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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

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 escaped. Trying to reach his village, he wandered in the forest until he lost his way. He was found, starved and exhausted, by the monks, who brought him back to his cell. The futility of his flight made him decide to stay in the monastery, where he remained ever since.

Lermontov made significant changes to this story. He concentrated all his poetic power on the novice’s flight, as well as on the magnificent scenery in which it took place, leaving out the resignation with which the recaptured fugitive stayed on in the monastery. The poem thus embodied a spirited bid for freedom at a time when the very word “freedom” was banned in Russia. The novice’s adventures in the virgin forest also distracted the censor from the symbolic significance of the poem.

One night, the novice meets a hungry panther, which he kills with his stick after a desperate struggle. This fight is among the finest passages Lermontov wrote, both in terms of the vividly sensual descriptions and the flowing music of the verse. After three days and nights, the sound of the familiar church bell tells the novice that instead of gaining freedom he has moved in a circle. Exhausted, he falls to the ground and only regains consciousness after he has been brought back, near death, to his cell by the monks, who have been looking for him.

The noble impulse that ends in frustration and suffering is an often-repeated theme in Lermontov’s works, but also typical of Lermontov is his hero’s resolute defiance. The novice, though defeated, remains proud and unrepentant to the end. Talking to his father-confessor, he tells him that his only regret is that his flight to freedom was abortive.

The poem contains no overt political allusions, but many readers must have identified the novice’s prison with the political prison of Russia.

Readers of the poem in its original Russian will discover riches easily lost in translation, such as the brisk narrative rhyme scheme and the poem’s musical rhythm, assisted by such devices as parallel grammatical constructions, alliteration, and assonance.

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