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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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