Analysis

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Last Updated on May 28, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

Mikhail Lermontov’s The Demon is believed to have been inspired by Lermontov's life, with the character of the Demon mirroring many aspects of the poet’s emotional and psychological state. Lermontov’s tendencies to populate his works with the events and experiences of his own life is well documented by literary critics,...

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Mikhail Lermontov’s The Demon is believed to have been inspired by Lermontov's life, with the character of the Demon mirroring many aspects of the poet’s emotional and psychological state. Lermontov’s tendencies to populate his works with the events and experiences of his own life is well documented by literary critics, with even his earliest works, such as the drama “Menschen und Leidenschaften,” being an obvious tribute to the family conflict by which his early life was characterized.

Lermontov was remembered by fellow students during his studies at Moscow University as snobbish and aloof, but he is also noted to have had a tendency to involve himself in instances of troublemaking, such as the expulsion of the controversial professor Malov by students in the year of 1831. Such characteristics are clearly observable in the figure of the Demon who, isolated and excluded by his own complicity in Lucifer’s rebellion, dedicates his time to spoiling, destroying, and generally being an inconvenience to humans and angels alike.

Lonely though he is, the demon is portrayed as powerful, both in his ability to perform supernatural acts of evil and in his eloquence in seducing the princess. Such a representation accords with Lermontov’s view of himself as charismatic, as possessing a sharp mind and a gift for words, an impression that was often vindicated by the responses of those with whom he interacted. For example, Nikolai Martynov, his onetime friend and eventual murderer, described him as

so far ahead of everybody else, as to be beyond comparison.

The romantic feelings the Demon has for Tamara also seem to mirror the poet’s preferences. The Demon might be read as a tribute to what is commonly understood to have been Lermontov’s first love affair, his unrequited affections for a girl during his childhood. Such an interpretation is supported by his exaggeration of Tamara’s innocence and youthful appeal, as well as her being ultimately beyond the Demon’s reach. Lermontov is kept from his first love by the barrier between the past and the present, just as the Demon is kept from Tamara by the barrier between mortality and immortality.

Like the Demon, Lermontov was a wanderer in both a physical sense, traversing much of Russia during his lifetime, and also romantically, in that he knew many intimate relationships during his life and found the majority of these frustrated in one way or another. Tamara’s recognition of his tortured soul, of the genuine nature of his love, is perhaps the recognition that Lermontov himself had always longed for yet never received.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 934

The Demon, banished from Heaven, soars over the earth despondent about the memories of his once glorious past, when he knew both faith and love. No force challenges him as he spreads evil and strife around the world, but it has all been too easy and he has become bored and indifferent, even to the magnificent beauty of the Caucasus. The created universe leaves him cold and disdainful. Even the lush valleys of Georgia leave him feeling bitter and contemptuous.

Meanwhile, the aged Prince Goudal plans for the marriage of his only daughter, the beautiful Tamara. Outwardly she appears pleased, and she dances and smiles, but within her heart she has misgivings about leaving her home and becoming subservient to her new relatives. The Demon flies past her, sees her dancing, and immediately falls in love with her. His empty and lonely soul is aroused by her beauty and innocence, and he feels confused.

The Demon then espies the young bridegroom excitedly riding toward the wedding, and he distracts the young man from visiting a shrine along the way. The bridegroom pursues a pair of Ossetian robbers, but after a brief chase, he is mortally wounded and his horse shows up at Goudal’s castle in the mountains bearing his corpse. Tamara is anguished, but the Demon’s strange voice calls out to comfort her and to advise her to wait. The words inflame her passions, but when he enters her bedroom as if in a shadowy dream, looking “unearthly handsome” and forlorn in his love, she detects no radiance from his head.

A fearful and suspicious Tamara begs her father to turn the other suitors away and allow her to enter a convent as a nun. Even in a remote convent, however, secluded among the mountains and forests, she continues to sense the Demon’s presence in forbidden dreams and to feel attracted by his unearthly beauty.

Tamara cannot meditate or pray properly, unable to stop thinking about the Demon. She becomes indifferent to the beauties of nature. When she attempts to pray to icons of the Virgin Mary, she ends up thinking about the Demon of her troubled dreams, and she fantasizes passionate embraces with him. She prays to the saints, but her heart yearns for the Demon.

