[In the following essay, the critic asserts that the Byronism of A Hero of Our Time is due to Lermontov's parallel development of qualities similar to those of Byron rather than to the influence or his imitation of the English poet.]
That Lermontov modelled his conduct and verses on those of Byron has been said to satiety both by critics and by the Russian poet himself. He had indeed created presuppositions about his own work among his contemporaries which he felt bound to make an effort to dispel. He was, he asserted, not merely a Russian Byron, but someone different. But what Lermontov might be was still unrevealed in 1832, and this Russian writer of Hebrew melodies, ballads, romances, and album-pieces for ladies and gentlemen continued to sustain formal comparison with his model until the year 1836.
In that year his poetic Byronism culminated in the splendid Dying Gladiator. The piece is introduced by a line from Childe Harold. It shows us Lermontov in complete command of his own style, but there is still a causal relationship between the two writers. Had Byron not thrilled Europe with his verses on the dying gladiator (Childe Harold, IV, 140-141) he saw in Rome, had he not mentioned the Danube (though Dacia proved to have no...
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SOURCE: "The Hero and the Age," in Lermontov, Bowes & Bowes, 1959, pp. 76-91.
[Lavrin is an Austrian-born British critic, essayist, and biographer. He is best known for his studies of nineteenth-and twentieth-century Russian literature. In such works as An Introduction to the Russian Novel (1942), he combines literary criticism with an exploration into the psychological and philosophical background of an author. In the following excerpt from his book-length study of Lermontov, Lavrin analyzes A Hero of Our Time and places Lermontov's novel within the Russian literary tradition.]
If the 1820's were the 'Golden Age' of Russian poetry, the following decade marked the gradual rise of Russian prose. The late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century prose of Karamzin and his contemporaries sounded archaic at a time when France could boast of Balzac, England of Dickens and Thackeray, and Germany of the young Heine. So it was in the 1830's that Russian prose made the first strides which, some thirty years later, were to culminate in its great realistic novels—Russia's chief contribution to world literature. But even during that pioneering decade one could notice two main lines of prose-fiction, one represented by Pushkin and the other by Gogol.
Pushkin, with his flair for doing the right thing at the right time, started already in the later 1820's his unfinished novel,...
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SOURCE: An introduction to A Hero of Our Time, by M. Yu. Lermontov, translated by Paul Foote, Penguin Books, 1966, pp. 7-17.
[In the following essay, Foote places A Hero of Our Time in the context of Lermontov's life and of Russian literature, and discusses Lermontov's portrayal of his protagonist.]
Lermontov is best known as the greatest Russian poet after Pushkin. A Hero of our Time is his only novel, yet it might be claimed that Lermontov owes his importance in the development of Russian literature almost as much to this one short novel as to his verse.
Lermontov's literary career spanned a mere dozen years before his early death in 1841, and A Hero of our Time was written towards the end of this time, in the years 1838-40. The period in which he wrote—the 1830s—was an important transitional stage in Russian literature, when verse surrendered its pre-eminence to the story and the novel, and the great age of Russian literature began. Lermontov's course ran parallel to that of Pushkin, his older contemporary, for both poets turned from verse to prose towards the end of their careers—Pushkin in works such as The Queen of Spades and The Captain 's Daughter, Lermontov in A Hero of our Time, which was preceded by a number of other attempts at prose. Though Pushkin was unsurpassed by Lermontov as a poet, there is little doubt that Lermontov...
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SOURCE: "A Hero of Our Time," in The Russian Novel, Frederick Muller, 1967, pp. 45-63.
[In the following essay, Reeve discusses Lermontov's novel in the context of Russian literary developments of the period.]
In Pushkin's poem "The Prophet," the I is the mediator and advocate to complete certain acts on our imagination's stage, as God is the agent who creates conditions favorable to the prophet's act of consummation of desire. By imitation the prophet re-creates the act of God. In the poem, Pushkin emphasizes not the agent (which the usual romantics did) but the act itself. His attitude toward the poem leads necessarily to the theater and to dramatic poetry. It leads to dramatic conceptualization of the world around oneself. Particulars of experience are not consciously sublimated, as Goethe has Faust get rid of them, or postponed, as Shelley often wanted to postpone them. They are understood to occur dramatically and in themselves to resolve the conflicts which exist. There is a way of looking at the ordinary world which is dramatic, a way in which internalized value informs on (and is informed on only by) external action. For all you talk about or around Philoctetes, for example, you cannot escape the actuality of the condition he presents. He is his own best informer.
The economy of style in prose to which this sort of conceptualization leads is most successful and powerful...
