(where Pushkin was exiled 1824 - 1826)
With womankind, the less we love them,
the easier they become to charm,
the tighter we can stretch above them
enticing nets to do them harm.
- 4, vii
‘I’ve dreams and years past resurrection;
a soul that nothing can renew…
I feel a brotherly affection,
or something tenderer still, for you.
Listen to me without resentment:
girls often change to their contentment
light dreams for new ones…so we see
each springtime, on the growing tree,
fresh leaves…for such is heaven’s mandate.
You’ll love again, but you must teach
your heart some self-control: for each
and every man won’t understand it
as I have…learn from my belief
that inexperience leads to grief.’
(All translations by Charles Johnston)
I am finally getting to write something about Eugene Onegin…I feel bad this has taken so long to get to…I’m not sure why I’ve resisted writing about it so much. Regardless, I’ll try and provide an outline of the tale and highlight a few points in two posts.
The book begins (and ends) in media res, privy to the title character’s thoughts as he travels to his uncle’s deathbed. The second stanza abruptly switches to a narrator (who calls Onegin his good friend), providing background on Eugene. The first chapter focuses mostly on Onegin and his life in Petersburg. Unfortunately there isn’t much good to be said about him. His education was rudimentary at best, although Pushkin pokes fun at the cultured class of his day:“We all meandered through our schooling / haphazard; so, to God be thanks, / it’s easy, without too much fooling, / to pass for cultured in our ranks.”
A quick word on literary references which permeate the book—an ironic allusion appears from the very first line and continue nonstop. Many of the references have multiple levels of meaning—Stanza vii in Chapter 1 refers to Ovid, connecting Onegin’s focus on passion to the poet’s erotic verse. Yet the next lines highlight Ovid’s exile, an allusion to Pushkin’s situation as well as underscoring Onegin’s sense of not belonging in either the city or the country. This theme is hammered home many times with the frequent appearance of banishment and dreams. As I mention in the post on Pushkin and Byron, shades of Sterne constantly appear. The narrator, while providing background and understanding of Onegin in the first chapter, constantly begs forgiveness for multiple distractions. While proclaiming “That isn’t our immediate worry”, he still spends much ink on that topic. Also in that post, I touched briefly on Lord Byron’s influence, direct and indirect.
What I found most interesting in the first chapter is Onegin’s complexity. While Pushkin describes a totally unlikeable character, occasionally an attribute appears that makes the reader partial to him. After his lack of scholarship, Onegin’s true talent appears—playing a role perfectly in order to “trouble the heart of the professional flirt”. Yet this self-absorption with luxury and delight fails to completely win him over. Stanza xxxvii goes to great lengths to paint his dissatisfaction with society, duels, and infidelity. Onegin begins to distance himself from society and also gives up reading. The narrator makes his acquaintance with Onegin at this point, pulling no punches in describing his disagreeable characteristics (“disputing”, “cursing”, “virulence”, “bile”). Yet the narrator deepens his friendship. Onegin begins to show his desire for escape, yet his love of Russia binds him where he is. The narrator becomes as much of a character in the book as does Onegin, developing and evolving over time. More on this later, as the narrator becomes more than a liaison with the reader and comments on the serialization and reception of the work.
Onegin’s father dies, and despite a lavish lifestyle Onegin does not show avaricious grasping for money. After his uncle dies and he visits the inherited estate, enjoying the peace of the countryside or for at least two days. There he is bored just as in the city. You get the feeling that Onegin doesn’t belong or fit in anywhere. There is a void he takes little pains to fill. The narrator intrudes to make sure the reader understands the difference between him and Onegin (needling critics that he is unlike Byron and can do something other than a self-portrait), Pushkin’s attempt to differentiate himself from his creation. Yet Pushkin’s self-references continue, introducing his muse and then the narrator’s (or rather Pushkin’s) non-apology: “in my fiction / there’s far too much of contradiction, / but I refuse to chop or change.”
