Abstract

This paper provides a critical analysis of literary disability in Mikhail Lermontov's "Taman'," the most famous story in his semiautobiographical novel, A Hero of Our Time (1838-40). It focuses on three disabled characters: the blind boy, the deaf old woman proprietor, and the mad young woman. These characters have traditionally been treated as projections of the hero-narrator's imagination, as part of the story's Gothic aspects, or as metaphors meant to reveal something about him, thus reducing disability to a textual device. Even when central to the interpretation, disability tends to be read by Lermontov critics as figurative or counterfeit. This project aims, therefore, to reclaim the characters whose disabilities are undermined by the critical tradition. Through a contextualized close reading, it considers how these characters and the narrative events in which they are entangled shape—and ultimately unmake—Pechorin, the eponymous "hero of our time," whose perceptions of dis/ability are challenged by the events of the story he recounts. The paper finds that the depiction of disability in "Taman'" confirms some aspects of our limited historical knowledge about disability (invalidnost') in nineteenth-century Russia and tells us something about conceptions of Romantic literary disability more broadly.


"Taman'" is the most famous story in Mikhail Lermontov's semi-autobiographical Romantic novel, A Hero of Our Time (1838-1840). Anthologists outside of Russia regularly detach it from the parent novel; Russian teachers use it for intermediate-level students (Barratt and Briggs 48). There are solid reasons for approaching this curious chapter "as a free-standing entity" (Andrew 450). Unlike the rest of the novel, for example, "Taman'" is not set in the Caucasus, but in the small coastal town of Taman' in southern Russia; its title draws attention to the story's uncanny setting, while its placement in the middle of Lermontov's novel marks the generic transition from travel notes to the eponymous hero's diary (Sobol 67). Although readers disagree about its merits, 1 critical interpretations of the story abound, ranging from conservative to progressive, with a focus on narrative, politics, gender, and much in between (Barratt and Briggs 48, 59, 1-3). 2

Missing from this rich critical tradition, however, is a critical reading of literary disability in "Taman'" that foregrounds the blind boy, the deaf old woman proprietor, and the mad young woman, whom the hero-narrator and "hero of our time," Grigorii Pechorin, encounters during his brief sojourn in the strange town of Taman'. These three characters have traditionally been treated as figments of Pechorin's imagination, as part of the story's many Gothic aspects (Andrew 545), and as metaphors meant to reveal something about him or act as catalysts for some sort of heroic transformation. Even when central to the interpretation, disability is largely understood as figurative or counterfeit, with one critic questioning whether the boy is really blind (Peace 28). Critical literature on "Taman'" mimics Pechorin's own treatment of disability, ascribing his transformation to his experience with these enigmatic characters without recognizing their difference or thoughtfully exposing the ethics of such a "move." In this way, both the hero-narrator and Lermontov's critics treat disability in this story as a "narrative prosthesis," in David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's words, that is, "as a crutch upon which literary narratives lean for their representational power, disruptive potentiality, and analytical insight" (49).

As Jay Dolmage urges, "it is important to revisit the ways disability has been erased and the ways [disabled people] have been minimized or eradicated throughout history" (11). The field of Russian studies has yet to engage with critical disability studies in any substantive way, and is much in need of such awareness given the pervasiveness of disability in nineteenth-century Russian literature, including such prominent characters as Kapitan Kopeikin in Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls (1842), Gerasim in Ivan Turgenev's "Mumu" (1854), and Prince Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoevsky's Idiot (1869). In this article, therefore, I recognize and underscore the role of disability, and consider how disabled characters and the narrative events in which they are entangled shape—and ultimately unmake—the hero-narrator, whose perceptions of dis/ability are challenged by the events of the story he recounts. The way he is transformed by his encounters with disability might, moreover, tell us something about Romantic conceptions of literary disability more broadly. Pechorin comes to Taman' armed and ready for battle, but leaves starving, with his weapons stolen, and his ego shattered by the young boy and the enigmatic young woman who uncannily navigate the landscape that threatens to consume him. The question to ask is, not just how disability participates in this transformation, but how can we reclaim these disabled characters subsumed by analyses privileging the main hero?

A Hero of Our Time was written by a not quite twenty-five year old Lermontov (1814-1841) while in exile in the Caucasus, following the publication of his revolutionary poem on the death of the great Romantic poet Aleksandr Pushkin ("The Death of the Poet," 1837). The novel consists of five loosely related stories centered on the cynical yet sensitive, existentially bored, Byronic hero Pechorin, a "superfluous man" in the tradition of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, the hero of his eponymous verse-novel (1825-1832). A common literary trope, the "superfluous man" of the 1840s and '50s was one who, while talented and capable of great things, felt alienated and out of place. As Andrew Barratt and A. D. P. Briggs note, Lermontov's hero also anticipates the bookishness of the unnamed narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (1864) since he "spots an adventure and longs to be part of it"; however, "the 'heroic' paradigm which he chooses for the expression of his self-image properly belongs only on the pages of rousing literature," forcing him "to live life like literature" (62; original emphasis).

