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Mikhail Lermontov and his close resemblance to his character Pechorin

First novels about the character Pechorin were published by Lermontov in 1839, at the age of twenty-five. Later he republished those novels and enclosed them into a book titled “The Hero of Our Time”, which is considered to be one of the greatest and best-known creations of Mikhail Lermontov. It is also often called the first Russian novel of psychological realism. Immediately this novel and the author himself became a matter of brisk discussion.

The main character of the book – Gregorii Pechorin  – is a young, full of energy, rich and educated noble man, Guard officer, belonging to St. Petersburg beau monde. He is deeply disappointed with his life and cannot find an application for his extreme abilities and talents. That’s why he’s frittering his life away in foolish pranks, trifles and experiments with other people’s feelings.

A lot of the readers condemned Lermontov for Pechorin’s character, for calling him “a hero of their time”. Many spiteful critics proposed the idea that the novel itself was autobiographic and that Lermontov actually pictured himself in the character of Pechorin. Malicious and sinful, his main character was a mere reflection of Lermontov and his evil intent. On the contrary, Lermontov dissuades the public from this idea by saying the following in the preface to the second edition:

The Hero of Our Time, my dear sirs, is a portrait but not of a one man, it is a portrait made of the vices, of our whole generation in their complete development. You will tell me again, that a man cannot be so bad; and I will tell you again that if you believed the possibility of existence of all tragic and romantic villains, why do you not believe in reality of Pechorin? If you admired conceptions far more awful and monstrous, why does this character, even a conception, not find mercy with you? Is it because there is more truth in it than you would wish?[1]

Although it seems that Lermontov created the character of Pechorin mainly as a self-portrait, deeper analysis calls this in question. On the one hand, they have much in common in their fates, views and ideas. Both of them are profound and talented personalities. Moreover they live in the same epoch with the same social circumstances. On the other hand, they have much more differences than similarities.

So, the main purpose of this paper is to prove that Mikhail Lermontov simply placed his character Pechorin into personal life experiences and haven’t modeled the character directly after himself.  In order to prove this original statement, I will have a closer look at the historic period of the writer as well as the peculiarities of his life. I will show why Pechorin fits inherently in with his contemporaries. Then I will explain the main differences between the author and his character and prove that is spite of the superficial similarities the deeper analysis shows that Lermontov created Pechorin in order to reveal the vices of society rather than merely create a reflection of himself.

First of all let’s have a closer look at the historic period Mikhail Lermontov lived in. This was the period tsarist Russia of 1830s. Let’s briefly characterize the life of gilded youth of that time.

Young educated people, belonging to rich families, spend their lives in entertainments of high life. They become frequent visitors of various receptions, balls and masquerades. Facts from Lermontov’s autobiography testify that the life of the young writer was the same. He puts his character, Pechorin, in the same circumstances.

With the lapse of time Pechorin, as well as the author himself, becomes bored with the vanity of the social life. Both of them are trying hard to find their place in life. Bright and talented they felt that vain revels can’t satisfy their needs and that their lives didn’t measure up to their expectations of it. Pechorin becomes greatly disillusioned, gets bored of life, cynical and embittered: “What of it? If I die, I die. It will be no great loss to the world, and I am thoroughly bored with life. I am like a man yawning at a ball; the only reason he does not go home to bed is that his carriage has not arrived yet”[2]. This shows deep disappointment of the main character. The same one as Lermontov experienced himself.

At this point Lermontov started writing and spent a lot of time on self-perfection. Pechorin feels that there is nothing more his life could offer him and starts wasting his enormous energy in petty adventures. He tries to amuse his leisure in playing with people’s fates.

“To cause another person suffering or joy, having no right to so – isn’t that the sweetest food of our pride? What is happiness but gratified pride?” () He finds very interesting to experiment with people’s lives, to win the hearts of society lionesses, knowing in advance that he will never have any genuine feelings for them. However, he is fully aware that his numerous love affairs were nothing more than a simple temporary escape from boredom.

