The Preface was not included in the first edition of the novel. Lermontov included it in the second edition to respond to critics and to clarify aspects of the novel for the public. In the Preface, Lermontov asserts that Pechorin is not a self-portrait, like critics believe, but rather the representation of a generation. He also claims that morality can be attained through the novel. The novel brings awareness to vices he has witnessed in the "contemporary man" (4).
An unnamed narrator, who is traveling through the Caucasus Mountains, encounters Maxim Maximych, an old officer. The unnamed narrator is amazed that Maxim Maximych's cart uses just four bullocks despite being filled with baggage. The unnamed narrator learns that Maxim Maximych has been in the Caucasus for many years so the Ossete guides are not able to take advantage of him as they do of others. The unnamed narrator and Maxim Maximych travel and take shelter together. On their first night together, Maxim Maximych tells the unnamed narrator a story centered on Pechorin, a young officer who once lived with him at the fort. Maxim Maximych describes Pechorin as a man full of contradictions: "he'd spend the whole day out hunting in rain or cold" and "think nothing of it," yet "he'd sit in his room and at the least puff of wind reckon he'd caught a chill" (11). After giving the unnamed narrator a brief profile of Pechorin, Maxim Maximych recounts the events that occurred when he and Pechorin attended the wedding for a chief's eldest daughter.
At the wedding, Pechorin admires the chief's youngest daughter, Bela, who seems to feel some attraction towards Pechorin as well. She sings him a compliment. Kazbich, a fierce tribesman who often sells rams at the fort, also admires Bela. Kazbich's fierceness is due in large part to his renowned horse, Karagyoz. Maxim Maximych describes Karagyoz as "black as pitch, with legs like still wires and eyes as fine as Bela's" (13). Maxim Maximych, later in the wedding ceremony, overhears Bela's younger brother, Azamat, bargaining with Kazbich for Karagyoz. Azamat wants to trade Bela for Karagyoz. Kazbich refuses, and Azamat not only attacks him, but he also gets members of his tribe to attack Kazbich by claiming that Kazbich tried to kill him. Maxim Maximych and Pechorin leave the wedding to avoid getting entangled in the chaos. At the fort, Maxim Maximych tells Pechorin what he witnessed between Kazbich and Azamat.
Maxim Maximych later finds out that Pechorin promises to help Azamat steal Karagyoz in return for Bela. Pechorin and Azamat execute their plan when Kazbich comes to Maxim Maximych to sell his rams and Bela's father is temporarily absent from the village. Azamat steals Karagyoz as Kazbich takes tea with Maxim Maximych. Kazbich chases after the thief, but Azamat is too fast on Karagyoz. In despair, Kazbich destroys his rifle on a stone and "sobbed like a child" (20). He remains in a defeated state until the next day.
The next morning, Kazbich asks one of the fort's sentries about the identity of the thief and finds out that the thief was Azamat. Kazbich kills Azamat's father, the old chief, believing him to be a part of Azamat's plan. He also steals the old chief's horse. Meanwhile, Pechorin tries to seduce Bela, who finds herself his captive. He employs pleas, bribes, and threats to win her heart. She eventually gives into him. The story temporarily stops here.
Maxim Maximych and the unnamed narrator continue their journey through the mountains, but, once again, bad weather forces them to stop and seek shelter. Maxim Maximych continues the story in the new shelter. Maxim Maximych recounts that Bela and Pechorin live a few blissful months together, but then Pechorin starts spending more and more time away from her, hunting. Maxim Maximych tries to appease Bela, but he admits to having very little experience with women. The best advice he gives her is to stop crying because tears will just push Pechorin further away. Feeling the ineffectiveness of his words, Maxim Maximych takes Bela on a walk.
Maxim Maximych and Bela encounter Kazbich on their walk, but they escape him. Maxim Maximych, irritated by the encounter and Pechorin's continual absence, recounts the unfortunate incident to Pechorin and confronts him about Bela. Pechorin confesses that he gets only temporary pleasure from people and his environments. Everything eventually bores him, and "if [he] makes other people unhappy, [he] is no less unhappy [himself]" (34). He assures Maxim Maximych that he still, however, loves Bela.