Although Pechorin does not come to Taman' seeking an adventure, he goes out of his way to find one. Taman', the hero-narrator notes in the opening sentence, is "the nastiest little town of all the coastal towns in Russia"; he then proceeds to spoil the ending by announcing, "I almost died of starvation, and besides that, they wanted to drown me" (Lermontov 56). 3 While looking for lodging and insisting that he is an officer on official duty, a designation hardly fit for an impromptu adventure, Pechorin learns that the only vacant accommodations have something "uncanny" or "impure" about them (56). It is there, in a small hovel by the sea, that he meets the blind boy and later on spots an enigmatic young woman (both are unnamed), whom he follows down a treacherous path to the shore. He observes the two young people as they wait for another to arrive by boat, and soon learns about their smuggling enterprise. In the morning, still unable to secure passage to his next station on the Black Sea, Pechorin confronts the old woman proprietor who replies, to all his questions, that she cannot hear. He interrogates the boy about the parcel he carried the night before, but is met with confusion and denial. He then hears someone singing, notices a young woman perched on the roof of the house, and attempts to engage her before she flees. Later that evening, she beckons him to follow her and leads him, by the hand, down to the shore and into a boat.

While at sea, Pechorin realizes that his pistol is missing, struggles with the young woman, who tries to throw him overboard fearing that having seen their nighttime exchange, he would expose the smugglers; with much effort, he manages to throw her into the waves. Once back on land, where he is safe given his inability to swim and the threatening unruliness of the waters which he spares no detail describing, Pechorin once again spies on the smugglers and watches the young woman sail away with the man from the night before (Yanko), leaving the boy behind with a few coins. Pechorin can finally leave Taman' the next morning. He concludes the story by admitting that it would be too ridiculous to complain to his supervisors about "having been robbed by a blind boy and nearly drowned by an eighteen-year old girl" (Lermontov 67). In the final lines he states, "What became of the old woman and the poor blind boy—I do not know. And besides, the joys and sorrows of humankind are none of my business—me, a wandering officer, and one with a travel warrant on official duty, to boot!…" (67). Pechorin's claim that, as an officer bound by duty, he has no business meddling in others' affairs manifestly contradicts the narrated events and his obsessive pursuit, as readers are quick to point out (Peace 16).

Clare Barker and Stuart Murray argue that, on the one hand, "[d]isability is everywhere in literature" while, on the other, it is also "frequently not seen" because it is the site where many other topics intersect, which raise questions "presumed to be more 'important' (and nearly always nondisabled)" (1-2). This is the case with Lermontov criticism; it tends to focus on questions of heroism (whether Pechorin is a hero living at a tragically unheroic time, a villain, a prophet, or an existentially sick man) and its ideological and gendered dynamics. As Barker and Murray further note, disability is often treated "primarily as a metaphor, a textual device" (2-3). Indeed, added to its critical undermining is the preponderance of symbolic readings of disability, including Joe Andrew's nuanced and otherwise immensely persuasive thematic analysis of the hero's scopophilia and metaphorical blindness (read as Pechorin's Oedipal fear of castration), which, from a critical disability perspective, appears as "over-interpretation, or as critically naïve when not combined with a sophisticated understanding of social and historical processes" (Bradshaw, Disabling 10-11).

All the principal characters in the story, not counting the hero-narrator himself (whose own "ability," however, is brought into question), have some form of disability: the boy is blind, the old woman proprietor is deaf, and the young woman is possibly mad. Yet due to the limited narrative perspective of the hero-narrator who is a stranger to Taman', Lermontov's story tells us virtually nothing about their lives. Such lack of knowledge is congruous with what we know—or, rather, do not know—about the conceptions and treatment of disability in nineteenth-century tsarist Russia. Prior to the Soviet period, when the Bolsheviks instated a formal system of classification and administration of disability (invalidnost'), very little was recorded about the lives of disabled persons, along with how disability was socially perceived, defined, assessed, and experienced. The little that we know comes from the writings of Vasilii Eroshenko (1890-1952), a blind musician and Esperanto enthusiast, who studied at schools for the blind in Moscow and London and later founded a school for the blind in Turkmenistan (Phillips n13).

Blindness in Russia has long been seen in a religious light, as earthly physical suffering that brings a person closer to God; it is to be distinguished from spiritual blindness associated with sin (Isaiah 29:10; Matthew 6:23; John 3:19). Blind people's souls were believed to have been endowed with a special force and ability for "internal sight," something which was also thought to provide even those struck with sudden blindness with some solace. Blind people not born into wealth often ended up as paupers, however. Others sought personal salvation by giving alms to and empathizing with the blind (Troianova). In the arts, "blind people are most often seen as symbolic embodiments of helplessness, suffering, loneliness, unfairness, and poverty. Quite frequently they also figure as folk prophets, wandering musicians and singers, submerged in deep, trance-like reflection" (Sorokin 224).

Discussing disability in pre-Soviet Russia and Ukraine, Sarah Phillips notes that physically and intellectually disabled people were not ostracized or socially isolated, but were rather integrated into communities centered on shared Orthodoxy, where they worked alongside others (making baskets and fishing nets, for example). In the premodern period, blind "wandering minstrels" and "strolling beggars," many of whom had disabilities, were often subjects of charity or the wards of churches and monasteries; referred to variously as ubogie ("extremely poor," "miserable"; literally, "of God"), iurodivye ("holy fools"), and proroki ("prophets"), they were both revered and feared (Phillips). Following the efforts of Peter the Great (1682-1725) to increase the role of the state in identifying and regulating the lives of disabled people, in 1775 Catherine the Great (1762-96) established regional Departments of Public Welfare responsible for building asylums to accommodate "the insane," though there is reason to believe that such individuals continued to be cared for predominantly by their families, as asylums were viewed with suspicion (Phillips). Urbanization and industrialization further changed the lives of disabled people leaving those settling in cities largely uncared for, as the responsibility for care remained not with secular structures but with the Orthodox Church and social elites (Phillips). The founding of the Murzkina school, the first school for deaf children, in 1807 was followed by that of a school for the blind—all thanks to philanthropic support (Phillips).

