Book Reviews/A Hero of Our Time
A Hero of Our Time
by Mikhail Lermontov
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Introduction to A Hero of Our TimeEdit
A Hero of Our Time is a novel written by Mikhail Lermontov during the romantic period of Russian Literature. The novel was published in 1840 and compiles stories of a Byronic hero, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, through travellers’ notes, tales and Pechorin’s personal journals. One of the most remarkable traits of the novel is that it is structured as a loosely connected string of short stories instead of chapters, which gives it an epic-like feel. Powerful scenery and stimulating stories all center around a remarkable main character who is "of lasting appeal to readers of all countries and centuries" (Nabokov). All three characteristics combine to create a novel that is incredibly influential and a masterpiece of Russian Romantic prose.
The Novel's TitleEdit
In the author’s introduction to A Hero of Our Time, Mikhail Lermontov discusses and reveals to the reader his motivations for creating the novel’s main character, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin. Lermontov’s explanation also enlightens the reader to the irony of the novel’s title by criticizing those readers who have an “unfortunate faith […] in the literal meaning of words” (1). Lermontov describes Pechorin as “a composite of all the vices of our generation in the fullness of their development” (2). By titling this book to imply that this man is a hero, while at the same time acknowledging that he does not possess one heroic quality, Lermontov has embedded irony into the novel’s title and established an ironic tone that will remain present throughout the novel. The word "hero" in Russian can also signify "character," adding to Lermontov's intentional ambiguity.
The novel is composed of five parts that serve as five short stories to reveal the character of Pechorin, the novel’s focus. The novel is a frame narrative, told by three different narrators at various points. Through his journals, Pechorin narrates most of the story.
Bela: This story opens with one of the novel’s three narrators, an unnamed traveler documenting his journey. This traveler encounters an old army captain, Maxim Maximych, who then becomes the next narrator. Maxim tells the traveler a story of Grigory Pechorin, a fellow soldier and the novel’s third narrator. Maxim’s story paints Pechorin as manipulative due to his ability to charm. Pechorin meets a beautiful young woman, Bela, who becomes the object of his fixation. Pechorin is made aware of Bela’s brother’s, Azamat’s, fixation on the horse of a fellow wedding guest. Pechorin convinces Azamat that he will steal the horse for Azamat in exchange for Bela. Pechorin’s plan is successful. Bela and Pechorin live together, and Bela comes to appreciate, and even love Pechorin. However, Bela’s devotion to him causes Pechorin’s “insatiable heart” to wander. Bela is later kidnapped and murdered by the owner of the horse, Kazbich, Pechorin stole. After Bela’s death, Pechorin is reassigned to Georgia.
Maxim Maximych: Maxim Maximych and the unnamed narrator hear that Pechorin is nearby, and Maxim immediately tries to see him. When Pechorin arrives, he is cold toward Maxymich, which insults him because he thought they were friends. Upon leaving, Pechorin gives his old journals to Maximych, who is still hurt by Pechorin’s cool demeanor. Maximych, insulted, gives the journals to the unnamed narrator, who then publishes them. The rest of the novel is told from Pechorin’s perspective.
Taman: Upon arriving in the coastal city of Taman, Pechorin finds a room for the night from a blind orphan boy. Pechorin later witnesses the boy and a young girl meet with a man named Yanko, and from witnessing the event, Pechorin is able to deduce that they were involved in a smuggling operation. The next day, Pechorin asks about the previous night’s situation and is rebuffed by everyone he speaks to. That night, the young girl lures him out to the water and attempts to drown him. When he leaves the beach, Pechorin hears Yanko telling the boy he is taking the operation elsewhere due to Pechorin’s meddling. Pechorin is disappointed in himself for ruining the situation and he leaves Taman the next day.
