Mikhail Lermontov World Literature Analysis
Lermontov is often called Russia’s only true Romantic poet. Several major themes run through his work: the tragic nature of love, demonism (the idea that one is fated to destroy what one loves), disillusionment, vengeance, a passion for freedom, and the longing for a return to original innocence.
He also displayed a sharp psychological insight into the workings of passion in human relationships. This insight is visible in early works and in the mature work A Hero of Our Time. It is further developed in another play, Maskarad (wr. 1834-1835, pb. 1842, pr. 1917; Masquerade, 1973), a reworking of William Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622), which examines the effect of jealousy on a marriage.
On a broader canvas, Lermontov’s preoccupations extended to analyzing the tragedy of his generation in the 1830’s, in the sad aftermath of the Decembrist revolt. The strengths and talents of this lost generation were denied expression and fulfillment by a regime so repressive that personal correspondence was inspected and artists and intellectuals were exiled for having “dangerous thoughts.”
This political atmosphere gave a new twist to the common Russian literary character, the superfluous man, typified by Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Superfluous men were men set apart by their superior talents from a mediocre society, doomed to waste their lives through lack of opportunity to fulfill themselves and also through lack of inner purpose. In A Hero of Our Time, Lermontov suggests that superfluity is not only an isolated personal malady but a tragedy of his time, an inevitable epidemic fostered by an unhealthy regime.
Lermontov’s work was influenced by other writers, especially the German playwright Friedrich Schiller and the poets Pushkin and Byron. When it came to creating his characters, however, Lermontov knew only one hero whom he repeatedly projected into his works—himself.
During his early writing career, Lermontov’s preferred vehicle of self-expression was drama. He wrote his first play when he was sixteen. The play is a Schiller-influenced melodramatic demand for personal and social freedom, expressed in the authorial voice of an angry young man. Defiance and frustration in the face of repression is a theme that would run through Lermontov’s work throughout his life, reaching a peak in his narrative poems, such as Demon (1841; The Demon, 1875).
The autobiographical element is also discernible in the melodrama A Strange One, a self-portrait of Lermontov during his years in Moscow, and in his lyric poems. In “Parus” (1841; “The Sail,” 1976) the sailboat becomes symbolic of the poet’s lonely soul, driven not by joy but by its quest for storms, “as if a storm could bring it peace.” Lermontov was notorious for his tendency to seek out conflict with others, perhaps in an attempt to quell his sense of isolation. These Byronic traits—isolation and desire for conflict—link many of Lermontov’s heroes, including the demon in The Demon and Pechorin, the protagonist of A Hero of Our Time.
Even when apart from the superficial evils of society, however, Lermontov was continually haunted by a powerful image of internal evil—the image of the demon. As a youth he wrote that he was, like the demon of the poem, chosen for evil. The attraction of evil for Lermontov lay not only in its negative power but also in the intensity of the experience of damnation. Like his heroes, he identified the intensity of life with the intensity of torment. He sought it out as proof of his uniqueness and heroic status. Always with Lermontov, however, there is a polarization of opposites. On one hand there is the demon, absorbed in evil. On the other hand, there is the angel, or angelic woman, whose goodness he craves. The demon is balanced with an angel. This craving for what is good is always frustrated, however, since the demon figure always destroys whomever he loves. Tamara in The Demon and Bela and Vera in A Hero of Our Time are innocent women who fall in love with the demon figure, only to be destroyed by him. Such contradictions were externalizations of Lermontov’s own divided personality, romantic by nature and yet cold and skeptical in his mind. Lermontov never reconciled the psychic divisions that gave his work such tortured energy. Instead, he idealized them in the tragedy of The Demon, and he finally analyzed them coolly in A Hero of Our Time as a malady that had to be faced and accepted.
First published: “Mtsyri,” 1840 (collected in Narrative Poems by Alexander Pushkin and by Mikhail Lermontov, 1983)
Type of work: Poem
A novice monk, captured in the mountains as a boy by the Russians, lives confined in a monastery until he escapes.
Lermontov found the subject matter for this narrative poem while visiting a monastery in the former Georgian capital Mtskheti on his way to exile in the Caucasus. A monk told Lermontov how as a boy he was captured by Russians in his native mountains. They wanted to take him to their own country, but he fell ill and was left with the monks of the monastery. The monks nursed him back to health and let him stay there. He became a novice, but the memory of his free life in a mountain village haunted him day and night. He found his prisonlike existence so intolerable that he...
(The entire section is 2264 words.)