Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov 1814-1841
Russian poet, novelist, dramatist, and short story writer.
For additional information on Lermontov's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 5; for a discussion of the novel A Hero of Our Time, see NCLC, Volume 47.
Lermontov was an important figure of the transitional period in Russian literature when the novel was replacing verse as the dominant genre. Although he produced some of the finest poetry associated with Russian Romanticism, Lermontov is best known as the author of Russia's first psychological novel, Geroi nashego vremeni (1840; A Hero of Our Time.) He was twice exiled by the tsarist government and, like his hero Pushkin, was killed in a duel.
Lermontov was born in Moscow on October 3, 1814, the son of Iurii Petrovich Lermontov, an impoverished army officer of Scottish descent, and Mariia Mikhailovna Arsen'eva, a member of a wealthy family of gentry. Lermontov's mother died before his third birthday, and he was adopted by his maternal grandmother—who had disapproved of her daughter's marriage. She took complete control of her grandson's care and education, banishing the boy's father from the family estate at Tarkhany. Lermontov was deeply affected by the loss of his mother and the divisions within the family, and his unhappiness is reflected in his early work. His grandmother spared no expense on Lermontov's education; he was tutored privately until 1828 and was then sent to a private boarding school. Two years later, he began attending Moscow University and in 1832, moved to St. Petersburg where he attended the School of Military Cadets. Lermontov published very little during this period of his life until 1837 when, on the occasion of Pushkin's death, he distributed “Na smert' Pushkina” (“The Death of Pushkin”), a poem that brought him immediate fame and led to his arrest and exile to the Caucasus. When he returned to St. Petersburg in 1838, he resumed his service as a military officer, but he was unhappy with his celebrity status. Although he continued to write, he avoided literary society. In 1840, bored and disappointed with life, Lermontov engaged in a duel with the son of the French envoy; he received only a scratch, but was again exiled by Tsar Nicholas I. Lermontov was granted a short furlough in 1841, which he devoted to writing. He became ill on the return trip to his regiment and arranged a medical leave in the city of Pyatigorsk. There he encountered a former military schoolmate, retired major N. S. Martýnov, whom Lermontov enjoyed taunting. Exasperated, the major challenged him to a duel. Lermontov fired into the air, but Martýnov fired directly at Lermontov, killing him instantly. It was widely reported that the Tsar received the news of Lermontov's death with great satisfaction.
Lermontov was an admirer of Lord Byron and much of his early work resembles the poetry of Byron as a youth, although Lermontov's writing is considered more violent and extreme. During this early period he also wrote a number of melodramas in the manner of Friedrich Schiller, most of which were poorly received. The turning point in his career came in 1837 with the distribution of “The Death of Pushkin,” in which Lermontov charged the government with complicity in the poet's death. During his resulting exile he composed two of his most famous poems Demon (1874; The Demon) and Mtsyri (1874; The Circassion Boy, also translated as The Novice). Both contain loving descriptions of the Caucasian countryside where he had visited as a child and lived under exile by the Tsar. Lermontov's novel, A Hero of Our Time, consists of five interconnected narratives: “Bela,” “Maxim Maximich,” “Taman,” “Princess Mary,” and “The Fatalist.” All five involve the adventures of the main character Pechorin, and the last three are known collectively as “Pechorin's Journal.” A strong, independent Byronic hero, Pechorin is thoroughly disappointed with life, a characterization that caused many early critics to identify him with Lermontov himself. However, Lermontov denied that he intended Pechorin to be a self-portrait, and most scholars now believe the character was created as a critique rather than a celebration of the Byronic hero.
Scholarly assessment of Lermontov's career is varied. Anatoly Liberman, translator of his poetic works, explains the wide range of criticism: “Every epoch and trend discovered in Lermontov what it needed, emphasizing in turn his mysticism, his atheism … his melancholy, his militant spirit, his moral degradation, his tenderness and purity, or whatever.” Many critics believe that Lermontov's writing career developed in a linear fashion from his early devotion to Romantic verse involving Byronic heroes to his later, more realistic work. However, there are exceptions to this trajectory, notably the two narrative poems The Demon and Mtsyri. Critic John Garrard explains that these two works are “out of phase chronologically because they look back to his early Byronic period and yet were finished at a time when he was writing his novel, A Hero of Our Time, which contains a critique of the Byronic type.” Garrard believes that by completing the poems late in his career Lermontov was “purging himself of certain notions and attitudes he had cherished earlier.” Liberman, however, claims that while Soviet criticism of the past generally considered the shift from Romanticism to Realism a matter of progressive development, the trend of late has gone in the opposite direction: it is now more common to designate Lermontov as a Romantic poet. Katharina Hansen Löve, for example, considers Lermontov possibly “the greatest and purest representative of Russian Romanticism,” and his poem Mtsyri to be “one of the most complete and powerful creations” of the movement, even though the poem appeared just as Romanticism was giving way to the realist aesthetic.
Garrad also traces, over the course of Lermontov's writing career, his increasing ability to produce coherent and powerful narrative works. His early narrative poetry, particularly Sashka (1882; written in 1834-36), is characterized by the “failure to distinguish his narrator from his hero.” However, by 1838, when he wrote Pesnya pro tsarya Ivana Vasil'evicha, molodogo oprichnika i udalogo kuptsa Kalashnikova (1838; A Song of Tzar Ivan Vasiljevich, His Young Life-Guardsman, and the Valiant Merchant Kaláshnikov), Lermontov was beginning to display a “growing mastery” over narrative issues. According to Garrard, this work “stands out among Lermontov's narrative poems for its consistent narrative viewpoint.”
Lermontov's best-known single work remains his novel, and several recent critics have studied the use of irony in the text. Marie Gilroy believes that the novel's irony is at odds with the conventional understanding of the term, which has led to errors in its interpretation. She claims that “Lermontov's irony represents something new, a way of coming to terms with a world which is fundamentally absurd, and as such it is ahead of its time.” Andrew Barratt and A. D. P. Briggs also believe that the ironic stance Lermontov takes in his novel has led to misunderstandings and suggest further that by telling the story of Pechorin through a number of different narrators, Lermontov has produced “one of the earliest examples in modern fiction of literary polyphony,” anticipating the work of Dostoevsky by a number of years.