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SOURCE: "A Hero of Our Time, "in The Rise of the Russian Novel: Studies in the Russian Novel from "Eugene Onegin" to "War and Peace," Cambridge at the University Press, 1973, pp. 38-73.
[Freeborn is a Welsh critic, educator, and translator who has written and edited numerous studies of Russian history, literature, and literary figures. In the following essay, he examines the central theme of vengeance in A Hero of Our Time, as well as the novel's chronology, plot, and psychological portrayal of character. ]
The angry poem 'Death of a Poet', directly inspired by Pushkin's death in January 1837 as a result of a duel, first brought Lermontov to the attention of the public. Herzen neatly makes the point: 'The pistol shot that killed Pushkin awoke the soul of Lermontov. He wrote a vigorous ode in which, having branded the base intrigues preceding the duel—intrigues engineered by ministerial litterateurs and journalistic spies—he exclaimed in youthful anger: "Vengeance, your Majesty, vengeance!'" Herzen goes on to note that Lermontov's 'one and only inconsistency' in appealing to Nicholas I was rewarded by exile to the Caucasus. Equally, the cry for vengeance is not so surprising. Whether against society or tsarism or God or even himself, vengeance was an obsessive and fateful element in Lermontov's life and work. His own death, at the hands of Martynov in a duel fought on the...
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p>Herbert Eagle (essay date 1974)
SOURCE: "Lermontov's 'Play' with Romantic Genre Expectations in A Hero of Our Time," in Russian Literature Triquarterly, No. 10, Fall, 1974, pp. 299-315.
[In the following excerpt, Eagle argues that Lermontov undercuts romantic literary conventions in each segment of A Hero of Our Time.]
The criticism and confusion of Lermontov's contemporaries about the intent of A Hero of Our Time is indirect evidence that it contains innovative elements. In his reply to his critics (in the introduction to the second edition) Lermontov laments the fact that his reading public was not subtle enough to understand what he was doing, not clever enough to solve the riddle of a new form:
Our reading public is still so young and simple-minded that it does not understand a fable unless it finds a moral at the end. It cannot comprehend jests or feel irony; it is simply poorly educated. It still does not know that open abuse has no place in respectable society or in a respectable book. It does not see that contemporary culture has devised a sharper instrument, one which, in the guise of flattery, strikes an irresistible and unerring blow. Our public is like a provincial who overhears a conversation between two diplomats from hostile courts and is sure that each of them is betraying his government for the sake of a tender...
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SOURCE: "Literature and Serfdom: Gogol, Lermontov and Goncharov," in Russia Discovered: Nineteenth-Century Fiction from Pushkin to Chekhov, Barnes and Noble Books 1976, pp. 37-70.
[In the following excerpt, Calder assesses A Hero of Our Time as Lermontov's single "great novel."]
[Mikhail Lermontov] managed in his brief and unhappy existence to earn himself a place as Pushkin's successor among Russian poets and to write one great novel, A Hero of Our Time. …
Lermontov was hardly an attractive personality: Turgenev remembered that 'His swarthy face and large, motionless dark eyes exuded a sort of sombre and evil strength, a sort of pensive scornfulness and passion'. His most famous narrative poetry is characteristically 'Romantic', making free use of the supernatural and expressing a deep love of nature. He died at an age when most young writers have barely started to escape from youthful imitation and self-indulgence; this makes it all the more remarkable that A Hero of Our Time should be the book it is—not only very exciting in its incidents, but original in its form, realistic in its psychology, and utterly unsentimental. Its handling of the native peoples of the Caucasus is stylized, but entirely convincing. Its hero, Pechorin, stands up superbly well to comparison with such French precursors as Constant's Adolphe (1816) and Stendhal's Julien Sorel...
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SOURCE: "A Hero of Our Time and the Historicism of the 1830s: The Problem of the Whole and the Parts," in MLN, Vol. 92, No. 5, December 1977, pp. 969-86.
[In the following excerpt, Ripp examines the structure of A Hero of Our Time.]
When Belinskij reviewed A Hero of Our Time he immediately noted the book's unusual structure, a vehicle of disjunct and seemingly self-sufficient sections which nevertheless form a seamless entity. In order to explain the "harmonious relationship between the parts and whole" which he claimed to see, Belinskij resorted to a series of analogies. Just as the several organs of man function to their separate ends and still constitute one human being, so may the sections of a work of art fuse meaningfully. Just as discrete things in nature reflect the workings of a common spirit, so may an apparently disharmonious novel possess a deeper unity. These analogies are, in fact, only prods to the imagination, inviting us to supply the logic that explains natural organisms, the perceptual world and novels, as well as the connections between them. But Belinskij's comments at least point to an unavoidable problem in Lermontov's novel.
