July 2, 1995

From Gerald R. Lucas

The Fall of a Sparrow:
A Note on Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Both Hamlet and Pechorin are concerned with the “actions that a man might play.”[a] Both attempt to cut away “seeming,” the deceptive appearance hiding a less-pulchritudinous reality beneath, and react accordingly: Hamlet removing obstacles in the way of his vengeance and Pechorin relieving his ennui. Both rail against pretenders in their microcosms. Hamlet’s enemies are Claudius, the man playing the king, and others who have pretenses to be more than what they are: “the devil hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape”;[2] similarly Pechorin disdains the comme il faut society of posers who all want to be “hero[es] of a novel.”[3][b] Regardless of their personal convictions, both “think meet / To put an antic disposition on—”[5] to cover up their true agendas with an “inky cloak.” Hamlet and Pechorin are now actors on a stage and “fate means to see [they are] not bored.”[6] Hamlet has become heaven’s “scourge and minister”[7] and Pechorin is “the indispensable figure of the fifth act, thrust into the pitiful role of executioner or betrayer.”[8]

Memento Mori 'To This Favour' by William Michael Harnett, c. 1879.JPG

Hamlet and Pechorin must act in a world of dramatis personæ. There are those who have ambitions to be more than what they are, Grushnitsky,[c] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (their very names suggesting pretension and ostentation), and Polonius; characters who are sincere but deleteriously influenced by societal conventions, Ophelia, Gertrude, Princess Mary, and Vera; and those who act as foils to the heroes, Horatio and Werner. The former group are the most odious to the heroes and are dealt with unmercifully; in their ambitious naïveté they dabble in circumstances too weighty for them and are fatefully sentenced to death. The second group, made up entirely of women, are injured by being caught in the wake of circumstances and become regrettable victims. Werner and Horatio are regarded by Pechorin and Hamlet as equals, they are both “noble spirits.”[9] These foils provide a moral reaction to the actions of both protagonists.

When Pechorin shoots Grushnitsky[d] sending him tumbling off a cliff to his death, he says to Werner “Finita la commedia.”[10] Similarly, Hamlet relates the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Horatio telling him that “They are not near [his] conscience.” Both foils react with moral revulsion: Werner turns away “in horror,”[10] and Horatio exclaims “Why, what a king is this!”[11] reacting to Hamlet’s callousness, to the callousness of a man that might be king.[12] These actions ostensibly run contrary to the morals of Werner and Horatio and warrant justifications by Pechorin and Hamlet, as do the other actions of the protagonists: the deaths of Ophelia and Polonius by Hamlet and the devastation wrought to Princess Mary and Vera by Pechorin.

The return of Hamlet in act v depicts a new, resolute man. He has discovered that he is merely a pawn in some greater game, a game of fate: “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends.”[13] Though he was aware of “outrageous fortune” before act v, Hamlet has now existentially accepted the workings of fate which he could only conceptualize in earlier acts. This epiphany allows him to disclaim his actions, to transcend moral dichotomies in lieu of a greater power, and to assure himself that he is, in actuality, being cruel only to be kind.[14] The final curtain will fall, “the readiness is all” that is needed now.[15] If death is the final end, then of what significance could our pithy actions possibly have?[e]

Can Hamlet’s anagnorisis encompass Pechorin? Like Hamlet, Pechorin arrives at a greater understanding of the workings of fate in “The Fatalist.” Pechorin selflessly resigns himself to fate when he captures the Cossack and states, echoing Hamlet, “If I die, I die. . . . when it arrives—farewell!”[16] This action is the closest that Pechorin comes to being a hero; his selfless resignation to fate allowed him to repudiate any moral pretenses and do something heroic. Yet, unlike Hamlet, Pechorin is fated to live, perhaps a greater tragedy.

