Literary Background

Lermontov is widely accepted to have produced with his work A Hero of Our Time the first major novel in Russian literature. Prose fiction did already exist in Russia before the novel's publication, and long prose works had been attempted in the early years of the nineteenth century. However, these efforts were not really deserving of the title 'novels'. The only possible exceptions were Alexander Pushkin's long tale The Captain's Daughter, and his immensely famous "novel in verse" Eugene Onegin. Most Russian readers of the 1820s and 1830s relied upon foreign novels in translation, or in the case of the upper circles of society, on French novels in the original, French being the language spoken by the Russian aristocracy at the time.

However, by the mid-1830s a new middle class reading public was emerging which required fiction that was not in verse but in prose. Lermontov recognised this, and his narrative poem A Fairy Tale for Children opens with the lines:

"The age of epic poems has long since passed
And tales in verse have fallen into decline."

But even so, Nikolai Gogol in the 1830s and Ivan Turgenev in the 1840s both began their careers writing narrative poems before switching to prose. At first Gogol wrote tales set in his native Ukraine which were full of the "native colour" that his readers demanded, but then influenced by writers such as the famous German, E. T. A. Hoffman, he turned his attention to tales mainly set in St. Petersburg, in which he concentrated on the lives of "little men", civil servants, clerks and the like. In doing so, he started the development of the "physiological sketch" in Russian literature. These tales depicted deliberately unheroic protagonists in unromantic milieux, but what Lermontov's readers wanted in the 1830s and early '40s were the adventure and exoticism of the romantic Caucasus.

But although Pushkin and Gogol initiated two important traditions in the Russian novel (which would be continued later by great writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Turgenev and Fyodor Dostoevsky) the works of these latter writers did not begin to appear until the 1860s and even Gogol's Dead Souls was not published until 1842. Lermontov was therefore writing almost without precedent when he embarked on his deservedly most famous work: A Hero of Our Time.

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