The Realist-Romantic and Romantic-Realist: Visions of the Anti-Hero in Early Russian Literature

Abigail Graber '08

The debut of the modern Russian novel in the nineteenth century marked a departure in Russian literature from the numbing simplicity of the past: simplicity of plot, simplicity of style, and perhaps most significantly, simplicity of character and motivation. Unlike their predecessors, neither Mihail Lermontov nor Ivan Turgenev celebrated the uncomplicated, idyllic Russian man. Rather, each author is was interested in presenting a protagonist designed to jolt the audience out of complacent acceptance of damaging personal and societal conditions. To accomplish this purpose, the authors require "heroes" as flawed as their adversaries, for perfect characters cannot teach. Faced with paragons of virtue, readers would pass their own sins off on an easy scapegoat: their humanity. Lermontov and Turgenev approach their anti-heroes from opposite ends of the literary spectrum.

In A Hero of Our Time, Lermontov's Pechorin strives towards the romantic archetype. A literary romantic is one who rejects the confines of society and, guided by a higher purpose or elevated sense of nature and the natural world, leads an unconventional life that emphasizes emotion. He is often misunderstood and counter-rejected by the conformists he left behind. However, Pechorin's position as a romantic is undermined when Lermontov introduces a subtle thread of realism to his character. In contrast, Bazarov of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons vehemently rejects the romantic lifestyle. A realist, as Bazarov presumes to be, believes in the validity of only science and empirical observation. But in his quest for a perfect realist philosophy, Bazarov is brought down by his inherent romantic character. Neither Pechorin nor Bazarov is likeable. However, their tragic flaws and inability to fulfill their personal self-image elicits the sympathy required of the reader. This translates the characters' failings into strong messages for personal improvement and increased societal cooperation.

Lermontov's use of Pechorin in A Hero of Our Time subtly alters the romantic paradigm. It dissects its inherent discrepancies and, through realist principles, exposes the damaging contradictions in a romantic lifestyle. Pechorin is an ironic character—he exhibits many of the qualities of the typical romantic hero, yet lacks the empathy that would allow him both heroic status and the automatic sympathy of the audience. Pechorin, unlike a true romantic, exhibits no compassion for his fellow man. He is therefore unable to act selflessly. Like the romantic adventurer, Pechorin's most defining characteristic is an exaggerated wanderlust: "I have a restless fancy, an insatiable heart...there is only one remedy left for me: to travel," he tells Maksim Maksimovich (41). Pechorin makes melodramatic confessions of misery and boredom and hopes to relieve his mental anguish by dying during his travels (41). He also harbors a deep love and appreciation for nature, his only solace ("There is no feminine gaze that I would not forget at the sight of mountains covered with curly vegetation, and illumined by the southern sun, at the sight of the blue sky, or at the sound of a torrent that falls from crag to crag," he says [106]). He often expresses these characteristics through inappropriately-inflated emotional effusions. Lermontov complements his protagonist's dramatic flair with lengthy descriptions of the beauty of the Caucuses. He also uses romantic writing conventions, including metaphoric comparisons to nature and frequent hyperbole, that highlight Pechorin's dashing, wild, and uncivilized ways. Pechorin's self-imposed exile from society's petty order and his possession of a heightened awareness of himself and the natural world make him a self-styled romantic figure, larger-than-life and adrift in a world too small for his presence.

But as such a man, Pechorin is free from both societal and moral constraints. His liberty may mold him into a romantic figure, but abuses of this freedom used to crush those around him destroy the typical sentimental evocations of romantic imagery and present a bleak perspective on the realities of humanity. Through his characterization of Pechorin, Lermontov suggests the impossibility of the existence of a pure romantic being. The novel promotes a fundamentally realist interpretation of humanity, intimating that human nature in its essential selfishness would warp romantic autonomy and use it to destroy, rather than uplift. Pechorin does indeed subscribe to a different moral code than the suffocating strictures of his class—different, but not higher. Typical of romantic literary heroes but scandalous to the Russian elites, he marries a non-ethnic Russian woman of the Caucuses: Bela. He also carries out an adulterous affair with Vera.