Princess Mary: Pechorin stays with his old friend Grushnitski at Pyatigorsk. Pechorin is introduced to the Princesses Ligovsky and Mary, and is immediately attracted to Mary. Grushnitski is also infatuated with Princess Mary, and reveals his feelings to Pechorin. Grushnitski is made aware of Pechorin’s feelings regarding Mary and feels that Pechorin is trying to make him appear foolish in front of her. However, Vera, a past lover of Pechorin’s, has arrived in town. Pechorin kisses her, but then writes that he refuses to become enslaved to any woman because of love and that he prefers to spend time with women who do not have wills of their own. Pechorin also learns that Princess Mary despises him. However, Pechorin then dances with her at a ball and earns her and her mother’s gratitude. In his journal, Pechorin describes the system he uses to manipulate those around him. He admits that he is never fulfilled by women and as a result of this lack of fulfillment he cannot attempt romance or experience passion. Pechorin then utilizes his strategy to manipulate Mary into falling in love with him, while he also attempts to maintain a relationship with Vera. Mary confesses her love to Pechorin. Grushnitski challenges Pechorin to a duel, but decides to rig Pechorin's gun so it will contain no bullet for the duel. At the time of the duel Grushnitski is overcome by guilt but does not admit his plan. He fires at Pechorin and misses, perhaps purposely. Pechorin asks him "has your conscience nothing to say to you?" Grushnitski says nothing. When Pechorin is about to shoot, he calls for his second to load his gun, against the protestations of Grushnitski's second. Pechorin shoots and kills Grushnitski, who falls off the cliff edge where the two held the duel. Pechorin says "Finita la commedia!" to his second before leaving the scene. Soon after, Vera leaves town, upsetting Pechorin who leaves soon after, denying marriage to Mary.
The Fatalist: Pechorin engages in a game of Russian roulette with a single shot pistol, to emphasize his belief that there is no such thing as predestination. However, after his friend shoots the gun and does not die, Pechorin’s beliefs are altered and he decides that predestination does, in fact, exist. However, Pechorin’s friend who survived the game of Russian roulette is killed later that night. The novel ends with Pechorin’s ruminations on the condition of fate.
Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin: The novel’s main character. Says he has a system in which he can manipulate people. He has never been fulfilled in his relationships with women. He dies in the second chapter while in Georgia, but his journals recount his journeys for the rest of the book.
Unnamed Narrator: A traveling soldier who is interested in Pechorin’s life. He is the initial narrator of the novel and gains Pechorin’s journals after Pechorin dies.
Maxim Maximych: Captain in the army who narrates his encounter with Pechorin to the unnamed traveller. Being charmed by Pechorin, Maksim sends for him when they are at two, close military bases, but is distressed when Pechorin is seemingly uninterested with him.
Bela: A Caucasus princess who is given to Pechorin by her brother, Azamat in exchange for a steed. She eventually falls in love with Pechorin, but is killed by the owner of the horse she was traded for.
Vera: Pechorin’s old lover. She is still in love with him even after their time apart, but is married to another man.
Princess Mary: A princess who Pechorin is infatuated with. He purposely annoys her to attract her attention, but manipulates her to fall in love with him.
Grushnitsky: Portrayed as a pretentious impostor to military prowess. Competes with Pechorin for the love of Princess Mary. Tries to expose Pechorin as a coward in a duel after meddling with the pistols, but is killed by Pechorin.
A Hero of Our Time is a text filled with symbols, motifs, and themes pertaining to Russian identity. Several important themes, motifs, and symbols embedded in the text include the universality of Russian literature, isolation, fate and free will, deformation and the grotesque, the concept of the 'superfluous man,' appearances, and the important role of women and horses in the novel.
The Universality of Russian Literature In order for readers to fully appreciate the novel, Lermontov made it so that his readers must also be appreciative of literature from various nations by embedding frequent foreign allusions. He sprinkles French quotes throughout the novel without translating them into Russian. One such reason for the constant references to other cultures and societies could be Lermontov's assertion of the versatility of Russians. The narrator alludes to this intention when he says "I could not help being struck by the capacity of the Russian to adjust himself to the customs of that people among which he happens to be living. I do not know whether this trait of the mind deserves blame or praise, but it attests to his incredible flexibility" (28). Pechorin is an embodiment of this concept of "flexibility." He refuses to allow himself to be tied down to any place or person throughout the text.
Isolation Pechorin views life not as a struggle for connection, but as a struggle for power over others. This blindly driven focus on power is what also fuels Pechorin's isolation from society. His constant traveling physically isolates him from those around him, and his attitude on life results in his emotional isolation as well. Pechorin's belief that relationships are based on power also creates an indelible tie with society, because it implies that in order for him to feel satisfied, he must wield influence over society. In the absence of a network of inferiors, Pechorin will never find satisfaction. His hatred of others, yet dependence upon them makes his life a paradox, and creates a miserable cycle.
