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Literature / A Hero of Our Time

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A Hero of Our Time (Russian: "Герой нашего времени") is a classic Russian novel by Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov, written and revised between 1839 and 1841. Its plot concerns one Grigory Pechorin — a Russian aristocrat, a military officer, and a Byronic Hero — and follows his adventures during his involuntary stay in the Caucasus Region. The novel consists of five parts (plus a Framing Device):

  • Bela. The Watson (implied to be Lermontov himself) meets an Old Soldier Maxim Maximich while traveling across Caucasus, who tells him a story of how an old friend of his (Pechorin) once fell in love with and kidnapped a highlander princess.
  • Maxim Maximich. The Watson tells of a chance meeting between Maxim Maximich and Pechorin that he had accidentally witnessed. Afterwards, Maxim Maximich hands Pechorin's diaries over to him.
  • Taman. An excerpt from Pechorin's diary. Soon after his arrival to Caucasus, Pechorin gets involved with a local Femme Fatale and a smuggler gang.
  • Princess Mary. Pechorin is stationed in Pyatigorsk and has affairs with two women at once: an Old Flame of his and the title character. In the end, he kills a guy on a duel and is reassigned to Maxim Maximich's outpost.
  • The Fatalist. Pechorin is out drinking and gambling with fellow officers, and then one of them shoots himself in the head on a bet. He dies but not by the bullet.

In 1840, Lermontov published a short essay A Caucasian (as in "someone from Caucasus", not "pale-faced"), which is more or less an Origins Episode for Maxim Maximich. Additionally, AHoOT can be seen as a sequel to his unfinished novel Princess Ligovskaya (1838), which also features a Grigory Pechorin (who may or may not be the same character) and is set in St. Petersburg.

Tropes found in the novel include:

