Study Guide

Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov

Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov Essay - Critical Essays

Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich (Vol. 47)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Criticism

V. S. Pritchett (essay date 1942)

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 personal freedom. He is the cold, experimental amorist celebrated by Pushkin (I quote from Oliver Elton's translation of Eugeny Onegin):

Men once extolled cold-blooded raking
As the true science of love-making:
Your own trump everywhere you blew …
Such grave and serious recreation
Beseemed old monkeys, of those days …

Pechorin becomes the slave of perpetual travel, and finally fulfills himself not in love but in action. Byron goes to Greece. Pechorin becomes the soldier of the Caucasus who plays with life and death. He drives himself to the limit, whether it is in the duel on the edge of the precipice down which his absurd rival in love is thrown; or in the dramatic bet with Vuličh where he draws a revolver and puts sixty roubles on the doctrine of predestination; or in the final episode when he goes in alone to collar the Cossack who has run amok. In its greater actors the Byronic pose of weariness is balanced by love of living dangerously in action, and here it is interesting to contrast the character of Constant's Adolphe with a man like Pechorin. Adolphe also is the imaginative man who loves from the head and then revenges himself secretively and cruelly upon the strong-minded woman who is devouring him and with whom he is afraid to break: Pechorin, more histrionic and less sensitive (more Byronic, in short), loves from the head also but takes special care to avoid strong-minded women. He possesses, but is not possessed. He prefers the weak and yielding who respond at once to cruelty and whom he can abandon quickly. Faced with the strong-minded, Pechorin becomes a man of action and makes his getaway. Readers of A Hero of Our Own Times will remember how Pechorin dealt with the determined duplicity of Taman, the smuggler's girl, when she took him out in her boat on a moonlight night. He threw her into the sea. What would not Adolphe have given for such decisiveness? What would he not have given for that Byronic ruthlessness in action, who knew only the cool vacillations of the mind? Of the two characters, Pechorin's is the more arrested and adolescent. He has not Adolphe's sensibility to the tragedy of the imagination. He does not suffer. Pechorin is sometimes a seventeen-year-old sentimentalist who blames the world:

I have entered upon this life when I have already lived it in imagination, with the result that it has become tedious and vile to me. I am like a man who has been reading the bad imitation of a book with which he has been long familiar.

But perhaps the main difference between these lovers of freedom is merely one of age after all. Pechorin-Lermontov is young: Adolphe is the creation of an older man. Pechorin says: 'Now I only want to be loved, and that by a very few women. Sometimes (terrible thought) I feel as if a lasting tie would...

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W. J. Entwistle (essay date 1949)

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...

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Janko Lavrin (essay date 1959)

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...

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Paul Foote (essay date 1965)

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...

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F. D. Reeve (essay date 1967)

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...

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Richard Freeborn (essay date 1973)

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...

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p>Herbert Eagle (essay date 1974)

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...

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Angus Calder (essay date 1976)

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...

(The entire section is 3078 words.)

Victor Ripp (essay date 1977)

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...

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W. W. Rowe (essay date 1979)

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...

(The entire section is 3743 words.)

John G. Garrard (essay date 1981)

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...

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Gary D. Cox (essay date 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 3416 words.)

D. J. Richards (essay date 1985)

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...

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Gary Rosenshield (essay date 1988)

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...

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R. L. Kesler (essay date 1990)

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 izlechiteto 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...

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Priscilla Meyer (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 5503 words.)