The Eugene Onegin Challenge – the Conclusion

This is already the last part of the Eugene Onegin challenge. What a journey it has turned out to be! A lot has happened in the world since I started this challenge five months ago, and I hope that it has been a welcome form of distraction for you. It certainly was for me!

Now that we have discussed each chapter separately, it’s time to take a look at the novel as a whole and draw some conclusions. 

The structure

First of all the structure; within this seemingly effortless product of his quill, Pushkin has woven an extremely clever web of symmetries, overlapping themes, links and parallels, down to the smallest details. Especially if we take into consideration the fact that when Pushkin started to write the novel in 1823 he had no idea how it would end in 1831. Also he originally intended it to have nine or ten chapters, which at the last moment he changed into eight chapters. The plot symmetrical, Tatyana falls in love with Eugene and is rejected and later Eugene falls in love with Tatyana and is rejected. Each chapter ends with the same theme with which the previous chapter ended, and chapter 8 ends with the same Saint Petersburg theme with which chapter 1 started. The exact middle of the novel (5:5:6) reads ‘All objects either scared or charmed her, with secret meanings they’d impart’ – right in the middle of the Russian countryside, celebrating the svyatki and far away from the Saint Petersburg society. All this gives the novel a perfectly balanced feeling, it all seems to be just right. And then there is the Onegin sonnet and Pushkin’s plain and clear use of language. 

The plot

Onegin’s demonic side really shows when he is placed opposite the naive Lensky. It’s almost as if he cannot bear Lensky’s optimism. The revenge he takes on Lensky when it turns out that the name-day party is much bigger than promised is out of proportion. But Lensky’s reaction is even more out of proportion; even when it turns out that Olga is completely innocent, he lets the duel take place, with fatal consequences for him. Tatyana’s novels lead her to believe that Onegin is her perfect hero, but his novels show her that he is a fake hero. In spite of this discovery she continues to have feelings for him. She gives in to her mother’s wishes and the conventions of society and marries another man, but perhaps she also knew that a relationship with Onegin would ultimately lead to her downfall. Her husband sees her potential and appears to be worthy of her. The fact that Onegin does turn out to be capable of feelings after all and falls in love with Tatyana (the real one, because he pictures her in front of the window) is too little too late. His clumsy and inappropriate efforts to seduce her, emphasise his egotistical character once more. It’s ironic that in chapter 1 he has no trouble seducing married women, but in chapter 8 he cannot seduce the one married woman he actually loves.

Mine, mine!

Pushkin often writes ‘my Onegin,’ ‘my Tatyana,’ ‘my Lensky,’ ‘my reader’ and ‘my muse’. This implicates that the novel and its characters came from within Pushkin himself. Well, obviously, he wrote it all, but still it indicates how just connected he felt to each of them.

The Lensky in Pushkin

Lensky is a stylised young version of the poet Pushkin: full of poetic ideals, but hardly original. This is the poet before he was confronted with the realities of life and was visited by the demon. Lensky’s death is the result of a lack of potential as poet and his failure to recognise Onegin as a demon. By killing Lensky Pushkin has closed the youthful chapter of his life in a rather rigorous manner.

The Onegin in Pushkin 

Onegin symbolises the bubbling society life in Saint Petersburg, from which Pushkin at the time when he started writing Eugene Onegin was excluded due to his banishment from the capital. If Pushkin had not been exiled and suffering from a case of severe ‘fomo’ while he was living in Moldavia, Eugene Onegin would most likely not have seen the light of day!

The Tatyana in Pushkin 

We can recognise a lot of Pushkin in Tatyana: her passion for reading and nature, her longing for passionate love, het misunderstood feelings, but also her authentic ‘Russianness’, expressed in her love for the Russian traditions of story and fortune telling, combined with interest in Western culture, expressed in her foreign novels. Just like Pushkin and his muse, or even as his muse, she is capable of adjusting herself to her surroundings and triumph. The fact that she is the only character that he does not mock shows just how dear she was to him.

Byron

Byron has been an enormous source of inspiration for Pushkin. Onegin is the Russian version of the Byronic hero. He is rich, intelligent, well educated, but also maladjusted, egoistic and indifferent. No matter where he is or what he does, nothing can hold his interest. His life lacks a goal or purpose, hence the term ‘superfluous man’ (лишний человек), used in Russian literature. 

The Muse and the Demon

Pushkin places his muse on a pedestal. He celebrates her in the first seven stanzas of chapter 8. Her development is completely synchronised with Pushkin’s development as a poet. She first comes to him when he is a student, together they have their first literary successes. She accompanies him to the South, where she runs ‘wild’. At Mikhailovskoye she turns into Tatyana. Back in Saint Petersburg she holds herself very well amidst the glitter and glamour, just like Tatyana. Her opposite is the demon who tries to unbalance the poet with his mockery and cynicism. As we saw in the previous post Onegin personifies the demon.