Chapter 2 goes into detail on Onegin’s leisure, which he loathes. Onegin stands out from his neighbors: he frees his serfs (making them renters instead), drinks wine instead of vodka, and rushes out the back door when neighbors call. Vladimir Lensky, a young student, appears and the two strike a deep friendship. Lensky and Onegin could hardly be more different. Lensky is moved by life and love, viewing himself a poet. Onegin has already been described as not a poet (I, vii) “So, verse and prose, they came together” (II, xiii), highlighting Pushkin’s description of the work as a novel in verse. (more on the prose/poetry dichotomy later) One characteristic I will address here is Onegin’s allowance for Lensky’s youth: “youth is a fever; we must spare / its natural right to rave and flare.” (II, xv) Onegin’s dispassion is his defining feature, making his exceptions all the more remarkable.
The narrator introduces Lensky’s love, Olga Larin, and her older sister Tatyana. Olga’s beauty enraptures Lensky, inspiring him and provides his muse. Not much time is spent describing her as she seems rather shallow, the narrator remarking that her beauty is the type that eventually bores him. Lensky’s devotion to Olga contrasts with Onegin’s use-and-discard approach to women. The narrator describes Tatyana, highlighting her solitude and reflective nature (in contrast, it seems, to all the other characters). Her love of romance novels is an additional difference, whether from Onegin’s disdain of books or from Lensky’s studies of more serious matter. Her father’s passing is described at the end of Chapter Two, adding yet another death to the story—the book does not shy away from death. The narrator’s musing on life and death seems to segue into Pushkin’s voice. How much you can believe of the claim “I never lived or wrote for praise” (II, xxxix) is open to question, although I don’t think Pushkin need worry that his work will be lost to a “drowning’s death in Lethe river”.
Chapter 3 opens with Onegin inviting himself along with Lensky to visit the Larins. Few details of this visit are provided until their drive home. Onegin feigns ignorance of which girl was Lensky’s love, though it is clear he paid more attention than he lets on. He tells Lensky that Tatyana would be the better choice for a poet, while Olga—pretty enough—is simply a “dumb moon”. I took that to mean that she has no life of her own but will reflect the spirit of livelier people around her. It is clear that Tatyana noticed Onegin, feeling in her “waiting soul” that he was the one for her. She reads even more romances, immersing herself in and identifying with the characters. While Tatyana pictures herself the heroine of a romance novel, the narrator makes it clear that Onegin was not on a level as one of the heroes. A sidebar follows on the state of current novels as well as a possible story arc that Pushkin will not follow.
Tatyana, unable to sleep, asks her old nurse if she was ever in love. The nurse laughs: “in those other / ages we’d never heard of love”. (3, xviii) Love and illness are the same to the nurse, or at least should be treated the same way. The moon is again referenced, this time as inspiration while things are viewed differently in its imperfect light. Tatyana decides to write a letter to Onegin, the narrator begging pardon to translate her French to Russian, a language that has been unable to express a lady’s love (until now, the narrator smirks, allowing Pushkin to pat himself on the back). The narrator expresses both his admiration at the letter’s tenderness as well as stating his disdain at the disaster it flirts with. It turns out, of course, that Tatyana’s letter is a beautiful declaration of love, laying herself open to Onegin’s response. A synopsis of her letter:
Tatyana admits that Onegin can “make my world a hell” if he scorns her, but she must write and hope he has pity. She asks why he had to visit the Larins, causing her a “laceration”. There is a randomness to love, and if she had not met him she may have been perfectly happy with another. But not now. She realized “in a blaze” that Onegin was the one for her. Yet “who are you: / the guardian angel of tradition / or some vile agent of perdition / sent to seduce?” Again mention she leaves her fate in his hands, she echoes his situation with her own: “I’ve no one here who comprehends me”. (3, xxxi)
Unable to re-read what she has written, she seals it and has the nurse’s grandson deliver it to Onegin. A day or two later, Onegin visits the Larins. Tatyana flees to the garden, trying to distract herself, but Onegin still finds her.
