A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov (part II)

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!…



Filed under Lermontov

10 responses to “A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov (part II)

  1. I’m far from an expert here, but I thought the superfluous man could also be a man rendered superfluous? A man who would have accomplished great things, have contributed, but for whom there is no place and so who is superfluous to requirements, his talents wasted?

    This quote, from your first piece, is what I’m getting at:

    “I scan my whole past in memory and involuntarily wonder: why did I live, for what purpose was I born? … And yet that purpose must have existed, and my destination must have been a lofty one, for I feel, in my soul, boundless strength. But I did not divine that destination, I became enticed by the lure of hollow and thankless passions. ”

    Pechorin has potential for greatness, but society grants no outlet for it. Instead, dammed, it redirects into empty amusements and callous pursuits. Pechorin’s own intelligence makes it evident to him how pointless he is, yet aware that it should be (0r perhaps could have been) otherwise.

    That said, it’s a while since I read it. Still, I thought part of the critique is that Pechorin while wholly destructive and selfish needn’t have been such, it’s just that in Russian society of the day there aren’t really many other options.

  2. Yes you are right. That’s the definition. I think for me he’s more Byronic hero than Superfluous Man. You know the term SM came up after Lermontov and then I think it was stretched retroactively to encompass Pechorin too. Just my opinion.

    I know the critics would argue. But after reading some other examples of the SM, Pechorin seems to be a different breed.

    Nabokov seems to take that approach too–although he doesn’t address the SM idea directly–at least not in my intro. But then Nabokov is a bit notorious for avoiding the sociological approach, I think, for obvious reasons.

  3. I’ll come back to it as this year’s superfluous man voyage proceeds, though so far I haven’t even got to the first of them, I’m still on the Byronic precursors…

  4. I know Pechorin makes the SM lists–can’t argue with that, but I will be interested to hear your responses as your ‘SM voyage’ continues.

    I was thinking about you today and I wanted to recommend Kropotkin’s memoirs. The memoirs offer invaluable insight into 19th C Russia, the so-called liberation of the serfs and why this failed.

  5. Do you recall the title of the memoirs?

  6. Memoirs of a Revolutionist.

    I reviewed it here. It’s marvellous.

  7. Fascinating. I still have to read Turgeniev.
    I can’t add anything to the discussion there, I’m learning from you on the subject.
    I recommend The Confession of a Child of the Century as a companion book.
    On my way to read part III

  8. Pingback: “A Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermontov « The Argumentative Old Git

  9. Patrick Godon

    Hi there, I know it has been like 3 years since your posted this, so I am not sure you’ll read this. But here it is anyway.

    First of all, thanks for your post, it is a great post, I like the way you describe the characters in the novel and expose the way the novel is written.

    There is one character in the book who is, at the same level as Petchorin, in that he is not criticized, he almost admired, and he appears often to talk and share “metaphysical” discussions with Pertchorin: that’s the doctor in “Princess Mary”; Dr. Wener, who is Russian, though he has a German name (hey I knew a German guy who was named Ivanovitch!). Werner also plays the “second” in Petchorin’s duel and as such he is definitely like a Friend to Petochorin, possibly the only Friend, though, it seems Dr. Werner does not completely understand Petchorin. Some of the discussions with Werner also are key in understanding Petchorin. And the way Petchorin gives a description of Dr. Werner (description of his character, physical appearance, intellect and moral) is also a key to understanding Petchorin himself.

    If I should put this novel in the context of other novels, I would be tempted to put it with the existentialist novels, very materialist on one side, nihilist on the other. Some of the early Russian novels came well before the European existentialism (Sartre, Camus, Hemingway..). Petchorin has this dual aspect, seeing the beauty of the Caucasus, the sun shining, the blue sky, why would anyone not be happy in the world, why would anyone need anything else to be happy? Then through the story, what happens to him, and what he does, it seems so nihilist, it is almost like “why live” at all? This definitely is found in (e.g.) in the revolt of Camus (e.g. L”Etranger – The Stranger, The Outsider), which is the revolt due to the conflict between our “natural “joie de vivre” faced with the awful reality of life hitting us every day. This dual aspect leads to the “absurdism”, but the important point is the reaction to that absurdism, which is the “revolt” of Camus (and Hemingway). There is the same revolt here in Lermontov’s novel, Petchorin is definitely a ‘revolté’ and so is Lermontov. This seems more than just a “Byronic” hero.

  10. Thanks for the comment, Patrick. I’d have to go back and read the Dr Werner bits again, to be honest, as I don’t remember the discussions.

    I think you are on to something with the existentialist/nihilist idea. I still don’t buy Pechorin as a superfluous man (but I’d argue that Turgenev’s Lavretsky from Nest of the Gentry is the epitome of the superfluous man.

    I was arguing the point of Pechorin being more Byronic than superfluous, but upon reflection he certainly is a nihilist. I’ve got to read Pushkin’s Onegin in order to see the similarities between the characters of Pechorin and Onegin too. Poetry in translation is a bit of a problem, though.

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