Yet, his deviation from Orthodox Christian ethics and ethnocentricity does not originate in a desire to uphold love, tolerance, generosity or any higher emotional cause. A man who loved Vera would not triumph at his conquest. "'Aha!' I thought, 'at last I am having my way after all,'" Pechorin thinks [Lermontov 150]. Nor would a true lover be intensely relieved at Bela's demise. Rather, Pechorin confesses that he perceives other people as objects for his enjoyment, and what he enjoys is their misery. "I look upon the sufferings and joys of others only in relation to myself as on the food sustaining the strength of my soul," he admits (123). As a true realist, he spurns emotional attachment and attacks a situation logically, looking only at how it will benefit his personal interests. He uses women to conquer his boredom (Bela), as pawns to attack men he considers unworthy (Princess Mary), and to stroke his ego (Vera). Pechorin's personality is too dominant to be romantic—he will never be self-sacrificing. He quest to "subjugate" both men and women to his demands (123), regardless of the consequences, becomes appalling and damnable in readers' eyes.

Lermontov also reflects on the ridiculousness of the supposed self-awareness of a romantic figure by endowing Pechorin with an artificial sense of his own wrongdoings. The use of character foils is particularly important in this regard. "Only in this supreme state of self-knowledge can a man evaluate divine justice," says Pechorin ironically (124), for though he often writes in his journal of his deficiencies, he ignores the flaws he shares with the men he despises and demeans. Pechorin feels deeply contemptuous of the other men in the novel, loathing their perceived shallowness, obsequiousness, and malleability. These men, in particular Grushnitski, Kazbich, and Azamat, mirror aspects of Pechorin's personality that he refuses to acknowledge, defying his enlightened image. Pechorin scoffs at Grushnitski for implying possession of women he hardly knows, referring to them as "his." He mocks him when Grushnitski says, " Mary is a very charming girl!" (101). Yet, in the previous chapter, Pechorin refers to the smuggler-girl as "my undine" (73), demonstrating that same objectifying, egotistical view of women, a perspective that he earlier shares with Kazbich. Bela comes to Pechorin thrown ungraciously across a horse, and Kazbich takes her away in the same manner. Both men are looking for women as docile as animals. Instead of respecting the female intellect, as the romantically inclined Arkady does in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, Pechorin says, "I never cared for women with wills of their own; it is not their department" (105). Thus, women are denied both their place at the romantic's side as an equal emotional partner and the deep bond of love and loyalty that that position would entail. They are instead relegated to their realistic status in the society of the time: inferiority. Azamat, too, exhibits a callous indifference towards his sister in his fervor to be like Pechorin. Though Pechorin thinks Azamat is great fool for being easily manipulated, Pechorin could have easily found himself in similar straits had his attempt to escape city life proved fruitless. Azamat chafes at the boundaries of his society as did Pechorin in his youth. Pechorin, proud, delusional, and blinded by his own selfish human nature, sees no connection between them, only the opening Azamat's romantic tendencies leave for exploitation.

Yet how can so despicable a man possibly inspire self-reflection in the reader? For instead of worshipping Pechorin, the reader perceives him and his actions as monstrous. While Pechorin's failures as a romantic turn readers against him, in these failures also lies the key to readers' empathy. As Pechorin mistakenly passes judgment on others for his own faults, a fact alluded to in his journals: "I sometimes despise myself...Is this not why I despise others?" [Lermontov 148]. Through this we can infer that Lermontov believes the Russian man remains ignorant of his own sins. Pechorin is a foil for the Russian everyman, taken in by the romantic vision of the Caucuses and ignorant of the realist barbarism of that lifestyle. Azamat's actions and fate are Lermontov's most obvious warning against attempts to behave in an exaggeratedly romantic fashion—his sentiments consume him and allow others to use him, destroying both himself and his family in the process.