Fate and Free Will Pechorin devotes his life to testing the theory of predestination. This becomes increasingly evident in the final chapter of the novel, "The Fatalist." Pechorin is painted as the master of free will when it serves him. He ascribes his actions to destiny when he wants to relieve himself of moral responsibility.
Deformation and the Grotesque Pechorin's aversion to those who suffer from physical ailments is seen in several situations throughout the novel. He writes in his journal that he hates cripples, yet later also refers to himself as a cripple. This contradiction in his thoughts suggest the possibility that Pechorin suffers from self-loathing.
The Superfluous Man Pechorin is the quintessential 'superfluous man.' His strengths have been turned against himself, transforming them into weaknesses, and they will ultimately contribute to his demise.
Appearance Those in the novel who are physically attractive, such as the beautiful young girl in "Taman" who attempts to drown and kill Pechorin, possess no human soul. This implies that a person's exterior is a false front or veneer hiding emptiness or ugly intentions. A person's true essence can be grasped from the observation of their intangible qualities because that is where the real, raw meaning lies.
Women and Horses Throughout the novel, connections are drawn between horses and women. In "Bela," Bela's eyes are compared to the eyes of the horse Azamat desires. Later, this same horse is described as "a regular gazelle," and a few pages later Bela is referred to as "shy as a wild gazelle." Pechorin also feels that the experience of riding a horse for him is not even comparable to feelings he experiences when with a woman; "When I returned home, I got on my horse and galloped off into the steppe. I love to gallop through the tall grass on a lively horse, against the wind of the wilder-ness...There is no feminine glance that I would not forget at the sight of mountains covered with curly foliage and lit up by the southern sun..." (436). In "Taman," women are compared with horses yet again when Pechorin says that the breeding of women is as important as the breeding of a horse.
Lermontov began work on his novel in 1838 and published A Hero of Our Time serially. The complete novel was then published in 1840. The novel was inspired based on Lermontov's impression of the Caucasus. Unfortunately, according to Boris Eikenbaum (a Lermontov scholar), “neither of Lermontov’s personal letters nor mentions about him attest to anything [of interest] about the novel (Eikenbaum 46). A Hero of Our Time is though, “a cycle of tales collected around one dramatis persona (Eikenbaum 47).
The novel was first published in Russia in 1840, and its success in Russia spawned endless translations into several different languages. Its English publication history can be seen here:
1. Sketches of Russian life in the Caucasus. By a Russe, many years resident amongst the various mountain tribes. London, Ingram, Cook and Co., 1853. 315 pp. "The illustrated family novellist" series, #2. (a liberal translation with changed names of the heroes; "Taman" not translated).
2. The hero of our days. Transl. by Theresa Pulszky. London, Hudgson, 1854. 232 pp. "The Parlour Library". Vol.112. ("Fatalist" not translated).
3. A hero of our own times. Now first transl. into English. London, Bogue, 1854. 231 pp., ill. (the first full translation of the novel by an anonymous translator).
4. A hero of our time. Transl. by R.I. Lipmann. London, Ward and Downey, 1886. XXVIII, 272 pp. ("Fatalist" not translated).
5. Taman. In: Tales from the Russian. Dubrovsky by Pushkin. New year's eve by Gregorowitch. Taman by Lermontoff. London, The Railway and general automatic library, 1891, pp. 229–251. 6. Russian reader: Lermontof's modern hero, with English translation and biographical sketch by Ivan Nestor-Schnurmann. Cambridge, Univ. press, 1899. XX, 403 pp. (a dual language edition; "Fatalist" not translated)
7. Maxim Maximich. — In: Wiener L. Anthology of Russian literature. T. 2, part 2. London—N.Y., 1903, pp. 157–164. (a reduced version of the "Maxim Maximich" chapter).
8. The heart of a Russian. Transl. by J.H. Wisdom and Marr Murray. London, Herbert and Daniel, 1912. VII, 335 pp. (also published in 1916 by Hodder and Stoughton, London—N.Y.—Toronto).