The Reader

Pushkin has assigned himself an important part in Eugene Onegin as a very present narrator. He draws the reader into the story by directly addressing him, as if he is a friend writing you a letter. This creates an intimate setting and leads you to believe that you are hearing the story from a first hand witness. By treating the reader as his equal and simply telling the story ‘as it happened,’ the reader is free to draw his own conclusions.

Fact or Fiction?

The light tone, simple plot and poetic structure allow Pushkin to frequently lose himself in digressions. They make up one third of the novel! The details and people he talks about are mostly real. Often it’s obvious, but it can be difficult for the reader to distinguish between fact and fiction, especially so for the modern reader.  Pushkin happily places the very real Zhukovsky next to the fictitious Tatyana at the table. Even his characters sometimes struggle between fiction and reality; both Tatyana and Onegin mirror themselves on the novels they read, with disastrous consequences! That even Pushkin himself was surprised by the development of one of his characters was evident from one of his letters: “My Tatyana has gone and got herself married! I should never have thought it of her!”

The importance of Tatyana’s dream

Tatyana enthusiastically throws herself into the svyatki rituals in chapter 5. There is a small contradiction here, as we know that she is not interested in marriage, and all the rituals are aimed at finding out more about your future husband. Although he himself was very superstitious, Pushkin mocks these ancient traditions. Nonetheless he lets the predictions come true: both sisters marry a military man (5:4) and Tatyana will become rich (5:8). In her prophetic dream Tatyana first sees the demonic side of Onegin and she also foresees him killing Lensky. And who knows, perhaps the name of her husband really is Agafon. Pushkin leaves us guessing. The episode gives the novel an authentic Russian feel, and emphasises Tatyana’s Russianness. And it turns out that there is more truth and wisdom in the ancient traditions than in those foreign novels.

Words

Pushkin has used a mere 35000 words to write Eugene Onegin. He has inspired me to write a good 10000 words about Eugene Onegin. And then there’s Nabokov, who managed to fill more than a thousand pages dedicated to Eugene Onegin. And still it seems hard to really do justice to this wonderful and timeless classic. In spite of the sad turns of the plot, the overall atmosphere remains light and entertaining. Pushkin never forces his judgement upon the characters and leaves the reader room to form their own. Onegin can be seen as a fop who carelessly kills his friend and preaches the innocent Tatyana about love, only to later try to seduce her when she is married. But he can also be seen as a tragic hero, the sad product of an era, who has to live with the consequences of his actions forever. There are undoubtedly as many interpretations as readers, and also as many interpretations as readings.

An encyclopedia of Pushkin’s brain

The Russian literary critic Belinsky (1811-1848) called Eugene Onegin ‘an encyclopedia of Russian life.’  Thanks to Pushkin’s frequent digressions we have no doubt learned a lot about life in Russia at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But to me Eugene Onegin seems most of all an encyclopedia of Pushkin’s brain. He has given us everything he had: Greek mythology, Latin poets, western literature, Russian folklore, dreams, reality, human nature, psychological insights, superstition, satire, humor and the glitter and glamour in Saint Petersburg. It all came together in Eugene Onegin and formed a fascinating, sparkling and enchanting novel in verse. 

*****

As always I would love to hear from you in the comments, even those of you who came across this challenge at a later point. I am left with one burning question that I have not yet been able to answer: what does it mean that Onegin calls Tatyana ‘mine’ in her dream, when at that point he does not want her? Do let me know your thoughts about this. 

*****

I used the following (reference) works for this blog series:

Eugene Onegin in translations by James Falen, Roger Clarke and Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov’s Commentary on Eugene Onegin 

Pushkin’s Tatiana – Olga Peters Hasty

An illustrated and annotated Russian edition of Eugene Onegin 

Through the magic crystal to Eugene Onegin – Leslie O’Bell

The author – narrator’s stance in Onegin – J.Thomas Shaw

The muse and the demon in the poetry of Pushkin, Lermontov and Blok – Pamela Davidson

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Bonus post: Onegin as a demon

An extra blog post in which I explore the relation between Pushkin’s well known poem A Demon and his masterpiece Eugene Onegin.

I originally intended to save A Demon and its relevance for Eugene Onegin for the conclusion of this series, but it turned out that there was so much to tell and philosophise about, that I felt it deserved a separate blog post.

