The Eugene Onegin Challenge – introducing the novel and its heroes

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When was Eugene Onegin written?

Eugene Onegin was written by Pushkin (1799-1837) over the course of eight years. He was banned from St Petersburg in 1820 after some of his verses had offended the tsar. During his six year exile Pushkin travelled to southern Russia, the Caucasus, the Crimea, Moldavia and Odessa. The last two years of his exile he spent at his country estate Mikhaylovskoye. Although Pushkin would probably have preferred not to be exiled, the authorities did world literature a huge favour: away from the distractions of St Petersburg Pushkin could write in peace and the change of scenery proved a huge inspiration for him. Indeed, it seems doubtful that Eugene Onegin (and a lot of other works) would have been completed otherwise. He started writing Eugene Onegin in Moldavia in 1823 and completed the first six chapters in exile. Chapter 7 was written when he returned to St Petersburg and chapter 8 was mostly written when a cholera epidemic kept him in Boldino for a few months in 1830. 

A masterpiece

The novel was published first in separate chapters and in 1833 as a complete novel. It was a huge success and it is considered Pushkin’s masterpiece.

The structure of the novel is incredibly clever: it consists of eight chapters containing in total 366 stanzas*. Each stanza has 14 lines of 8 or 9 syllables that are stressed on the even syllables. The rhyming scheme is ABABEECCIDDIFF. Pushkin thought up this so-called ‘Onegin stanza’ on the 9th of May 1823. There is a remarkable symmetry in the structure and the storyline. You’d think that this is a rather restrictive structure to use for a complete novel, but Pushkin manages wonderfully. Not only that, he makes it seem effortless. The language he uses is clear and simple. The novel is lively and full of humor. And he managed to get it through the strict and restrictive censorship of the time.

An introduction to the characters

According to Nabokov there are six main characters in the novel: the friends Onegin and Lenski; the sisters Tatyana and Olga; and Pushkin himself and his muse. 

Onegin is a young man from St Petersburg. He’s a real dandy, he lives a life of glitter and glamour. He always dresses according to the latest fashion, takes ages to get ready to go out and rushes from dinner to ballet. In his mid twenties he is already bored with life and he is the prototype of the superfluous man (лишний человек)**.

Lenski is an optimistic, contented and dreamy poet who lives happily in the countryside. He is engaged to Olga. Although they are quite different, he and Onegin become friends.

Now Tatyana… she is the perfect literary heroine! She loves to read and ramble around the countryside for hours. She is passionate and pure, and a little pale. Stares out the window a lot.

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Then Olga pushes through the door, more rosy than the dawn before. Was there ever a sister who entered the room more lovely? She is very pretty, social and well mannered, but  alas also a bit superficial.

Pushkin has given himself a part as well. He is not just the narrator, he is also Onegin’s friend. Through this clever trick the lines between fiction and reality become blurred. 

And finally the muse, what’s a poet without a muse? There are countless mythological references, so you may want to keep your Geek mythology copy close by. 

Finally

With this challenge I hope to add something extra to your reading experience that will make it more interesting, intense, attentive, and (even more) enjoyable. I will be eating, dreaming, thinking, hearing Eugene Onegin for the next four months and I can’t wait to find out what the end result will be!

So let’s read the first chapter and I’ll see you next week again for the first chapter post!

*A stanza is a set of four or more lines of a certain length and rhyming scheme.

**A typical character in 19th century Russian literature: a young man unable to reach his full potential. Famous examples are Lermontov’s Pechorin, Tolstoy’s Pierre Bezukhov, and Turgenev’s Bazarov.

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Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Illustration from Wikipedia 

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