The Origin of Lermontov's A Hero of Our Times

John William Narins, University of California, Los Angeles

This paper attempts to establish a thesis that, at first glance, may seem highly unlikely. It seeks to demonstrate a central, as yet unrecognized source text for one of the fundamental works of the Russian literary canon. The work is Lermontov's A Hero of Our Times; the source text is the Odyssey of Homer. Suggested by key similarities in the overall structures of the two works, the hypothesis does much to account for Lermontov's choices in constructing the novel in terms of character, plot, theme, narrative structure, and more. Indeed, it proves capable of explaining elements of the novel that have otherwise remained mystifying.

I begin with a brief account of selected aspects of the historical context in which Lermontov wrote, including evidence for Homer's significance for that world. These facts are used in connection with the title, onomastics and other particular aspects of Lermontov's novel to demonstrate not only that a relationship between the two works is quite likely to exist, but also to indicate just what the nature of that relationship would be.

I then proceed to examine how the overall composition of Lermontov's work does, indeed, correspond closely to that of Homer's. This goes well beyond such general and obvious similarities as the episodic, "picaresque" nature of the two texts, and even the simple fact of the unusually conspicuous divergence of fabula and sujet that has remained central to critical consideration of A Hero of Our Times and of The Odyssey. In fact, the narrative structures of A Hero of Our Times can be shown to parallel those of The Odyssey in striking and very particular ways; the divergences, rather than remaining as problematical exceptions requiring excuse, make perfect sense under the proposed scheme and prove as logical and revealing as the parallels themselves.

Moving from overall structure to compositional particulars, the proposed relationship between The Odyssey and A Hero of Our Times is tested by application to one selected chapter of Lermontov's novel: "Taman'." It is here that the intertextual relationship suggested by the previously discussed structural parallels can be demonstrated in concrete terms. It turns out that numerous one-for-one correspondences between the characters, settings and events of Homer's and Lermontov's works can be established; a number of these will be discussed in detail. Again, viewing these elements as transformations of Homeric material throws new light on the nature of A Hero of Our Times. Most significantly, these correspondences clarify particular elements of "Taman'" that have not received adequate explanation in extant interpretations. The analysis of "Taman'" illustrates the method by which Lermontov wove the fabric of each episode of A Hero of Our Times from the undone threads of Homer's epic.