Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, eponymous Hero of Our Time, is deliciously evil, and also just plain delicious because he knows the power of words—almost as well as Mikhail Lermontov. The travel writer who has come into possession of his papers publishes a portion of them, noting in the foreword*:
Reading through these notes, I have become convinced of the sincerity of a man who set his own weaknesses and vices out on display so mercilessly. The history of a human soul, even the pettiest soul, is almost more curious and beneficial than the history of an entire people, especially when it is the result of a mature mind’s observations of itself, and when it is written without a vainglorious desire to arouse sympathy or surprise. Rousseau’s Confessions have the immediate shortcoming that he read them to his friends.
In this journal we have confessions that were, it is a reasonable assumption, never intended to be made public. Pechorin lays his life bare in his diary; he describes even his negative qualities “boldly, because I’m used to admitting everything to myself.”
First is the story “Taman,” of a run-in Pechorin has with some strange smugglers. Part of the trouble starts with his words, which “were quite out of place; I didn’t suspect their importance then, but subsequently I had occasion to repent of them.” He gets himself out of the scrape, but won’t go to the police because of the absurdity of putting his trouble into words: “And wouldn’t it be ridiculous to complain to the authorities that a blind boy had robbed me and an eighteen-year-old girl had almost drowned me?” Of course, the words he used to record these events in the journal were not ridiculous at all—he was robbed and nearly drowned.
In the centerpiece, “Princess Mary,” Pechorin’s affinity for words comes into full focus as he goes up against Grushnitsky, quite his opposite in this department, for the affections of Princess Mary**. Pechorin is set on giving advice to his rival:
“She has such velvety eyes—specifically velvety: I advise you to appropriate that expression when talking about her eyes; the lower and upper lashes are so long that the sun’s rays aren’t reflected in her pupils. …What a shame she didn’t smile at your grand phrase.”
“You talk about a pretty woman as you would about an English horse,” said Grushnitsky indignantly.
Grushnitsky’s intentions might be good—he actually loves the Princess, while Pechorin is only interested in toying with her to hurt both Grushnitsky and Mary—but he knows not of what he speaks. Or rather, he does, he’s just wrong about its effectiveness. Pechorin knows how to really impress the Princess, and sometimes that means withholding words as well: “if she’s bored beside you two minutes running, you’re irretrievably lost: your silence must arouse her curiosity, your conversation never satisfy it completely; you must alarm her at every minute.” When Pechorin’s friend the doctor*** offers to introduce him to the Princess, Grigory Alexandrovich politely declines: “‘Oh, please!’ I said, clasping my hands together; ‘as if heroes are introduced! They make the acquaintance of their beloved in no other way than by saving her from certain death…’”
Grushnitsky is hopeless. “Women, women! Who can understand them? Their smiles contradict their looks, their words promise and beckon, while the sound of their voice repulses,” he complains, and then lifts his own spirits “with [a] bad pun.” Whereas Pechorin goes around facilely answering people “with one of those phrases that everyone should have prepared for such an instance.” When he does get alone with his beloved (not, ahem, Princess Mary), they have “those conversations which make no sense on paper, which can’t be repeated and can’t even be remembered: the significance of the sounds supplants and supplements the significance of the words, just as in Italian opera.”
A huge part of this is about control.**** Pechorin is in complete control of all his actions and words, in turn giving him complete control over all the social situations he falls into. Words will again betray Grushnitsky when Pechorin overhears his machinations regarding their duel; Pechorin ends up in control of the ultimate plot because Grushnitsky and his friends were so powerless over their own words. Pechorin watches what he does and says closely and thus protects himself from every contingency. Even the relatively inconsequential is held to this standard—“his proud step would have made me burst out laughing had that been in accordance with my intentions.”
Pechorin not only has power through words, he respects their inherent power, because he recognizes and fears it in a visceral way:
In my place another man would have offered the Princess son coeur et sa fortune; but the word marry has some magical power over me: however passionately I love a woman, if she lets me so much as feel that I ought to marry her—goodbye to love! My heart is turned to stone, and nothing will warm it up again.
It’s not just that Pechorin is averse to marriage, or afraid of it. The word has real effects: it changes his heart to stone, and actually rids him of love. And the word got this power, well, through a pronouncement:
It’s a sort of innate terror, inexpressible foreboding… Should I admit it?… When I was still a child, an old woman told my fortune for my mother; she predicted my death on account of a malevolent wife; this affected me deeply at the time: in my soul was born an insuperable aversion to marriage…
He even had to admit the story about the fortune, and asking whether he should do so admits there is significance in that as well. And like the word “marry,” the fortune-teller’s pronouncement had real effects.
This has gone on long enough, and I hope you get the idea. But I haven’t even mentioned “The Fatalist,” the last story in the journal. The end of that, with Maxim Maximych and Pechorin trying to explain to him the meaning of the word predestination… Oh, and—did I mention he is writing this all down?
*Hm, notice how I quoted the foreword to the whole novel to set up for the last post?
**To whom words matter so much that she goes by the Anglicized version of her name.
***Who also has a way with words: “He had a spiteful tongue: with one of his epigrams as a label, more than one good man has come to be thought of as a vulgar fool….”
****And let’s not forget who’s really in control, here, either—Lermontov is good.