Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov

A Hero of Our Time

The following entry presents criticism of Lermontov's novel Geroi nashego vremeni (1840; A Hero of Our Time). For a discussion of Lermontov's complete career, see NCLC, Volume 5.

A Hero of Our Time, Lermontov's only novel, is considered an important developmental work of Russian literature. In it, Lermontov continued the tradition of character study initiated by Alexander Pushkin's "novel in verse," Yevgeny Onegin (1830; Eugene Onegin); the Byronism and European Romanticism of Pushkin's work similarly inform Lermontov's novel. Lermontov, however, owes less to the classicism of eighteenth-century European literature. A Hero of Our Time also introduces elements of psychological characterization distinctive of much subsequent Russian literature, including that of Leo Tolstoy and Fedor Dostoevski.

Biographical Information

Lermontov was a renowned poet when he wrote A Hero of Our Time, which was published after his exile for insurrectionary sentiments he expressed in a memorial poem on Pushkin's death. The novel strengthened Lermontov's literary reputation and added to the public perception of him as a brooding, Byronesque iconoclast. This impression was reinforced when he was exiled again, this time for fighting an illegal duel. After his second exile, Lermontov's return to Moscow's literary society reportedly left him bored and dissatisfied. He subsequently provoked a military officer, who critics believe was the model for the character Grushnitsky, to a duel. At the age of 27, Lermontov was shot and killed.

Plot and Major Characters

A Hero of Our Time is composed of five sections: "Bela," "Maxim Maximich," "Taman," "Princess Mary," and "The Fatalist." The second edition includes an author's preface, intended to address critical misperceptions about the work. The first two sections are recounted by an anonymous narrator, who hears stories of Pechorin from an old military officer, Maxim Maximich. The last three sections are known as "Pechorin's Journal." Each section, complete in itself, adds something more to the portrait of Pechorin—a man who, according to Lermontov, is typical of his age. Pechorin is a complex and subtle anti-hero, the type of "superfluous" character who figures in the fiction of Goncharov, Herzen, and Turgenev: a man of great intellect and superior talents who is alienated from his society. Dissatisfied with his own life, which has failed to fulfill his youthful expectations, Pechorin meddles in the lives of others, causing great unhappiness that nonetheless leaves him unaffected; Pechorin pronounces at one point: "The turmoil of life has left me with a few ideas, but no feelings." In a passage from the novel's forth episode, Pechorin explains the genesis of and expresses regret for his own cold nature. Because the passage is key to his deception of another character, however, commentators stress its unreliability.

Major Themes

At the time of its publication, many critics believed that the novel was autobiographical, and that Lermontov was flaunting his own nonconformity. In his preface to a second edition, however, Lermontov answers this charge, stating that he intended Pechorin as a mirror of society's weaknesses rather than a portrait of any individual. Lermontov suggests that his protagonist's failings are less his own fault than the fault "of his own time." Thus, the novel indicts a period of Russian history that was thought by many of its young people to have failed to offer them sufficient opportunities for self-fulfillment.

Critical Reception

Although some critics initially questioned the moral stance of A Hero of Our Time, the novel has generally been considered a masterpiece. A Hero of Our Time stands as a landmark volume: the first example of the psychological novel in Russia and an important precursor to the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevski. Lermontov is considered to have successfully depicted a historical epoch of singular superficiality and to have ushered in the greatest age of Russian literature.