Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Eugene Onegin discussion: Chapters 5 – 8

Ball at Larins by Alexei Steipanovitch Stepanov (1911)
Picture source

Whatever in this rough confection
you sought - tumultuous recolleciton,
a rest from the toil and all its aches,
or just grammatical mistakes,
a vivid brush, a witty rattle -
God grant that from this little book
for heart's delight, or fun, you took,
for dreams, or journalistic battle,
God grant you took at least a grain.
On this we'll part; goodbye again!

(Chapter 8, xlix)

The second half…

Chapter 5 begins with a celebration of Russia, even its harsh winter. Noting the winter scene just described may be too “low and unrefined” for the reader, the narrator relays the Larins’ (and especially Tatyana’s) reliance on divinations and superstition. The rustic life may be low, but it feels more real than the city life Onegin lived. As Tatyana sleeps, her dream is easily the most disturbing and surreal part of the book (and could support a post or dissertation of its own). The troubling atmosphere within Tatyana’s psyche is reflected in the hallucination, Tatyana being threatened by horrific characters and beasts. Onegin is in her dream, at first reassuring her but then taking on some of the troubling aspects of the beasts. As the scene descends into violence, Tatyana wakes up having glimpsed a portent of what will happen. It’s funny to note that reading is the one thing that comforts her from the haunting vision.

Pushkin’s love/hate feelings about the countryside are most evident in his description of Tatyana’s name day celebration. The tender-hearted bumpkins are lovingly described, a pleasant earthiness to their manner and behavior. Yes, the party isn’t the same as one of the Petersburg parties that Onegin attended in Chapter One, but is that a bad thing? Lensky and Onegin enter the party late and are seated across from Tatyana. She lowers her eyes and trembles, but Onegin misreads the reason. Her reaction is because of him, but not for him. However he thinks she is yet another sad girl trembling for him and decides to stir things up at the party. Targeting Olga and Lensky says a lot about him, as he decides to undermine love between others.

Even so, Onegin does exhibit kindness in showing he was capable of pity, assisting Tatyana with a tender look when she stumbled during his acknowledgment in front of the party. Anything pleasant to be said about him ends with that gesture as Onegin dances and flirts with Olga the rest of the evening. At one point he is forced to choose between Tatyana and her sister, selecting to continue dancing with Olga. While he is simply toying with Olga (and Lensky), the irony is that she reads nothing into it beyond simple pleasantries—it makes little difference to her. But it enrages Lensky, scheduled to be married to Olga in less than two weeks. Lensky leaves the party, deciding on a duel to settle his damaged pride. An additional irony is that words fail the supposed poet Lensky, who chooses hazardous action instead of finding out what is behind Onegin’s actions or Olga’s acceptance. Up to this point, Lensky has represented the innocence lost in Onegin, but now the poet loses that virtue as well as his ability to communicate.

Onegin’s actions set off a chain of events in Chapter 6 that seem to harm everyone. Onegin, seeing Lensky has left, feels nothing but a tedium and languor—even in victory, the stakes were so low that his “pleasure on his vengeful act” bores him. Tatyana’s jealousy of her sister leads to her realization that she is still at Onegin’s mercy. Apparently Onegin cannot achieve sustained happiness so he decide to cause unhappiness in others. Another bad choice makes the fatal outcome inevitable—Lensky’s choice of Zaretsky as his second. Zaretsky is described as the “king of brawls”, well versed in the language and steps of a duel. Zaretsky fails to follow through on one of the basic roles of a second, which is to attempt to reconcile the dueling parties (something he is praised for having done with many others). Onegin regrets making fun of a “love so timorous and gentle”, yet does nothing to mitigate the damage he has caused. Lensky also regrets his actions, yet he is resolved to duel…apparently not to reclaim his honor but to protect Olga and other women from Onegin. Lensky attempts to write a poem, which is eloquent but not very original. His letter is a compendium of romantic notions and phrases, which he can commit to paper while he is unable to speak to Olga—he realizes her dancing with Onegin was innocent, but he lacks the ability to reconcile his relief with the avenging actions he has set in motion.

