Marian’s Eugene Onegin Read-along has officially begun, so if you haven’t joined in yet here’s your chance to read this great Russian classic. It’s super short and written in verse, so it is a far cry from the intimidating giants of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Just as I predicted, however, I went ahead of the schedule and read the whole thing in one sitting. Boy, do I ever love Pushkin! He is witty and entertaining, and he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Even though Onegin’s story is a drama, I had a very good time following him around – after all the whole thing wa his own fault!
Chapters 1 & 2
In the introductory chapters we get to know two major characters: nihilistic Onegin and his romantic counterpart Vladimir Lensky. As the novel opens we learn that Eugene’s uncle is dying, leaving our hero the sole heir of his estate. Onegin is forced to sit around the sickly relative and openly wishes to be soon free of the nuisance. I find that Pushkin does a marvelous job here painting a very bright picture of Onegin’s character in just a few rough strokes of dark humour. Immediately we get a clue that he must be selfish, indifferent and still ignorant of tragedy of death. His similarity to a typical Byronic hero which was very popular at the time in Russian literature is pretty obvious. Lensky, who turns out to be Onegin’s neighbour is a complete opposite. I don’t know about the English translation, but in Russian Pushkin uses great few sentences to describe the two: “They came together. Wave and stone, poetry and prose, ice and fire were not as unlike as those two […] Friends out of nothing else to do.” (My own translation, and hey, it kind of rhymes too!)
We also learn of the two young Larin sisters living in an estate close by. Olga is the youngest and captivates Lensky with her pretty face, charming smile and lively personality. As another contrast for the story, her sister Tatiana is quiet and plagued by romantic ideas from her favourite books like those by Samuel Richardson – the author of Pamela and Clarissa. I very much sympathized with Tatiana, because just like her I used to be a shy, quiet youth, awkward in companies and preferring stories of idealistic chivalry and romance. Ah, Tatiana, of course you are destined to fall for the heartless bad boy!
Chapters 3 & 4
Intrigued by the origins of Lensky’s puppy eyes and the sudden surge in poetry writing, Onegin asks to be introduced to the Larins. Upon the meeting, however, Eugene comments that if he was more of a romantic, like Vladimir, he would prefer Tatiana to silly, trophy wife Olga. This, ladies and gentlemen, where Onegin kicks ass of any Mr. Darcy. Upon seeing real character in a woman he recognizes it, instead of calling a smart girl a bore… unlike some people.
Just as predicted Tatiana falls hard for Onegin. And doing something unheard of for the time, Tatiana writes him a letter in which at length she confesses her feelings. I find it funny how Pushkin mentions the girl had to write in French due to her little knowledge of her own native tongue. Most people who haven’t read much Russian literature always get surprised when I tell them that most nobility of 18-19 centuries spoke fluent French, as a requirement for proper education. Speaking French was fashionable and cultured (and made them feel like true rich snobs), so many couldn’t even speak proper Russian. And when they could, they butchered their speech on purpose to sound “noble”. Hell yeah, Russian was for lowly peasants and such!
The fourth chapter opens with an amazing sentence: “The less we love a woman, the easier it is for her to fall in love with us” (again, my translation, so you probably won’t find the exact wording in your book). Apparently the darn paradox existed in all times and places. We learn that Onegin is initially touched by Tatiana’s sincere words, and therefore decides to be honest with her. Upon having a private talk with her, Eugene tells Tatiana that he is simply not ready for marriage or love in general, and wishes to spare her from unnecessary hurt from a neglectful husband. Actually, I find his rebuff quite tasteful, because I was expecting something more brutal from him. Unfortunately Tatiana’s feelings for him do not wither.
Later on Lensky begs Onegin to accompany him to Larins’s celebration of Tatiana’s name day. I don’t know about countries around the world, but in Russian Empire and most of Europe people used to celebrate this weird holiday called “name day”, which is like a birthday but for your name. Usually it marked some day dedicated to a particular saint, and if you had the same name as this holy guy or gal you had yourself a “name day”! Onegin, being apathetic, antisocial person that he is, of course tries to get himself out of the predicament. But Lensky assures him that it will just be a small family thing, and so he finally agrees.
Chapters 5 & 6
Meanwhile Tatiana suffers from a broken heart and spends her days engaged in the favourite pastime of her young contemporaries – divination. After many attempts to see her future she finally falls asleep and sees a strange dream. In it she is being brought by a bear to a strange house in the forest where Onegin parties with his demonic guests. Vladimir enters and possessed by sudden anger Eugene strikes his friend with a knife, killing him instantly. Dream reading is still pretty popular among Russians (I even have an old book on dreams and divination somewhere in my old boxes), so it was especially fun for me to see how Pushkin uses dream symbols as foreshadowing devices.