The depiction of literary disability in Lermontov's "Taman'" reflects in part the social history of invalidnost' in nineteenth-century Russia. The blind boy is in a smugglers' group that operates just outside Taman''s small community, but is not ostracized by it. An orphan, he lives and helps out at the old woman's house, providing Pechorin with information upon arrival and serving the part of the host. Without familial and philanthropic support or proper state infrastructure, the boy must resort to smuggling to make a living; that he is ultimately left behind with a handful of coins corroborates the general view that blind individuals not born into wealth struggled financially. When Pechorin first meets him and asks whether he is the owner's son, the boy replies that he is "an orphan, a pauper" (Lermontov 57). The word for "pauper" in Russian is ubogii, meaning literally "of God," which was often applied to disabled people, reinforcing their connection to the supernatural (Phillips). The hero-narrator tells us too little about the old woman to historicize her experience. She is in possession of some resources as the proprietor of a however modest accommodation, but that her property is viewed superstitiously as "impure" may be a clue about its owner's perceived identity.

A close contextualized reading of literary disability in "Taman'" might, moreover, help us explore Romantic conceptions of blindness, deafness, and madness, which have been taken up by recent criticism in Romantic disability studies, along with readings contextualizing Romantic works in terms of their authors' lived experience with disability (Bradshaw, "'Concentred Recompense'"). Lermontov's life is, arguably, relevant to understanding A Hero of Our Time; the novel has been read by Soviet and western critics alike as a study of mental sickness, of a "troubled psyche," written by an author who was as "disturbed" and "desperate" as his hero—something Lermontov's contemporaries knew and an early Soviet psychiatrist confirmed through a clinical account of the author's personality (Barratt and Briggs 126). According to some memoirists, the events of the story were inspired by Lermontov's own time in Taman' in 1837 (Lermontov 484n). Also notable is the reference to disease in the closing sentence of the author's preface to the second edition: "It is enough to point out the disease; how to remedy it only God knows" (Lermontov 8). The "disease" is identified with the "hero of our time," whose portrait, the author insists, is not of a single individual but rather a composite of "all the vices of our generations" (8). What society needs are "bitter medicine and caustic truths," even if these "turn their stomachs" (8). Given the many ironies permeating the book, as Barratt and Briggs have shown, we must read this statement with a grain of salt: is Lermontov pulling our leg by giving us such a "hero"? Does his spiritual "disease" make Pechorin an antihero, or is it somehow symptomatic of a broader social malaise? Even if "disease" figures metaphorically, the rhetoric of pathology, digestive distress, and medicine draws attention to the theme of disability foregrounded in "Taman'."

Taking a critical disability approach, I resist reading Lermontov's story as the projection of the narrator's mind which might lead to the unfortunate mis/reading of the boy's blindness or the old woman's deafness as not being real. Some critics warn specifically against questioning the boy's condition (Barratt and Briggs 123), whereas others conceive of the disabilities as "hypothetical" in a broader ideological reading (Sobol 74). There is certainly much thematic resonance in the boy's blindness, especially as juxtaposed with the hero-narrator's scopophilia (he cannot help spying on the smugglers), along with his metaphorical "blindness" (Andrew 468); but to read it symbolically, as reflecting the hero's own fears and prejudices, reduces the disabled characters to literary distortions of a nondisabled (and ableist) hero, thus further playing into the egotistical self-portrait Pechorin attempts in his Journal. As Fuson Wang points out, "a literary critical approach reads the theme of blindness as a metaphor for a kind of paradoxical insight, whereas a disability studies reading takes umbrage at the exploitation of the blind for narrative gain" (1). To understand the boy's blindness exclusively as a metaphor would mean not just to mis/read it, but also to succumb to a stereotype of Romanticism as ethereal and disembodied, what Emily Stanback has done much to combat (Wang 9, n5).

Mis/reading the boy's disability "as an opportunistic metaphorical device," in Mitchell and Snyder's words (47), Lermontov critics focus less on the boy's physical blindness and more on Pechorin's metaphorical "blindness" to comment on the hero-narrator's inability to see/read (people) properly. Barratt and Briggs suggest that Pechorin's depictions of the natives as infernal and abnormal creatures be interpreted as part of his tendency to romanticize and exaggerate (49ff). Valeria Sobol argues that deformation is one way in which ethnographic narratives distance and dehumanize other/ed cultures (69). In her postcolonial reading of the story, Sobol argues that it is the empire's ethnographic prerogative to question the natives' physical disabilities as part of "marking ethnic or geographical difference in physical terms" (74). "The locals," she contends, "are exoticized primarily by their (hypothetical) muteness, deafness, and insanity" (74). R. A. Peace finds metaphorical "blindness" to be the crux of Lermontov's story, tying it in with the hero's lack of awareness: "One is entitled to ask who it is who really is blind in this story: is it the blind boy who climbs the cliffs at night, or is it the ever-wakeful Pechorin?" (28). Peace contends that such "blindness" is consistent with the external portrayal of the hero (continuous with the novel's earlier chapters) despite the first-person perspective assumed in Pechorin's Journal (28). Along similar lines, Andrew reads "blindness" symbolically as the state into which the hero temporarily plunges while in Taman''s "kingdom of darkness," where everyone seems to possess supernatural powers: the blind boy can see, the deaf old woman can hear, and the young woman whom he calls "undine" (mermaid) defends herself with "supernatural force" (Andrew 454-55). Andrew reads this descent into darkness as part of "the hero's quest for meaning, or, rather, clear-sightedness" (468).

