Tatyana had fled into the garden as soon as she heard Onegin’s carriage approach. What would be his reaction to her letter? Pushkin left us in suspense at the end of chapter three and leaves us there a bit longer still.
The first six stanzas of chapter 4 have been left out of the final version of Eugene Onegin in 1833. By then Pushkin was married and in the omitted stanzas he talked candidly about his relations with women. In stanzas 7-11 we learn all about Onegin’s relations with women. Conquering women has almost been like a sport for him, and his relationships have been without any sincere feelings so far.
The sincerity of Tatyana’s letter catches him by surprise and it even makes him think. But the first sentence of his reply to Tatyana, although echoing her first sentence, shows that he has misunderstood the letter completely. She wrote I’m writing you this declaration; what more can I in candour say? and he replies You wrote to me. Do not deny it. As if he accuses her! Poor Tanya. In the monologue that follows Onegin explains that he is not interested in married life, that he loves her like a brother and warns her to be careful with such letters. Tanya hears his sermon out quietly while tears fill her eyes.
Onegin wrongly assumed that Tatyana wanted to marry him. We have just seen what his previous experiences with women were like. He does not believe in marital bliss and as if to prove it, has affairs with married women. Although he finds Tatyana attractive, Onegin would hardly want to create a scandal by having an affair with her. So the letter makes no other sense to him.
Tanya’s perspective is completely different; there is no room for passion inside, nor outside for that matter, the marriage of her parents. The love that she feels for Onegin is a love that she knows only from her novels. The letter was not a marriage proposal, it was an expression of the intense feelings that she was experiencing. The letter was not directed at the real Onegin; she barely knew him, but to a romantic ideal, who would understand her like no other. But Onegin understands her no more than her old nurse does.
Onegin is probably right when he says that a marriage between them couldn’t work. Nonetheless the reader can’t help but feeling that he is dismissing his chance to experience sincere love and happiness. Tatyana is terribly sad and disillusioned. While she’s wasting away her sister Olga is rosier than ever and stanzas 25-34 describe a happy engagement time with Lenski, who does believe in marital happiness.
Pushkin’s dear nurse
From Lenski reading his poetry to Olga we move on to the narrator, who has to make do with reading his poetry to his old nurse in stanza 35. Now according to Nabokov we read far too much into this endearing scene: Pushkin wrote chapter 4 between October 1824 and January 1826. During this period he had been banned to his estate Mikhaylovskoye, where a certain Arina Rodionovna, his sister’s old nurse, was now the housekeeper. Although Pushkin was indeed fond of her, and she did inspire him with her fairytales, it is unlikely that he read his work to her. While we picture her as a sweet old woman, she apparently terrified the maids and was fond of the bottle.
All seems good
And Onegin? He’s beginning to enjoy life in the countryside. Every morning he goes swimming in his Hellespont, he drinks coffee, goes rambling and drinks wine with his dinner. He even has an affair with a peasant girl. In winter he adjusts his activities accordingly and seems content*. In the last stanzas of chapter 4 a cheerful Lensky comes to dine with him and invites him to Tatyana’s name day next Saturday. In two weeks he and Olga will get married.
* The description of Onegin’s activities are pretty autobiographical. A propos the Hellespont is not a reference to the Greek myth, but to Byron, who swam across it (now known as the Dardanelles) in 1810.
** In chapter 4 Pushkin refers to two Tolstoys: the artist Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy (30) and ‘the American’ Fyodor Ivanovich Tolstoy (both related to Lev). In stanza 19 he talks about vulgar gossip being repeated. A rumour had been spread claiming that Pushkin had been flogged in Saint Petersburg before he was sentenced to be exiled in 1820. This hurt Pushkin’s pride so much that he even contemplated suicide and apparently fought a duel about this slander just before he left the city. When he was already on his way to the Caucasus, he found out that the American was behind the gossip, supposedly to pay Pushkin back for accusing him of cheating with cards (which was true). The American was a real rogue, he had fought plenty of duels and killed many of his opponents. He was the inspiration for Dolokhov in War and Peace as well as for Zaretsky, who we shall meet later on in Eugene Onegin. I have written about him here. When Pushkin hears that he was behind the rumours, he is determined to challenge the American for a duel at the first opportunity. He’ll have to wait six years because of his exile, but he uses this time to practise shooting. In order to strengthen his pistol hand, he even carries a heavy iron cane around. A neighbour describes seeing Pushkin in 1825, dressed in a read peasant shirt, straw hat and carrying this iron cane. In September 1826 he finally gets to challenge the American, but the seconds manage to reconcile the two and the much anticipated duel never takes place.
Chapter 5 is scheduled for the 26th of April 2020, let’s see what happens there:
Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020