The problem of the whole and the parts goes back to antiquity, when philosophers first attempted to mediate between the sense of a primordial unity (which in some Christian variations became a pre-Edenic unity, since even...
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SOURCE: "Duality and Symmetry in Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time," in Nabokov and Others: Patterns in Russian Literature, Ardis, 1979, pp. 27-36.
[In the following essay, Rowe examines the symmetrical pairing of elements such as episodes, actions, descriptions, speeches, and characters in A Hero of Our Time.]
Commentators have been justifiably intrigued by the patterning of Lermontov's novel [A Hero of Our Time]. Despite its five parts and three narrators, however, the work seems most informed by duality as a structural principle. Even individual episodes, actions, descriptions, speeches continually occur in pairs. Moreover, there often seems to be a balancing of these pairs. In several cases, the spacing of this balancing within the novel promotes a remarkable symmetry.
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SOURCE: "Old Wine in New Bottles: The Legacy of Lermontov," in Poetica Slavica: Studies in Honour of Zbigniew Folejewski, edited by J. Douglas Clayton and Gunter Schaarschmidt, University of Ottowa Press, 1981, pp. 41-52.
[In the following essay, Garrard argues for a reassessment of Lermontov's importance in establishing the novel in nineteenth-century Russian literature.]
We have no equivalent for Russian literature of Ian Watt's book The Rise of the Novel, which attempts to shed light on the extrinsic causes, both ideological and socioeconomic, for the appearance and popularity of the novel in eighteenth-century England. Nor does there exist as yet a study that would do justice to the pre-history and early beginnings of the Russian novel from an intrinsic, more narrowly formal perspective—one that might pinpoint the most significant harbingers of what Mirsky refers to as "The Golden Age of the Russian novel" during the reign of Alexander II (1855-81).
Perhaps the main reason why so few attempts have been made to grapple with this problem of literary evolution is the general tendency to accept the traditional argument that as "founder of Russian literature" (in Belìnsky's well-known phrase) Pushkin laid the foundations of the novel in Russia with his Evgenii Onegin. No one would deny that Pushkin's works are the lifeblood of all literate Russians: he is their Chaucer,...
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SOURCE: "Dramatic Genre as a Tool of Characterization in Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time," in Russian Literature, Vol. XI, No. II, February 15, 1982, pp. 163-72.
[In the following essay, Cox asserts that the intense self-examination to which Pechorin subjects himself renders A Hero of Our Time a precursor to the psychological realism that dominates much subsequent Russian literature.]
The question of genre is one of the most intriguing puzzles of Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. The work is presented to us as a series of short pieces, each representing a different prose genre typical of Romantic literature, and yet the sum of these short pieces is a more complete picture of events and characters, a novel. Herbert Eagle has noted that in each of the shorter components, the reader's Romantic genre expectations are overturned. Thus, by beginning with Romantic genres and types and then restructuring their elements, the work leads out of Romanticism into a new understanding of human psychology.
In the "Princess Mary" section of the novel, another set of genre distinctions becomes important. Imagery dealing with dramatic genre is used extensively in that novella as a way of characterizing the attitudes and personalities of the major characters. And once again these genre distinctions are used in a way which outlines the tension between Romanticism and nascent realism in the...
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SOURCE: "Lermontov: A Hero of Our Time," in The Voice of a Giant: Essays on Seven Russian Prose Classics, edited by Roger Cockrell and David Richards, University of Exeter, 1985, pp. 15-25.
[Richards is an English educator and critic specializing in Russian literature. In the following essay, Richards examines the episodic structure of Lermontov's novel, comparing and contrasting it with other nineteenth-century Russian novels and with the more familiar pattern of traditional English and French novels of the same period.]
Critics nearly always call Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time a novel, but in its general shape the work does not conform with the familiar pattern which we see in the traditional English or French nineteenth-century novel from writers such as Stendhal and Balzac, George Eliot and Hardy, or in a Russian work like, say, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. Consider the shape of Fathers and Sons. First of all, it has a fairly obvious beginning, middle and end. At the beginning most of the characters are introduced, both to the reader and to each other; in the middle they undergo various experiences, as a result of which they change and develop; and at the end they go their separate, or newly-shared ways. Secondly, in Fathers and Sons Turgenev presents the various incidents which make up his story straightforwardly and, for the most part, in chronological order; one...