These exemplify the difference between a literary analysis and a critical disability reading which would reveal, rather, that such an emphasis on Pechorin (his ethnographic writing, metaphorical "blindness," scopophilia) reduces the boy's blindness to a metaphor for understanding the main hero while, at the same time, dehumanizing the disabled individual. Similarly, Andrew analyzes the depiction of the woman proprietor as either a witch or a trickster fooling the "gullible narrator" (459). It must be, in other words, magic or pretense. But what about the third possibility, that of a (perhaps partially) deaf person who is painted by the narrator in a more sinister light to cover up his humiliation, a portrait further informed by his self-professed prejudice against differently-abled people?

Pechorin first meets the boy "of about fourteen" in the dark, and it is not until he lights a match that he faces his "two white eyes": "The boy was blind, completely blind from birth" (Lermontov 57). Whatever its Gothic connotations, the focus on the boy's eyes confirms that "almost all disability labels work through synecdoche, urging us to see the disabled person as their broken 'part'" (Dolmage 102). This leads into the most damning characterization of "a hero of our time": "I confess," Pechorin says, "that I am strongly prejudiced against all blind, deformed, deaf, mute, legless, armless, hunchbacked, etc." (Lermontov 57). The abbreviation "etc." at the end sounds particularly dismissive in a long line of homogenizing adjectives. "I have noticed that there is always a strange connection between a person's exterior and his soul," Pechorin adds, "as though with the loss of an organ the soul also loses some sort of feeling" (57). Literary depictions of disability are often "accompanied by a value judgment" (Barker and Murray 1). Pechorin's presupposition that a person's exterior reflects their interior is a staple of medieval morality plays present in other Romantic texts. 4 While the belief in the transparency of the soul and the body may be expected from a Romantic cliché like Pechorin, his insistence on such transparency is ironic because it effectively reveals his own failure to "read" people: to probe further than merely accepting that what their body exhibits is who they really are. Later in the narrative, as Pechorin falls victim to Taman''s strange environment, he questions his initial impression about the boy's blindness. To enhance the supernatural atmosphere of the forsaken coastal town while forging his own exoneration, the hero-narrator both questions the boy's disability and suggests that it is divine (or demonic); if the former, the boy's competent spatial navigation of a familiar landscape is explainable through skill and experience regardless of sight, making Pechorin's failure to orient himself in an unfamiliar place less damning; if the latter, being duped by him is hardly a failing for a mere mortal.

As Barker and Murray write, disability representation tends to "connec[t] the fact of disability to an extension of how that fact might be read," with accounts of disabled bodies almost always including some "comment on what that body does or, crucially, means" (2; original emphasis). The second of the two paragraphs in which Pechorin ponders the blind boy's facial features is illuminating in this respect:

And so I began to examine the face of the blind [boy]: but what can you read on a face that has no eyes? For a long while I looked at him with involuntary compassion, when suddenly a slightly noticeable smile darted across his thin lips, and, I don't know why, left the most unpleasant impression. I started to suspect that this blind [boy] is not as blind as he might seem; in vain did I try to convince myself to the contrary, that albugo cannot be counterfeited, and to what end? But what's to be done? I am often swayed by prejudice… (Lermontov 57)

Since this is a narrative told in retrospect, upon a humiliating failure that, as Barratt and Briggs argue, may be responsible for the rewording of the details, it is reasonable for the hero-narrator to want to cast doubt on the boy's "sight," suggesting that "this blind [boy] is not as blind as he might seem." He is all the more astounded to find the boy walking in the dark, "with a steady, though careful stride," while making his way down a narrow and steep path (58). But what it also brings into focus is the force of preconceptions even against a sound understanding of albugo, the condition commonly known as being wall-eyed, in which a white opacity appears on the cornia or an unusual amount of white is showing. The boy's eyes are so striking that they become, for Pechorin, his identifying trait; later he fetishizes him as "the boy with the white eyes" (58).

It is at this moment that Pechorin summons Isaiah 29:18: "The day the mute shall speak and the blind shall see" (Lermontov 58). The biblical allusion adds an ominous tone to an otherwise mundane evening: presumably, the smugglers have been operating with the boy's help for some time and would have continued to do so had Pechorin not interfered with this arrangement. Pechorin implies, moreover, that such prophetic "sight" prevents the boy from perishing in the tumultuous sea with "the foam of the boulders threatening to drown him at any minute," but at the same time asserts that "this was not his first walk" (58), thereby diminishing the surprise at such steady walking by providing a rational explanation for the seemingly eerie navigation: experience and skill. In his discussion of common cultural myths about disability, Dolmage cites the "overcompensating or compensation" myth, according to which a disabled person "overcomes their impairment through hard work or has some special talent that offsets their deficiencies"; the audience, in turn, "does not have to focus on the disability, or challenge the stigma that this disability entails, but instead refocuses attention toward the 'gift'" (39). Whether due to enhanced spatial orientation or some supernatural sense, the boy is recast, then, as what Joseph Shapiro calls a "super crip" (Dolmage 39).

It is further ironic that the voyeur nearly falls victim to drowning, the very fate he is so stunned the boy avoids. On this occasion, as on several others, the real danger is not as great as Pechorin makes it out to be (Barratt and Briggs 124). His narrative exploitation of the boy's disability—the mythicizing, the questioning—keeps diverting the focus from the boy back to the hero-narrator's perception that he himself lacks the ability to navigate the environment that the boy seems to have despite, or because of, his (alleged) blindness. The narrative, in other words, keeps transforming the boy's disability into a comment on Pechorin's own lack of ability to read, understand, and control his surroundings.

