Critical Evaluation

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Although Mikhail Lermontov is better known as a poet than as a novelist in his native Russia, A Hero of Our Time, his only completed novel, is widely considered to be one of Russia’s greatest novels. In Pechorin, the novel’s hero, Lermontov gives the first psychological portrait of the Russian literary type, the superfluous man. The superfluous man was to become a major figure in the novels and stories of Russian writers such as Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, and Ivan Gonchorov. Superfluous men, set apart from society by their superior talents or perceptions, are doomed to waste their lives, partly because of lack of opportunity to fulfill themselves but also because they lack any sense of purpose.

Lermontov is not the inventor of the superfluous man: The Russian poet Alexander Pushkin created the superfluous hero Eugene Onegin in the poem of that name (1825-1832, 1833). In creating Pechorin, Lermontov draws both on Pushkin and on the life and works of English poet Lord Byron. The cult of Byronism, which romanticized the stance of the cynical yet passionately rebellious outsider, was sweeping through Russia, along with the cult of Napoleon as the supposed liberator of the oppressed masses.

Lermontov looks into the concept of superfluity more deeply than Pushkin does, probing into its psychological and social origins and suggesting that it was the logical endpoint of many of the typical vices of his age. Hence the ironic label for Pechorin, “hero of our time.” Like the so-called lost generation of disillusioned idealists of the 1830’s following the abortive Decembrist Revolt against Czar Nicholas I’s oppressive regime, Pechorin’s creative genius finds no legitimate channel for expression and then thus turns in on itself and grows destructive. He wreaks destruction on all around him: He kills Grushnitski in a duel, reopens an old wound for Vera, and breaks Princess Mary’s heart.

In analyzing Pechorin, Lermontov analyzed the mal du siècle—the sickness of the age. Lermontov’s techniques of analysis are innovative and worthy of note. The first two of the five narratives, “Bela” and “Maksim Maksimich,” show Pechorin through the eyes of others. “Princess Mary” is in the form of Pechorin’s diary, providing a format that allows the character to reveal his complex inner life. “Taman” and “The Fatalist” are first-person narratives in which Pechorin records his adventures in the Crimea and the Caucasus.

In a moving passage, Pechorin wonders 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, so accustomed to storms and battles that on land he feels bored. Pechorin’s actions—couched in an engaging black humor—are shown with unerring psychological truth. He is a self-confessed emotional vampire, feeding off the suffering and joys of others. Unable to embrace any purpose, and dependent on others to provide his entertainment, he is doomed to be a social parasite, an analytical observer, and a mischief-maker.

The structure of the five stories of A Hero of Our Time was innovative in its time. The three sections of Pechorin’s journal, “Taman,” “Princess Mary,” and “The Fatalist,” are arranged in chronological order. They are preceded in the novel by “Bela” and “Maksim Maksimich,” although the events narrated in those sections occur after the events of the journal. Such deliberate manipulation of time sequences is now commonplace in fiction and film, in devices such as flashbacks, but in Lermontov’s time, this approach was experimental.

The unorthodox time sequence enables the author to arouse the reader’s curiosity and then satisfy it. It also allows the reader...

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to move from an external evaluation of Pechorin to an internal self-revelation. Pechorin is first seen at one remove, through the eyes of Maksim Maksimich, before he is seen in person. Finally the reader is taken directly to the source, hearing Pechorin’s voice through his journal.

The time sequence is also psychologically revealing in terms of Pechorin’s character development. “Taman” shows Pechorin as a naïve young officer, barely in control of events. The gender roles of “Bela” are reversed, with the girl as aggressor and Pechorin as near-victim. By the time of Bela, Pechorin has developed a more demoniac personality, and Bela’s life falls victim to it. In “Princess Mary,” which takes place before “Bela” but is narrated after it, Pechorin’s attitudes have already hardened, although Princess Mary, more fortunate than Bela, escapes with only a broken heart. Grushnitski, however, crosses Pechorin and pays with his life. Pechorin’s cynical comment after he kills Grushnitski in a duel is significant: “Finita la commedia” (the comedy is over). Pechorin has reached such a distance from the tragic events he orchestrates that he sees them as a humorous entertainment for himself.

The position of “The Fatalist” at the novel’s end suggests that it is of significance to the whole. The words “fate” and “will” are used frequently, most often by Pechorin. He exercises his free will when it suits him, then takes refuge in the concept of fate to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.

Pechorin uses both terms to blur the distinction between good and evil, a typically romantic and potentially destructive tendency remarked upon by French writer Albert Camus in his study L’Homme révolté (1951; The Rebel, 1956), in which he attempts to trace the origins of state terrorism such as that exhibited by Nazi Germany. Camus traces what he terms the religious confusion between good and evil back to John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), and forward to the Romantic period and the Byronic hero. Significantly, Camus quotes Lermontov rather than Byron to illustrate his point. He comments that in order to combat evil, the rebel, because he judges himself innocent, renounces good and creates evil again. The Romantic hero, Camus says, feels compelled to do evil by his nostalgia for an unrealizable good. His excuse is sorrow. Camus’s comment reveals much about Pechorin and his dual nature as both hero and villain, as well as his paradoxical effect on the reader.