All of which leads to a reminiscence at Chapter 4’s start. The narrator looks back on the passing of “cold-blooded debauchery” along with the fading of the romantic novels (such as those Tatyana loved). The narrator’s realization of passion’s force, as well as the emptiness that it can lead to (“success’s giddy trifle”), is reflected in Onegin’s understanding that he wasted eight years and “life’s fine flower” in his empty pursuits. (4, ix) The reader has seen this part of Eugene where he goes through the motions of the game society expects, similar to the emptiness of a game of whist but with apparently higher stakes. All of this leads up to Onegin’s, response to Tatyana’s letter. “Yet Tanya’s note made its impression / on Eugene, he was deeply stirred”, kindling thoughts of his prior ways and what he could do with her. However he comes down on the side of not wishing “to betray / a soul so innocent, so trusting.” (4, xi)
One joy of the work comes from viewing the characters’ voyages of self-discovery. Here we see a tentative step by Onegin, which unfortunately leaves a lot to be desired. In short, his response to Tatyana’s letter lets her know that it has brought feelings to a part of him that had been dead. He chides her on the artlessness of her letter, but says he will confess in the same manner. He realizes what she is offering, but feels unable to accept it. He comments on his “sad existence”, noting he was “not intended / for happiness” (4, xiii and xiv). After noting her perfection, his realization that he would be miserable (and make her more so) after a day of marriage sounds a similar note to his boredom after two days in the country. In addition, some symbolism is reinforced in this section—Tatyana’s pure fire versus Onegin’s corrupt iciness. Onegin is perceptive, but something is still lacking. Why does he reject Tatyana? Is he truly saving her (and himself) from misery, acting on a higher plane? Or is he simply unwilling or unable to address the void in his life, letting cynicism control him? Nor do the options need to be mutually exclusive…
From the stanza quoted at the top (4, xvi), Onegin projects his behavior onto Tatyana. Preaching self-control is the ultimate irony, one that he only practices now because of his boredom. And if inexperience leads to grief, what does experience lead to? (The next stanzas are an aside, blending the narrator’s and Pushkin’s response to critics and personal insults.) Onegin’s response makes Tatyana’s passion burn more intensely (more of the fire imagery), while her overall “bloom begins to languish” (4, xxiv). In contrast, the narrator paints the scene of love between Olga and Lensky. The poet is reduced to silly romantic twaddle, but it masks a deep love (almost begging the question is that what love reduces us to?). After another dig by the narrator/Pushkin on empty grand tomes by and for aristocrats (as compared to the sentimental scribbling of provincials), there is another diversion on recent critical thought versus the works they purport to review. Pushkin seems unable to let any slight go.
After the meeting with Tatyana, Onegin spends the summer lost in his own little world. He loses track of time while in the country, letting life “mount its grip on him”. (4, xxxix) He dreams his life away, “Childe-Harold-like”. In another Byronesque moment, the narrator compares Bordeaux and Champagne, each symbolic of much more than just wine. As the two characters enjoy their wine, Lensky makes sure Onegin is coming to Tatyana’s upcoming name day party. The poet lies to Onegin, saying the party will be small. He then rhapsodizes about Olga and their wedding in two weeks. The differences are drawn between love and reason, Lensky and Onegin.
The economy and simplicity of Pushkin’s verses are a delight to read. The layers are readily apparent upon first reading, but the depths they explore (literary as well as psychologically) deepen with each evaluation. Nabokov took four volumes to translate and explain the work for a reason (beyond simply Nabokov being Nabokov). Also, listen to some of Pushkin’s poetry in Russian (I mentioned the Russian poetry page in the resources post) to sample the melodious nature of his work.
Update (15 Sep 2014): For more on Onegin's rejection of Tatyana, possibly due to her age, see this post.