V. S. Pritchett (essay date 1942)
SOURCE: "Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov: A Hero of Our Time," in A Man of Letters: Selected Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1985, pp. 269-73.
[Pritchett, a modern British writer, is respected for his mastery of the short story and for his judicious, reliable, and insightful literary criticism. In the following essay, originally published in 1942, he focuses on Lermontov's portrayal of his protagonist, Pechorin, as typical of "the fashion and idiosyncrasy of a generation" of young Russians.]
Mikhail Yurevich Lermontov was born in the year before Waterloo and was killed in a duel twenty-seven years later, a year after the publication of the novel which brought him fame throughout Europe. The extraordinary duel in the last chapter but one of A Hero of Our Own Times is said to have been exactly prophetic of the manner of his death. Lermontov had declared through his chief character that life was a bad imitation of a book; and the episode, if true, looks like some carefully planned Byronic legend.
A Hero of Our Own Times belongs to that small and elect group of novels which portray a great typical character who resumes the fashion and idiosyncrasy of a generation. Pechorin, the 'hero', is consciously a Russian Byron. He is cold, sensual, egoistical, elegant. He is neurotic, bored and doomed. Only one passion is unexhausted—and this is the making of him—the passion for personal freedom. He is the cold, experimental amorist celebrated by Pushkin (I quote from Oliver Elton's translation of Eugeny Onegin):
Men once extolled cold-blooded raking
As the true science of love-making:
Your own trump everywhere you blew …
Such grave and serious recreation
Beseemed old monkeys, of those days …
Pechorin becomes the slave of perpetual travel, and finally fulfills himself not in love but in action. Byron goes to Greece. Pechorin becomes the soldier of the Caucasus who plays with life and death. He drives himself to the limit, whether it is in the duel on the edge of the precipice down which his absurd rival in love is thrown; or in the dramatic bet with Vuličh where he draws a revolver and puts sixty roubles on the doctrine of predestination; or in the final episode when he goes in alone to collar the Cossack who has run amok. In its greater actors the Byronic pose of weariness is balanced by love of living dangerously in action, and here it is interesting to contrast the character of Constant's Adolphe with a man like Pechorin. Adolphe also is the imaginative man who loves from the head and then revenges himself secretively and cruelly upon the strong-minded woman who is devouring him and with whom he is afraid to break: Pechorin, more histrionic and less sensitive (more Byronic, in short), loves from the head also but takes special care to avoid strong-minded women. He possesses, but is not possessed. He prefers the weak and yielding who respond at once to cruelty and whom he can abandon quickly. Faced with the strong-minded, Pechorin becomes a man of action and makes his getaway. Readers of A Hero of Our Own Times will remember how Pechorin dealt with the determined duplicity of Taman, the smuggler's girl, when she took him out in her boat on a moonlight night. He threw her into the sea. What would not Adolphe have given for such decisiveness? What would he not have given for that Byronic ruthlessness in action, who knew only the cool vacillations of the mind? Of the two characters, Pechorin's is the more arrested and adolescent. He has not Adolphe's sensibility to the tragedy of the imagination. He does not suffer. Pechorin is sometimes a seventeen-year-old sentimentalist who blames the world:
I have entered upon this life when I have already lived it in imagination, with the result that it has become tedious and vile to me. I am like a man who has been reading the bad imitation of a book with which he has been long familiar.
But perhaps the main difference between these lovers of freedom is merely one of age after all. Pechorin-Lermontov is young: Adolphe is the creation of an older man. Pechorin says: 'Now I only want to be loved, and that by a very few women. Sometimes (terrible thought) I feel as if a lasting tie would...
(The entire section is 1801 words.)