Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Focalization in Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time: Loving the Semantic Void and the Dizziness of Interpretation

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Focalization in Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time: Loving the Semantic Void and the Dizziness of Interpretation

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

In Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time literature functions as a cognitive frame and filter lens, and the literariness of the characters' perception of themselves and the world determines what is understood of that world. The interplay between literariness and the processes of focalization is explored through the theme of love. The article examines how the heroes, Onegin and Pechorin, are constructed and why they become so attractive in the heroine's and some readers' eyes, and it asks what the story of literary seduction told here could teach us about love and literature, and the seductive appeal of such stories.

[...] distinctions that will follow in due course will depend upon some basic premises that had best be explicit--that narrative form is a way of seeing, transforming, and to some extent re-experiencing reality; that basic as it is, narrative is quite extraordinary in its construction of integral worlds; that when we back away from these worlds and think of them by contrast to the worlds of the lyric or the essay or the picture show we can see how vulnerable we are to the silent epistemological principles of our fictions.

(HAROLD TOLIVER) (1)

Introduction: Focalization and Literariness

One of the many similarities between Eugene Onegin and A Hero of Our Time rests on their preoccupation with the crucial role literature plays in fashioning individuals' lives and guiding their life choices. In both novels the 'literary world' is represented as affecting, shaping, and influencing the 'real world' in an inescapable, all-pervasive manner. As well as being a direct influence of a particular book or literary movement or figure (either a character or an author) on its readership, literature is shown to shape culturally accepted models of behaviour and of behavioural interpretation, indirectly affecting even those who never read the original literary work or indeed were unaware of its existence. As such, literature functions as a cognitive frame and as a filter lens, and the literarariness of the characters' perception of the world and of themselves determines what will be perceived and understood of that world and in what manner.

Thus the role of literature in both novels is directly engaged with the processes of focalization, for which I shall here adopt Mieke Bal's definition as 'the relation between the vision and that which is "seen", perceived. Focalization' is a term widely used to make a distinction between the point of view from which the story is narrated and the narrating voice, or, in simpler terms, between those who see and those who speak. As Bal points out, it is perfectly possible for narrators to adopt the point of view of another and to try and tell the story from their angle.' Furthermore (and this is particularly pertinent for my discussion), it is perfectly possible for a narrator to be reliable as a narrator (that is, to try and tell the story as truthfully as he or she can without attempting to deceive the reader) and yet to be unreliable as a focalizer (that is, to have a skewed or limited vision of the events told in the first place). My argument would be that this is part of the reason why the narrative in A Hero of Our Time is riddled with so many ambiguities: it is not that the three main narrators in it are trying to deceive us and each other, but that they are so thoroughly unreliable as focalizers. I have chosen the term focalization among the alternative (and largely synonymous) terminological options, such as 'point of view', filter, or perspective, because of its metaphorical link with the notion of the lens, thus allowing for the possibility not just of a particular angle or frame of vision, but also of the modification of perception which can sharpen it, as well as blur or distort it. (4) In addition to this, I have here also adopted Boris Uspenskii's idea that, as in visual arts, it is the point of view assumed that determines the composition of an artistic text, structuring it on the ideological, phraseological, spatio-temporal, and psychological plane. …

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