Once again a lot of critics see the autobiographic moment in the eternal triangle of Pechorin, Vera and Princess Mary. This story resembled the episode from Lermontov’s life. Pechorin’s feelings for Vera and circumstances of their relations are quite close to those between young Mikhail Lermontov and Varvara Lopukhina. Pechorin’s young love for Vera was abruptly interrupted by the war. When he was leaving young people were secretly engaged. When Pechorin comes back he finds out that she has married an old man for wealth and position. He was shocked at this, however, fairly soon he starts flirting with Princess Mary. This fact is quite autobiographic. Pechorin’s feelings are representation of author’s own suffering concerning Varvara’s marriage to M. Bakhmetev and his personal treatment of Elizaveta Sushkova[3]. In “Princess Mary” Pechorin poses the same question, which tormented Lermontov in his relations: “why it is that I so persistently seek to win the love of a young girl whom I do not wish to seduce and whom I shall never marry. Why this feminine coquetry? Vera loves me better than Princess Mary ever will. Were she an unconquerable beauty, the difficulty of the undertaking might serve as an inducement…”[4]

Later we can see that this unhappy love had led to disruptive changes in Pechorin’s attitude to women. He begins playing with women’s love and fortunes. This is not even indifference to other people’s feelings – it is persecution of them, either unintentional or planned deliberately in order to destroy them. In his diary he reveals his egocentrism, his appetite for power, his strong need to destroy other people’s hopes. “There are times when I can understand the Vampire” – says Pechorin showing his real attitude to women and to people in general.

According to Mario Praz Pechorin is “a tiny step from a demonic stance of Byronic malaise to the cruelties of the eighteen century libertine de Sade”[5]. Women become just pawns in the game of life of young charming and heartless Pechorin : “I look upon the sufferings and joys of others only in relation to myself as on the food sustaining my soul”

At this point Jane Costlow mentions “the presence in Pechorin of Lermontov himself”. She says: “We see the agony of Lermontov’s own short-lived struggle with the world of military academies, the rituals of misogyny and drunkenness[6]”

However, breaking other people’s fates played a mean trick on Pechorin himself. After a pointless duel with his former friend and Princess Mary’s admirer Grushnitsy, Pechorin was sent into exile to Caucasus. This is one more fact, which ex facte seems autobiographic. Lermontov was also exiled. The reason of his exile was also a duel, in his case with the French ambassador’s son. He spent a lot of time in Caucasus in Tenginskii Infantry Regimen.

This was a depressing time for a young poet and he mentioned in his letters to his friends that he “would be trying to find his death as soon as possible[7]”. Behavior of Lermontov in Caucasus strikingly coincides with the ideas of his character Pechorin in “The Fatalist”. In his letters Lermontov says that after a couple of battles he had “developed a taste for war”. He was ready to die any moment and this added some new unknown flavor to his vapid life. This was the same idea of “gambling with his own life”, described in the “Hero of Our Time” (“The Fatalist”).

In this part of the novel Lermontov through Pechorin tries to explore the nature of the human fate, predestination. The brave lieutenant Vulich “plays the roulette” with his life and at first wins. However, his luck at war is very changeable and Vulich gets killed by a drunken Cossack. Pechorin tries to find an answer to the question of a mere chance and predestination. Pechorin tries his fate in fight with a desperate killer and wins. But this doesn’t convince him in the existence of fatalism and predestination. In his diary Pechorin expresses his ideas about human fate, life and death, crime and punishment. He questions everything, doubts everything and finally lives the issue without any definite answer. It remained open for Lermontov as well…

So, we can trace a lot of autobiographical moments in “The Hero of Our Time”. Both the author and his character belonged to rich, intelligent and bright youth, who lived a dissipated life in balls and masquerade. Both of them were tired with this vain life. Both of them posed the question of purpose of life. Lermontov and Pechorin had similar stories of love of their lives.  They were tsarist officers – as well as the majority of contemporary noble youth. They were both exiled for duels and spent their exile years in Caucasus. However, everything stated above was typical for the whole generation of Russian noble young people. They all had the same way of life – in noisy receptions and balls, casual love affairs with other men’s wives. Duels were so typical for that time, that they became a matter of national concern and were severely prohibited on penalty of exile. Exaggerated brevity and unreasonable games with one’s own life were also a characteristic feature of the Lermontov’s epoch depicted in “Hero of Our Time”.