Additionally, Lermontov does not allow the characters in his novel to judge Pechorin as coldly as the reader inevitably must. The very people Pechorin exploits are often his most devoted admirers—Maksim Maksimovich and Vera, for example. Readers, being presumably familiar with the romantic ideal, are aware of how Pechorin has failed to fit that mold. But because they are forced to see him through the eyes of those who respect him, they also garner some sympathy for his character, a sympathy that can translate into empathy and self-awareness. If readers begin to sympathize with Lermontov's monster, they may be compelled to recognize ways in which they resemble him.

Bazarov, Turgenev's anti-hero in Fathers and Sons, is the polar opposite of Pechorin. An avowed realist, his obstinate, inflexible adherence to nihilistic and materialist principles brings him to an unexpectedly romantic destruction. Bazarov embodies the generation gap widened by the political and social upheaval that took place in Russia midway through the nineteenth century. The abandonment of the feudal system and the emancipation of the serfs left Russia in a state of both economic and social flux. As Bazarov is conflicted between rationality and emotion, so Russia struggled between the old and new interpretation of life's meaning and methods of social arrangement. Bazarov, probably like the typical Russian reader of novels, is a young, educated member of the social elite. His youth and position relates him to the Russian reader, who will understand his ideas and see the purpose behind his disastrous journey.

Bazarov the realist sees human nature as flawed and selfish and seeks to live above it through science and destruction. Bazarov shares with Pechorin a disdain for those whom he perceives as inferior to him in will and intellect. But unlike Pechorin, he does not disdain their lack of romantic appreciation and adherence to free will; it is precisely these romantic tendencies he despises. "A decent chemist is twenty times more useful than any poet," says Bazarov to Pavel Petrovich (Turgenev 20). At various points in the novel, Bazarov insults nearly all of the characters for indulging in romantic practices: Nikolai Petrovich's cello playing receives the same mockery as Arkady's devotion to Katya, who herself is derided for playing the piano—Bazarov advises Arkady to "restrain her sentimental tendencies" (70). Turgenev presents him as a meticulously scientific man; his most frequent pastime is dissecting frogs from the garden ("He doesn't believe in principles, but he believes in frogs" snidely remarks Pavel Petrovich [19]), a metaphor for his quest to discover the natural laws of the world and how they operate on a strictly logical level, free from chance or unpredictable whims of fancy. He is a great lover of order, telling Anna Sergeevna Odintsova that "in a properly organized society it won't make any difference whether a person's stupid or clever, bad or good" (65). Bazarov seeks to establish order in sentiment and eliminate all emotional qualities of life to bring society to a strictly quantitative level of analysis, as is reflected in his walks with Odintsova. Instead of admiring the flowers as Arkady and Katya do later in the novel, he teaches her their Latin names (67).

Bazarov's eminent practicality and disrespect for people's basic need for sentimentality lead him to advocate a nihilistic philosophy—that is, a rejection of all authority not entirely scientifically established and an appreciation of solely empirical law. The old order, lead by men like Nikolai Petrovich, is "antiquated," says Bazarov (Turgenev 35). He proposes the destruction of their legacy, for "the ground must be cleared" for future generations to "act on the basis of what we recognize as useful" (38). In this sentiment, Bazarov is a predecessor to the ultimate realist literary creation: Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. As realists, Raskolnikov and Bazarov are brutally unrepentant about natural human behavior, which they consider ultimately self-serving; they believe in their own self-worth at the expense of "lesser members" of society—the "ordinary" man must subject himself to their "extraordinary" principles. Bazarov's philosophy provides no specific guidance for the re-creation of a better future society—"That's not for us to do," he informs Pavel (38). Like the realist Raskolnikov, he simply believes that in implementing his theory he is acting on his natural human superiority and is therefore entitled to destroy all that stands in its way. In Bazarov's case, that refers to any empirically intangible authority. This is his only interest and, detached from empathy as he is, the only interest he is willing to uphold.