9. The duel. Excerpt from The hero of our own time. Transl. by T. Pulszky. — In: A Russian anthology in English. Ed. by C.E.B. Roberts. N. Y., 1917, pp. 124–137.
10. A traveling episode. — In: Little Russian masterpieces. Transl. by Z.A. Ragozin. Vol. 1. N.Y., Putnam, 1920, pp. 165–198. (an excerpt from the novel).
11. A hero of nowadays. Transl. by John Swinnerton Phillimore. London, Nelson, 1924.
12. Taman'. — In: Chamot A. Selected Russian short stories. Transl. by A.E. Chamot. London, 1925—1928, pp. 84—97.
13.A hero of our time. Transl. by Reginald Merton. Mirsky. London, Allan, 1928. 247 pp.
14.Fatalist. Story. Transl. by G.A. Miloradowitch. — In: Golden Book Magazine. Vol. 8. N.Y., 1928, pp. 491—493.
15. A hero of our own times. Transl. by Eden and Cedar Paul for the Lermontov centenary. London, Allen and Unwin, 1940. 283 pp. (also published by Oxford Univ. Press, London—N.Y., 1958).
16. Bela. Transl. by Z. Shoenberg and J. Domb. London, Harrap, 1945. 124 pp. (a dual language edition).
17. A hero of our time. Transl. by Martin Parker. Moscow, Foreign languages publ. house, 1947. 224 pp., ill. (republished in 1951 and 1956; also published by Collet's Holdings, London, 1957).
18. A hero of our time. A novel. Transl. by Vladimir Nabokov in collab. with Dmitri Nabokov. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1958. XI, 216 pp. "Doubleday Anchor Books".
19. A Lermontov reader. Ed., transl., and with an introd. by Guy Daniels. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1965.
20. A hero of our time. Transl. with an introduction by Paul Foote. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1966.
21. Major poetical works. Transl., with an introduction and commentary by Anatoly Liberman. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
22. Vadim. Transl. by Helena Goscilo. Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1984.
23. A hero of our time. Transl. with an introduction and notes by Natasha Randall; foreword by Neil Labute. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Pechorin is one of the most controversial figures in Russian literature. His character embodies many contradictions: moral, philosophical, and psychological. (Golstein, 115). He is a question mark of Russian Literature, a walking inconsistency whose psyche is slowly revealed throughout the five stories of the novel. Through this analysis of Pechorin in different situations, A Hero of Our Time took the role as the first novel in which interest in the psyche is manifested. (The Classic Russian Novel, 132). The gradual unveiling of Pechorin’s personality through the final three stories is the first time in Russian Literature where the complex inner life of a character is unveiled. (The Classic Russian Novel, 132). However, Pechorin’s psyche is not just a self-portrait; Lermontov makes the counter argument in his introduction to the second edition of A Hero of Our Time that Pechorin is a social portrait. This act of using an individual’s unique personality to portray the psychology of a larger group or generation and interest in character psychology is seen in the characters of future Russian novels, such as Bazarov in Fathers and Children by Ivan Turgenev and the underground man in Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky. By unveiling the inner psychological workings of Pechorin throughout A Hero of Our Time, Lermontov influences future characters in Russian literature.
1. 2011 - Alex McSweeney adapted the novel into an English-language play
2. 2006 - Aleksandr Kott created an English-language film adaptation
1. If you were to characterize Pechorin as a hero or an anti-hero, what would he be and why?
2. Are there any redeeming qualities to Pechorin?
3. What is the benefit from having three different narrators? What is the difference among these narrators and what is common?
4. How does the chronological setup of the book aid or detract from its impact on the reader?
5. Are women portrayed in a positive way or in a negative way? How?
6. Why does the unnamed narrator remained unnamed?
7. What characteristics shared between the three women make them the object of Pechorin's fascination?
8. Lermontov describes the scenery in his novel with great detail. What connection can be made between the scenery and the characters?
9. Why does Pechorin go after the man who killed Lieutenant Vulich?
10. Is A Hero of Our Time an epic? In what ways?
11. What is the significance of the final chapter The Fatalist?
12. What does the mermaid from the chapter Taman represent?
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