While out travelling, the narrator - who we can assume is either Lermontov himself, or a fictionalised version thereof - meets an old soldier, Maxim, who is more than happy to share a tale or three of his life. 'Lermontov' is an appreciative listener, taking notes and jotting down places and names. This is why he is travelling, this is why he talks to people: For their stories, theirs lives, their experiences that you 'cannot find in the romances of Russia'. Maxim tells him the story of Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, another soldier who once shared his quarters.
The picture he paints is an interesting one. On the one hand, he declares this Pechorin a great friend, but on the other, comments on his lack of emotion and coldness. He is capable of great generosity, and equally great hostility, the choice of which seems more a whim than for any reason. Maxim admires his education, wit and talent with women, but is offended by his lack of accountability.
In the story Maxim tells, he and Pechorin travel to an Asian warchief's home, where Pechorin is infatuated with the leader's young daughter, Bela. Through a series of manipulative events - all arranged by Pechorin, without remorse or even satisfaction - the daughter is kidnapped and the young soldier falls in love. The story ends tragically, though not unexpectedly, and serves to whet our appetites for who this man really is.
As narrated by Maxim, these stories are colorful, eventful, and written with great, broad strokes. Maxim is not a very educated man, and as such he is unable to properly paint the picture of Pechorin. But he has an admirable flair for description, which in his own, simple ways, are very effective. The narrator is more intelligent and inquisitive, commenting playfully on characters and situations, and viewing the world with an almost child-like glee. Everything is interesting, every road is worth travelling. The road he does happen to stumble upon is Pechorin's, and because the man being described is so different to the airy views of the narrator, it is interesting to watch him struggle with this enigma.
The next section - which forms the meat of the story - are three short pieces written by Pechorin that the narrator managed to acquire from Maxim. Taman, the first piece, is probably as interesting as Maxim's story, although it reveals little of Pechorin's character. The third piece, The Fatalist, serves as a rounding out of who and what Pechorin is, and acts well as a finisher, being only 9 pages long.
But it is the story of Princess Mary that is by far the most interesting. Set over a month, it chronicles the events of Pechorin's holiday at the Elizabeth Spring, a place where hopeful socialites mix with distinguished military men to secure strong marriages, or engage in clandestine affairs. A man Pechorin knows - not a friend, because, 'of two friends, one is always the slave of the other...I can never be a slave, and to command in these circumstances is too exacting', is in love with Mary, the daughter of a wealthy but socially poor Princess. For no reason other than it would amuse him, Pechorin sets out to make young Mary fall in love with, enjoying himself immensely while the spa descends into a chaotic, backstabbing pit of secret looks and pistol duels.
Through his journal, we come to know Pechorin. He is very casual in the way he writes, trailing off with thoughts he finds distasteful, commenting slyly on everyone, including himself, and willing to analyse everything and everybody. He is witty, cultured, and bored with is life. Toying with people amuses him, dispelling the ever-present melancholy of his life. Yet - and this is something that is initially difficult to believe, but thanks to Lermontov's skill as an author, works very well - Pechorin is not malicious, nor does he do what he does out of anger. He tends to work at people's emotions, playing them out more artfully than they would themselves. When events escalate, and he finds himself in a rigged duel, Pechorin is not contrite, but is willing to let it all go and have everyone go back to the spa, with all forgiven. When this request is denied, he doesn't mind very much, and if he is to die, what matter? 'After all, the worst you can do is die, and you've got to die sometime.', he comments.
Pechorin is not a sympathetic character, but he is not trying to be. Through Maxim's story, and the narrator's subsequent efforts to discover more about this interesting man, our curiosity is aroused. How could Pechorin be the way he is? What man would enjoy the suffering of others, but be equally amused by the lack of excitement? Why would anyone risk life and limb for a woman, then spurn her when she offers herself to him? The journals of Pechorin both answer and do not answer these questions. Pechorin is Pechorin. Self-consistent, and absolutely accountable to himself, he is assured, intelligent, and charismatic. To others, he is a mystery, but, as he muses, it may be because everyone is attracted to evil, and for him, it is more interesting than being good.