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Lermontov and the Omniscience of Narrators

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 20, Number 1, April 1996
pp. 61-74 | 10.1353/phl.1996.0039

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Philosophy and Literature 20.1 (1996) 61-74

God and fictional narrators are the only beings who are sometimes considered omniscient. God, who is sometimes regarded as not fictional, is frequently also regarded as omnipotent. Narrators, who normally seem to have no sphere of action save for conveying information to readers, particularly when they speak omnisciently in the third person, are not considered to have "power" in any way, because they are supposed to function outside the story. God always speaks in the first person, and is regarded as an all-powerful agent.

But what happens when the narrator gets in on the action? First-person narrators can enter the plot, speaking in the voice of personal narrative, and sometimes "know" as much or more than some third-person narrators who are supposedly "omniscient." The positivistic "third-person omniscient" narrator of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, for instance, knows only what he sees, and though his omnipresence allows him to see quite a bit, he has virtually no access to the minds of the characters, as do the psychologically omniscient third-person narrators of Tolstoy or Henry James. If knowledge were thus limited in the context of a novel to observables, a first-person narrator who gets around enough could appear much like an omniscient narrator, while also appearing to present a particular point of view. Conversely, the third-person narrator's seeming objectivity is similarly illusory. Any narrator "chooses" what information to relay, and when and how to relay it. In a sense, third-person omniscient narrators fictionally determine what counts as "the story," creating the fictional world with their godlike voice. Some overbearing narrators, like Nikolai Chernyshevsky's anonymous first-person narrator in What Is To Be Done, adopt not only an omniscient and objective standpoint with regard to the actions and thoughts of the characters, but even presume to tell readers how to interpret the events in the novel. Therefore, all narrators have varying amounts of both knowledge and power, and in some cases they may approach, within variously circumscribed spheres of knowledge and agency, omniscience and omnipotence.

In this essay, I would like to explore the range of constraints and effects of the narrator's fictional power and knowledge. As a test case, I have chosen Mikhail Lermontov's novel, A Hero of Our Time (Geroi nashego vremeni). Writing between 1837 and 1840, Lermontov was one of the first Russian writers to experiment with the form of the novel, influenced primarily by contemporary English, French, and German examples, as well as the classical epic, making this work, like many of the early Russian novels of the 1820s and 1830s, a jumble of narrative styles interestingly layered on each other. It is a particularly fecund work for studies of narrative subjectivity, because characters shift from narrator to narratee across a variety of genres, all in one text.

A Hero of Our Time is composed of five major chapters: "Bela," "Maksim Maksimich," "Taman," "Princess Mary," and "The Fatalist," the last three of which comprise the journal of the main character, the officer Grigory Pechorin. The "journal" chapters are preceded by a brief section, set in 1838 or 1839, sometime after Pechorin's death, called the "Introduction to Pechorin's Journal." In "Bela" an unnamed traveler gathering stories in the Caucasus during the year 1837 meets an older officer, Maksim Maksimich, who tells a yarn about the Byronic adventures of Pechorin in the spring of 1833 involving his abduction of a Circassian woman after whom the chapter is named. The second chapter is an interlude, which takes place in 1837, where Maksim and the first narrator actually meet Pechorin, whom Maksim has not seen for about five years, and Pechorin gives his diaries to the first narrator. "Taman" recounts, in the form of a diary, a strange incident in which Pechorin, around 1830, meets smugglers while stranded in the Crimea and is nearly drowned by a young girl. "Princess Mary," the longest tale, takes place in May 1832 -- a love story modeled after Aleksander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, culminating in a duel in which Pechorin prevails over a certain Grushnitskij, his friend earlier in the story. Following the duel...

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