The question of autobiographical character of the novel is interpreted by various critics in different ways. The predominant idea is, however, that “Hero of Our Time” has a deeper meaning. It is a bitter irony, revealing the drawbacks of the society Lermontov lived in. Through the character of Pechorin, he showed the fate of lost generation of young, brilliant, intelligent and talented young people of Tsarist Russia of 1030s, who wasted their lives in the vanity of high-life feasts and dissipate their energy for wrong things, who could not find their place in life and lost genuine feelings of love and friendship.

This is a Durylin’s approach to Lermontov’s creation:

“Hero of Our Time id made to represent those classes of the nobility which ten years earlier had produced the Decembrists. The activity of Pechorin, his free impulses, which do not find corresponding objects, his proud feelings of his own value, the strength of character free from sentimentalism, combined with the rationalistic tendencies of his mind, his undoubted cultural superiority, all this compels us to see in him a late born Decembrists, who ten or fifteen years earlier would have found a cause worthy of him”[8]

    Kotlyarevsky in his criticism of Lermontov’s work gives a more superficial characteristic of “The Hero of Our Time”:

“Lermontov at the time of the composition of “The Hero of Our Time” came to a joyless decision  – to cast off all these questions, not to bind himself to his bad or his good aspirations, and to give full vent to the contradictions hidden in his being”[9].

Actually, it is worth mentioning that a lot of critics found a lot of positive moments in the character of Pechorin. They draw attention of the public to the essential aspects of Pechorin’s character. Some of the most zealous defenders of Pechorin were Belinsky and Kotlyarevsky. Belisky emphasizes that:

“Pechorin does not endure his suffering indifferently or apathetically; he madly presses after life, seeking it everywhere; he bitterly blames himself for his errors. In him there unceasingly ring out internal questions, they disturb him, torture him, and in reflection he seek their solution; he examines every movement of his heart, he examines every thought. He has made of himself a curious object of his observations and, trying to be as sincere as possible in his confessions, he not only frankly confesses his own defects but he also invent non-existent ones or falsely interprets his most natural movements[10]”

This is a good prove of some positive aspect in the character of Pechorin. Really, could a completely vicious man be so self-analyzing and self-critical? Could he so ardently blame himself for his faults? This aspect shows us that Pechorin deeply unhappy and unsatisfied with his own life. However, this is not the question Lermontov was trying to pose. The writer tries to make us think who the one to blame in Pechorin’s tragedy is. There is a certain hint in Pechorin’s monologue to Princess Mary:

“I became a moral cripple; one half of my soul did not exist; it dried up, steamed away, died. I cut it off and threw it away; then when the other stirred and lived at the service of everyone, no one noticed it, because no one knew of the existence of the other half. But you are now awakening in me the memory of it, and I have read you its epitaph. To many all epitaphs seem amusing, but not to me, especially when I remember what is buried under it. Yet I do not ask you to share my opinion, if my outburst seems to you amusing – please laugh, I warn you that it will not hurt me at all[11]”

Pechorin blames society in expecting bad qualities in him, and that actually those expectations gave birth to those qualities. Society was a powerful tool of modeling a person’s consciousness and establishing his values. Even a personality as strong as Pechorin could not withstand the pressure of public mind.

All this makes us think that Pechorin with his faults was more a product of his epoch rather than a deviation from the norm. We can infer that those types of behavior were quire typical for Lermontov’s period. However, not typical was the character of the main character. With his extreme ability for self-analysis and great insight he stands high above his contemporaries. His ability to pose problematic questions and cast doubt on the universal values makes him an extraordinary personality.

