Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero Of Our Time

No better summation of the Byronic hero exists than Lady Caroline Lamb’s famous “Mad, bad and dangerous to know,” though she was of course talking about Byron himself, and not his many anti-heroes. The Byronic hero is mad because he is contradictory, evincing cynicism one moment and sensitivity the next; bad, because he often acts on his worst impulses; and dangerous to know because he is destructive, fatalistic, and constitutionally self-centred. All of this might make him wicked, but it also certainly makes him interesting, and so the Byronic hero stormed to popularity in Europe and Russia. Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero Of Our Time translated Byron’s archetype for Russian audiences, though whether he did so out of admiration or criticism remains an open question.

Lermontov gives us three unique perspectives on his anti-hero, Pechorin, a military officer stationed in the Caucasus, as if he’s offering us the maximum scope with which to assess him. The nameless narrator of the first vignette, a travel writer new to the mountainous Caucasus region, meets a veteran officer, Maksim Maksimich, who recounts the first of Pechorin’s exploits: how he conspires to kidnap a beautiful Circassian princess, Bela, in exchange for helping her brother steal a coveted horse. Pechorin succeeds in stealing this woman from her family and her tribe, but she cannot satisfy whatever longing keeps him hollow:

When I saw Bela in my home, when for the first time I held her in my lap and kissed her black curls, I – fool that I was – imagined she was an angel sent me by compassionate fate… I was wrong again. The love of a wild girl was little better than that of a lady of rank; the ignorance and the naiveté of one pall on you as much as the coquetry of the other. I still like her, I suppose; I am grateful to her for several rather sweet moments; I am ready to die for her – only I find her company dull.

This is not affection, nor even respect; his attraction to her was purely in the chase, and the sport thus concluded, all that remains is domesticity – the antihero’s anathema. Naturally, Bela dies soon after, murdered to settle a score against Pechorin, making her the first victim of Pechorin’s narcissism. Lermontov develops Pechorin’s solipsism further in another vignette, “Princess Mary,” which repeats the central theme of the first: Pechorin encounters a young princess, touring the Russian frontier with her mother, and determines to seduce her – not out of love, or even naked sexual desire, but out of boredom, or perhaps to spite a fellow officer who is likewise pursuing her. Here is Pechorin, in his own words, describing the monstrosity of his all-consuming ego:

I am no longer capable myself of frenzy under the influence of passion: ambition with me has been suppressed by circumstances, but it has manifested itself in another form, since ambition is nothing else than thirst for power, and my main pleasure – which is to subjugate to my will all that surrounds me, and to excite the emotions of love, devotion, and fear in relation to me – is it not the main sign and greatest triumph of power? To be to somebody the cause of sufferings and joys, without having any positive right to it – is this not the sweetest possible nourishment for our pride? And what is happiness? Sated pride.

Pity the man who cannot conceive of an ambition separate from the will to power, or of a relationship more nourishing than one built on dominance and submission. Women, for such a man, are little more than baubles, prizes that flatter and satisfy, but never more than playthings. Unsurprisingly, then, his understanding of them, and his extemporaneous philosophizing, rationalizes his outlook: “Women ought to desire that all men know them as well as I do, because I love them a hundred times better, ever since I stopped fearing them and comprehended their little weaknesses.”

Lermontov’s title is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. His nameless narrator, in fact, insists on this: “A Hero Of Our Time, gentleman, is indeed a portrait, but not of a single individual; it is a portrait composed of all the vices of our generation in the fullness of their development.” If we take him seriously, any romantic admiration we might feel for Pechorin indicates we share in the corruption of the times – and yet readers and critics alike have pointed out the startling similarities between Lermontov and his character: both men were found irresistible by women, both served in the Caucasus, and both fought famous duels. Vladimir Nabokov, the first to translate Lermontov’s famous novel into English, located its popularity in the creation of Pechorin: “[…] young Lermontov managed to create a fictional person whose romantic dash and cynicism, tigerlike suppleness and eagle eye, hot blood and cool head, tenderness and taciturnity, elegance and brutality, delicacy of perception and harsh passion to dominate, ruthlessness and awareness of it, are of lasting appeal to readers of all countries and centuries.” Contrast Nabokov’s appraisal with the nameless narrator’s: “Perhaps some readers will want to know my opinion of Pechorin’s character. My answer is the title of this book. ‘But this is wicked irony!’ they will say. I wonder.” Have the times changed so much? I also wonder.