The Eugene Onegin Guide – Chapter 6


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).


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. 


* 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.



Chapter 7 is scheduled for the 24th of May:

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

14 thoughts on “The Eugene Onegin Guide – Chapter 6

  1. Oh, Elisabeth, Pushkin allows us to experience the pure horror of decisions made in haste goaded by ego or pride. I can understand the three “if onlys”. As the events unfolded, I kept on saying…. “no….no…no….” even knowing the ending of the duel. I am reminded of my decisions that were made in the past. Even though these decisions did not have the impact of a duel, there is regret that I did not make the most beneficial choice. Another wonderful post! Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Well the novel has certainly taken a serious turn. I’ve been enjoying the humor and culture, and now…wham! I’m very curious to see how things unfold now for these characters. All the lost opportunities, all the bad decisions as Rebecca wisely observes. The two faces of drama, tragedy and comedy, are in full effect here. Thank you for this community project.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elisabeth — Your guided tour through Eugene Onegin continues to inform and hold my interest.

    “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.”

    This is the kind of analysis and writing of yours that I really admire and appreciate.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Absolutely, this chapter is about a chain of events that could easily have been broken at any moment; if only… and in real life too it’s probably often the minor decisions we make that turn out to have to most impact on our lives. Luckily not resulting in duels nowadays though 😅

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Yes, it certainly has taken a serious turn. As you and a Rebecca say, you really don’t see this coming as a first time reader and the sense of a wasted young life, or even more than one, is tremendous. Thank you for being such an enthusiastic and encouraging participant in my challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you very much for your appreciative words, Roger! It’s nice to hear that you are enjoying this guided tour through Eugene Onegin. And that’s a great way of putting it!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m loving this project of yours, but unfortunately lagging far behind, using a different translation in my possession….hope to catch up in next few days….

    Liked by 1 person

  8. That’s so nice to hear, Pippa! The pace is quite slow, so you can easily catch up. The next post about chapter 7 is scheduled for the 24th 😄


  9. I am no literary scholar but I do like to play around the edges some. So, in the spirit of playing around the edges, I submit the following for your consideration.
    First of all, I would like to thank Elisabeth for introducing me to Alexander Pushkin and this delightful verse novel, Eugene Onegin. I had of course, heard of Pushkin, but never read him. So, it was a pleasant surprise.
    As I was reading, Eugene Onegin, I heard some echoes of Poe, and Shakespeare. There were of course, dozens of other literary references throughout the work, which were richly detailed in the appendix. I was put in mind of Poe’s, The Raven, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Although the meter was quite different, there were similarities such as the generous use of alliteration, the rhyming scheme and some of the same words rhymed. Poe and Pushkin were contemporaries and I could not help but wondering if their paths might have crossed or if one influenced the other. So, I did a little digging and found some interesting references.
    There is an account of Poe and Pushkin mentioned in the novel, Time, Forward, by Soviet writer Valentin Kataev. The novel’s American character, Ray Roupe, says, “Certain of Pushkin’s poems had kinship with the stories of Edgar Poe, which is of course paradoxical, but quite explicable. When still a youth, Edgar Poe traveled to St. Petersburg on a boat. They say that in one of the taverns there he had met Pushkin. They talked all night over a bottle of wine and the great American poet made a gift of the plot, Man of the Crowd, to Pushkin.” So, I guess I wasn’t the only one who imagined that.
    The Raven, by Edgar Allen Poe, has internal rhyming and a general rhyme scheme of ABCB BB. Meter is Trochaic Octameter which is one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed or Dum-da, Dum-da, Dum-da.
    Eugene Onegin consists of 366 14-line stanzas that more or less meet the definition of a sonnet but which serve as paragraphs in the verse novel. There are over 5000 lines of poetry. The meter is Iambic tetrameter. An iamb is a beat in a line of poetry where one unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed syllable, that sort of sounds like this: duh-DUH, duh-DUH, duh-DUH, duh-DUH with a rhyme scheme of ABAB; CCDD; EFFEGG
    Here are some examples of similarities and references to Poe and Shakespeare:
    Pushkin: “I’d seek to borrow – languid sorrow”(Chapter 3 Stanza 30)
    Poe: “Vainly I had sought to borrow from my books surcease of sorrow.”
    Tatyana’s letter to Onegin: “There’s no one else I adore. The heaven’s chose my destination and made me thine for evermore.”
    “My life til now has been a token in pledge of meeting you, my friend, and in coming, God has spoken.
    You’ll be my guardian in the end.”
    Poe: “Nevermore” is used throughout The Raven. “That God we both adore,” “Leave no black plume as a token of the lie thy soul has spoken.”
    Pushkin (Chapter 5 Stanza 11):
    And what an awesome dream
    She’s been dreaming
    She walks upon a sunny vale
    All around her dully gleaming.
    Poe: “All the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming.”
    Pushkin: (Chapter 7 Stanza 15)
    “…Of fisherman were dimly gleaming
    Tatyana walked, alone and dreaming,”
    Pushkin: (Chapter 8 stanza 20).
    “Was this the Tanya he once scolded
    In that forsaken, distant place?”

