Reading Pushkin: Eugene Onegin

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

12 comments

  1. I loved your very long post, every bit of it! 🙂 I haven’t re-read Onegin since high school, but I still remember it very well, it seems. When you cite something self-translated, the phrase in the original immediately pop up in my head!

    There was a question for a composition about why Onegin finally fell in love with Tatiana, and although I wrote pages on it, I still don’t know. I think it was everything combined: that she became mature and popular, that he became older and probably a bit nostalgic, that she is now out of his reach and thus a challenge… But I love the symmetry of their letters/answers to each other, it’s ideal from the point of view of composition!

  2. Thank you Ekaterina! I tried to be as literal as possible with translations to try to convey the right ideas, but still making sense in English. But Pushkin’s quotations are so easy to remember, aren’t they? I was so surprised how many wonderful rhymes I used to know but forgot until I started reading again. Then things like “Любви все возрасты покорны” came in and my brain automatically began reciting the whole thing from somewhere in my subconsciousness. Amazing stuff!

    I have a private theory that Onegin fell in love with Tatiana simply because he matured and mentally became ready for her love. He obviously found her interesting back then, but couldn’t be bothered to be attached to any woman. I think there is a passage in the beginning of the last chapter that describes him coming back to Russia and it states that Onegin has finally realized that he does not want to be alone anymore. I guess only Pushkin knew the truth, but maybe even he didn’t. Romance is complicated.

    Oh, but I do love the symmetry of the poem so much! The contrast between Onegin and Lensky, Tatiana and Olga, the dream and reality, letters and rejections… simply amazing!

  3. “like a tub of Häagen-Dazs after a bad break up” THIS. 🙂 I enjoyed so many of your descriptions in this review!

    It has really got me thinking, too… I still haven’t resolved in my own mind why Onegin fell for Tatyana. I like to think he always loved her and was too busy being cynical to see it. Perhaps that’s too optimistic an approach, yet I do think he saw something in her all along, else why become so upset at the gossip on her name-day?

    The other thing that boggles the mind is how, like you say, Pushkin practically foresaw his own death. I wonder if he later realized it would happen like Lensky’s, or if he didn’t think of it at all. Talk about fictional characters and real-life!

  4. Thank you. 🙂 I guess it’s the great tragedy of life that two people would fall in love at the wrong times.

    What makes me wonder even more, now that I think of it, is the validity of Tatyana’s feelings. I mean she barely spoke to the guy before proclaiming her love for him, but endured a rejection and continued to love him even in his absence from the country. Was she in love with this perfect man straight out of a book she created in her head? Was it just a crush that developed into something more? Gossips affecting an impressionable young lady? Genuine love at first sight? Could be anything. Generally I find that a lot of Pushkin’s heroines fall in love easy and hard, and end up doing irrational things because of it. So there is a lot of room for speculation.

  5. Sadly I was only able to read your review through chapters 1 & 2 because I’m trying to stick to the schedule (hard, isn’t it? You want to read it all in one gulp! I completely understand!)

    Up until this point, Tatyana drove me nuts! I could not see what she saw in Onegin, but reading the Falen translation this time, I feel more of his charm comes through. She still is a very immature, sheltered girl, who is probably looking for a hero that resembles her book-heroes to come her way.

    As for Onegin’s love for Tatyana, I’ll comment on that when I get further into it.

    Great review, BTW, Andrea!

  6. I knew that it would be impossible for me to prevent myself from reading the whole thing at once! But in my defense, I am still reading Pushkin’s other works, so I am still mentally with you guys!

    Tatyana is very romantic to a fault, isn’t she? But I bet you will like her in the end, as she makes some sensible decisions.

    Thank you, as always, for visiting and commenting!

  7. Restricted myself to only reading about the first four chapters, as I am doing the read-along, but will be back to read more – it is a wonderful read and one that I am sure is going to be even more fun on a second reading. Thanks to your later post, I am going to look up more of his poetry.

    I enjoy your insights and discussion of the popularity of the French language and reading French literature, these are the subtle contexts that add so much to the reading.

    I am looking forward to the next two chapters!

  8. I am glad Eugene Onegin is receiving so much positive feedback, Claire, especially since it’s rather hard to grasp in translation. I hope it will end up an unforgettable experience for you, because Pushkin is definitely one of the most beloved Russian writers and is a personal favourite of mine.

  9. I finally finished so I was able to read your complete post. What a tremendously elegant and helpful review, Andrea! You pointed out a few things that I didn’t know. While I did know that it was fashionable to speak French and French was preferred to Russian (thank you, Tolstoy), I didn’t know that the nobility would deliberately butcher Russian to sound noble. Yikes! You also were able to pick up subtleties that I don’t think were always apparent in the English translations.

    At the end of the poem, I felt Onegin had not learned anything by Lensky’s tragic death. If he convinced Tatyana to return his love, in all probability it would have ended in another duel and perhaps the death of another friend. Yet he doesn’t even think of this possibility.

    I noticed in the English translations the duel was somewhat ambiguous as to what happened. It sounded like Onegin raised his pistol first and was ready when it was time to fire, but Lensky was still aiming …..??? If you have time, could you read my post of chapters 5 & 6 and comment? And if you don’t have time, please don’t worry about it ……… since you are the only one who read it in the original Russian, you have insights that elude the rest of us! 🙂 In any case, here is the link to my post: http://cleoclassical.blogspot.ca/2014/02/eugene-onegin-read-along-chapters-5-6.html My comment about this is under “reactions and predictions”. Thanks!

  10. Thank you, Cleo. I’m glad that my post gave you some additional insight into the poem!

    I think Onegin’s behaviour in the end is sort of understandable if you take social norm of the day into account. Back then having a lover outside of marriage was a rather common thing, and people were shamelessly having affairs in higher circles of society. The trick was not to get caught, which would cause some scandal and an obligatory duel of course. Pushkin himself was involved with quite a few women during his marriage, and the fatal duel in which he died resulted from an alleged relationship Pushkin’s wife was having with a French officer. The way Pushkin wrote Tatyana’s character in a way makes her his ideal of female virtue, so naturally Onegin couldn’t stand a chance.

    I took a look at the section you’re referring to, and I must admit it is rather vague in Russian too. But, there is a mention of a clock striking the fateful hour at the time of Onegin’s shot, which might give us a clue. Usually the duellists waited for a clock to strike certain time (kind of like in Western movies with high noon duels) to mark the first shot. My guess, because Onegin had a head-start on raising his pistol, he just reacted to the clock chime faster and fired first. But then again, it is said that Onegin pulled the trigger in first line, and then the following line mentions the clock. Perhaps it was a stylistic choice, but perhaps Onegin simply fired before it was time, thus giving Lensky little chance to live.

    Hope that helps you a little!

  11. Thanks for doing the research, Andrea! It’s nice to know that it’s just as unclear in Russian. Lensky’s second (I can’t remember his name at the moment) was described as being an expert at duelling and I would think he would have been particular about the rules. Perhaps it was just a matter of Onegin being the more experienced duelist, but it looks like we’ll never really know.

    I hope we get the chance to do another read-along together!

    Thanks again!

  12. That would be very nice, Cleo! Hopefully sooner, rather than later!

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