Mikhail Lermontov Lermontov, Mikhail Yuryevich (Vol. 126) - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Khadzi Abrek [Hadji the Blood Outcast] (poetry) 1835

*“Na smert' Pushkina” [“The Death of Pushkin”] (poetry) 1837

Pesnya pro tsarya Ivana Vasil'evicha, molodogo oprichnika i udalogo kuptsa Kalashnikova [A Song of Tzar Ivan Vasiljevich, His Young Life-Guardsman, and the Valiant Merchant Kaláshnikov] (poetry) 1838

Tambovskaya kaznacheysha [The Tambov Treasurer's Wife] (poetry) 1838

Geroi nashego vremeni [The Hero of Our Days; also published as Sketches of Russian Life in the Caucasus, A Hero of Our Own Time, and as A Hero of Our Time] (novel) 1840

Stikhotvoreninya (poetry) 1840

Skazka dlya detey [A Fairytale for Children] (poetry) 1842

Socheninya. 2 vols. (poetry, essays, and drama) 1847

Demon [The Demon] (poetry) 1856

Demon. Angelj. Rusalka. Pisnia pro Kalashnikova. Mtsyri. Borodino. Duma. (poetry) 1874

Mtsyri [The Circassian Boy; also published as The Novice] (poetry) 1875

Ionsekia drama M. O. Lermontova (drama) 1880

Sashka (poetry) 1882

Maskarad [Masquerade] (drama) 1891

The Angel (poetry) 1895

Poems of Michael Lermontov (poetry) 1917

Two Brothers (drama) 1933

Sobranie sočinenij v četyrex tomax. 4 vols. (poetry, essays, and drama) 1957-58

The Demon, and Other Poems (poetry) 1965

A Lermontov Reader (poetry and essays) 1965

Selected Poetry (poetry) 1965

*Handwritten copies of the poem were distributed in 1837. It first appeared in print in 1856, in Herzen's Polar Star, published in London. Two years later the poem was printed in Russia. This work is also known as “Smert' poeta” (“Death of the Poet”).

†This work includes the dramas Ispantsy, Menschen und Leidenschaften, Strannji cheloveka, and Dva brata.

John Garrard (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Garrard, John. “Narrative Poems.” In Mikhail Lermontov, pp. 93-123. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

[In the following essay, Garrard examines Lermontov's narrative poems, tracing the poet's gradual transition from Romanticism to Realism and his developing ability to handle problems of narrative stance over the course of his writing career.]

Traditionally, Lermontov's two most famous narrative poems have been The Novice and The Demon.1 Both belong to the most Byronic portion of the Lermontov canon and offer quintessential examples of the Byronic hero. Precisely these qualities made the works so popular throughout the nineteenth...

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Anatoly Liberman (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Liberman, Anatoly. “Lermontov as a Poet.” In Mikhail Lermontov: Major Poetical Works, translated by Anatoly Liberman, pp. 8-22. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

[In the following essay, Liberman provides a brief overview of Lermontov's reputation as a poet, praising him for his introduction of impressionism into Russian literature.]

Lermontov was confronted with the most difficult poetic task—to overcome the Pushkin canon.


To be so dependent on Pushkin, so totally, so completely, so slavishly; and to shake off this dependence—this is...

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Cynthia Marsh (essay date January 1988)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Marsh, Cynthia. “Lermontov and the Romantic Tradition: The Function of Landscape in A Hero of Our Time.Slavonic and East European Review 66, no. 1 (January 1988): 35-46.

[In the following essay, Marsh explores connections between Lermontov's paintings and his landscape descriptions in A Hero of Our Time.]

Lermontov's debt to Romanticism has exercised the critical mind considerably; the role of his interests as a painter, though, has hardly been taken into account. The publication in 1980 of Lermontov's paintings has shown that he was a talented artist.1 His debt to Romanticism in the sphere of painting is clearest in his portraits and...

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Andrew Barratt and A. D. P. Briggs (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Barratt, Andrew and A. D. P. Briggs. Conclusion to A Wicked Irony: The Rhetoric of Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, pp. 123-35. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Barratt and Briggs suggest that the ironic stance operating within Lermontov's text has led to numerous misunderstandings regarding interpretation of the novel.]


Several times in the preceding chapters we have asked the question: how much do we know about Pechorin? On each occasion the answer has been guarded. Reliable conclusions have been hard to find. A striking feature of A Hero of Our Time is the gross disparity...

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Marie Gilroy (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gilroy, Marie. “Understanding Irony.” In The Ironic Vision in Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, pp. 1-12. Birmingham Slavonic Monographs, no. 19. Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 1989.

[In the following essay, Gilroy explains specific features of Romantic irony and discusses its use in A Hero of Our Time.]

A word has the meaning
someone has given to it.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein

In A Hero of Our Time, hints that the novel should be read ironically are given both in the narrator's ‘Foreword to Pechorin's Journal’ and in Lermontov's own provocative ‘Preface’ to the second edition.1 Yet...

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Peter Scotto (essay date March 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Scotto, Peter. “Prisoners of the Caucasus: Ideologies of Imperialism in Lermontov's ‘Bela’.” PMLA 107, no. 2 (March 1992): 246-60.