The poem A Demon

The poem was written in the autumn of 1823, a few months after Pushkin had started to write in Eugene Onegin. In chapter 8 the relevance of the poem becomes clear, as the first four words of chapter 8 are exactly the same as the first four words of A Demon: ‘В те дни, когда’, ‘in days when’ in the Falen translation, literally ‘in those days when’. In stanza 12 Pushkin makes a direct reference to the poem and links Onegin to the demon: ‘or even Demon of my pen’ followed in the next line with ‘Eugene, (to speak of him again)’.

In the poem a still young, pure and idealistic poet (Pushkin) is visited by a demon. This demon mocks all the pure and beautiful things that inspire the poet and causes him to doubt his talents. He personifies that little voice in your head that tells you that you’re not nearly as good at something as so and so, so why should you even start to write, study, do anything? He’s the main cause of your procrastination habits and writer’s block. The demon stands opposite the muse, the bringer of inspiration and motivation. Luckily for us Pushkin overcame his demon and continued to write.

The Poet – Muse – Demon triangle

You could say that Eugene Onegin is an elaboration (or processing) of the poet-muse-demon idea: the poet is the narrator / Pushkin; the muse is the narrator / Pushkin’s muse and Tatyana; and Onegin is the demon.

Pushkin assumes that the reader is familiar with his other work and private life. The hint he gives by starting chapter 8 with the same words as his well known poem, would have been picked up by the reader of that time: the demon (Onegin) will make his appearance. Only this time the four words are followed by the entrance of the muse first and Onegin appears later. Seven beautiful stanzas long praises Pushkin his muse, clear proof that she has conquered over the demon and is now his faithful ally.

Onegin became at some point in his youth bored and disillusioned (1:38) and the narrator, who was then in a similar life phase (1:45) (or possibly even infected by Onegin (1:46)), became friends with him. To escape their daily spleen they are planning to go travelling together. Due to the unexpected death of Onegin’s uncle, the narrator has to go alone. The narrator manages to find inspiration again, but Onegin is soon bored again. Now the naive Lensky becomes his friend. This goes well for a while, but eventually Lensky will bring out the worst in Onegin, which results in him killing Lensky, as foreseen in Tatyana’s dream.

Pushkin created some kind of alter ego with Lensky; a stylised version of his young self, full of poetic ideals, but also a lot of commonplaceness. Even the choice of his muse, Olga, is too predictable: ‘But glance in any novel – you’ll discover her portrait there; it’s charming, true; I liked it once no less than you, but round it boredom seems to hover’ (2:23). Pushkin lets Lensky take all the demon’s (Onegin’s) negative impact and even sacrifices him to the demon.

The naive Lensky fails to see that Onegin is a demon and allows himself to be tricked into jealousy by him. This failure shows his incapability to grow as a poet. In addition to this his choosing Olga as his eternal muse is a sign that he does not really have what it takes. And so he has to die as a young poet.

Onegin does not deserve Tatyana, who is a true and good muse, because he is no poet, and because of his incapability to grow out of this phase of imitation and negativity. Even if he eventually shows some capability of having real feelings for Tatyana, this is too little too late.

The muse, Tatyana, conquers. Onegin is left behind defeated while she leaves the room with her head held high (8:48). And so Pushkin has successfully turned his demon into a muse and a masterpiece was born.

*****

I hope to see you all on Sunday for the grande finale!

I used the following works for this blog post:

Through the magic crystal to Eugene Onegin – Leslie O’Bell

The author – narrator’s stance in Onegin – J.Thomas Shaw

The muse and the demon in the poetry of Pushkin, Lermontov and Blok – Pamela Davidson

The poem ‘A Demon’ was translated by James Falen

Text and photos © 2020 Elisabeth van der Meer

The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Onegin’s Travels

At first sight the appendix containing Onegin’s travels seems difficult to place in relation to the eight chapters that make up the novel Eugene Onegin.

Russianness

The stanzas relating to Onegin’s travels were originally intended to be featured in chapter 8 and the novel was supposed to have nine or ten chapters. Feeling perhaps that they stood out too much from the ‘Russianness’ of the rest of the novel, Pushkin chose to exile them as it were to an appendix instead, rather than leaving them out altogether. This would have caused too large a gap in the story, with Onegin disappearing after the duel and reappearing some years later in Saint Petersburg. Had they been included in the novel, they would of course have mirrored Tatyana’s journey from the countryside to Moscow.

Contrasts

We have already seen that Eugene Onegin is a novel of contrasts, between the city and the countryside for instance. In Onegin’s travels that turns into a contrast between Russia and it’s southern territories, like the Crimea and the Caucasus. When Pushkin started writing Eugene Onegin in 1823 he was in exile (1820-1826) and living in Moldavia. His travels during his exile to the Caucasus and the Crimea had made Pushkin see Russia and his own Russianness in a new light. Not being able to go to Saint Petersburg himself, he imagined his hero Eugene Onegin and his reader there. It is more than likely that our very Saint Petersburg dandy Eugene Onegin would not have seen the light of day if Pushkin had not been exiled!