Notable, too, is the contrast between Pechorin's and the boy's encounter with the darkness outside. Upon noticing a fleeting shadow, the hero-narrator dons his beshmet (a kaftan characteristic of Turkic and Caucasian peoples) and places a dagger under his belt (Lermontov 58). There is a narrative balance to him arming himself at the start of the adventure—the visual pursuit of the smugglers—and ultimately finding himself robbed of all his armor by these same smugglers. His dagger, in effect, becomes a sort of prosthesis revealing the imperfections underlying his "heroic" identity, whereas the boy, whose "two white eyes" cannot see, as the hero keeps insisting, needs no armor or external prostheses.

Adding both to the skepticism about the boy's disability and its supernatural potential, the young woman, his partner in crime, questions the boy's perceptive dis/ability. When the boy claims that he can sense the approach of Yanko's boat from afar, she interjects: "You're hallucinating, blind [boy]. I don't see anything" (Lermontov 59). The boy is proven right, however, when, ten minutes later, the boat appears. Although some critics take this to confirm, through other characters' questioning, that the blindness may not be real (Sobol 71), it is worth noting that, unlike Pechorin, the young woman questions the boy's supernatural perceptiveness rather than his blindness.

Taken together, the two instances of questioning the blind boy's skillful navigating of the physical environment and his intuiting of the boat's approach point to two readings of dis/ability in Lermontov's story with opposing valuation: (1) a Romantic obsession with otherness that celebrates the supernatural aspects of alterity, specifically that of disabled individuals navigating an uncanny environment, or, conversely, (2), an account of an ableist hero-narrator biased against a person whose skills and experience outmatch his own, along with a fetishization that reduces this person to his disability ("two white eyes"). This account, moreover, is recast in supernatural light to justify the hero's failure to dominate his surroundings and therefore to help him save face.

The latter reading points to another aspect of how disability is depicted in the narrative: an ambiguous heterogeneity which the hero-narrator finds confusing. Pechorin seems uncomfortable around the blind boy, and confronted with one "abnormality," he looks for others, finding in the boy's use of language—first "Little Russian" or Ukrainian, then "pure" Russian—a source of potential deception (if he can navigate two languages as well as a treacherous environment, perhaps the boy is not blind, after all) and veneration (the boy is clearly adept at navigating linguistic and physical environments) (Lermontov 59). An example of what one critic calls "problematic otherness" (Etkind, quoted in Sobol 75), this use of Ukrainian (and Ukraine) is revealing of the boy's otherness and, at the same time, closeness to Pechorin: "In the Romantic era, Ukraine—a closely related Slavic nation with a shared historic and cultural origin but a distinct history and a rich folk tradition—emblematized the 'other' that is also nearly the 'self,' whose language is both foreign and familiar" (Sobol 75). This produces an unsettling liminality that would also support Andrew's reading of Pechorin's metaphorical "blindness": the boy literalizes what the hero fears, his own inability to "see"—that is, to accurately perceive and read—and thus his susceptibility to be deceived. He recognizes in the boy's paradoxical "sight" something that he himself lacks.

As I demonstrate in the preceding analysis, Pechorin's perceptions of dis/ability are challenged by the events of the story he recounts. A related contested borderline lies between reason and madness. This is evident in Pechorin's depiction of the young woman whose behavior, as he describes it, suggests madness although he himself protests to the contrary. A critical disability reading of the young woman may at first seem out of place; if, in the case of the blind boy, Pechorin refers to him by his disability (albeit also questioning it), he never positively identifies her as mad. Her mental condition is debated by critics, as well. Sobol notes that the undine "acts in the most bizarre fashion, making Pechorin wonder whether she is mad" (69). Barratt and Briggs describe her as "clearly a capricious and puzzling creature in her own right," adding that "Pechorin is determined to build up her enigmatic qualities as high as they will go" (55). The wound to the hero's ego (Yanko gets the girl, not Pechorin) makes her characterization perhaps even less reliable. Andrew notes that despite her erratic behavior, Pechorin "is prepared to concede that she shows no signs of madness" (461). The hero-narrator describes her as a "[s]trange creature," with eyes full of "magnetic power" yet "wild and disdainful" sidelong glances (Lermontov 62), who sang "strange songs" and engaged in "mysterious speeches" or "riddles" (63). He meticulously documents her behavior, first appearing on top of the roof, singing; then bursting into laughter while the old proprietor bickers with her; running and hopping; pausing and staring into his eyes; then turning around and walking off. Later that night she just as inexplicably embraces and kisses him (62, 64). Her portrait is marked by allusivity and literary posturing. For example, her nose reminds Pechorin of Goethe's Mignon, the love interest in the 1795 novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. The young woman's histrionic behavior with the hero, furthermore, contrasts her composed demeanor around the other smugglers which, while fitting given her alleged predisposition ("the same abrupt changes from the greatest restlessness to complete immobility, the same strange utterances, the same leaps, the strange songs…" which she shares with Mignon, [64]), can also be read as pretense, rather than madness.

Yet, it is worth noting the irony in the hero's insistence that while the woman's face "showed no signs of madness," her "straight nose drove [him] mad" (Lermontov 62-63). First of all, the hero-narrator attempts to assess the woman's character/istics by judging her face (the practice of physiognomy), once again naively assuming that the exterior must be identical with the interior. Second, both phrases include variations on "mind" or "reason": bezumiia (madness) means literally "without reason" and svel…s uma, "drove [him] out of [his] mind." Such conflicted word choice not only puts into question Pechorin's claim to sanity but may also be informed by the prevailing treatment of madness at the time of Lermontov's writing. As Angela Brintlinger writes, "For Russians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the treatment of madness was tied, as it was for Europeans, to questions of rationality and the Age of Reason. Descartes saw consciousness as rational, and insanity as an absence or illness of reason" (8). In 1762, Tsar Peter III decreed that "mad people were not to be sent to a monastery, but rather to a special house, as was the case in foreign countries" (quoted in Brintlinger 8). If, in the past, mentally disabled individuals were viewed as "holy fools" (or "fools for Christ," iurodivye, considered "touched" or "blessed") under the purview of churches and religious authorities, by the mid-eighteenth century, the care for the mad shifted toward secular institutions and medicine, though psychiatry proper did not emerge until fifty years after the first mental asylums had been established (Brintlinger 7-9). Similar to the boy, the young woman appears to be integrated into a secluded community, where she lives productively, albeit illegitimately, until Pechorin's disruptive arrival.