[In the following essay, Scotto discusses nineteenth-century notions of orientalism and imperialism evidenced in Pechorin's treatment of Bela as an exotic “other” in A Hero of Our Time.]

On 10 April 1837, Cornet Mikhail Iurevich Lermontov left Moscow for service with the Russian army in the Caucasus. As punishment for his incendiary verses on Pushkin's death, he had been transferred out of his prestigious Petersburg guards regiment and sent south to join the Nizhegorodsky dragoons stationed just outside Tiflis. In 1817,...

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Katharina Hansen Löve (essay date July 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Löve, Katharina Hansen. “The Structure of Space in Lermontov's ‘Mcyri.’” Russian Literature 34, no. 1 (July 1993): 37-58.

[In the following essay, Löve characterizes Lermontov's poem “Mcyri” as a work that negotiates the difference between the familiar and the unknown in spatial, cultural, and personal terms.]



In this article I will examine the peculiarities of the structure of space in a literary text from Russian Romanticism. In Russian literary history this movement is generally situated between 1815 and 1840, so that roughly speaking Romanticism occupies the first half of...

(The entire section is 7515 words.)

Daniel Rancour-Laferriere (essay date fall 1993)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Rancour-Laferriere, Daniel. “Lermontov's Farewell to Unwashed Russia: A Study in Narcissistic Rage.” Slavic and East European Journal 37, no. 3 (fall 1993): 293-304.

[In the following essay, Rancour-Laferriere explores Lermontov's contempt for what he considered the backwardness of his native land expressed in “Proščaj, nemytaja Rossija,” Lermontov's farewell poem.]

Anyone who has ever left Russia knows that the experience can provoke strong emotions. The most famous poem on this topic was written by Mixail Lermontov, apparently in April of 1841 on the occasion of his last exile from Russia to the Caucasus (Viskovatyj, 379; Manujlov and Nazarova, 204;...

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David Matual (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Matual, David. “Women and Horses in Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time.The International Fiction Review 22, nos. 1, 2 (1995): 8-14.

[In the following essay, Matual discusses the numerous comparisons between women and horses in Lermontov's novel, claiming that the latter are regarded more favorably by the male characters.]

Mikhail Lermontov's novel A Hero of Our Time consists of five stories (“Bela,” “Maksim Maksimovich,” “Taman,” “Princess Mary,” and “The Fatalist”), among which the first (“Bela”) and the fourth (“Princess Mary”) deal at some length with the amorous entanglements of the enigmatic protagonist,...

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David A. Goldfarb (essay date April 1996)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Goldfarb, David A. “Lermontov and the Omniscience of Narrators.” Philosophy and Literature 20, no. 1 (April 1996): 61-73.

[In the following essay, Goldfarb examines Lermontov's innovative use of narrative style in A Hero of Our Time.]

God and fictional narrators are the only beings who are sometimes considered omniscient. God, who is sometimes regarded as not fictional, is frequently also regarded as omnipotent. Narrators, who normally seem to have no sphere of action save for conveying information to readers, particularly when they speak omnisciently in the third person, are not considered to have “power” in any way, because they are supposed to...

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Vladimir Golstein (essay date 1998)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Golstein, Vladimir. “Heroism and Individualism: The Russian Context.” In Lermontov's Narratives of Heroism, pp. 1-27. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Golstein asserts that while individualism was valued in the West in the nineteenth century, it was routinely discouraged in Russia, accounting for his country's often negative appraisal of Lermontov's representations of the individual hero.]


“I want a hero: an uncommon want / When every year and month sends forth a new one.” So declared Byron in his immortal satire Don Juan. This statement from the creator of...

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Semyon Ekshtut (essay date 30 November 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Ekshtut, Semyon. “Pushkin's Heir.” Russian Life 42, no. 6 (30 November 1999): 19-32.

[In the following essay, Ekshtut explores the influence of Pushkin on Lermontov's life and work.]

The Lermontov family cherished their links to the 13th century Scottish poet Sir Thomas Learmont, dubbed “The Rhymer.” According to Scottish legend, Sir Thomas was enchanted by a beautiful Elfin princess and spent seven years in her fairy kingdom, where he could not utter a word, lest he never return home again. He endured the silence and so the princess rewarded him on his departure with an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. This enchanted apple bestowed upon him “a...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Andronnikov, Irakli. “Mikhail Lermontov: The Great Poet's 170th Birthday.” Soviet Life (October 1984): 18-20.

Discusses Lermontov's legacy as both artist and poet.

Axelrod, M. R. “The Psychoanalytic Notion of Weltschmerz in Mikhail Lermontov and A Hero of Our Times.Literature and Psychology 39, nos. 1, 2 (1993): 112-20.

Examines the melancholia and misogyny exhibited by Lermontov's protagonist in A Hero of Our Time.

Masing-Delic, Irene. “The Impotent Demon and Prurient Tamara: Parodies on Lermontov's ‘Demon’ in Dostoevskij's Besy.”...

(The entire section is 221 words.)