Тоска! (Ennui!)

In a literary sense journeys often indicate personal growth. From some of the original stanzas of this chapter, it would seem that Pushkin did intend to have Onegin come to some insights, and even wanted Eugene to take part in the 1825 Decembrist Revolt. However, all the stanzas that were too political were left out of the final version and we are left with a Eugene who is once again bored (ennui!) So if Eugene has learned anything during his Byronic escape, it may well be that his boredom came from within, and not from his surroundings.

Childe Harold

The travels can also be seen as an answer to Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Although Pushkin tells us not to confuse him with Byron, the references to Byron are there throughout the novel. In a draft he called the appendix a “playful parody” of Childe Harold. His playful tone of the first chapters of Eugene Onegin is certainly back. In the 9th stanza the narrator claims to have outgrown his love for exotic romantic landscapes, preferring the Russian countryside instead.

Fiction or reality?

The journey that Onegin makes corresponds mostly with Pushkin’s renewed (voluntary this time!) travels to the south in 1829. He travels from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to Nizhni Novgorod, where the bustling market fails to amuse him. In the Caucasus he is finally impressed by the majestic landscape, but it only seems to emphasize the ‘ennui’ that lies in store for him. In the Crimea the narrator takes over again, reminiscing his youth and taking the reader to Odessa. Sunny Odessa, where many Italians lived, was Pushkin’s answer to Byron’s Italy in Childe Harold.

All in all it remains an odd chapter. It contains some wonderful stanzas, but contributes little to the plot of Eugene Onegin. And although this chapter is called Onegin’s travels, it might just as well have been called Pushkin’s travels. It tells us a lot about how his travels made him grow as a poet. The wildness of the Caucasus particularly would continue to inspire Pushkin throughout his career. Only when seen from a distance could he find a new appreciation for the charms of the Russian big cities and countryside.

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

In addition to the previous references works I used Writing at Russia’s Border by Katya Hokanson and Breaking Ground by Sara Dickinson.

The conclusion of the Eugene Onegin Challenge is scheduled for the 5th of July. I’d be happy to (try to) answer any questions that you have after finishing Eugene Onegin.

Season 2 Episode 34: Elisabeth on The Eugene Onegin Challenge Part 2

Welcome to Tea, Toast and Trivia. Thank you for listening in. Elisabeth Van Der Meer from the extraordinary blog, A Russian Affair, has once again …

Season 2 Episode 34: Elisabeth on The Eugene Onegin Challenge Part 2

Once more I had the pleasure to record a podcast with Rebecca. We talked some more about Pushkin and the Eugene Onegin challenge. What else is there to talk about?!

The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Chapter 8

In which Eugene falls for Tatyana and she refuses him…

Tatyana is now Princess N.

We left Tatyana in chapter 7 where she had caught the attention of a corpulent general. When we see her next in chapter 8 she is married and goes by the title ‘Princess N’. Instead of a  description of the engagement and subsequent marriage, Pushkin talks about his muse, who came to him in different guises at various stages in his life. At the end of stanza 5 we can recognise Tatyana as his muse. Now Pushkin has taken his muse into the salons of the high society in Saint Petersburg, where she holds herself very well indeed.

The lack of information about her engagement and marriage to general N, or even N’s full name (it is not even certain that he is the same as the corpulent general), is congruent with her own lack of interest in such things.

Onegin

Now we also see Eugene again, in his natural environment this time. He has apparently been traveling* and is now in his late twenties. No, he hasn’t changed, he’s still bored with everything. Until he meets Tatyana again, that is. He can’t believe his eyes when he spots the transformed Tatyana and has to double check with his cousin, who happens to be the general himself, if that perfectly accomplished and composed lady is really the shy girl he used to know. 

Whatever Tatyana may be thinking when she meets Eugene again, she shows no sign of it and greets him just like she would any old acquaintance. She has clearly taken the lessons that Eugene preached to her in 4:16:12 to heart. Although Tatyana has nothing fake or feigned about her, we are reminded of the opening of chapter 4: ‘the less we love her when we woo her, the more we draw a woman in’. Only now it’s the other way around; by not showing any interest in Eugene, she makes him fall in love with her.  

Onegin’s letter(s)

When all his conventional attempts to woo Tatyana fail, he resorts to writing her a letter. By mirroring Eugene’s letter with Tatyana’s letter from chapter 3, Pushkin emphasises the differences between the two. Eugene’s letter is a strange mixture of reproach (she doesn’t acknowledge his attentions) and commonplace phrases (To swoon and pass away… what rapture!). When she does not reply, he writes another, and another. She continues to ignore him, although she does understandably begin to show signs of annoyance. 

