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.
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.
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