Mikhail Lermontov was considered to be the first Russian writer to produce Russia’s first prose fiction novel with the publication in 1840 of A Hero of Our Time. Lermontov was a true hero who died in a duel in 1841. Talk about your Byronic hero.
The idea of the Byronic hero is appealing, to be sure. You’re smart, you’re witty, you’re courageous, you’re attractive, you’re mysterious…and trapped in your ideal of what a hero is. That’s where Pechorin, the protagonist of A Hero of Our Time, finds himself after a journey in search of purpose, in search of adventure, in search of sexual conquests. He realizes that it has become an empty pursuit to exercise his power over others, and that adhering to the values of society makes him no hero at all:
In my mind I run through my entire past and can’t help asking myself: Why have I lived? For what end was I born? I supose an end did exist, and I suppose I did have some lofty purpose, because I feel tremendous powers in my soul. Yet I never guessed this purpose. I was distracted by the enticements of idle and ignoble passions; from their crucible I emerged as hard and cold as steel, but I lost forever the noble aspirations, the flower of life. And since then, how many times have I played the part of the ax in the hands of fate! As an instrument of punishment, I fell upon the head of doomed victims, often without malice, always without regret. My love has brought no one happiness I never sacrificed anything for those I loved; I loved for myself, for my own pleasure, I satisfied only my heart’s strange demand, greedily swallowing their emotions, their tenderness, their joys and woes–and never could I be satiated.Perchorin is imprisoned by his own ideals and that of the society he exists in, but he never escapes it. He needs society to feel important, but ultimately gets nothing from it.
This novel has a modern day feel with structure–it is divided into five short stories with three different narrators–and also with the myth of power awarded by the military and class. Fate, free will, failure and heroism thematically run through the novel. A novel that gives a notion of a hero, but not a real hero.
A great novel that is distinctly Russian, but applies to the standards of heroism that we ascribe to in our own country.
A Hero of Our Time
by Mikhail Lermontov
Translated by Marian Schwartz
Modern Library Classic