Pechorin withstood the test of time. This character became eternal, together with his inner throes, deep dissatisfaction with his environment and constant tries to find his purpose and place in life. According to Belinsky, the main purpose of Lermontov was to narrate the “history of the human soul” and to make his reader think of “a burning contemporary question about the inner man”[12]

From all stated above, I can make the following conclusion about the character of Pechorin and his relevance to his creator – Mikhail Lermontov: Pechorin has a lot of in common with the author, he belongs to the same social and historical background, he shares the same interests, he is tortures by the same eternal questions about the human fate and the purpose of life; he is brilliant and strong personality as well as Lermontov; however, he is far from being a mere reflection of his creator.

By placing his character in the same circumstances, Lermontov did not intend to create an autobiographic novel. On the one hand, the novel is biting irony, showing the readers all the defects of “their time”. On the other hand, it is a representation of a real hero, who struggles with social norms in his attempts to find himself and resist corruption of morals typical for his epoch. It is a story of the personal tragedy of an eminent personality, which lost in labyrinth of social norms and human prejudice.

The primary intention of “The Hero of Our Time” is to reveal the flaws of society of 1830s, which gives to chance for personal improvement and self-comprehension. In order to achieve this goal Lermontov could not but place Pechorin in this own historic period and provide the character with his own life experience and his own thoughts. Deep analysis of the novel shows how different was the character from his creator. He had his own fortune, his own fault and his own purpose, which will always agitate the mind of a keen reader.

Bibliography

Bagby, Lewis. Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time”: A Critical Companion. Northwestern University Press, 2002

Belinsky, V. Selected Philosophical works. University press of the pacific, 2001.

Costlow, Jane. Compassion and the Hero: Women in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. In Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time: A Critical Companion, ed L. Bagby. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2002

 Durylin, Sergej. Geroj Nashego Vremeni. Arrdis, 1986.

Kotlyarevsky, Nikolaj. Mikhail Yur’evich Lermontov: the Poet’s Personality and His Work in Lewis Bagby Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time”: A Critical Companion. Northwestern University Press, 2002

Manning, Clarence A. Lermontov and the Character of Pechorin. Columbia University, 2003.

Lermontov, M. A Hero of Our Time. Createspace, 2008

Pokrovsky, M.  Mikhail Yurjevich Lermontov: his Life and works. Moskow, 1914.

Praz, Mario. The Romantic Agony. Oxford University Press, 1978.

Slovo, ed. (1921), IV, 247. In Lermontov and the Character of Pechorin by Clarence A. Manning. Columbia University, 2003.

[1] Slovo, ed. (1921), IV, 247. In Lermontov and the Character of Pechorin by Clarence A. Manning. Columbia University, 2003.
[2] Slovo, ed. (1921), IV, 176. In Lermontov and the Character of Pechorin by Clarence A. Manning. Columbia University, 2003.
[3] Lewis Bagby Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time”: A Critical Companion.
[4] Slovo, ed. (1921), IV, 283. In Lermontov and the Character of Pechorin by Clarence A. Manning.
[5] Praz, M.. The Romantic Agony. P.74
[6] Costlow, J. Compassion and the Hero: Women in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. In Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time: A Critical Companion, ed L. Bagby. P.92
[7] Slovo, ed. (1921), IV. In Lermontov and the Character of Pechorin by Clarence A. Manning.

[8] Durylin, S. Geroj Nashego Vremeni, P. 84.
[9] Kotlyarevsky, Mikhail Yur’evich Lermontov: the Poet’s Personality and His Work, P.113
[10] Pokrovsky, Mikhail Yurjevich Lermontov: his Life and works. P. 135
[11] Lermontov, M. A Hero of Our Time. P. 144
[12] Belinsky, V. Selected Philosophical works, University press of the pacific. P. 64

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