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).

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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? Does the Demon know that his kiss will be fatal to Tamara?...

(The entire section contains 1372 words.)

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