A Hero of Our Time is one of Russia’s greatest novels. All the characters, with the possible exception of Vera, are drawn with consummate art. In Pechorin, the novel’s hero, Lermontov gave the first psychological portrait of the literary archetype, the superfluous man. Lermontov analyzes Pechorin as a victim of the conditions he was doomed to live in, hence the ironic label, “hero of our time.” As a representative of the lost generation of the 1830’s, Pechorin’s creative genius finds no legitimate channel of expression and thus turns in on itself and grows destructive. In analyzing Pechorin, Lermontov analyzed the sickness of the age.
The first two of the five narratives, “Bela” and “Maxim Maximych,” show Pechorin through the eyes of others. “Princess Mary” is in the form of Pechorin’s diary, and “Taman” and “The Fatalist” record some of his adventures in the Crimea and the Caucasus.
In “Bela,” the bored Pechorin, stationed at a fort, becomes infatuated with the Tartar girl Bela, daughter of a local chieftain. He kidnaps her with the help of her own brother, whom Pechorin rewards with a horse stolen from the girl’s Tartar suitor Kazbich. Bela, frightened at first, falls in love with Pechorin, whereupon he loses interest in her. One day, she goes for a walk outside the walls of the fort and is mortally wounded by Kazbich. The story is told by Captain Maxim Maximych, who has befriended Pechorin. The Captain is a kindly man who develops a fatherly affection and concern for Bela. He provides a counterpoint to the coldly manipulative Pechorin, who is largely responsible for Bela’s death yet unmoved by it.
In “Maxim Maximych,” Maxim is overjoyed at the prospect of seeing his old friend Pechorin once more. Pechorin shows little enthusiasm for the encounter, and when he does finally turn up, his manner is cool. Pechorin has for so long cultivated a mask of indifference that he can no longer discriminate between mask and self.
“Princess Mary” is a psychological analysis of Pechorin in the form of a diary. In the spa town of Pyatigorsk, Pechorin starts, from boredom, a love intrigue with Princess Mary, a young beauty courted by the poseur Grushnitsky. Once he is sure of Mary’s love, he loses interest. Complications arise when Vera, his old love, enters the scene. Pechorin wreaks destruction on all around him: He kills Grushnitsky in a duel, reopens an old wound for Vera, and breaks Mary’s heart.
In a passage recalling “The Sail,” Pechorin asks himself why he refused to tread on the road of gentle pleasures and peace of mind. He compares himself to a seaman born and bred on the deck of a pirate ship, who is so accustomed to storms and battles that on land he feels bored. The novel succeeds because Pechorin’s actions—couched in an engaging black humor—are shown with unerring psychological truth. In Pechorin’s own words, he is a vampire, his ego feeding off the suffering and joys of others. Unable to believe in any purpose, he is doomed to be an analytical observer or mischief-maker.