Like Lermontov, Turgenev uses descriptive passages to underscore his protagonist's dominant characteristics. These are not the sweeping depictions of the wilderness, however, but terse accounts of Bazarov's living space, which is packed with academic artifacts, including "anatomical drawings...books, boxes, stuffed birds, jars, and vials in disarray" (88). As the Caucuses mirror Pechorin, Bazarov's study reflects his stuffy soul, crammed with earthly ideals. Fathers and Sons, written from an omniscient third person perspective, also allows Turgenev to maintain a distance from his main character. The reader is never granted the same unlimited access to Bazarov's thoughts as Lermontov provides through Pechorin's diary. The distance contributes to our perception of Bazarov as a realist character. Even if he is thinking emotionally, he will never express that to his contemporaries, and Turgenev rarely allows us a glimpse into his mind. Furthermore, our inability to enter Bazarov's thoughts exposes his materialistic and nihilistic tendencies to skepticism: they do not seem as natural components of his personality as Pechorin's cruelty.

Bazarov fails to recognize that by his very individual nature he is a romantic character and subject to all the unfortunate emotional trappings and traps of that role. Being a nihilist places him neatly outside clearly defined societal positions—in fact, no one but Bazarov is quite sure what being a nihilist means. Nikolai interprets it as "a person who...acknowledges nothing," Pavel as one who "respects nothing," and Arkady as someone who "approaches everything from a critical point of view" (Turgenev 18). Just as Bazarov spurned typical Russian society, typical Russian society now turns its back on him, represented through the scorn of Pavel Petrovich, a former socialite. Bazarov is easily misunderstood and often purposefully misinterpreted by those around him, a circumstance which results in violence, such as with the duel between him and Pavel, a farcical echo of the romantic duel between Pechorin and Grushnitski. Like Pechorin, Bazarov has accumulated his own apostles, Arkady and Sitnikov, who preach his gospel without properly understanding the lifestyle they are expounding. Romantic figures typically attract followers who are drawn to the romantic protagonist's magnetic personality and distinctive views. As a romantic, Bazarov exists apart from others, and his untimely fall is a direct result of that innate romanticism.

Bazarov engages in a reverse form of self-delusion from Pechorin. Pechorin saw himself as a romantic giant but actually suffered from the influence of his realist human nature. Bazarov would like to be a cold realist but is unwittingly forced into romanticism. Bazarov is tragically aware of his shortcomings and is unable to accept them or incorporate them into his philosophy. He could perhaps maintain a fragile balance between reason and emotion if he did not fight against his own personality. Bazarov calls love "rubbish or unforgivable stupidity," and his love for Odintsova is "a feeling that tormented and enraged him" (Turgenev 71). From the moment he is forced to reckon with his own sentimentalism, Bazarov weakens as a character. He is exposed as rigid, inflexibly attempting to maintain the realist lifestyle so clearly rejected by his heart. This tragic flaw is one he shares with members of the "antiquated" older generation so previously scorned. Pavel Petrovich, too, is paralyzed by his past and unwilling to accept a new, lower social and intellectual role in society—he will not concede to the younger generation. Unable to adapt to changes that he sees within himself, Bazarov is driven to distraction, restlessness, and finally, despair. His cut during the autopsy has a faintly sinister ring of suicide, both in its happening at all and in his failure to cauterize the wound. He has been so competent a doctor up until this point that both mistakes are completely inconsistent with his character, and one can assume that the infection was intentionally incurred. His death itself, therefore, is a solitary affair wrapped up in romantic individualism and carried out with a dramatic, romantic flair. Bazarov's only recourse in the end is to exit the world that is too inextricably bound in emotion to sustain his materialist ideals.