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SOURCE: "Fatalism in A Hero of Our Time: Cause or Commonplace?" in The Supernatural in Slavic and Baltic Literature: Essays in Honor of Victor Terras, edited by Amy Mandelker and Roberta Reeder, Slavica Publishers Inc., 1988, pp. 83-101.
[In the following essay, Rosenshield examines the theme of fate as a supernatural power determining the course of human life in A Hero of Our Times.]
With the possible exception of the works of Dostoevskij the supernatural plays almost no role in the nineteenth-century Russian "realistic" novel. Having their roots in social reality and common, everyday experience, the novel as a genre and realism as a literary movement usually treat areas of life which do not provide fertile ground for the exploration of the supernatural. One has to go back to the first great prose Russian novel, Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time (1837-1840), perhaps because it is still very much tied to certain commonplaces of nineteenth-century romanticism, to see the supernatural—through the category of fate—treated so seriously and extensively. Since A Hero of our Time is usually looked upon as a precursor of the great Russian psychological novels of the nineteenth century, that is, as a realistic novel, the theme of fate—fate as a supernatural power determining the course of human life—has only been cursorily examined.
Most Soviet critics, working from a...
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SOURCE: "Fate and Narrative Structure in Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 485-505.
[In the following essay, Kesler examines A Hero of Our Time as a "critique of both the romantic hero and those circumstances of literary production that produced and destroyed the romantic movement" in Russian literature.]
Budet i togo, chto bolezn ukazana. a kak ee izlechit—eto uzh bog znaetl (Let it suffice that the malady has been diagnosed—heaven alone knows how to cure it!)
The thematic importance of the concept of fate in the Russian novel is widely acknowledged, but what is the importance of fate when viewed within the context of literary history? To what extent was the novel itself fated, by its own particular structure and the conditions under which it emerges, to employ just such a concept? Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time is frequently faulted for its fragmented narrative structure and apparent reliance on adventure plots. But it is, nevertheless, a serious philosophical investigation into the aesthetics of romanticism and social function of literary representation in nineteenth-century society. In an age that pitted the notions of determinism and literary influence against romantic aspirations toward expression and originality, the concept...
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SOURCE: "Lermontov's Reading of Pushkin: The Tales of Belkin and A Hero of Our Time," in The Golden Age of Russian Literature and Thought, edited by Derek Offord, St. Martin's Press, 1992, pp. 58-75.
[In the following excerpt, Meyer maintains that Lermontov modeled A Hero of Our Time on Aleksandr Pushkin's Póvesti Békina (Tales of Belkin) story cycle.]
In 1830 Lermontov wrote in his notebook: 'Our literature is so poor that I can't borrow anything from it'. The following year, Pushkin 'descended to humble prose', and published The Tales of Belkin (Póvesti Békina).
As many have shown, Lermontov was an attentive reader of current Russian literature. This study shows that, unlike others among Pushkin's contemporaries, who regarded his tales as frivolous, Lermontov studied them carefully, and, understanding them as a review of the materials available to Russian prose writers in 1831, structured his novel, A Hero of Our Time (Geroi nashego vremeni; 1840), on the Belkin cycle.
Critics have noted the novel's thematic and stylistic sources in detail. Boris Tomashevsky discusses the evolution of Lermontov's prose in relation to Western European models, adducing many parallel themes and borrowed images, especially from French Romantic prose. The stylistics of A Hero of Our Time have been analysed by Viktor Vinogradov,...
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Bagby, Lewis. "Narrative Double-Voicing in Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time." Slavic and East European Journal 22, No. 3 (Fall 1978): 265-86.
Notes that major events in A Hero of Our Time, in particular those that illuminate the character of the protagonist, are narrated from more than one perspective during the course of the novel.
D'iakonova, Nina Ia. "Byron and Lermontov: Notes on Pechorin's 'Journal'." In Lord Byron and His Contemporaries: Essays from the Sixth International Byron Seminar, edited by Charles E. Robinson, pp. 144-65. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982.
Offers an account of Byron's impact on Russian literature generally and on Lermontov's portrayal of his protagonist in particular.
Debreczeny, Paul. "Elements of the Lyrical Verse Tale in Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time." In American Contributions to the Seventh International Congress of Slavists, Volume II: Literature and Folklore, edited by Victor Terras, pp. 93-117. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.
Suggests "that elements of the lyrical verse tale—both thematic and structural—pervade Lermontov's novel A Hero of Our Time (1840)," to such an extent that it can be called a narrative poem translated into prose. The essay contains many untranslated Russian passages printed in Cyrillic characters.
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