Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1372

Critics and scholars who comment on Mikhail Lermontov’s The Demon generally regard it as his best or most famous narrative poem, and they agree that it has been his most influential. It served as the source for Anton Rubinstein’s opera, which premiered in 1875; as the inspiration for a series of paintings by Mikhail Vrubel; and as a model for several poems by Symbolist poet Aleksander Blok. Lermontov’s demonic protagonist may have influenced as well such novels as Fyodor Dostoevski’s Idiot (1868; The Idiot, 1887).

Commentators have focused considerable attention on precursors whose works might have influenced Lermontov’s conception of the plot and themes of the poem and of the Demon as its main character. Among these influences, Romantic poet Lord Byron appears to have been the most important, as Lermontov had learned to read English to fully to appreciate his work. Moreover, his own biographers generally agree that Lermontov might have modeled his own behavior after the popular Byronic paradigm that features an alienated or socially outcast wanderer or exile who is inclined to be moody and temperamental, passionate, arrogant or aloof, disdainful of social convention, destructive (even self-destructive), and, despite these tempestuous psychological characteristics, deeply bored.

Alexander Pushkin established the so-called Byronic hero in Russian literature, particularly in the long-verse novel Evgeny Onegin (1825-1832, serial; 1833, book; Eugene Onegin, 1881). Lermontov greatly admired Pushkin’s work and wrote a poem critical of Czar Nicholas I’s court after Pushkin was killed in a duel. Lermontov’s provocative poem was widely praised, but the czar had him arrested and assigned to active duty in the Caucasus, where Russia was involved with ongoing warfare against the Muslim Georgians, Chechens, and Ossetians. Lermontov subsequently chose Caucasian settings for both The Demon and his renowned short novel, Geroy nashego vremeni (1839, serial; 1840, book; A Hero of Our Time, 1854).

Some commentators detect characteristics of Onegin in the Demon, but others perceive his origins in characters from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Ein Fragment (1790; Faust: A Fragment, 1980), Byron’s Cain: A Mystery (pb. 1821) or some of his exotic Asian verse tales, Thomas Moore’s The Loves of the Angels (1823), Alfred de Vigny’s narrative poem Eloa (1824), and Charles Robert Maturin’s gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Lermontov is known to have been familiar with all of these texts, but he appears to have had no direct knowledge of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674). Some readers propose Milton’s Satan as either a parallel or an antitypical character.

All of these approaches to The Demon might be described as extrinsic in nature; that is, they require some knowledge beyond the poem itself to explicate or interpret it. The same may be said of textual criticism, which has drawn considerable attention because the poem was drafted no fewer than eight times over a ten-year period (1829-1839), beginning when Lermontov was only fourteen or fifteen years old and ending just two years before his death at age twenty-seven in a duel in Pyatigorsk, a fashionable spa in the Caucasus. The final version of the poem circulated widely in manuscript form after Lermontov’s death in 1841, but it was not published until 1855 (in Germany); it first appeared in Russia in 1859.

Interpretations of the poem tend to focus on the mysteriously ambiguous and elusive character of the protagonist. Why, for example, does the presumably evil Demon, who claims to be indifferent to the beauty of the natural world, believe he might be redeemed by the love of a beautiful, mortal woman? What, specifically, did he do to cause his exile from Heaven?...

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Does the Demon know that his kiss will be fatal to Tamara? (In early versions of the poem the Demon intends to murder Tamara with his fatal kiss.) Readings that respond to such questions, and studies of Lermontov’s imagery and other poetic techniques, regard such questions as “intrinsic”; that is, they deal primarily with aspects of the text itself, such as character, plot, structure, setting, and style (diction, syntax, meter, and use of imagery and figurative language). What is the relationship, for example, between the narrator, who offers vivid images of the setting in the mountains of the Caucasus, and the Demon, who professes only scorn for the striking landscape, presumably because God had created it?

While Lermontov was working on an early draft of The Demon, he also wrote a short lyric called “My Demon” in response to a verse by Pushkin with the same title. Instead of denouncing the spirit of negation as Pushkin does in his work, Lermontov expresses his attraction to what he calls the sinister collection of evils. His Demon, as he first describes him, is a fierce being: “He scorns pure love; he rejects all prayers; he beholds blood indifferently.” In a version of the poem written two years later, the Demon is less forbidding and violent. He has become more intimately bound to life, and in a sense he is a more direct representation of Lermontov himself: “The proud demon will not depart, as long as I live, from me.” The dark side of the poet’s personality taunts him with images of bliss and purity, but he presents these qualities as being wholly unattainable.

An autobiographical critic might see in the Demon of both the lyric and the long narrative poem some of Lermontov’s personal demons: his rejection by various women; his rebellion against social convention, both political and religious; his struggle to assert personal freedom or selfhood (autonomy); his pessimistic and self-destructive disposition. Such a critic might also suggest that in portraying himself as the Demon, Lermontov wishes either to draw his readers’ sympathy or to castigate himself for his own misdeeds and failures. Perhaps, also, Tamara’s tragic death, even though it leads to her redemption and salvation, constitutes some form of retaliation against a would-be love. Such a reading might connect the doomed bridegroom, identified in some versions as Sinodal, with a romantic rival. Various critics have drawn a line of descent from the Demon to Pechorin, the protagonist of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time; Pechorin is widely regarded as Lermontov’s alter ego.

From a different interpretive perspective, however, such an approach to the poem misses the point entirely. Especially since the end of the twentieth century, scholars and critics have approached The Demon as a sort of metaphysical or ethical meditation or discourse on the problem of evil in the world and the relationship between God and humans. One critic argued that The question of the Demon’s sincerity is crucial. If he is sincere in his desire to renounce evil but incapable of doing so, he is a tragic, even an heroic figure; if he perjured himself to win [Tamara], then he fully deserves the reconfirmation of God’s sentence on him.

Another critic finds that the Demon “falls far short of any attempt to construct a truly evil being. Once an angel himself, and exiled for no stated reason, he is not a whole-hearted malefactor.” Still another critic suggests the Demon is a post-Romantic character whose “morally amorphous” nature reflects a modern perception whereby the very uncertainty and ambiguity of his evil leaves it “more insidious and treacherous” than is the case when the nature of evil is codified by conventional religious traditions or ethical standards. One intriguing reading of the poem holds that Tamara is “knowingly” seduced and that “the poem’s ethical center” shifts to her and, thereby, “to the reader, who is encouraged to identify with her” as she becomes “a full-fledged ethical agent who freely chooses love over doubt.” Most commentators agree that her role had evolved considerably between the early and late manuscript versions of the poem.

Rejecting the premise that the poem centrally concerns ethical or metaphysical issues, some critics argue that The Demon focuses primarily on an “inner psychological conflict” particularly as it pertains to the themes of alienation and loss. With his protagonist, Lermontov “explores the universal human desire to find a place in the universe, to regain paradise lost”; specifically, the Demon, like Pechorin and perhaps like Lermontov himself, seeks to fill his feeling of emptiness with “the promise of erotic bliss,” but in this effort he fails miserably, perhaps tragically.