A few days later, Maxim Maximych and Pechorin go hunting and leave Bela alone at home. When Bela, seeking to escape the heat, ventures outside in their absence, she encounters Kazbich once again. He tries to kidnap her, but Bela's scream alerts Maxim Maximych, Pechorin, and the fort's sentries. Pechorin shoots the horse Kazbich had stolen from the old chief, while Maxim Maximych takes direct aim at Kazbich. A bullet hits Kazbich's shoulder, but he fulfills his revenge. He stabs Bela with a dagger.
Bela dies two days later with Pechorin and Maxim Maximych by her side. Maxim Maximych is saddened by her death, but he remarks that her death is less cruel than the fate that awaited her had she lived. Pechorin would have surely tossed her aside. Pechorin initially shows no signs of grief. He even laughs when Maxim Maximych tries to offer him some consoling words. Arrangements for Bela's death are made, nonetheless. Maxim Maximych and Pechorin "buried her near the spot where she had last sat, outside the fort by the stream" (41). After Bela's burial, Pechorin eventually shows some signs of grief. Maxim Maximych's story ends here. He and the unnamed narrator part, they believe, for good.
Prejudice is a theme that runs through this section and other parts of the novel. Both the unnamed narrator and Maxim Maximych express prejudices towards the natives of the Caucasus. The unnamed narrator and Maxim Maximych find the Ossete guides to be manipulative, and they categorize all Ossetes as being this way. The unnamed narrator and Maxim Maximych direct more negative adjectives towards the Ossetes as the section continues. When they are forced to take shelter the first time, the unnamed narrator and Maxim Maximych call their Ossete hosts "pathetic," "stupid as they come," and "absolutely useless" (9). Maxim Maximych's portrayal of Kazbich also demonstrates his prejudices towards natives of the Caucasus. Kazbich has an uncanny resemblance to Pechorin, yet Maxim Maximych demonizes the former and reveres the latter.
The parallels between Pechorin and Kazbich begin at the wedding. They both admire Bela, and Maxim Maximych's description of Kazbich when he sees him at the wedding are identical to descriptions of Pechorin that appear throughout the novel. Maxim Maximych states that Kazbich is hard to read and that he continually escapes death. Maxim Maximych never has a moment where he realizes the similarities between Kazbich and Pechorin, but he does reveal to the unnamed narrator many moments when he found Pechorin hard to decipher. Maxim Maximych cannot understand Pechorin's treatments of Bela nor can he understand Pechorin's demeanor after her death. Later parts of the novel reveal Pechorin's penchant for escaping death.
Furthermore, both Kazbich and Pechorin have little regard for others' lives. They are both responsible for the demise of the old chief and Bela. Kazbich murders the old chief and Bela, but Pechorin's actions were the catalysts for Kazbich's killing spree. If Bela lived, she would have faced more injustices from Kazbich and Pechorin. Kazbich would have continued his attacks until he attained his revenge. Maxim Pechorin would have eventually discarded Bela. He had already begun to distance himself from her before she died. Maximych remarks, after Bela dies, that death is more merciful than the fate that awaited her had she lived.
Parallelisms exist between Azamat and Pechorin. Azamat has a penchant for stealing things while Pechorin has a penchant for stealing women. They both create chaos, but neither faces the consequences of their actions. It is the people around them who suffer. Parallelisms also exist between Bela and her father's horse. Kazbich steals the old chief's horse, and he also attempts to steal Bela. In his attempt to kidnap Bela, both Bela and the old chief's horse are injured. They lie side by side. Bela has linked fates with two horses: her father's horse and Kazbich's horse.
One last worthy topic to explore in this section is the fact that Pechorin overshadows all other males in Bela's life once he wins her heart. She cries for her father for a few days once she learns of his death, but then she moves on. She makes no inquiries about what happened to her father's body, whether it was given a burial or not. As she faces her own death, Bela's thoughts still concentrate on Pechorin. She wishes that she were Christian so that she would one day be reunited with Pechorin in the afterlife. She does not acknowledge Maxim Maximych, who had been another father figure in her life. This slight hurts Maxim Maximych.