The duel follows with a dreamlike feeling. Onegin offends Lensky in every way possible—oversleeping, choosing a servant as a second, and more. Does he not take the duel seriously? Or does he think that it is an act that will not be carried out, or simply theater? Zaretsky makes sure the duel occurs. Lensky is shot in the chest, blood “smoking from the wound.” The narrator muses on what would have happened had Lensky lived: “A normal fate” would have awaited him, a less than pleasant description of that potential life that might have followed. Was it a loss that he died, or was it saving him from an ignoble life? The narrator reflects on time and aging, revealing he (the narrator) has matured, yet seeking the inspiration of youth. The “poet’s soul of passion” is not necessarily for the young, yet inspiration is described as a youthful feature. This just after the youthful passion of Lensky leads to his death…one of too many ironies to list. With Lensky’s death, the narrator draws symmetry between Onegin and the poet, highlighting similarities that can easily be overlooked because of their differences.

Chapter 7 sees an explicit shift in roles between Tatyana and Onegin. The narrator’s feeling of exile reflects not just Onegin’s self-banishment but Pushkin’s enforced exile as well. The chapter mirrors the first chapter of Onegin’s meaningless life in Petersburg, but in reverse. Olga’s brief period of mourning for Lensky is quickly followed by her marriage to a low level soldier. Her lack of depth reminds the reader that Onegin was correct—a poet would prefer her sister instead. Images of death flow throughout the chapter, such as Tatyana’s “shade-like” existence. She visits Onegin’s empty estate, exploring his library. His works reflect a different world than the romance novels she has read and it is as if she is trying to absorb and understand Onegin from the works he owned. In reading his books, she reads not just the story but Onegin as well, his notations providing additional insight. Yet the emptiness of Onegin and his life is revealed to Tatyana as literature guides her to knowledge and understanding. If only Onegin had absorbed as much from his reading. Not to mention who Onegin shows as his influences with prominent artwork of Lord Byron and Napoleon in his library.

Mirroring Onegin’s move to the country Tatyana moves to Moscow, her family guiding her through the protocol of finding a spouse in the city. Like Onegin she does not seem to belong in either the city or the country, yet her parting gestures show a tie to the forest (and symbolically to Russia) that lies at her core. The emptiness of Moscow’s social life echoes Onegin’s purposelessness in Petersburg society. Yet Tatyana grows during the chapter while Onegin, absent for the most part, diminishes. As we are introduced to Tatyana’s “fat general” (or future husband) the narrator provides a (false) introduction to the work while begging the muse to not allow any more diversions in his story. A little late for that at this point (recalling Sterne’s gift for misplacement), but at least is isn’t at the reader’s loss…

Chapter 8 does more than just invoke the muse, turning the Muse into a character. After a brief history of the narrator and his muse, the action returns to Tatyana in Moscow society (while a blending of Tatyana and his Muse is unavoidable to the reader). She is stately, mastering social requirements but not fully a part of what goes on around her. Onegin returns to the story, not fitting in to his surroundings as well. Those that see him are puzzled: “ ‘You know him, do you?’ ‘Yes and no.”” (8, viii) Which implies that Onegin is unknowable, restless for change where ever he goes. Onegin asks the “fat general” (now described as a prince) if who he sees is Tatyana. Shocked when he hears that she is now the prince’s wife, he is “introduced” to her. The transformation of Tatyana is complete at this point: she is described in icy, cold terms as opposed to her earlier fire. In addition, she demonstrates the self-control Onegin once counseled her to learn. After the icy meeting, Onegin wonders what ails him (love described as an illness again). This is a new sensation for him…he doesn’t recognize what it is at first.

Arriving early to a soiree hosted by the prince and Tatyana, Onegin sits with her but “words won’t fit / on Eugene’s lips” (8, xxii), reminiscent of “language dying” at their previous meeting. It is interesting to note how many times characters are unable to speak and the implied cost of that inability. Onegin’s diminution continues as he silently pines for Tatyana (and what the narrator feels she represents):

But my Eugene that night directed
his gaze at Tatyana alone –
not the plain, timorous, dejected
and lovelorn maiden whom he’d known,
but the unbending goddess-daughter
of Neva’s proud imperial water,
the imperturbable princess. (8, xxvii)

The roles are reversed from Onegin’s first visit to the Larins, where he claimed not to even remember which sister was which. Tatyana “refuses to perceive him”, causing Onegin in turn to write a letter to her. Just as she put herself in his hands with her letter to him, Onegin bares his soul to her. While his letter is slightly more proper than hers, it also feels soulless in comparison. He is approaching self-awareness, recognizing his earlier desire of freedom drove him to reject her. Yet the estrangement he feels from society since the duel with Lensky (of which Onegin paints himself as the victim)has deepened. The ultimate irony of the letter is how much it resembles Tatyana’s unsuccessful missive, a fact that cannot be lost on her. In one sense, its failure is but a rehashing of her letter’s failure.