The hero-narrator's use of demonic comparisons to describe her might stem from the traditional association between madness and possession, which further vilifies mental disability. Pechorin calls her "a true rusalka [mermaid]" and "my undine" (Lermontov 61-62), epithets that combine the demonic with the nonhuman. 5 Both are dangerous femme fatales: the Russian rusalka is the vengeful spirit of a drowned girl who appears at night to lure and drown the man who wronged her, though she poses a threat to any man, not just her seducer; the undine is a water nymph who takes vengeance on her unfaithful husband with a kiss of death (Barratt and Briggs 55). That Pechorin describes the young woman's effort as "supernatural" while the two struggle in the boat solidifies this connection to evil (Lermontov 65). She seals his fate with a dragon-like "moist, fiery kiss" (64). "Given the Biblical thread that runs through the story," according to Andrew, "there is only one short step from the serpentine to the Demonic" (461). Indeed, the hired Cossack calls her a "devil" when she overturns a teapot and a lit candle (Lermontov 64).

The irrational and the supernatural/demonic qualities of the young woman's behavior are reinforced through the parallels Pechorin draws to nonhuman animals, so even as he insists that she "show[s] no signs of madness," he reduces her to otherized beings historically considered to be rationally inferior to humans. As do his mermaid associations, the animal imagery Pechorin draws on in his description of the young woman points to feelings of emasculation following the challenge to his identity as a nondisabled human male/hero:

"Let us get into the boat," said my companion.

I hesitated—I am no lover of sentimental trips on the water; but this was not the

time to retreat.

She sprang into the boat, I went after her, and before I knew it, we were floating.

"What does this mean?"—I asked angrily.

"It means," she replied, sitting me down on the bench and embracing my waist with her arms, "that I love you…"

And her cheek pressed against mine, and I felt her fiery breath on my face.

Suddenly something fell loudly into the water: I clutched at my belt—my pistol was missing! Oh, a terrifying suspicion entered my mind! I look back—we are about fifty fathoms away from the shore, and I can't swim! I want to push her away from me—she's clinging to my clothes like a cat, and suddenly a strong jerk nearly threw me overboard into the sea. The boat was rocking, but I prevailed, and a desperate struggle ensued between the two of us; rage gave me strength, but I quickly noticed that I am inferior to my opponent in agility…

"What do you want?"—I screamed, firmly squeezing her little hands; her fingers crunched, but she made no sound: her snakelike nature withstood the trial.

"You saw us," she responded; "You will tell on us!" With supernatural force she flung me on the side of the boat… (Lermontov 64-65)

It is highly suggestive that, during their "desperate struggle" on the boat, the hero feels his belt to find his pistol is gone; the predator (on woman and animal) is thus symbolically castrated. It is awkward timing, then, for him to remember that he cannot swim; only a few short sentences earlier, he noted that he was "no lover of sentimental trips on the water"—the expression in Russian being okhotnik, literally, a "hunter" (for such trips) (65). The hunter becomes the hunted as Pechorin tries to fight off the young woman who "is clinging to [his] clothes like a cat," conflating femininity with animality. The comparisons to a cat and snake are particularly revealing in their misogyny and speciesism. Animal scholar Cary Wolfe reminds us that "the discourse of speciesism will always be available for use by some humans against other humans as well, to countenance violence against the social other of whatever species—or gender, or race, or class" (quoted in Taylor, 108; original emphasis). Andrew comments on "the reduction of the woman to the animal" through the narrator's comparisons, parenthetically noting that "this animal imagery is concentrated at the end of the story, after he has failed to control her" (Andrew 461): breath suggestive of a dragon, gripping like a cat, snakelike nature.

To make up for his "inferior […] agility," then, Pechorin must draw strength from beshenstvo: the word means both "rage" and "rabies" (hydrophobia, the irrational fear of water), the infectious disease that affects both human and nonhuman animals and is transmitted through an animal bite—perhaps that of a cat-like or snake-like woman? Beshenstvo is, moreover, etymologically connected to bes, or demon, and could be translated as "possession." Another way to understand this is through Mel Y. Chen's "animacy hierarchies," a term that applies to "a particular political grammar […] which conceptually arranges human life, disabled life, animal life, plant life, and forms of nonliving material in orders of value and priority"; "animacy" is defined as "a quality of agency, awareness, mobility, and liveliness" (Chen 13, 2). It is ironic that Pechorin admits to being "inferior" to a disabled woman in her cat-like "agility," thereby reversing the hierarchy typically topped by a nondisabled male like himself.

