Pechorin: Byronic Hero or Superfluous Man?
A Hero of Our Time has a rather intricate structure. The novel is really a series of 5 stories: Bela, Maksim Maksimich, Taman, Princess Mary and The Fatalist. (A very short section, Introduction to Pechorin’s Journal is placed between the two stories Maksim Maksimich and Taman.) In his translation, Nabokov goes into some detail regarding the sequence of these stories, and placed in chronological order the stories are Taman, Princess Mary, The Fatalist, Bela and Maksim Maksimich. The structure of the novel (the order of the stories) is rather an important issue as Lermontov’s sequencing presents Pechorin in a rather different way than if we had, let’s say, read the stories in chronological order. Another interesting factor about the novel’s structuring is that it has a series of narrators. The first narrator is an unnamed traveler who meets the soldier Maksim Maksimich in the southern Caucasus. Maksimich entertains the traveler with the story Bela and it’s in this story that the character of Pechorin is introduced. Thus we first see Pechorin through Maksim’s eyes, and Maksim is, as it turns out, rather admires Pechorin.
Maksim Maksimich and the traveler meet again in the second chapter, Maksim Maksimich, and at that point these two characters also meet Pechorin. The traveler’s eagerness to meet Pechorin is matched by our own interest in a character we’ve only seen so far at a distance. But the meeting between Maksim and Pechorin, such as it is, is a disappointment to the older soldier. Pechorin makes a brief appearance and tosses away his notebooks before he leaves for some new adventure. The traveler grabs the notebooks and the last three chapters or stories of A Hero of Our Time are sections from Pechorin’s journals.
By structuring the novel in this fashion, we see Pechorin first through the eyes of Maksim Maksimich, a seasoned middle-aged career soldier who is proud to have served under the legendary General Ermolov and who worships the memory of a younger officer Pechorin. Maksim describes Pechorin to the traveler as respectful and as a bit of an effete–a man who complains about the cold and yet is bold and fearless during a boar hunt. Maksimich decides that Pechorin is “a little odd,” but by the time the tale Bela ends, Pechorin seems to be more than a little odd. Pechorin’s treatment of Bela serves to highlight Pechorin’s salient characteristics–selfishness, boredom, and the manner in which he views other human beings as objects for his amusement.
The second story, Maksim Maksimich brings Pechorin directly into the picture, and this story gives yet another view of Pechorin. Here he’s seen very unsympathetically. Callous to Maksim’s patient, pathetic gestures of friendship, the flesh and blood Pechorin is thoughtless, cold and autocratic. Failing to live up to the expectations created in Bela, it’s clear that the relationship between Maksim and Pechorin had significance only for the older soldier.
But by the time we arrive at the third story, Princess Mary, told by Pechorin through his abandoned notebooks, we see still another view of Pechorin. Layers of his complex personality are peeled away through the introspective focus of the notebooks. Now Pechorin, in his own voice, appears more than cold, more than odd–he’s deeply troubled, extremely destructive and also self-destructive. Here’s Pechorin off to attend a ball in Pyatigorsk:
“Is it possible,” I thought, “that my only function on earth is to ruin other people’s hopes? Ever since I have lived and acted, fate has always seemed to bring me in at the denouement of other people’s dramas, as if none could either die or despair without me! I am the indispensable persona in the fifth act; involuntarily, I play the miserable part of the executioner or the traitor. What could be fate’s purpose in this? Might it not be that it had designated me to become the author of bourgeois tragedies and family novels, or the collaborator of some purveyor of stories for the ‘Library for Reading’? How should one know? How many people, in the beginning of life, think they will finish it as Alexander the Great or Lord Byron, and instead, retain for the whole of their existence, the rank of titulary counsellor?”
Every bit as seminal as Lovelace, Pechorin, the hero or anti-hero of Lermontov’s novel has to be one of literature’s most fascinating creations. In each story, Pechorin leaves destruction in his wake, but he’s not only destructive, he’s also contaminating. He kidnaps a Circassian girl on a whim, and the ripple out effect of this act results in murder. He thoughtlessly rides his horse to death, scatters an ad-hoc family of smugglers into destitution or worse, and his delight in manipulating human behaviour ends in the pointless, meaningless death of another man. Is there anyone who benefits from knowing Pechorin? And that brings me to that “mad, bad and dangerous to know” idea.
Pechorin is a perfect Byronic hero (and Byron is mentioned in the novel a few times) but according to critics he also fits the criteria of The Superfluous Man–a type of archetypal character identified in Russian literature. Frankly, I have a problem with this.
Turgenev is the master in creating sublime examples of the Superfluous Man. Consider Lavretsky … in Home of the Gentry Lavretsky is an ineffectual man who seems out-of-place wherever he goes. The world wouldn’t be a bit different with Lavretsky gone from the planet. Lavretsky simply doesn’t matter–not to his wife, his friends, his neighbours, or even his serfs for that matter. Then there’s Goncharov’s Oblomov–a man so overcome with inertia, he’s happy to spend his life in his dressing gown.
The shared characteristics of the Byronic Hero and the Superfluous Man are not necessarily mutually exclusive (men who don’t fit in society, for example), but at the same time it’s difficult to imagine a character straddling both categories. While it’s impossible to see Lavretsky or Oblomov as anything except Superfluous Men, Pechorin seems to be a different breed altogether. He’s a destructive force, and everyone he touches suffers from the relationship in some way. Destructive and ineffectual behaviour are mutually exclusive, and so I argue for Pechorin as the Byronic hero and not the Superfluous Man. Here’s Pechorin the night before the duel as he contemplates the possibility of death:
If I am to die, I’ll die! The loss to the world will not be large and, anyway, I myself am sufficiently bored. I am like a man who yawns at a ball and does not drive home to sleep, only because his carriage is not yet there. But now the carriage is ready … good-by!…