Bias in “Eugene Onegin” and “A Hero of Our Time”
Narrators provide insight into a character with the way they are described and what events are emphasized. In Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin, and A Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov, both have engaged voices, which add a more personal element to the novels, perhaps bias, to the reader’s understanding of the characters.
The personal element is the relationship the narrators have with the characters. It forces the reader to evaluate the characters as companions, rather than characters. Eugene Onegin’s narrative voice comes from a narrator speaking as a friend. Because the narrator is a friend of Eugene Onegin, the narrator is much more compassionate, and less critical. He describes Onegin in a negative light, but makes excuses for him. When confronting Tatyana about her letter, the narrator explains that Onegin was deeply moved, but he coldly rejects her because “Eugene had no wish to betray/ a soul so innocent, so trusting” (Pushkin 4, X1, 11-12). It is hard to believe that these are truly Eugene’s thoughts, not the narrator’s interpretation, because Eugene is a superfluous man; he thinks of his own needs and desires before others. If he were actually trying to be delicate of Tatyana’s feelings he would have been more sensitive while speaking with her. Yet, he still talks of himself – “But I was simply not intended/ for happiness – that alien role,” when explaining why he will not marry her (Pushkin 4, XV, 1-2). Here, the narrator explains Eugene’s actions and words, and does not chastise Eugene’s selfish behavior, then directs the narration to Tatyana’s reaction of embarrassment. The narrator does connect the hurt hurtful words to Tatyana’s reaction. This partial evaluation is out of blind friendship.
Interestingly, however, the narrator changes his tone based on which character he is describing. He uses words like, “dear” when referring to Tatyana and the reader. It seems as if the narrator is speaking directly to the reader, rather than through text, evoking emotion from the reader. When discussing Tatyana’s absorption of neighbor’s gossip about her potential match with Eugene, the narrator “weeps,” “for [Tatyana has],/ at this early date,/into a modish tyrant’s keeping/ resigned disposal of your fate” (Pushkin 3, XV, 1-3). The narrator is very upset by the direction of Tatyana’s life because he cares for her. In seeing his compassion for Tatyana, the reader can’t help but feel bad for Tatyana’s falling trap to societal expectations of love. At the same time however, the narrator sees the issue with Tatyana’s fate, not with how Eugene responds to her. Out of pity for Tatyana and friendship towards Onegin, the narrator blames external powers, rather than the character’s behavior, to protect his beloved character from harsh judgment.
Unlike Onegin’s narrator, the narrator in A Hero of Our Time speaks as a critical observer. He sets the reader’s understanding of Pechorin in a negative light. He critiques all of Pechorin’s physical attributes, then recognizes his bias when he says, “All these thoughts may have suggested themselves to me merely because I knew something of his life,” but this does not change the view that the reader hears and understands (Lermontov 49). After this negative introduction of physical features and recognition of bias, we hear from a friend’s perspective, but we watch how Pechorin offends the speaker, just a couple pages later, discrediting the previous narration. This emphasizes the truth of the previous critical narration.
Then we hear from Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin himself. Because Pechorin’s narration is in the form of diary notes, it is not filtered, which makes it honestly self-critical, feeding into the negative impression that was already formed. He is obviously manipulative when speaking to his “friends.” In “Princess Mary,” the longest collection of travel notes, Pechorin first describes the discrepancies between his thoughts and actions. When meeting with Grushnitsky, Pechorin describes Grushnitsky’s personality and outward appearance, and then writes, “I’ve seen through him, and that’s why he dislikes me – though outwardly we are on the best terms” (Lermontov 73). This blatant comment advertises his comfort with inward and outward contradiction. The only reason the reader is able to discern the truth is because the narration is in the form of diary notes, so the reader is aware of thoughts as well as what is spoken.
Sometimes, there are no direct thoughts that accompany the spoken words, which makes understanding the true situation more convoluted. When Pechorin is speaking with Princess Mary, he explains, “I became a moral cripple” because “I was ready to love the whole world, but no one understood me, so I learned to hate” (Lermontov 106). These declarations are part of a long monologue, but Pechorin does not comment on his monologue to Mary after the fact. This leads the reader to believe that what Pechorin said was actually what he believed. This is confusing for the reader because the reader has previously seen him act in a manipulative fashion. In a diary entry, he admits, “I’ve often wondered why I’m trying so hard to win the love of a girl I have no desire to seduce and whom I’d never marry”(Lermontov 102). Contrary to his monologue, this entry shows that he is being compulsively manipulative. This enables the reader to conclude that Pechorin actually believes that he became “evil” because people didn’t believe him, but his own bias blocks him from seeing his manipulative behavior in the moment. He is only able to reflect on his behavior in retrospect; this is a defense mechanism protecting his own ego. This inability is his personal bias. As readers watch his behavior, they have to discern what is Pechorin’s perspective compared to what is the real effect of his behavior.
Both Eugene Onegin’s narrator and A Hero of Our Time’s multiple narrators are deeply affected by their personal biases. Both Onegin and Tatyana are judged less critically because the narrator has deep affection for them. Similarly, Pechorin is judged less harshly because he is being self-critical; he frames his judgment through excuses and explanations, rather than observations. In this way, he protects his own analysis and the reader understands his interpretation of his behavior, rather than making their own conclusions. Because Pechorin’s behavior is prefaced with two other narrators, this self-protection is more difficult to observe because the other two narrators display the faults in Pechorin’s character. Consequently, the reader is almost looking to justify the starter narrators’ opinions. In both cases, the narrator blocks the reader from critically analyzing the characters on their own conditions. The narrator’s biases formulate a particular image of the characters that is not necessary consistent with the actual behavior described.