What insight into Pechorin is made evident by this comparison? Certainly the zeitgeist that led to his creation is much different than that which created Hamlet. Yet a timeless question pervades both works: how can life be made meaningful if everything that happens is inevitable? In the face of an amoral universe what must an intelligent, sensitive man do? Pechorin uses this wisdom—his conviction—to amuse himself with the sufferings of a society that he hates, a society that has assumed a morality, and established order. Hamlet sacrificed himself to uphold, or reestablish, an order that had been disrupted by the murder of his father. His higher wisdom[f] showed him that this order is just a façade, yet it is something, while “the rest is silence.”[18] Unlike Hamlet, Pechorin has used his attained sagacity to allow him to perform any caprice with impunity.[g] His creative energies are used against humanity rather than trying to help to bring in some significance to existence, which seems, at least in these cases, to signify a true hero. While Pechorin is fully capable of being a hero, Hamlet is the true hero in this light. Who are the heroes of our time?

  1. Eleanor Rowe (1975) discusses Hamlet’s profound influence on all of Lermontov’s works: it is in Hamlet that Shakespeare penetrates “seeming” to glimpse the heart of man and the absolute of fate.[1]
  2. Pechorin blames society for his present attitude: “Everyone saw in my face traits that I didn’t possess. But they assumed I did, and so they developed. I was modest, and was accused of being deceitful, so I kept to myself. I had a strong sense of good and evil; instead of kindness I received nothing but insults, so I grew up resentful. I was sullen, while other children were gay and talkative. I felt superior to them, and was set beneath them, so I became jealous. I was ready to love the whole world, but no one understood me, so I learned to hate. . . . That led me to despair, not to the despair you can cure with a pistol barrel, but a cold, impotent despair that hid behind an affable exterior and a kindly smile. I became a moral cripple.”[4]
  3. Grushnitsky, states Kesler (1990, p. 492), seems to be a less-effective version of Pechorin. This will become important below.
  4. It is worth noting that Grushnitsky plays the poser to the end. Pechorin gives him an opportunity to apologize for his “slander.” Grushnitsky’s pride will not allow for that and so he is shot.[10]
  5. Calhoun (1962) speculates that Hamlet asks “how can man do anything successfully?” While this question is implicit and viable, further, more profound implications can be inferred from both Hamlet and Hero.
  6. Johnson (1952) states that “the rational is that which distinguishes men from beasts . . . and that question of the regeneration of the hero [has] to do with the development of his attitude toward reason and his use of it.”[17]
  7. Garrard (1982) states that it is in this way that Pechorin predicts Ivan Karamazov: if everything is predestined then there is no good or evil.[19]
  1. Rowe 1975, p. 342.
  2. Bevington 1992, 2.2.600-1.
  3. Lermontov 1966, p. 94.
  4. Lermontov 1966, p. 130.
  5. Bevington 1992, 1.5.180-1.
  6. Lermontov 1966, pp. 102-103.
  7. Bevington 1992, 3.4.175.
  8. Lermontov 1966, p. 135.
  9. Lermontov 1966, p. 100.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Lermontov 1966, p. 167.
  11. Bevington 1992, 5.2.57-62.
  12. Deats 1982, p. 30.
  13. Bevington 1992, 5.2.10.
  14. Paris 1991, p. 60.
  15. Bevington 1992, 5.2.220.
  16. Lermontov 1966, p. 156.
  17. Johnson 1952, p. 197.
  18. Bevington 1992, 5.2.360.
  19. Garrard 1982, p. 143.
Works Cited
  • Bevington, David, ed. (1992). The Complete Works of Shakespeare (fourth ed.). New York: Harper Collins.
  • Calhoun, Jean S. (1962). "Hamlet and the Circumference of Action". Renaissance News. 16 (4): 281–298.
  • Deats, Sara M. (1982). "The Once and Future Kings: Four Studies of Kingship in Hamlet". Essays in Literature. 9 (1): 15–30.
  • Garrard, John (1982). Mikhail Lermontov. Boston: Twayne.
  • Johnson, S. F. (1952). "The Regeneration of Hamlet". Shakespeare Quarterly. 3 (3): 187–207.
  • Kessler, R. L. (1990). "Fate and Narrative Structure in Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time". Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 33 (4): 485–505.
  • Lermontov, Mikhail (1966). A Hero of Our Time. Translated by Foote, Paul. New York: Penguin.
  • Paris, Bernard J. (1991). argains with Fate: Psychological Crises and Conflicts in Shakespeare and His Plays. New York: Plenum Press.
  • Rowe, Eleanor (1975). "Pushkin, Lermontov, and Hamlet". exas Studies in Literature and Language. 17: 337–347.