The Eugene Onegin Guide – Chapter 3

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In which Onegin receives a love letter

Elle était fille; elle était amoureuse – a line from a poem by Malfilâtre about the unrequited love of Echo for Narcissus, who is in love with his own reflection.

Tatyana falls in love with Onegin in the summer of 1820. The feelings that up until then she only knows from books, are now becoming her own. And now that we are getting to know her better, we might as well call her ‘Tanya’.

From fiction to reality

Tanya is the only member of her family who reads, and she has to make do with the books that are available to her: French and English romantic novels that were hugely popular in her mother’s youth. Among Tanya’s favourites we find Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), Rousseau’s Julie (1761) and Madame de Staël’s Delphine (1802). All three are sentimental epistolary novels in which the heroine’s passions threaten to destroy her. The modern novels mentioned in stanza 12 are yet unknown to Tanya; she will read them in chapter 7.

We do not know much about the first meeting between Tanya and Onegin, apart from the fact that Onegin mentions to Lenski that he finds Tanya more interesting than Olga. It is definitely not love at first sight for Tanya. If anything it’s almost as if she were talked into the idea. Due to the lack of any real news, Tanya’s country neighbours take to speculations. They even invent wedding plans for Tanya and Eugene. Although she finds the gossip embarrassing, it does make her think of Eugene in a different way…

Tanya, nyanya, Vanya

She falls head over heels in love. One night her feelings become so intense that she can’t contain them any longer (17). She wakes up her nurse (her nyanya) and wants to talk with her about love. The scene is delightful in every possible way: Tanya asks her worried nurse if she was in love when she got married. Her old nurse is taken by surprise by this sudden talk about love and replies that in her days they didn’t even know what love was. When she was 13 the marriage was arranged and her Vanya was even younger than she was. And that was that. 

The letter

Although the nurse is normally the confidante of the infatuated young lady, like Shakespeare’s Juliet, Tanya cannot talk about her passionate feelings to her nurse. But her feelings are so overwhelming that she needs to give expression to them in some way. And so she writes them down in a letter. She writes the letter in the moonlight as if in a trance. For a girl in 1820 it was a risky business to send a love letter to a man she barely knew, and her feelings must have been pretty strong to overcome her rational thinking. Not only does she write the letter, she actually sends it! 

Pushkin assures us from stanza 22 to 31 that Tanya’s letter is original and sincere. Even though Tanya only knows passionate love and its expression from the sentimental novels that she likes to read, her letter shows only minimal signs of that influence. In the letter, that lacks a heading and closure, she writes about hope, torture, fated love, dreams and their first meeting, when she knew he was the one (which we have reason to doubt). Halfway she switches from the formal ‘вы’ to ‘ты’, only to change back again in the last line.

According to the narrator/Pushkin the letter was written in French by Tanya, who like most girls of her class, spoke Russian very well, but felt gramatically more comfortable with French. Moreover her literary examples were also written in French. Pushkin is again blurring the lines between fiction and reality, because the letter never really existed of course. The letter does not follow the strict rhyming scheme of the rest of the novel, a clever trick to make the letter seem like freely written prose. By waiting ten whole stanza’s before showing us the actual letter, the anticipation is built up high.

Nurse, who apparently never experienced passionate love herself, has given all her love to Tanya and her sister. In stanza’s 33-35 she calls Tanya ‘my sweet, pretty one, my little early bird*, my pet, and sweetheart’. Clearly Tanya’s happiness and wellbeing are her main concern**. As she doesn’t understand Tanya’s sudden passionate feelings at all, she also sees no harm in helping to get the love letter from her little early bird delivered to one of the bachelor neighbours, the one with the questionable reputation (2:5).

A reply?

Tanya spends the whole day waiting for a reply that doesn’t come. It turns out that reality is different from the novels, in which there is always a written reply! In the evening Lensky comes to visit. Alone. Suddenly the sound of hoofs*** announces Onegin’s arrival and Tanya flies through the backdoor into the yard like lightning. Her (beautifully described) panicky flight (38) forms a sharp contrast with the calmness with which she wrote the letter. And it definitely forms a parallel with Onegin’s own escape whenever he sees a neighbour coming (2:5:2). Exhausted she sits down on a bench. Somewhere in the garden serf girls are singing a folksong (made up by Pushkin) about temptation, to prevent them from being tempted to eat the raspberries that they are picking. But Tanya is only listening for footsteps… Just as she thinks that the coast is clear, Onegin suddenly arrives. Unfortunately Pushkin is too tired to continue, so we’ll have to wait for chapter 4 to read what happened next.

*Tanya rises when Onegin goes to bed.

**A Russian serf was connected to the same family his or her whole life. The nurse, often a wet-nurse, took a special place in the family. She slept with the smallest children and even after all the children were big, she would continue to live in the house with them. Pushkin was extremely fond of his (actually his sister’s) old nurse.