At first, the Demon does not dare approach the convent, but finally he enters the garden and serenades Tamara with such tender, ethereal music that he is himself overwhelmed to the point of dropping a single tear, perhaps the first since his exile from Heaven. The Demon enters her room with love and joy, where he is confronted by Tamara’s Guardian Angel. Their standoff is brief, for the Demon turns aside the angel with a malicious grin, claiming Tamara as his prize because she has already sinned in her heart.

When Tamara asks the Demon what he wants from her, he tells her it is her beauty, and he confesses all of his malice and evil, telling her, “I only kill and never save.” He promises to repent if she will yield to him. When she asks him why he pursued her, the Demon is only able to tell her that he felt as if he had desired her since the beginning of Creation. He professes to regret his loneliness and he expresses some sense of hope, perhaps even for reconciliation with God. He claims his great freedom and his power over puny mortals have come to mean nothing to him.

Tamara attempts to resist his seduction, but she thinks if she could persuade him to renounce his evil ways and to take a solemn oath, she could accept his love. The Demon swears an elaborate and apparently sincere oath rejecting his demonic life and insisting he desires only her love and his reconciliation with God. Holding out the promise of a life of pleasure and power beyond the transitory joys of Earth, the Demon appeals to her for her love, but when Tamara succumbs and allows him to kiss her, she gives out a single shriek and dies instantly.

The Aged Guardian, the cloister’s old watchman, feels a premonition after midnight. He may be unconsciously aware both of the kiss and of Tamara’s dying cry and moan, but when he listens he cannot actually hear anything but the wind. He crosses himself, prays silently, and continues on his dark rounds.

Tamara’s beauty remains even in death. She is more richly attired at her elaborate funeral than she had ever been in life, and her lips retain a strange smile. Her grieving father builds a church high in the mountains as a memorial to her. When an angel begins to fly away with Tamara’s sinful human soul, the Demon attempts to claim her for himself. Only then does Tamara’s soul see the anger and hatred in the Demon, and she prays for protection. The angel informs the Demon that Tamara’s soul has been severely tried and will be granted salvation. The arrogant but defeated Demon is left alone and hopeless, cursing love, humankind, and the world itself.

Thereafter, villagers claim that Prince Goudal’s castle is haunted by a tragic ghost, but in the village life goes on as usual and nothing is left to tell succeeding generations of the old tragedy. Goudal’s castle falls into disarray and becomes the haunt of spiders and serpents. High on a nearby mountain the church remains, but it is deserted and often beset by snowstorms. No pilgrims go that way, and the names of Goudal and Tamara are forgotten.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 249

Eikhenbaum, B. M. Lermontov. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1981. Translated by Ray Parrott and Harry Weber. Considers The Demon to be the last example of the “Russian lyrico-epic narrative poem.” A concise stylistic commentary on the poem’s emotional-phonic qualities.

Garrard, John. Mikhail Lermontov. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Argues that in The Demon Lermontov handles an important and complex topic “in an intellectually impoverished context.” Sees the characters, including the Demon, as insufficiently motivated and underrealized.

Kelly, Laurence. Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus. New York: George Braziller, 1978. Inclines toward an autobiographical reading of the poem, seeing The Demon as embodying Lermontov’s unhappy experiences with romantic love. Salvation through love is impossible for the Demon, as for other fictional Lermontov characters and for the author himself.

Lermontov, Mikhail. Major Poetical Works. Translated by Anatoly Liberman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. Useful translation of the poem and valuable textual commentary on the eight versions; includes three pages of notes. Reflects on the poem’s artistic problems, notably with the character of the protagonist and the conciliatory end, which some critics believe was prompted by Lermontov’s efforts to deflect objections of ecclesiastical censors.

Reid, Robert. “Lermontov’s Demon: A Question of Identity.” The Slavonic and East European Review 60, no. 2 (1982): 189-210. The most complete and useful commentary on the poem. Considers the polarization between humanistic and metaphysical readings. Notes that Tamara’s beauty attracts the Demon because he confuses it with moral goodness; argues that natural beauty can persuade but not save or redeem.

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