In a less violent way, Bazarov is as off-putting as Pechorin. He is cold, calculating, and unconsciously manipulative, gathering swarm of followers and toadies who latch on to his magnetic personality. Thus, the irony of his flaws cruelly twists his fate and endears him to readers while simultaneously allowing them to maintain their distance from his philosophy. Bazarov's death is sympathetic because he showed such promise for genius at the beginning of the book but was unable to live up to his own divine self-image. However, it was necessary that he perish, for he was a walking contradiction: a violently anti-romantic man who, due to his cold philosophy, was in fact a romantic anti-hero. Realistically, such a man could not lead Russia into triumph—he is stuck, suspended by the opposing forces of his own personality that he cannot overcome. Turgenev elicits pity for Bazarov but ultimately leaves him behind for the ideal romantic world crafted in his absence. Bazarov is a failed experiment, a footnote in the book of Russian ethical and societal progress, stagnated and incapable of seeing beyond unrealistic fundamentalism in his expectations for himself and others.

Instead of Bazarov's vision of science and self-interest, Turgenev sees the future of Russian society in the romanticist agriculturalist communities that Bazarov rejects. Bazarov saw only all-or-nothing annihilation, a policy Turgenev views as fruitless and self-destructive. Instead, Turgenev wants to maintain something of the old order and adapt it gradually to systemic reforms. Though both novels are romantically styled, the romanticism in Fathers and Sons reflects a genuine belief in the simple romantic lifestyle, rather than the caustic destruction of personal romantic philosophy reflected in Lermontov's  A Hero of Our Time. Cooperation is Turgenev's key to a relative utopia. In the end of Fathers and Sons, the characters exist in harmony because they each act out of interest for themselves and the group. Nikolai is a mediator between former serfs and their landlords; Katya connects the generations through her close friendship with Fenechka, who is cross-generationally linked to Nikolai. Characters incapable of dynamic action, such as Pavel and Bazarov, have been removed from this perfect family unit and Turgenev's vision for the future of Russian society.

In deconstructing romanticism, the most popular type of literature of his day, Lermontov is effectively lifting a veil from the eyes of the Russian populace. Instead of viewing the world through rose-colored glasses, readers are harshly confronted with the consequences of their moral and societal degeneration. Lermontov lays their Pechorinesque sins before them and forces them to consider those that, like Pechorin, they have callously wronged. Through his treatment of characters, Lermontov indicates that he seeks the resurrection of Russia through the improvement of the individual rather than the system by which Russia operates. Readers see themselves in Pechorin so that they will not emulate him. They are introduced to his false rationalizations that seem to justify unforgivable actions so that they can avoid falling prey to the same chauvinistic ego that drives him. The action of A Hero of Our Time supports redemption in individual realism, not communal romanticism. Once people stop striving toward a flawed ideal of leading a morally dangerous existence outside the laws of society, harmony will be restored.

To impart their social messages to audiences used to one-dimensional swashbuckling heroes, Lermontov and Turgenev find it necessary to give their protagonists tragic character defects that absorb their readers' attention and thought. Perfect heroes invite the suspension of disbelief; what Lermontov and Turgenev require is the engagement of belief—the belief that within their characters lies something of the essence of every Russian soul; something corrupted and imperfect, but also something romantic, redeemable, and accessible to the everyday man. Lermontov and Turgenev assume that their readers are intelligent enough to interpret their characters as reflections of themselves and understand the messages imparted through the books' outcomes. Though they craft these anti-heroes in different molds, romantic and realist, in the end Lermontov and Turgenev together conquer an assumption that had plagued Russian literature until their time: the simplicity of the audience.

Works Cited
Lermontov, Mihail. A Hero of Our Time. Trans: Paul Foote. Penguin Classics, 2001.
Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons. Trans: Michael Katz. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1994.


About writing, Abigail says:  "I find it almost impossible to write academically without an outline. Outlines ensure that you have a specific topic for your paper, not just a vague statement, like "War Sucks." They help structure your argument so that you don't end up wondering how you started writing about cheese doodles in an essay about Nietzsche. But most importantly, writing one allows you legitimately to waste days of time before you actually sit down at 2 a.m. to write the essay on the day that it's due. It may late, you may be tired, but at least you have a slew of neatly bulleted points nicely arranged for you to ignore at your convenience. And that small bit of comfort is all that you need."