Soon Tatiana’s name day comes and when Onegin makes an appearance he realizes that Lensky had deceived him and brought him to a full-blown ball. Angered at being forced to enter the society once more Eugene decides to annoy Lensky by shamelessly flirting and dancing with Olga. Flattered by his attention the youngest Larin sister doesn’t make an attempt to stop the spectacle, which of course deeply hurts Lensky. He flees the ball and the next day challenges Onegin to a duel. Bound by convention Eugene accepts.
Pushkin spends some time describing Lensky’s last night before his death, which again adds more drama to the following events in later chapters. Vladimir spends his last moments thinking about Olga and writing feverish poetry to be remembered by if he dies. The last few sentences leave no doubts about the fate Pushkin has in mind for his character:
“To-morrow’s dawn will glimmer gray,
Bright day will then begin to burn,
But the dark sepulchre I may
Have entered never to return.
The memory of the bard, a dream,
Will be absorbed by Lethe’s stream;
Men will forget me, but my urn
To visit, lovely maid, return,
O’er my remains to drop a tear,
And think: here lies who loved me well,
For consecrate to me he fell
In the dawn of existence drear.
Maid whom my heart desires alone,
Approach, approach; I am thine own.”
– trans. by Henry Spalding, provided by Project Gutenberg
The two friends meet in the morning and get ready to shoot at each other. Onegin fires first and mortally wounds Lensky. The disagreements are instantly forgotten, he rushes to Vladimir’s side, but it is too late. Overwhelmed by remorse Eugene flees the country, trying to forget his friend’s untimely death. While reading this scene I couldn’t get rid of the thoughts of Pushkin’s own death from a gunshot wound inflicted by his opponent at a duel. How similar were the fates of the author and his poet character! How both their lives were senselessly cut short by misunderstanding and stubborn pride! It is as if Pushkin glimpsed into the future and described his own tragic fate.
Chapters 7 & 8
Shortly afterwards Olga forgets her admirer and marries someone else, while Lensky’s grave becomes forgotten and overrun by weeds. Here Pushkin reinforces the feeling of senselessness and waste yet again. I practically cried reading this chapter. What purpose was there in pride and honour when all of it was forgotten by the fickle heart of a young girl?
Still in love with Onegin, Tatiana visits his empty house reads his books, trying to understand Eugene’s true character. The more she reads his notes in the margins, the more she realizes how much his persona borrows from fictional characters she used to admire and how unsure she is about his true self. At the same time Tatiana’s relatives are concerned with her ending up an old maid and arrange for some potential suitors to take a look at her. Finally she agrees to marry an old, rich general.
In the final chapter several years pass and Onegin returns to St Petersburg. He is invited to the general’s house for a party, where he sees the beautiful, stately Tatiana. Suddenly he is overwhelmed by the feeling he has not understood before – love. Her cool manners and seemingly indifferent reception of Onegin drive him desperate as he writes her one letter after another, begging to forgive him and rekindle her old feelings for him. Does he want her because she is unobtainable now and belongs to someone else? Or has he honestly matured enough to be genuinely in love? Finally he finds Tatiana alone and she offers her own advice in return like he did all those years ago. She confesses that she still has feelings for Onegin, but chooses to be faithful to her husband as a good wife should be.
Remember how Tatiana’s constant companion was a volume of Samuel Richardson? If you know a general story behind either Pamela or Clarissa, both stories feature young women determined to protect their virtue and to exhibit a true ladylike behaviour. It is my theory that Tatiana decides to do the right thing and protect her virtue in the image of her favourite heroines. What good was it to her to ruin her reputation and that of her husband, and condemn her soul to the constant feelings of guilt, if she were to accept Onegin’s proposition? Was she to forget her own pride and run to him now that he finally reciprocates? Actually, no matter how sad the ending seems because of it, I am glad that Tatiana rejects Eugene. He didn’t want her then, so how did a couple of years make any difference? Tatiana herself questions whether it is her status and money that made him see her differently now. Is there some truth in that? The ending has this perfect balance of melancholy, bitterness, and satisfaction… like a tub of Häagen-Dazs after a bad break up. It makes me just want to pick up the book once more and read it over and over again.
My book also contained fragments from the lost chapter on Onegin’s travels after Lensky’s death. Apparently Pushkin chose to burn the entire episode because it featured some strong political ideas. I always get sad when I learn things like that, but seeing that a lot of lines were aimed at the emperor and his apparent weaknesses I see why Pushkin felt the need to protect himself.
Aaaaaand this turned out to be a very long post! I just wanted to make sure I included all my notes on this masterpiece and there were lots. But as I mentioned before I will be reading the rest of my Pushkin’s anthology, so next we are going to have some narrative poetry. The very first piece is Ruslan and Ludmila – a classic damsel in distress story – which I haven’t read since middle school. I don’t remember much, except that there is a kidnapping and some magic, and an invisibility hat! Stay tuned!