Tatyana does not reply to his letter so Onegin sends more. She presents her frostiest demeanor to him at their next meeting as he looks with “eyes of fire”, more contrasts to earlier symbolism. He turns to books, but he is unable to glean anything from them. While he looks the part of the poet, he is unable to become one. (On a side note, his poetic intuition is superior to that of any other character, yet along with every other talent he shows he short sells it.) Onegin can take no more and goes to Tatyana’s house, slipping in unannounced (as only happens in a novel…I have a feeling Pushkin smiled as he wrote these lines). Onegin throws himself at her feet when he sees her reading his letters and crying. But the tables are fully turned. (Is this the only point in the book where she directly speaks to Onegin privately? I believe it is—the name day party address was in front of everyone.) She lectures him on propriety, absolving his previous rejection since he acted, yet excoriating him for his current lack of respect. She questions his motives—is he interested because she is in society now? Her access to the court? Or does he simply want another scandal? She sounds surprisingly like Onegin at one point, revealing how much she hates her life and how she would trade it all for a cottage with a library and garden. But recognizing she has committed herself, even though she still loves Onegin, she declares her intention to stay faithful to her husband. With that, all ties to the past are formally severed. As Tatyana leaves the room, Onegin is unable to move, thunderstruck from the lecture he has just received. And at that moment, Tatyana’s husband appears… .

The ending may be abrupt, but it leaves no doubt that Onegin has reached full diminishment. Three additional stanzas follow (which include the quotes at the top and bottom of the post), the narrator musing on his creations and the problems with his work’s reception. Does the reader know Onegin after finishing the work? Like the characters in the book said, “Yes and no.” To some extent, we may know Pushkin better than Onegin—a work in which the poet is murdered by a perceived rival foreshadows his own death. While that may be an easy interpretation after the fact, so is the split between Pushkin’s own nature represented by both Lensky and Onegin. What we do see, without having to read anything into the story, is the maturation of Pushkin across the decade that Eugene Onegin appeared. The latter chapters capture him at the height of his creative talent. Which I think would make Eugene Onegin proud of his creator…

Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky's duel (1899) by Ilya Repin
Picture source

Blest he who's left the hurly-burly
of life's repast betimes, nor sought
to drain its goblet down, nor thought
of finishing its book, but early
has wished it an abrupt goodbye -
as, with my Eugene, have I.

(Chapter 8, li)


Furey said...

I had always, for some strange reason, thought that Eugene Onegin was a comedy piece. So needless to say, I was quite awestruck finally reaching its end.

I've thoroughly enjoyed all of your writings on Pushkin. :)
I'll try getting a hold of the movie as per your recommendation.
My winter semester is starting very soon, so I don't think I can take on some of the things I had been wanting to (like the sizable Don Juan, for example), I hope Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri will in that case suffice.


Dwight said...

Again, glad you enjoyed the posts.

Be sure and check out Ralph Fiennes comments on the movie as well, which I linked. I'm not sure the final product achieved everything he wanted, but it is a wonderful attempt (even when it deviates from the book).

And yes, his short plays (especially Mozart and Salieri) can be a nice diversion... as well as his poetry. Good luck with the semester!

kayndum2 said...

Very nicely done, interesting and fun to read.

Truth be told, I don't really read verse as often as I should,so one can understand that I was quite overwhelmed when Onegin was suddenly thrust at my feet(My past experience not extending far from Oedipus, for example). As a result I decided to look for a summary of the work after amateurishly reading through it myself.

However, what I found(that being your discussion), is much more than that. Really helped me understand this piece far better than I thought possible.

(Also you forgot to close the speech marks at the word "bile" in the first part of your discussion. Just throwing that out there.)

Dwight said...

kayndum2, there's a lot packed in Pushkin so it's easy to get turned around. Plus, from what I remember, his "digressions" can take up most of a chapter, which when first reading through it breaks up the flow of the action. Anyway, glad the posts were some help.

(Thanks for catching the typo...fixed now.)