This novel is constructed in a manner we associate with Conrad -: narrators tell long stories within stories. Unlike Conrad's typical practice, the narrations are not organized into a single nested, Russian doll. Roughly the first half is a series of stories by a wise and likable non-com Russian officer told to a point-of-view character about the figure who turns out to be the hero of our time, Pechorin, a disillusioned St. Petersburg aristocrat. The varying outlooks of the narrations within the narration provide us with more perspective and identification than is typical for Conrad. They enrich the reader's emotional involvement in the book. Although this novel is about a man who is desperately cold at heart, the reader comes away with a warm feeling,
Roughly the second half of the book consists of Pechorin's diaries, which fortuitously fall into the hands of the POV, after Pechorin, with his characteristic heartlessness, has snubbed his old friend the likable non-com. Typically of Pechorin, he is arbitrary and mendacious with others, but focused and clear-minded about himself. Lermontov came from his world, and this clear-eye self-criticism dramatizes Lermontov’s feeling about his own class. Pechorin is described in the book and by critics, as Byronic, which means not so much that he was like Lord Byron, as he is like Lord Byron's alter ego Childe Herald (in the poem of the same name), who, like Pechorin, wanders through foreign lands drive by his disillusion with the pleasures of society, by cynicism, and by depression. Like Childe Harold, this novel finds richness in nature and in people distant from fashionable society.
Like Tolstoy, Lermontov knew where the bodies were buried. Recall what Karenin’s job was -: he was head of the committee on indigenous peoples. Lermontov's novel is set in the Caucasus and is awash in the casual contempt of the Russian overlords for the Circassians, Ossetians, Chechens and the like, and their corresponding alienation and hostility from the Russians. For example, in one story Pechorin casually abducts an Ossetian girl, keeps her as his mistress for a while, and then casts her aside. For him, this is a kind of self-indulgent attempt to recapture caring, but it is to Lermontov's credit that we sympathize with him, as we sympathize with her hopeless predicament.
Despite the implied social criticism, part of the attractiveness of this novel is its picturesque setting. Descriptions of the Caucasus are thrilling and ingratiating and the subjugated people are, despite all, interesting and picaresque. In Martin Parker's translation, the prose is flexible, and supple, grand when it needs to be, folksy when it needs to be.
Pechorin and some of the figures involved with him, such as the likable non-com, are fully and warmly drawn. Parts of the novel have plots. The abduction and fate of the Circassian girl, for example, is plotty. So is a long tale about Circassians stealing horses that might have been taken from local folk epics. But the source of engagement for novel as a whole is the build up of the reader's understanding and involvement with Pechorin, who despite his sense of his own emptiness, indeed partly because of it, is full of meaning for us.