Friday, May 31, 2013

A Hero of Our Time - Mikhail Lermontov

Lermontov (1814 -1841)

Written at the end of Lermontov's career, between 1838-1840, A Hero of Our Time embraced the new transitional stage in Russian literature when "verse surrendered its pre-eminence to the story and the novel, and the great age of Russian literature began." (Foote, 1965) A contemporary of Pushkin, Lermontov became the singular Russian romantic poet and his writing emulated the zeitgeist of Byronism and the culture of the Superfluous Man, which Russian society suffered from through the 1840's and 1850's.

The Byronic hero is often born into wealth, he is displaced by a culture that lacks the ability to understand or appreciate him; to work is unnecessary and there is no cause worth fighting for, their lack of self-realization creates a torpor of ineffectual passivity, as they spend their time waiting for life to end, they occupy themselves with anything that can momentarily hold their attention. These superior heroes are set apart from the society they are born into,  leaving them destined to tread water, the flotsam of a purposeless destiny.

Pechorin, the Hero is a young passionate 25 year old, who having gleaned all he can from life has grown bored and embittered. Like Goncharov's  Oblomov, Pechorin is overcome by the vast meaninglessness of life, but unlike Oblomov, who's listlessness borders on an apathetic life of sloth, Pechorin wreaks havoc on people's lives for his own amusement. But even this fails to pique his interest indefinitely and after toying with people he moves on to his next victim, not really seeking them out, but rather waiting for his victims, mostly women, to unsuspectingly cross his path.

A Hero of Our Time is comprised of five short character studies, presenting Pechorin for our assessment, and at first glance he is a narcissistic young man, convinced of his own perfect knowledge and mastery of life, doused with a touch of fashionable disenchantment., not unlike Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.  His pride and arrogance are worn almost as a type of cross, he is burdened by his brilliance and his experiences have left him tired and jaded. He seems to have a particular dislike for women, conquering their chastity and virtue one hurdle at a time, only to quickly grow bored, leaving women to pine for him wherever he goes.

In the first sketch, "Bela" after catching a glance of the heroine, he plots a way to get her with Bela's brother who happens to be hopelessly in love with a horse.

"All right, I swear you shall have the horse. But I want your sister Bela in return. Karagyoz (the horse) will do as bride money for her. I hope this deal suits you."

After the least romantic wooing in history, Bela sits in her new room wrapped in a shawl huddling in the corner. Pechorin, at least has the decency to not force himself immediately on her and instead waits for her to warm to the idea that she now belongs to him. ("For she'll belong to no one else!" he added banging his fist on the table.") When Pechorin's friend asks why he is certain she'll come around, Pechorin laughs and says a woman will do anything for presents, ie. scraps of colored rags, and after some time and many presents Pechorin says in his most romantic speech yet:

"Listen, my fairy, you know very well you'll be mine sooner or later, so why torment me?"

Eventually, Bela finally succumbs to Pechorin's incessant pleas and in a nano second has become the dutiful, if not a tad jealous little house mistress. But in the same nano second of her transformation, Pechorin has changed as well. Now that the chase is over, and perhaps a bit too easy, he has grown bored and stays out late "hunting."

Bela, who has been traded for a horse by her brother and now exiled from her family has lost everything. When she becomes somewhat emotional about the fact that Pechorin has obviously lost interest in her, Pechorin's friend, Maxim, says:

"Look Bela, You can't expect him to spend his whole time here tied to your apron strings. He's a young man and fond of the chase. He'll go off hunting, then come back. But if you're going to mope (!) he'll soon grow tired of you."

Bela, eventually, having been conquered, is worthless and Pechorin moves on, and in an Ecclesiastical aside he notes:

"A native girl's love is little better than that of a lady of rank. The ignorance and simplicity of the one are as tiresome as the coquetry of the other. If you like, I'm still in love with her. I'm grateful for a few moments of relative bliss. I'd give my life for her. But she bores me. I don't know whether I'm a fool or a scoundrel, but one thing I'm sure of is that I'm just as much to be pitied as she is (!), perhaps even more. My soul's been corrupted by society. My imagination knows no peace, my heart has no satisfaction. I'm never satisfied. I grow used to sorrow as easily as I do pleasure and my life gets emptier every day."

Although Lermontov was greatly influenced by Pushkin, and consciously tried to create a link between his work and Eugene Onegin by mimicking Pushkin's naming technique (Onegin is derived from the North Russian river the Onega, while Pechorin is derived from another northern river the Pechora) and now had the  room to flex his literary muscles by writing in the more expansive prose...Onegin is the better novel. Everyone knows Onegin is a bastard, and Tatyana in a way is unconquerable, and becomes the true heroine of the novel, for her ability to survive and her ultimate steadfastness. The tables are turned and as the book ends it's Onegin that must spend the rest of  his days mourning his loss and filled with regret. Lermontov's women, by contrast are always swooning and fainting for Pechorin. They are one dimensional, somewhat offensive character studies of women in general, putting up barely a fight for their virtue and honor and in the end Pechorin, as bored as ever after finally solving all of life's mysteries rides off into a metaphysical sunset.

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