Flirtation with princesses. Lightning-speed horse rides. Dueling on mountain precipices. Nothing is quite satisfactory for the enigmatic, troubled Grigori Aleksandrovich Pechorin of M. Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Pechorin’s story carves a trail of awe and adrenaline through the 1830s Russian Caucasus. More deeply, however, it thoroughly exposes a singularly interesting persona – that of Pechorin – who excites in almost everyone he meets a combination of fury, entranced obedience, and love. Deeper still, though, is the book’s subtle validation of the extravagant, disillusioned, and borderline-psychopathic Pechorin – and its endorsement of these qualities as viable in raising one to the status of a legend and even a god.
Then there’s the unbelievable sense of adventure.
The story begins with the narrator (not Pechorin) recounting his journey through the Caucasus. “On our left loomed the gorge, deep and black. Behind it and in front of us rose the dark-blue summits of the mountains, standing out against the pale horizon, which still retained the last reflections of the evening glow. The stars twinkled out in the dark sky, and in some strange way it seemed to me that they were much higher than in our own north country. … By this time we were able to make out the Post Station and the roofs of the huts surrounding it… ‘We shall have to pass the night here,’ said [the staff-captain], vexation in his tone. We were assigned a night’s lodging in a smoky hut. I invited my fellow-traveler to drink a tumbler of tea with me, as I had brought my cast-iron teapot—my only solace during my travels in the Caucasus. … We took refuge by the fire and lighted our pipes; and soon the teapot was singing invitingly.” And here our story begins.
At one point in his military service, Pechorin finds himself stationed in a strange, impoverished coastal town, lodging in a decrepit house where “the moon shone in at the window and its rays played along the earthen floor.” Sleepless at night and wandering outside, Pechorin notices the family’s peculiar blind child “with only whites in his eyes” and surreptitiously follows him down a steep crevasse down to the moonlit beach – only to catch sight of a suspicious transaction involving the child and his alluring older sister, among others. The next morning, Pechorin provocatively threatens to expose the sister to the authorities; later, however, she professes love for him and commands him to meet her at the ocean at midnight! Pechorin finds himself on a small boat, far from shore on the moonlit ocean, and alone with the 18-year-old daughter of the family – yet soon his pistol falls into the ocean, and suddenly, he’s overcome with fear as the daughter seizes him with her legs and nearly throws him overboard! He violently throws her into the ocean and rows away to shore, as her distant bobbing head is consumed by the ocean waves. “For what reason should fate have thrown me into the peaceful circle of honorable smugglers?” laments Pechorin ironically. (She ends up alive).
The adventure continues as Pechorin is stationed again in an upscale town of the Caucasus Mountains and gradually enraptures the whole town, including the lovely Princess Mary. Purposefully refusing to make Mary’s acquaintance (that is, in the high-society sense, to “present himself to her”), Pechorin, in a very memorable scene, chooses a hilarious alternative: as the princess sits on a bench surrounded by young vying suitors, Pechorin chooses another bench a distance off, and launches a tirade of such charisma that the entire crowd shifts to him! “In the course of two days my affairs have gained ground tremendously,” he writes later. “Princess Mary positively hates me.” Pechorin, of course, eventually shatters Mary’s heart. Can he feel anything?
The question emerges, of course, of what kind of person Pechorin is – and it’s a difficult one. Pechorin, I believe, though not entirely devoid of desire, is subject to emotions only of a particular kind – namely, those of youthful excitement and sublime appreciation of natural beauty. As for the former: Pechorin is unaware of “the rules” precisely enough to break them, he breaks the rules precisely enough to gain power over others, and he gains power over others precisely enough to achieve absolutely whatever he wants in an overwhelming wash of adventure and excitement. But his excitement wanes quickly, and he often finds himself “galloping to the mountains in order to dispel the thoughts which had thronged into [his] head” and “greedily inhaling the fresh air of the southern night.”
Even more challenging: what kind of persona poises us for success, or for admiration, or for moral goodness – and are these goals mutually exclusive? The boisterous – and often quite destructive – persona of Pechorin seems to tempt us here.
But will such an identity leave us empty and depressed? Or will it make us A Hero of Our Time?