Like any self respecting literary hero would, Onegin loses himself all winter long in self pity and depression. When he has grown tired of that too, he hastens along the Neva’s bank to Tatyana’s house. There, as in a fairy tale, door after door opens until he finds himself in Tatyana’s boudoir. This scene echoes both Tanya’s flight into the garden (3:38) and the running away from the bear (5:13). Pushkin uses the same ‘interstrophic enjambment’ technique in stanzas 38-39 of chapter 3 as in stanzas 39-40 of chapter 8: “so fast that, panting, on a bench at last she falls..” and “But where in such a headlong rush has my Eugene directly hastened?” This continuation of one sentence into the next stanza is a literary trick that Pushkin employs to emphasise the parallels between the two scenes.

Tatyana’s rejection

Tatyana sits not yet fully dressed crying over presumably one of his letters. Onegin kneels in front of her and for a second it looks as if she may give in, but then she resolutely rejects him. Now it’s her turn to teach Eugene a lesson. She explains that she only married because of her mother, that she does not care for all the glitter and glamour that now surrounds her, and that she misses her former beloved country surroundings. She ends her speech with the famous last words ‘but I am now another’s wife, and I’ll be faithful all my life

How are we to understand Tatyana’s words? Is she really unhappy?

She insinuates that she married the first suitor who came along, just to satisfy her mother’s wishes. According to Nabokov’s calculations she is now in her early twenties, and her husband is about 15 years older. Hardly an old man. The marriage has freed her from a mother who does’t understand her. She has a proud and loving husband. As Princess N. she is a respected and wealthy lady. There is nothing that indicates that she is not free to visit her mother whenever she wants, or visit her husband’s country estate if she’s longing for fresh air. She is certainly now able to buy as many books as she likes.

Onegin’s appearance has stirred up her old feelings (the simple girl he’d known before, who’d dreamed and loved, was born once more 41:13) and she is fondly remembering the time when her future was still undecided, when she did not yet know that Eugene was not he she thought he was.

She knows that Onegin’s sudden interest in her has everything to do with her transformation into Princess N. He does not intend now, any more than he did in the past, to marry Tatyana, even if such a thing were possible in 1825. She points out to him that he has had and missed his chance and that it is wrong of him to try to seduce her. When she asks him to leave while admitting that she still loves him, she appears to be talking to the old Eugene. As such we can also interpret her final words as a reminder to herself to move on.

*The stanzas about Onegin’s travels were added to the novel as an appendix by Pushkin.

Interesting facts:

The majority of chapter 8 was written during the so-called Boldino autumn. A very prolific period in 1830 when Pushkin was quarantined due to a cholera outbreak.

In the original Russian text Tanya wears a ‘raspberry beret’ in stanza 17, which has caused speculations about Prince having read Eugene Onegin.

Stanza 27 originally stated that Eugene was so blinded by the vision of the new Tatyana, that he did not even notice the tsar and tsarina entering the room. Naturally this could never have gotten through the censure.

In a famous and passionate speech about Pushkin, Dostoevsky refers to Tatyana and her famous last words. He saw her as a fine example of the Russian woman, who prefers the simple things in life to wealth and status. She sacrifices her own happiness and is faithful to her husband, even if he is an old man who she cannot possibly love: “No, a pure, Russian soul decides thus: Let me, let me alone be deprived of happiness, even if my happiness be infinitely greater than the unhappiness of this old man. Finally, let no one, not even this old man, know and appreciate my sacrifice: I will not be happy through having ruined another.”

*****

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

The appendix with Onegin’s travels is scheduled for the 21st of June. Happy reading!

Season 2 Episode 31: Elisabeth On The Eugene Onegin Challenge — Tea Toast & Trivia

Welcome to Tea, Toast and Trivia. Thank you for listening in. Elisabeth Van Der Meer from the extraordinary blog, A Russian Affair, has once again joined me from Finland, the far distance of 7,514 km from Vancouver. Elisabeth issued “The Eugene Onegin Challenge” which is happening on her blog, A Russian Affair. I have taken […]

Season 2 Episode 31: Elisabeth On The Eugene Onegin Challenge — Tea Toast & Trivia

The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Chapter 7

In which Tatyana discovers the real fake Eugene Onegin 

You may well have been expecting to find a remorseful Onegin and a grieving Olga, but Pushkin wouldn’t be Pushkin if he hadn’t decided differently. We do get a glimpse of Lensky’s grave where indeed two sisters stood grieving in the moonlight a few months ago, but now it’s spring; the path to the grave is full of weeds, Olga has married another and has left her childhood home, and Onegin has apparently returned to Saint Petersburg.

