Mikhail Lermontov Long Fiction Analysis
Mikhail Lermontov wrote during the most restrictive period of the nineteenth century in Russia, the reign of Nicholas I. The educated citizen could question neither serfdom nor autocracy, was limited in individual development and expression, and was hemmed in on all sides by suspicious overseers and a mediocre, lethargic ruling class. Reflecting the realities of the time, Lermontov created talented heroes who are stifled by the oppressive atmosphere and are driven to release their creative energies in destructive outbursts. His young intellectuals, their career possibilities limited to a highly ossified civil service, an equally conservative priesthood, and a physically active but mentally stagnant military life, are deprived of stimulating social outlets and consider themselves superfluous. Their attitude is highly cynical, coupled with a willful determination to revenge themselves. Unable to challenge the autocracy, they torment others and themselves in disastrous individual encounters.
Lermontov was fascinated by this alienated social category and expanded its portrait to include exploration of the psychological complexities embedded in misanthropic behavior. His characters are acutely self-conscious but frustrated, because they can neither pinpoint the cause of their destructive impulses nor overcome those impulses. Lermontov’s perceptive understanding of such psychic behavior caused him to treat his aberrantprotagonists sympathetically, as lost souls craving human contact yet tragically unable to sustain normal relationships. Such psychological probing, entirely new to Russian literature, engendered lively criticism. It also challenged and broadened the prevailing narrow limits of literary expression. The author’s daring resulted in several official reprisals.
Stylistically, Lermontov made a significant contribution to the development of Russian prose. Himself a talented poet, he incorporated many lyrical features into his narratives. His overall novelistic technique is far from perfect, yet it stands out when judged against the general low level of Russian prose at that time. Of equal and perhaps greater significance is Lermontov’s character development along modern psychological lines, one of the primary reasons for his continuing popularity.
More than a century after his death, Lermontov’s dual talents as poet and novelist inspired another Russian poet-novelist, Boris Pasternak. In Pasternak’s view, Lermontov’s art laid the foundation for the great achievements of modern Russian poetry and prose, while his life embodied the principle of creative freedom. When, in Doktor Zhivago, 1957 (Doctor Zhivago, 1958), Pasternak attempted to find new approaches to the well-worked-over novelistic genre through the use of poetic prose and the inclusion of Zhivago’s poems in the novel, he was following the example of Lermontov, who, taking part in the creation of the genre on Russian soil, could not bring himself to keep poetic devices out. A Hero of Our Time contains lyrics in the form of a song, lyrical outbursts describing natural phenomena, incomplete transitions between sections, and, in general, a loose structure typical of poetry.
Though Lermontov’s fame as a novelist rests on A Hero of Our Time, he moved into novel writing as early as 1832 with the unfinished Vadim. The author’s immaturity—he was eighteen at the time—is painfully evident in this work. Elements of the popular historical tale alternate with gothic features. A vaguely described peasant rebellion under Catherine the Great serves as a backdrop for the narrative, though no actual historical personages appear. The action is less centered on battle than on the bloody goings-on of bizarre individuals. The incestuous longings of the physically disfigured Vadim, his overwhelming desire for revenge, and his murderous schemes are all presented with a rather grotesque sentimentality. Though the misshapen Vadim is believed to be modeled on Byron’s Arnold, the hero of the unfinished poetic drama The Deformed Transformed (pb. 1824), Lermontov’s tale never approaches Byron’s craftsmanship.
Vadim does, however, point ahead to A Hero of Our Time in several respects. Lermontov’s loose integration of biographical events is present in both works. Vadim and Pechorin are both bitter, alienated types who quickly turn into villains and remain villains, although the frantic, flowery, emotional outpourings that accompany Vadim’s activity are absent in A Hero of Our Time. The glaring shortcomings of this youthful work are partly redeemed by nature and locale descriptions of a much higher quality, the work of a credible poet. In the same manner, the uneven features of A Hero of Our Time contrast sharply with the novel’s accomplished poetic passages. In the end, Vadim’s transformation into a macabre monster did not mesh with the rest of the clumsily fragmented settings, and Lermontov abandoned the work.
Lermontov’s next attempt, Princess Ligovskaya, written in the period 1836-1837 and then put aside unfinished, shows remarkable improvement. The structure of the narrative mirrors the already popular society tale, which chronicled the mores of the upper classes, frequently from a satiric point of view. The resulting tone ridiculed the empty, superficial activities of the rich. Superimposed on this setting was a love intrigue, usually featuring a wealthy female aristocrat and her lower-class admirer. Lermontov’s tale has all of these elements and adds autobiographical notes by reflecting his romantic involvements with Varvara Lopukhina and Ekaterina Sushkova.
Princess Ligovskaya also points strongly to A Hero of Our Time. The Princess Vera of the former becomes the Princess Mary of the latter, and the introspective officer Pechorin of this work is clearly a prototype for Lermontov’s major hero of the same name. What makes Princess Ligovskaya noteworthy is the quality of character portrayal, which rises far above the rudimentary efforts of the Russian tale of manners and morals. Lermontov fleshes out his protagonist, detailing his lifestyle in a way that no...
(The entire section is 2572 words.)