A Hero of Our Time
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Passing through the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains in the 1830s, a nameless traveler seeks to pass the time by encouraging his recent acquaintance, a middle-aged army officer named Maxim Maximych, to recollect some anecdotes from his military service. Without realizing it, the traveler is about to become immersed in the haunting, ironic life story of the officer’s former comrade-in-arms, a charismatic but strangely aloof young man named Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin. Seen first through the memories of the aging officer, then briefly through the narrator’s own eyes, and finally at length through selections from his own candid and introspective journals, Pechorin dominates the action and outlook of the groundbreaking first and only novel of Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time.
Inspired by the writings of Lord Byron and Lermontov’s great countryman Alexander Pushkin, A Hero of Our Time stands as the first significant prose novel in Russian literature. In its protagonist, Pechorin, Lermontov creates an exemplar of brooding, alienated youth whose depiction many writers have striven to imitate but few have ever surpassed. Guided by Lermontov’s frank narration, the reader follows Pechorin through a series of dramatic adventures, in which gamblers, smugglers, Circassian guerrillas, and pistol-wielding duelists all have their parts to play. Page by page, with unerring psychological discernment, Lermontov reveals his main character as a masterful manipulator of both men and women. He shows us a man whose love is born from narcissism, whose malice arises from boredom and disaffection, and whose deepest thoughts arise from a sincere desire for self-knowledge—a knowledge that perpetually evades him.
With callous indifference, Pechorin pursues pleasure and excitement at the grievous expense of others, as his exploits shatter the lives of a series of fascinating characters: Bela, the innocent Circassian maiden whom Pechorin buys for the price of a horse; Grushnitsky, the lovestruck cadet whose romantic hopes are pinned to Princess Mary Ligovsky, the frail, beautiful young woman whose affections Pechorin both invites and scorns. Astonished by his own destructive power, Pechorin tries to comprehend both his motivations and his destiny, to no avail. In his sweeping nihilism, Pechorin both fascinates and repels. He is both a despicable rogue and, in the words of Maxim Maximych, “a wonderful fellow . . . only a little strange” (p. 11).
Although A Hero of Our Time plainly recalls the Byronic antiheroes of the earlier part of the nineteenth century, it also lent inspiration to the masterpieces of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and brilliantly anticipated the existential fiction of the twentieth century. A bitter satire of its own age as well as a timeless reflection on the very possibility of heroism in an absurd, dislocated universe, A Hero of Our Time is a truly indispensable work in the literature of Russia and the modern world.
Born in 1814, Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov lost his mother to tuberculosis when he was not yet three years old and was raised principally on the country estate of his wealthy maternal grandmother. Well trained as a singer, pianist, and violinist, he became fascinated at an early age with the rhythms and melodies of language and showed early promise as a poet. A proficient translator of both English and German, he absorbed important creative influences from the works of Byron and Schiller, as well as those of Pushkin. After two years at Moscow University, Lermontov enrolled in St. Petersburg’s School of Cavalry Cadets, from which he emerged at the age of twenty with a rank equivalent to that of second lieutenant. After a period of dissipation and creative inactivity, Lermontov burst onto the Russian literary scene in 1837 with “Death of a Poet,” a poem written in response to the death of Pushkin. Following a political controversy, Lermontov was assigned to a regiment in the Caucasus, where he conceived the inspiration for his best-remembered work, A Hero of Our Time. Following another two-year sojourn in St. Petersburg, during which he wrote A Hero of Our Time, Lermontov was again exiled to the Caucasus in 1840. The following year, a few months shy of his twenty-seventh birthday, Lermontov was challenged to a duel by a fellow officer, Nikolay Martynov. Declaring that he had no desire “to fire at a fool,” Lermontov made no attempt to shoot. Martynov shot him through the heart.
- The five stories that comprise A Hero of Our Time are presented out of chronological order, the proper order being “Taman,” “Princess Mary,” “The Fatalist,” “Bela,” and “Maxim Maximych.” How does the out of order narration affect Lermontov’s storytelling? How, if at all, does Pechorin’s personality change and develop over the course of these stories?
- A complexly narrated book, A Hero of Our Time is told from three different perspectives: those of Maximych, Pechorin himself, and the unnamed traveler. What is different about these three narrative voices? Is each narrator able to observe things that the others cannot? How does the reader benefit from being given both interior and exterior views of Pechorin?
- Seldom has a novel derived more ironic significance from its title than A Hero of Our Time. How does Lermontov use his novel as an ironic critique both of his “time” and of the concept of the hero?
- A Hero of Our Time takes place on an untamed frontier, where an army tries to impose order on what they regard as a lawless, uncivilized native population. In what other respects might a modern reader find the story reminiscent of an American western?
- Lermontov describes with great lyricism the wild but beautiful country in which his novel takes place. What relation, if any, do you perceive between the novel’s setting and the personalities and actions of its characters?
- Nineteenth-century Russian literature is rife with protagonists who might be described as antiheroes, ranging from Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and Rodion Raskolnikov. Pechorin is another classic example. Why do you think such characters were so appealing to the imaginations of the Russian authors of this era?
- Although Pechorin treats his male friends with disregard, people like Maxim Maximych eagerly seek his company. Although he is scornful of women, both Vera and Princess Mary sincerely love him. How can such a cold, acerbic young man inspire so much affection?
- At various points in his diary, Pechorin attempts to understand and explain the paradoxes and perversities of his character. How well does he actually understand himself? On what points does he show awareness, and on what points is he relatively blind? What stands in the way of his achieving a fuller self-knowledge?
- Is it possible to read the story “Bela” as an ironic critique of western imperialism? If so, what depictions of injustice fuel this critique?
- What role does the brief story “Taman” play in the structure of A Hero of Our Time? What, if anything, does it show us about Pechorin’s character that the other stories do not?
- In the story “Princess Mary,” what role is played by Pechorin’s former lover Vera? Does she represent a personification of conscience? Is she an emblem of regret for a road not taken? How would the tale be different if she had been excluded from it?
- Pechorin often compares life to a playing of parts. After shooting Grushnitsky, he even exclaims “É finita la commedia!” (“The comedy is finished!”) How does Pechorin’s view of life as an imitation of art influence his psychology and his conduct?
- Lermontov chooses not to tell us anything about Pechorin’s parentage or early life. Suggest some reasons for this choice.
- Both in his duel with Grushnitsky and elsewhere, Pechorin simultaneously displays both courage and cowardice. In what ways is he brave? In what sense is he cowardly? On balance, which is he?
- What are Pechorin’s good qualities? Does his possession of these qualities make him, paradoxically, more of a villain? Explain.
- What appears to be Lermontov’s view of women? Although he describes the plights of Bela and Princess Mary with considerable pathos, how successful is he in constructing them as characters? When, if ever, do the women in the novel rise above the status of mere victimhood?
- What conclusions does the story “The Fatalist” suggest regarding predestination? What is Pechorin’s attitude toward fate, and how does it factor into the other parts of his character?
- What attitudes does A Hero of Our Time express with regard to the practice of dueling? In light of these attitudes, how surprising do you find it that Lermontov himself was killed in a duel soon after A Hero of Our Time was published?