Tatyana is now all alone. She’s struggling with her feelings; the passion that she feels for Onegin is still growing stronger, in spite of everything that has happened.

Literary context

Like fellow blogger Benn Bell wrote here, it’s virtually impossible to read a literary work without placing it in a literary context, whether we realise this or not. This context is made up of all the books that we have previously read. Benn saw large similarities in style between Eugene Onegin and The Raven (1845) by Edgar Allen Poe.

Chapter 7 of Eugene Onegin kept reminding me of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813): in both works the heroine is suddenly confronted with the estate of their love interest, who happens not to be home at that time, leaving our heroine with an excellent opportunity to investigate. Both are let into the house by a talkative housekeeper. Once inside the domain of the man in question his true nature is discovered. In the case of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy the outcome is unexpectedly positive, but Tatyana finds out that Eugene Onegin is not the romantic hero that she thought he was.

Tanya’s quest

To describe Tanya in her quest to know more about Eugene Pushkin uses the word ‘pilgrim’ (20). Tanya is a reader and we are therefore not at all surprised that she instinctively turns to his library to find out who he really is. The contents, or indeed lack of contents, of the bookshelves are always a good indication of the character of the owner. This explains the popularity of the #showusyourshelves hashtag and the sudden importance of a good ‘zoom background’. Our clever girl also understands that she has to focus particularly on the books that he has clearly read, and pays extra attention to the passages that Eugene had marked with a pencil or his nail (23).

With Pride and Prejudice in the back of our minds, we keep expecting Onegin to burst in on Tatyana at any moment, but that does not happen and she can read in peace. And what does she discover… Onegin is a fake! He apparently merely imitates the heroes of popular modern literature. Had Tatyana had access to the same modern novels at home, she would have seen through him immediately.

Tanya saw her ideal literary hero in Onegin, but he turns out to be just a copy of a literary hero. The essential difference between the Tanya and Eugene is that Tanya grows with her experiences, whether they were from a book or from her real life; Onegin copies what he reads, but he does not interpret it.

To Moscow, to Moscow, to Moscow!

While Tanya is busy discovering the real fake Onegin in his study, her mother is planning to take her to Moscow to find her a husband. The next January they depart with ‘almost all that they possessed’ (31:11) to spend the rest of the winter with an aunt in Moscow. And the attentive reader will notice that this is exactly one year after the Svyatki celebrations and Tanya’s prophetic dream.

The first thing that Tanya sees when she wakes up for the first time in Moscow are ironically the stables* in an unfamiliar courtyard (43:11). But at least she could probably hear the familiar sound of her own chickens, because they too were brought to Moscow! Our poor Tanya, who doesn’t even want to have a husband anymore, is being dragged from dinner to theatre. By the end of chapter 7 she has inadvertently caught the attention of a corpulent general.

Remarkable in chapter 7

Tatyana takes the centre stage again in chapter 7, in which farewells play an important part: the farewell to Lensky, implied by the grave scene in stanza 6; the farewell to Olga in stanza 12*; the farewell to Onegin, implied by the reading of his books; Tanya’s farewell to her beloved countryside, which echoes Pushkin’s farewell to the countryside at the end of chapter 6. Mrs. Larina hasn’t been in Moscow since her own wedding, and now she returns with the prospect of her daughter’s wedding. January 1821 was all about predictions regarding Tanya’s future husband, and January 1822 is all about finding Tanya a husband. In the first half of chapter 7 Tanya is exposed to Eugene’s library. In the second half she is exposed to Moscow.

*****

  • Although Austen was apparently not widely read in Russia in Pushkin’s time, it is not completely unlikely that Pushkin had access to a French translation and was familiar with her work.
  • Moscow was rather provincial compared to Saint Petersburg; all the big houses had courtyards with stables where pigs and poultry were held.
  • This touching farewell must come as a surprise to the reader, because as we know the sisters were not that close. Tatyana for instance never told Olga about her love for Onegin.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

Chapter 8 is scheduled for the 7th of June, happy reading! 

The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Chapter 6

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In which Onegin kills his friend Lenski in a spine-chilling duel

At the end of chapter 5 we read that Lenski intends to challenge Onegin to a duel because he had been flirting with his fiancé Olga. To us, 200 years later, this may seem like a trifle, but in 1821 this was a valid reason for a duel; you were expected to defend your and your fiancé’s honour.

Zaretsky delivers the challenge to Onegin

The morning after the name day party Onegin is visited by a certain Zaretsky*. As Lensky’s second he has come to present the challenge to Onegin. Onegin has mixed feelings about Zaretsky, who enjoys a rather dubious reputation. It’s a fact that Onegin accepts the challenge at least in some part because he doesn’t want to lose face in front of Zaretsky (11). Nonetheless he is troubled by his decision. Lensky meanwhile is still fuming and impatiently waiting for the reply. But as the day progresses he too is starting to doubt. First he was determined not to go and see Olga, that heartless flirt, but somehow he finds himself in front of her door anyway (13) and spends the evening with her. It becomes painfully clear to him that she is completely unaware of the pain she has inadvertently caused him and that she loves him as much as ever.