The case for reading the young woman as Pechorin's demonic double is sound. As a mermaid, she exposes the hero's inability to swim; as an allegedly mad but in reality calculating and sober individual, she exposes his irrational rage, fear, and lack of stability; as an animal-like creature, she exposes the precarity of his assumed human superiority. So, Pechorin must draw on animal/demonic rage precisely when he feels the most emasculated (sans pistol) by this woman with "supernatural force" and when he remembers that he cannot swim—and hence navigate the water element which she, symbolically as a water nymph, dominates. Rather than interpreting the figure of the young woman as a projection, however, we might think about the encounter with "the undine" as a recalibration of physical and mental dis/ability; in other words, the hero-narrator is forced to reconsider his own abilities and limitations. That he loses his cool and becomes mad (like a rabid animal) or possessed (by a demon) suggests that his rational, composed persona is merely a façade and that he clings to a myth of wholeness, ideal beauty, and transparency (which makes him prejudiced against any perceived deviation) precisely because reality is fragmented, embodied, heterogenous, and incongruous. As a nondisabled male hero, he would presumably prefer to remain in control, standing erect—not seated in the boat at the undine's prodding, moments before he nearly loses his literal and metaphorical footing.

Finally, a word about the old woman, the proprietor of the hovel Pechorin rents for the night—she defends the boy against Pechorin's insinuations in the single passage where Pechorin reports her speech. What we learn is that she may or may not be the young woman's mother and that she may or may not be deaf: "To all my questions the old woman replied that she was deaf, short of hearing. What could I get out of her?" (Lermontov 60). As soon as Pechorin begins to press the "blind little devil" about his nocturnal endeavors, she "heard [him] this time and began to grumble: 'Making up accusations, and against a poor boy! what for? what has he done to you?" Pechorin retorts: "I got tired of this, and left, having resolved to find the key to the riddle" (61). The proprietor is mentioned twice more: arguing with the young woman in the middle of the story, and in the final paragraph, in which Pechorin claims he knows not, nor cares about, what happened to her or to the boy (62, 67). As she is not part of the smugglers' group that piques the hero's attention, he both suspects her of pretense and dispenses with her unceremoniously. Hence, even more than the boy or the young woman, the old woman proprietor is included merely for narrative development. There is nothing redeeming in Pechorin's treatment, a blatant disregard for age and disability.

In Narrative Prosthesis, Mitchell and Snyder write, "Disability inaugurates narrative, but narrative inevitably punishes its own prurient interests by overseeing the extermination of the object of its fascination" (Mitchell and Snyder 56-57). Lermontov's hero uses the boy, the proprietor, and the young woman to propel his narrative, the adventure he so craves, and to paint himself its victim. That he thinks it too ridiculous to complain about having been robbed by these characters and claims, in the story's conclusion, not to know what happened to them, further confirms that once their narrative tasks have been fulfilled, they can be disposed of, left behind in their godforsaken town of Taman'.

His nonchalant narrative exploitation of disabled characters (against whom he is biased, as per his own admission) facilitates Pechorin's transformation. He appears to feel pity for the boy when the latter is left behind by the smugglers' leader Yanko and the undine, with the dispensation of a small pittance which the boy demonstratively refuses. Pechorin observes the young woman as she jumps into the boat and gestures to her companion, who then places something in the boy's palm: for "some sweets." To the boy's incredulous "That's it?," Yanko dispenses more, but the boy lets it fall, ringing as it hits the rock. He does not pick it up (Lermontov 66). What follows is sentimental and clichéd, but perhaps underneath all the allusive posturing and Byronic cynicism there lies some trace of real compassion:

For a long while the white sail gleamed in the moonlight among the dark waves; the blind boy kept sitting on the shore, and then I thought I heard something akin to sobbing: the blind boy was definitely crying, and for a long, long time…I became sad. Why did fate throw me into this peaceful circle of honest smugglers? Like a stone dropped into a smooth spring, I disturbed their calmness and, also like a stone, I myself almost went down to the bottom! (66-67)

Such compassionate sadness upon witnessing the pain of another ("I became sad") is short-lived, however; Pechorin soon refers to the boy as "damned" or "cursed" when he finds that all of his belongings back at the hovel (a coffer, a sabre with silver chasing, and a Daghestani dagger, "the gift of a friend") have been stolen, his Cossack having fallen asleep despite strict orders to remain vigilant (67). Still, Pechorin does claim to regret breaking up the smugglers' ring and commiserates with the boy's abandonment, presumably because he will now be alone, much like Pechorin—the removal of the Daghestani dagger reminding the hero of his (only?) friend's absence. That in the same final paragraph Pechorin refers to him as "that poor blind boy" is further evidence of the hero's experiencing compassion perhaps in spite of himself; the very last reference to the boy, bednyi, or "poor," is similarly multivalent in Russian as in English, meaning "unfortunate," "unwell," or "destitute." It is also the descriptor used earlier by the proprietor when defending the boy against Pechorin's insinuations.

There is, furthermore, some quiet respectfulness toward the venture the hero regrets breaking up in the otherwise overwrought simile of the stone: Pechorin's comparing himself to an inanimate object, which is part of the setting he previously found threatening, positions him as within, rather than outside and above, his surroundings. The stone indirectly points to the coin which the boy lets fall in his own silent pride—implying an identification with the latter's plight. Finally, there may be an understated recognition of the young woman's need to drown the hero ("I myself almost went down to the bottom!"), which may be justified given his unsolicited intrusion. In this sense, too, Pechorin's not knowing how to swim and remain on guard (or to have friends who would look out for him better than his hired Cossack) opens him up to an appreciation of others' dis/abilities. I agree, in part, with Peace's contention that a careful reading of the story exposes "the soft, vulnerable heart beneath the cynical exterior," for Pechorin is "more than once betrayed by better feelings" (Peace 25-26). This also points to Pechorin's own lack of outer/inner transparency, the very quality he finds problematic in other people. But this final lesson in humility and the accompanying transformation do not make him "heroic" in the traditional (ableist, masculinist, heterosexist) sense, confirming the common critical view of the "uncrowning of the hero." 6