    Poe: “By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
    Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,”

    Pushkin: “Our lives were weary, flat, and stale.” (Chapter 1 stanza 45)
    Shakespeare: “The world is weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.” (Hamlet, Act 1 scene 2)
    Pushkin: “Poor Yorick!” (Chapter 2, stanza 37)
    Shakespeare: “Poor Yorick!” (Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 1)

    In Chapter 1 I became convinced Pushkin my have had a foot fetish:
    “I love their feet-although you’ll find
    That all of Russia scarcely numbers
    Three pairs of shapely feet…And yet,
    How long it took me to forget
    Two special feet. And in my slumbers
    They still assail a soul grown cold
    And on my heart retain their hold.” (Chapter 1 stanza 30)
    I also found it quite interesting that Pushkin foreshadowed his own death in his description of the duel with Lensky. That was a bit of a chill!
    Al in all a very fun read! Thank you again for this marvelous challenge!

    If you don’t mind I should lie to use this a a blog post on my own blog.

    Thank you again Elisabeth!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you, Benn! This is fantastic!!! A great contribution to the challenge. I have to admit that I only ever read Poe’s stories, already a long time ago, but now I’m definitely going to read his poems as well. I tried to find out more about the connection between the two, but so far I haven’t found anything. I’ll keep looking and perhaps there are other readers who know something more about this. You have convinced me that there must have been some cross influences between the two writers. Naturally Pushkin had read Shakespeare, albeit most likely in a French translation, as his English was not very good (Boris Pasternak translated Shakespeare into Russian, by the way). Please do turn this comment into a blog-post, and if I may, I would then like to re-blog it on my blog.
    Pushkin definitely did have a foot fetish, or at least in his poetry:-)
    And the duel scene becomes all the more chilling knowing that that is how Pushkin died himself. He also wrote an excellent story called The Duel, which I wrote about on this blog:
    Thanks again, Benn, I really appreciate your contribution and enthusiasm.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. You are most welcome Elizabeth! The pleasure is all mine. By all means please use it use it as a blog post or As you will. Thoroughly enjoyed this exercise and of course I love your blog as well. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. It’s very interesting reading Book 6 and your insightful post right after seeing the broadcast of the musical Hamilton which also features a duel. Onegin is clearly not a conventional protagonist, and in this book, he seems more of an anti-hero as his “can’t be bothered” attitude has critical consequences. (Sometimes he reminds me of the protagonist of Maurice Sendak’s children story “Pierre” who is always saying “I don’t care”). And yet, although Zaretsky fails to ask him for his second and Onegin fails to provide one at the time he receives the challenge, virtually guaranteeing the duel will go on, I kept thinking Onegin’s natural choice for a second would ironically have been Lensky! What a tragedy arises from Onegin’s slight revenge of dancing with Olga one too many times at the party…


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