The duel

But what’s done is done and when he returns home Lensky writes his final poem (21-22). Early the next morning Zaretsky picks him up and together they go to the appointed place. When Onegin, who has overslept, has finally arrived, the two friends take their positions. Onegin shoots first and… Lensky is shot dead!

It’s a nightmare

It all seems like a huge misunderstanding. In stanza 18 Pushkin uses ‘когда бы’ (if only) three times. But nobody knows what is going on in the other person’s head and as if in a dream the events leading up to the fatal duel take place. We keep thinking that the duel will be prevented, and that when it does take place, that it will turn out to be someone’s nightmare.

The reader is deliberately put into this dreamlike state. Chapter 6 starts with the guests of the name day party going to sleep. We see them sleeping and snoring in various outfits and positions. Only Tatyana can’t sleep, but she is sitting in the moonlight by the window. The actions of both Lensky and Onegin on the day before the duel are very strange and seemingly out of character. Lensky inexplicably finds himself at Olga’s door. And Onegin, well, his behaviour is much too nonchalant for the circumstances. He should have apologised* as soon as he received the invitation, but instead he accepts. He wakes up on the fateful day when the sun is already up, while they were supposed to meet at dawn, and leaves Lensky waiting for hours on a cold January morning. He has not troubled himself to find a decent second and brings his valet instead (the second should be someone from your own class). Because he had offended Lensky and caused Lensky to challenge him, he should have let Lensky have the first shot, but instead he shoots first himself. He could have fired in the air or aim at Lensky’s leg (12:14), but instead he shoots to kill. Surely this is all a horrible dream! 

An unprincipled second

Zaretsky’s part in all this is highly questionable, to say the least. As a second his main objective should be to try to reconcile both parties. When he handed Lensky’s note to Onegin, he should have asked him if he wished to apologise. Instead he leaves as soon as Onegin has accepted. He arrives at Lensky’s just after 6 on the appointed day, but the sun rises only around 20 past 8 in that place and time of year. This shows his keenness. Before the duel the seconds should make an ultimate attempt to reconcile. We can hardly blame poor Guillot for this oversight, he could hardly have imagined that he would suddenly be appointed the part of a second in a pistol fight and he’s hiding behind a tree, but the experienced Zaretsky should have been very aware of his obligations as a second. 

When Lensky has fallen into the snow, Zaretsky looks at him and concludes without any emotion* “well then, he’s dead.” It’s only then that Onegin seems to wake up and realise that he has just killed his friend. But now it’s already too late! Lensky is buried in an idyllic spot* (stanzas 40-42), befitting a romantic poet (death by duel was considered akin to suicide and this meant that you could not be buried in the churchyard).

Farewell

In stanza 46 Pushkin says farewell to Mikhailovskoye. His house arrest has been lifted after two and a half years. What happens to Olga, Tanya and Onegin will hopefully become clear in chapter 7. 

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* Nabokov claims that only amateurs think that Zaretsky has anything to do with Tolstoy the American. In that case I fall into the amateur category as well, because the biographical details that Pushkin gives Zaretsky, combined with the fact that chapter 6 was written at Mikhailovsoye, where Pushkin had been banned to, and where he was planning to challenge the American at the first opportunity, and even practising for that duel, and thus being somewhat obsessed with the American, make it very plausible that Pushkin had the American in mind when he created Zaretsky.

** Excuses could prevent a duel without damaging the reputation of either party.

*** These words reminded me of what Dolokhov said standing next to poor Petya’s dead body in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. 

**** A similar romantic setting with ‘two pine trees’ is used by Turgenev when he describes Bazarov’s grave in Fathers and Sons.

Bonus Material

In spite of his wise words in stanza 28 (but enmity in their class holds shame in savage dread, alas), Pushkin will die in a duel himself in 1837, although he does make peace with the American, whom he does indeed challenge immediately after leaving Mikhailovskoye in 1826.

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Chapter 7 is scheduled for the 24th of May:

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Chapter 5

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All objects either scared or charmed her, with secret meanings they’d impart…

Svyatki

It’s January and the first snow has fallen. Tatyana, like a good Russian girl, loves winter. She hasn’t seen Onegin since his rejection last summer, but has she gotten over him yet? The beginning of January marks the time of the ‘svyatki’* in Russia, a time when traditionally rituals were performed to predict the future. Tanya, who is very superstitious, just like her creator**, is very eager to see what the future will bring and performs several rituals, focussing specifically on love and marriage. Apart from finding out that Tanya’s future husband will likely be called ‘Agafon*, we do not find out what kind of signs Tanya received so far.