This transformation, moreover, is grounded in the act of staring. In Staring: How We Look (2009), Rosemarie Garland-Thomson explores the objects, purposes, and circumstances surrounding our need to stare. She suggests that staring is "an interrogative gesture that asks what's going on and demands the story […] working to recognize what seems illegible, order what seems unruly, know what seems strange" (3). While both the starer and the staree typically interact when staring takes place, it is the starer who stands to gain critical insight:

Triggered by the sight of someone who seems unlike us, staring can begin an exploratory expedition into ourselves and outward into new worlds. Because we come to expect one another to have certain kinds of bodies and behaviors, stares flare up when we glimpse people who look or act in ways that contradict our expectations. […] Who we are can shift into focus by staring at who we think we are not. (Garland-Thomson 6)

Pechorin is given an opportunity to "challeng[e] [his] assumptions" by getting involved with and staring at "people who look or act in ways that contradict [his] expectations"; he first visually scrutinizes the boy and then the undine, who, in turn, stares back at him (Lermontov 57, 61-62). Whether he seizes this opportunity is debatable and pivots on one's reading of the story's ending: is the compassion Pechorin feels at the end an acknowledgment of the boy's humanity, or is it an expression of the hero's superiority, a condescending pity rather than a feeling-with? Dolmage notes that disability often figures rhetorically "as object of pity and/or charity." "The sentimental," in Garland-Thomson's words, "produces the sentimental victim or helpless sufferer needing protection or succor and invoking pity, inspiration, and frequent contributions" (quoted in Dolmage 40). This othering cannot be entirely ruled out, especially since the boy's and the proprietor's entanglement with the smugglers also exemplifies Dolmage's myth of "disability as sign of social ill," "viewed as symptomatic of a deviant society" (43), which, in this case, preys on ostensibly innocent travelers. At the same time, what Peace describes as the hero's "involuntary feeling of pity" for the abandoned boy (16-17) may be understood as his recognition of this boy's courage in spite of his perceived difference and thus be a step toward correcting Pechorin's bias. It is also, arguably, an occasion for the reader to (re)consider difference and disability along with Pechorin, through whose first-person perspective these are focalized, suggesting that literary disability can shape not only the characters within a story (even otherwise unadmirable ones) but also its readers.

In conclusion, my critical disability reading of Lermontov's "Taman'" confirms our limited historical knowledge about disability (invalidnost') in nineteenth-century Russia. My analysis calls attention to the disabled characters otherwise lost to critical maneuvering that reduces them to metaphors. It is through his encounter with disability—real or imagined—that Pechorin is transformed, gaining some semblance of humility and compassion, albeit short of publicly denouncing his ableism. In this sense, disability in "Taman'," as well as in most discussions of the story, is used as a "narrative prosthesis" and a means to explore other, "nondisabled" questions, such as Pechorin's reliability as a narrator or his (lack of) "heroism." By recognizing and discussing the role of literary disability, I have attempted not to fall into the same interpretive trap, nor to provide another instance of such unethical treatment, but rather to give representation to the boy, the old woman proprietor, and the young woman whose otherness destabilizes notions of Romantic heroism and the Gothic, and encourages a new understanding of difference.

Works Cited

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Endnotes

  1. Vladimir Nabokov (who translated the novel into English) found it to be "the worst story of the book," written in "dry and drab" prose, while Anton Chekhov admitted to "know[ing] no language better than Lermontov's" (Barratt and Briggs 48, 59).
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  2. Barratt and Briggs provide a helpful overview of the novel's controversial reception. In brief, conservative critics deemed it harmful because it was influenced by Western literary trends. The famous Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky's article on A Hero of Our Time addressed such conservative readings and proposed, rather, that the novel be brought in line with the radical ideas of the Russian intelligentsia, with Pechorin's immorality tied not to the West, but to the sickly state of Russian society—making him a tragic figure with heroic potential reduced to petty egoism (Barratt and Briggs 1-2). Other political readings, such as Boris Eykhenbaum's, proposed that Pechorin, having Decembrist leanings, was exiled to the Caucasus following the failed Decembrist uprising in 1825; the hero came to emblematize an entire generation of so-called "superfluous men" and his tragedy—the "tragedy of the Russian noble intelligentsia of the post-Decembrist period" (Eykhenbaum, quoted in Barratt and Briggs 2). Building on Belinsky's essay, Soviet criticism understood the hero as inspired by a "Romantic dream." Western critics, however, have been skeptical of such approaches, pointing to the absence of biographical information that puts the political readings into question (Barratt and Briggs 3).
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  3. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from the Russian are my own—A.A.
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  4. The Creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) is stoned by the villagers due to his deformity and can only speak with the old man De Lacey because he is blind. Quasimodo, in Victor Hugo's Notre-Dame de Paris (1831), is similarly beaten by an angry mob.
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  5. The rusalka/undine's literary history encompasses Pushkin's two poems titled "Rusalka" (an 1825 ballad and an 1837 tragic drama familiar to Lermontov) and Vasilii Zhukovskii's Undina, adapted from La Motte Fouqué's Undine (1811), of which Lermontov had a signed copy from the author (Barratt and Briggs 55). For more on mermaids and disability, see Yamato.
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  6. Unlike Yanko, who "stands beyond all laws, the embodiment of Romantic freedom," with "his own military equipment, phallic in nature," Pechorin is stranded immobile and fails to get the girl "except pronominally" (he calls her "my undine") and to subject the old woman or the boy to his will (Andrew 464-65).
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