  • Anachronic Order: Part one tells how The Narrator came into possession of Pechorin's diaries, while part two consists of excerpts from it. The proper chronological order of the events is: Taman, Princess Mary, Bela, The Fatalist, Maxim Maximich, and the Framing Device-slash-foreword.
  • Author Avatar: Some interpret Pechorin as this, although Lermontov vehemently denied it in the foreword, instead claiming Pechorin to be a Composite Character of all "superfluous men"—a topic also addressed in Eugene Onegin and, later, Oblomov.
  • The Berserker: Pechorin has traces of this, such as when he (according to Maxim Maximich) took on an equally angry bear with nothing but a hunting spear, or when he charged an armed drunk cossack and subdued him with bare hands.
  • Bus Crash: Pechorin is last seen in the narrative in Maxim Maximich while en route to Persia and the intro to his diary reveals that he died on the way back.
  • Byronic Hero: Pechorin is deconstructed.
  • The Casanova: Deconstructed. Pechorin is quite the ladies' man; however, he has a unique talent for wrecking the lives of the women he's involved with, and feeling little remorse for it.
  • Character Title:
    • The novel title refers to Pechorin, whom the author considered a contemporary hero despite his major flaws.
    • Bela, Maxim Maximich, and Princess Mary are all named after the characters upon whose lives Pechorin has a major impact.
    • The Fatalist is not so clear cut: according to various interpretations, it can refer to Vulich, Pechorin, or Maxim Maximich (or all at once but in different senses).
  • Circassian Beauty: Bela, a Circassian princess and the target of affections of both Pechorin and Kazbich. Their rivalry over her eventually costs Bela her life.
  • Composite Character: The author intended Pechorin to be a composite of all the creative spirits of his age.
  • Custom Uniform: Grushnitsky wears a Private's coat over his officer cadet uniform.
  • The Dandy: Pechorin is always sharply dressed and groomed, which adds to his conflict with Grushnitsky, who appears to be unable to afford expensive clothes.
  • Deconstructor Fleet: In Bela and Taman, Lermontov picks apart the "wacky Caucasus adventures" genre prominent during his time. The central character is a darker, more realistic take on the Byronic Hero archetype, and Grushnitsky is an outright mockery of the concept. The novel as a whole is regarded as the author's farewell to Romanticism.
  • Direct Line to the Author: The nameless traveling officer who "inherits" Pechorin's diaries is never openly identified with Lermontov.
  • Duel to the Death: Double-subverted with Pechorin vs. Grushnitsky: Grushnitsky's friends persuade him to miss on purpose and try to load Pechorin's gun with a blank, but Pechorin uncovers their plan by chance and kills Grushnitsky.
  • Femme Fatale: The "Undine" from Taman is a beautiful peasant girl, who, upon learning of Pechorin's discovery of her paramour Yanko's smuggling operation, attempts to seduce him in order to lure him out to the sea and to drown him.
  • Foil: Grushnitsky to Pechorin. Where Pechorin is rich, idle, and stylish, Grushnitsky is a desperate and pretentious social climber. On the other hand, both compete to be the most brooding Byronic Hero in town, except that Grushnitsky only plays the part to attract the ladies, while Pechorin actually is one, with depressingly realistic consequences to anyone involved with him.
  • Genre Savvy: One layer of deconstruction in this novel is that Pechorin seems to recognize his own Byronic Hero tendencies (in The Fatalist, he even subtly compares himself to Lord Byron's romanticized image) and acts in accordance with or against them, depending on his mood.
  • Intro-Only Point of View: The story begins with the narrator traveling over the Caucasus Mountains; then he meets Maxim Maximych, who narrates Bela, thus shifting the focus to Pechorin.
  • Killed Offscreen: By the time we start reading Pechorin's diaries, he's already dead.
  • Life Will Kill You: Vulich survives shooting himself in the head unscathed, then is killed by a drunk Cossack returning home.
  • A Match Made in Stockholm: Pechorin has Bela kidnapped for him and holds her captive until she falls in love with him. Then, he gets bored of her.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Pechorin. In Bela, he emotionally manipulates the title heroine to make her love him. In Princess Mary, he gets Mary to fall in love with him just to create the smokescreen for his romance with Vera.
  • Meaningful Name: Pechorin is named after the Pechora River, just like Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin was named after the Onega River.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Pechorin is an ensign (praporschik) at the time of writing his diaries, although the main bulk of the narration concerns his exploits in the high society.
  • Old Flame: Vera to Pechorin (and probably vice versa). It is never quite revealed what relationship they had before, or why the broke up, however.
  • Old Soldier: Maxim Maximich has been serving on Caucasus his entire life, getting promoted to staff captain (an Imperial rank somewhere between army lieutenant and captain) in charge of an outpost by the time Pechorin meets him.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The "Undine" from Taman.
  • The Ophelia/Manic Pixie Dream Girl: The mysterious "Undine" from Taman appears to be a mixture of these two: she sings, talks to herself, speaks in riddles and proverbs, seems generally quirky, flirty and playful. However, like everything else in the novel, it's a deconstruction: once Pechorin tells her that he knows about her secret meeting with Yanko, she cold-bloodedly attempts to murder him.
  • Peer Pressure Makes You Evil: Every time Grushnitsky has second thoughts about his dishonest duel with Pechorin, Grushnitsky's friends urge him to go through with it anyway, and he doesn't stop until it's too late.
  • The Place: Taman is named after a small Russian town on the coast of the Black Sea.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Pechorin is sent into the wilderness after his duel with Grushnitsky. It is implied that he was reassigned to Caucasus in the first place because of a similar incident in St. Petersburg earlier.
  • Russian Guy Suffers Most: Lermontov reflects on this trope (in the Nabokov translation):
    I could not help being struck by the capacity of the Russian to adapt himself to the customs of that people among which he happens to be living. I do not know whether this trait of the mind deserves blame or praise, but it attests to his incredible flexibility and the presence of that lucid common sense that pardons evil wherever it recognizes its necessity or the impossibility of its abolishment.
  • Russian Roulette: Kinda. Vulich's gun is a one-shot pistol... with a chance of jamming.
  • Sarcastic Title: Pechorin is one of the great villain-protagonists of literature and highlights what the author saw as the problems of Russian society at the time.
  • Scenery Porn: Lermontov's descriptions of Caucasus mountains and the region's nature.
  • Screw Destiny / You Cannot Fight Fate: Both tropes are discussed and explored in The Fatalist.
  • The Social Expert: Pechorin feels right at home in the aristocratic society, with its intrigues and rumor-mongering, and is adept at emotional manipulation.
  • Venturous Smuggler: Deconstructed, like so many other romanticist tropes: Danko from Taman is first presented as a larger than life figure that challenges the elements to visit a loved one across the sea, but once Pechorin realizes he and his girlfriend are just smugglers, he is majorly disappointed and stops caring about them.
  • The Watson: The unnamed traveling officer who falls into possession of Pechorin's diaries.