Appealing to dark forces

The ultimate ritual she performs is to conjure a prophetic dream, and this dream turns out to be the most written about dream in the history of Russian literature. 

Because she is appealing to occult forces, she has to remove her silken sash, which normally protects her against the occult, before she goes to bed. A portrait of Lel, the old slavic equivalent of Eros, hangs above her bed and she has placed a mirror underneath her pillow.

The dream

Her dream is awesome and prophetic indeed! She is walking in a snow covered landscape and comes to a seething torrent that she dares not cross. A bear appears and offers to help her across. Although she is terrified she lets the bear help and tries to run away from him as soon as she is on the other side. Eventually she falls and the bear picks her up and carries her to a hut. Inside the hut grotesque monsters are sitting around a table. To her horror she sees Eugene between them; clearly he is the leader of the monsters! As soon as they spot Tatyana they start to shout “She’s mine! She’s mine!” and then Onegin cries “She’s mine!” and the monsters disappear. Onegin carries the terrified girl to a bed and then Olga and Lensky come into the hut. Angry that they were disturbed, Onegin stabs Lenski with a knife.

The dream is full of common elements of Russian fairy tales: the bear, the forest, the hut and the monsters. Freud had not been born yet, and the purpose of the dream was to show the future rather than to dig into Tanya’s psyche, but Tanya did have a book that explained dreams. Nabokov actually managed to find a copy of Martin Zadeck’s book and looked up the same symbols that Tanya looked up in her copy. He could only find three from the list: the crow predicts the death of a relative, the fir predicts marriage and the bear stands for wealth. As we shall see, all three will come true. 

In spite of the promised wealth and marriage the dream is rather ominous. Especially Onegin was a pretty dark figure in her dream; very different from the Onegin that Tanya addressed in her letter. But there was an erotic tension between them in the dream, which was broken by the arrival of her sister and her betrothed. It is therefore not exactly surprising that she struggles to control her emotions when she sees Eugene in real life only a few days after the dream. 

Tatyana’s name day

The name day celebrations echo the monster meeting that she saw in her dream. Onegin sees that Tanya is struggling to compose herself and guesses that he is the cause. For a tiny moment she manages to get his sympathy and he gives her a tender glance that reawakens her feelings for him. But Onegin is mostly furious that it is not the small family gathering that Lensky had promised, and he wants to punish his friend. He flirts with Olga the whole evening. We can only imagine how this must have made poor Tanya feel! At any rate, chapter 5 ends with Lensky galloping away, planning to challenge Onegin for a duel…

Pushkin at his best

In this chapter Pushkin really shows us what he can do. All his talents come together here. There is not just fantastic poetry brimming with alliterations and emotions; there is a mysterious fairy tale atmosphere, there are ancient Russian traditions, and there is an intriguing story line. I can almost guarantee you that you have already grabbed your copy to re-read certain stanzas.

Pushkin also managed some clever structural elements: in chapter 5 we find the exact middle of the novel: stanza 5, lines 6-7: All objects either scared or charmed her, with secret meanings they’d impart…

The beginning of stanza 13 is almost the same a stanza 38 in chapter 3, when Tanya flees into the garden. Within chapter 5 we find Olga, more rosy than the dawn before (21:11) opposite Tanya, paler than the moon at dawn (30:2).

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Svetlana

This chapter was dedicated to Svetlana, the heroine of a romantic ballad by Zhukovsky, who in her nightmare is carried to her grave by her lover. She is also mentioned in chapter 3 (5).

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Bonus material

  • The days between January 6th and 19th (the birth and christening of Jesus) are called the ‘svyatki’. In this period the normal (church) rules did not apply and the occult became more accessible. In order to find out what the new year would bring (a good harvest, marriage, family), you could consult the occult forces through a wide variety of rituals. For instance, in order to find out what the name of your future husband was, you had to ask a random stranger on the road his name. One of the more scarier rituals involved going into the bath house (where there are no icons) to stare into a mirror until you saw a face of a man appear. People also dressed up, as bears for instance, which would also explain the bear in Tanya’s dream. Russian people were (and are) quite superstitious, something that the church wanted to rule out, and only during the svyatki were these kind of rituals allowed. Tolstoy described the svyatki traditions as well in War and Peace (book 7, chapter 10).

** In stanza 6 Tanya sees a hare and a monk dressed in black. When Pushkin once spotted the same two omens on his way to Saint Petersburg he turned around and went back home.

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Chapter 6 is scheduled for the 10th of May. Happy reading!

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020