50 pages 1 hour read

Mikhail Lermontov

A Hero Of Our Time

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1838

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Summary and Study Guide


A Hero of Our Time is a classic work of Russian literature written by Mikhail Lermontov and published in 1840. It exemplifies the “superfluous man” trope common in later Russian literature, in which a person of great talent and genius is unable to express these talents healthily due to personal and societal circumstances of some kind. The novel was highly influential for its critique of tsarist Russian society and for its iconic antihero, who came to symbolize the issues and flaws of Lermontov’s generation.

This guide uses the 2015 Digireads.com edition of the novel, which is based on the 1916 translation by J. S. Wisdom and Marr Murray published by Alfred A. Knopf. In some versions of the novel, Books 4 and 5 are reversed so that “Princess Mary” is the last story in the novel. In the current edition, “Princess Mary” is Book 4, while “The Fatalist” is Book 5.

Content Warning: The guide references biased descriptions of women and the people of the Caucasus that are present in the original text.

Plot Overview

The novel is divided into five parts with two major narrators. In Books 1 and 2, the narrator is an unnamed young soldier who travels through the Caucasus mountains documenting his movements. Books 3-5 are narrated by Grigori Aleksandrovich Pechorin, who is the novel’s main protagonist.

In Book 1, “Bela the Heart of a Russian,” the narrator meets an older officer named Maksim Maksimych who shows him the lifestyle of the troops in this region and how to interact with the local population of the Caucasus. As they travel through the mountains together and subsequently seek shelter from a storm, Maksim tells the story of Pechorin, a younger officer and the central character of the book.

Pechorin falls in love with a local prince’s daughter, Bela, and convinces her brother, Azamat, to kidnap her in exchange for a stolen horse. She falls in love with Pechorin eventually but is killed by Kazbich, the horse’s original owner. Pechorin falls into a deep depression, becoming physically ill for a time, but ultimately he laughs off her death.

In Book 2, “Maksim Maksimych,” Maksim Maksimych and the narrator meet again. They encounter a rude servant and find out his master is Pechorin. Maksim Maksimych is ecstatic that Pechorin has arrived, but Pechorin is indifferent during their meeting. Maksim Maksimych has been carrying Pechorin’s diaries for him, but it turns out that they mean nothing to Pechorin, and Maksim Maksimych throws them to the floor in anger. The narrator picks them up after both men leave.

In the foreword to Books 3-5, the narrator informs us that Pechorin has died during his travels in Persia. He explains that the next few stories will come directly from Pechorin’s diaries, and he finds Pechorin to be an intelligent, introspective man. The journals are valuable because of Pechorin’s unrelenting honesty. He will only publish stories from Pechorin’s time in the Caucasus, however, for reasons he does not reveal.

In Book 3, Pechorin’s narration begins. In the story “Taman,” he has a short stay in the coastal village of the same name but is unable to find lodgings. He stays in a hut by the sea about which the locals are superstitious. He asks to see the master of the house, but a blind boy tells him that the old woman is in the village. That night, Pechorin is unable to sleep and follows a shadow down to what appears to be a smuggling enterprise. When he threatens to reveal the group’s activities to the authorities, the woman kisses him, lures him into a boat, and attempts to drown him. Pechorin leaves the next day without telling anyone about the event because he fears being humiliated.

In Book 4, “Princess Mary,” Pechorin encounters an old acquaintance, Grushnitski, in the mountain spa town of Pyatigorsk, where other military men and members of Russian high society are vacationing. Pechorin finds Grushnitski annoying and self-absorbed; he decides to seduce Grushnitski’s love interest, Princess Mary Ligovski, out of spite. Pechorin feels this will be entertaining, and he will be able to carry on an affair with his former lover, Vera, because she is part of Princess Mary’s inner circle.

He wins Princess Mary over despite having no feelings for her, which turns Grushnitski and a growing circle of his acquaintances against Pechorin. Finally, Grushnitski makes a crude remark about Princess Mary, and Pechorin challenges him to a duel. Though Grushnitski and his second plan to give Pechorin an unloaded pistol to make a fool out of him, Pechorin asks his second, Doctor Werner, to reload his pistol at the last moment. Pechorin kills Grushnitski, who refuses to apologize for his treachery, and Grushnitski falls to his death over the cliff’s edge.

The duel alienates Pechorin further, and he eventually declares to Princess Mary that he does not love her. He receives a letter from Vera saying her husband found out about their affair and that she will never see him again. Pechorin rides to see her one last time, but his horse drops dead from exhaustion, stranding Pechorin and leaving him to wonder about his fate. When Pechorin leaves the region, he admits that his restless, disenchanted nature will keep him from falling in love.

In Book 5, “The Fatalist,” Pechorin is stationed in a Cossack village. He and some of his fellow officers are discussing predestination and share stories to both prove and disprove it. A Serbian officer and gambler named Vulich proposes an experiment; he pours gunpowder into a pistol without knowing whether it is loaded. He fires the gun at his forehead, but it misfires. They assume it must not have been loaded, but he fires again at a cap on the wall, and a bullet goes through the cap.

Later, Vulich dies when a drunk Cossack attacks him on the road. Pechorin must apprehend the murderer, which he does at great peril to himself. He is stunned that his feeling that Vulich would die that night came true, even though he did not die in the wager. In the last scene of the story, Maksim Maksimych and Pechorin have a conversation as Pechorin recounts his experiences. He is disappointed because Maksim Maksimych only offers an opinion on the faulty nature of Asiatic pistols and seems incapable of offering the deep conversation that Pechorin craves.