***Most likely Onegin arrived in his carriage, but most illustrations depict Onegin on horseback. 

*****

Chapter 4 is scheduled for the 12th of April 2020:

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

16 thoughts on “The Eugene Onegin Guide – Chapter 3

  1. You are a remarkable storyteller, Elisabeth. I especially appreciate how you bring out the values and norms of the Russian society and how your blend both the serf and the elite. Pushkin would be very pleased with this project (wouldn’t it be wonderful if he could add his comments) Can you imagine him as a blogger in our current reality?! I have just downloaded part 1 of Delphine in English. Another adventure – many hugs and thanks!!!

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  2. Having read several decades of novels featuring anti-heroes and gray strokes of the pen, I found it interesting to know that Pushkin’s narrator laments the appearance of this same departure from romanticism in his own time. I’d assumed the trend was much more recent. I enjoyed how he contrasted the femme fatale, or at least insincere coquetry, with Tanya’s sincere but naive love for Onegin. Oh the humor of him saying he will write in that old style to honor such sweetness, as if he weren’t already. The mild criticism of not writing in Russian, Tanya preferring French, will increase to serious criticism over the following century, until that so-called affectation of the elite is discarded. What did you make of his phrase “Finnish sky?” Was that a reference to the North?

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  3. A TYPICALLY FASCINATING AND ILLUMINATING POST, ELISABETH, WRITTEN IN YOUR TYPICALLY LIMPID PROSE STYLE, WHICH I ADMIRE. THANK YOU.

    “Her old nurse is taken by surprise by this sudden talk about love and replies that in her days they didn’t even know what love was” MARVELOUS!

    I LOVE HOW YOU BROUGHT IN THE COMPARISON TO JULIET’S NURSE IN ROMEO AND JULIET.

    “For a girl in 1820 it was a risky business to send a love letter to a man she barely knew. “ A PENETRATING INSIGHT ON YOUR PART; PSYCHOLOGICALLY INTERESTING

    RE TANYA’S SWITCHING FROM THE FORMAL ‘ВЫ’ TO ‘ТЫ’, THIS MADE ME THINK OF A SHORT (AND I BELIEVE WELL KNOWN) POEM BY PUSHKIN, “Ты и Вы” (“Thou and “You”)

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  4. Great analysis, I really enjoyed this post – though I don’t think I will ever be able to call Tatyana – Tanya 🙂 I listened to the English version too and what strikes me is that, even though Pushkin uses the language of that time, Pushkin’s language appears so much simpler than the translation – almost “childish” verses in comparison to this Shakespearean-proportions work. I cannot fault translation – it is brilliant and it is simply my first personal impression 🙂

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  5. It would be wonderful indeed if Pushkin himself could join in the conversation! I’m sure he would be a blogger and twitterer in our current age, he would have enjoyed it very much. I haven’t read any of those epistolary novels, and I’m curious to hear what you think. Hugs back, enjoy reading!

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  6. Thank you for joining the challenge and for sharing your enthusiasm! This challenge is great fun to make and even more so knowing that some of my followers are reading along with me (the majority of readers of my blog find me through google).

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  7. Oh yes! His sympathies are very much with Tanya, but he does make a point of the letter being written in French;-) In spite of her purely Russian name and simple tastes and manners, she did not read nor write in Russian; something that the narrator/Pushkin clearly saw as a small flaw. But that only makes her more human and endearing! As for the Finnish sky; I thought at first that he referred to St Petersburg, the city was founded on land where first Finnish fishermen lived (see The Bronze Horseman). But according to the comments in the Roger Clarke translation Pushkin refers here to his poet friend Baratynsky, who was posted as a private in Finland in the early twenties, where he wrote nostalgic poems about happy times in StP and a narrative poem ‘Eda: A Finnish Tale’, about a Finnish girl seduced by a Russian soldier. In this poem there was a description of a Finnish winter that Pushkin admired:-)

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  8. Thank you so much, Roger! I’m happy to hear that you enjoyed this post. If you look at the photo you’ll see that I put an old and tiny cope of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in there:-) And thank you for reminding me of that typical Pushkin poem “Ты и Вы”, great stuff!

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  9. Thank you, Diana, I’m glad to hear you enjoyed this post! Tatyana does have a nice ring to it, thanks to the T’s, so I understand you 😄 Very good point about Pushkin’s language; it’s very simple and very doable for someone who’s Russian is far from perfect, like me 😉 The James Falen translation is brilliant, and Stephen Fry’s voice probably makes it even better.

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  10. Hello Charlotte! I’m so happy to hear that you’re enjoying this series:-) It’s a pleasure to take a closer look at this wonderful novel in verse. Thank you for sending me the link to Anna Netrebko’s rendition of the letter, truly beautiful! We were supposed to go to the Eugene Onegin opera in March; I hope that they’ll be able to reschedule and that we can go see it another time. In the meantime I’m enjoying your balcony concerts.
    Take care, Elisabeth

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