In which Eugene is bored with his life in the city and escapes to the country
Chapter 1 is all about Eugene Onegin and Pushkin himself. It starts rather vaguely in medias res: we are introduced to our hero as he is rushing towards his dying uncle*. Clearly he is not looking forward to the prospect of having to look after a sick man, but Pushkin keeps us in suspense for the next 50 of the in total 60 stanzas in this chapter, and tells us about the particularities of his life so far instead.
A Typical Day
Apparently he’s a good friend of Pushkin’s. He has had the usual upbringing and education and when he entered society he was an instant success with the ladies. In stanza’s 15 to 36 we can see what a typical winter day in the life of Eugene Onegin in 1819 looked like: He wakes up in the afternoon, goes walking on the Nevsky Prospekt, has dinner in a fancy restaurant, goes to the ballet, goes back home to change and freshen up and goes to a ball. When he finally returns home again, the city is already waking up.
Onegin is living a life of luxury. Everything is of the highest quality: his clothes, his perfume, the food he eats, the wine he drinks**, the ballet he visits. Nonetheless you get the impression that he is terribly bored with this life. The whole chapter reeks of boredom. Everything is repeating itself endlessly. Tomorrow will be the same as today. Eugene attempts to alleviate the boredom. He wants to go traveling with Pushkin, but just then his father dies unexpectedly, leaving behind mostly debts (51). He gives up the inheritance, and almost simultaneously receives a message that his uncle is dying and expecting his sole heir to look after him. And so he is on his way to his uncle’s estate where no doubt even more boredom awaits him.
Eugene arrives in the country and to his relief finds his uncle already dead. He is just in time for the funeral (53). Now he can start a new life as a landowner. “For two full days he was enchanted”, but alas, on the third day he is already bored again… There seems to be no cure for his boredom.
Pushkin (or rather the fictional Pushkin) likes to digress***. In between telling us about Onegin, he also tells us about his own life and frequently reminisces about Saint Petersburg, although he admits that he “found it noxious in the north” (2) a reference to his banishment from the capital. Pushkin (the real one) keeps the lines between fiction and reality deliberately vague. The novel is full of people who really existed and real life facts.
The Omitted Stanzas
Perhaps you noticed that Pushkin left out several stanzas (9, 13, 14). It is not entirely clear why he did that. Of some drafts were found, and of others nothing. Because Pushkin did number the omitted stanzas, they remain a part of the novel, and he leaves it up to the reader to fill in the blanks.
Stanza 45 plays a key part in chapter 1 according to Nabokov: it summarises Onegin’s character and gives the reader a glimpse of what he may expect from Onegin in the future. And things promise to get interesting, because he is described as being dreamy, strange, clever and depressed. Nabokov also remarks that certain words are only used in the novel to refer to Onegin’s character: ‘sullen’, ‘gloomy’, ‘somber’, ‘clouded’ en ‘bemisted’. Apparently this was considered attractive in a man 200 years ago…
*a reference to the at that time popular epistolary novel ‘Clarissa’ (1748) by Richardson, in which the villain Lovelace has to care for his rich and dying uncle.
**1:16:8 The comet wine; the year of the great comet 1811 was a particularly good year for wine production. Wine from 1811 had a comet stamped on the cork. This is the same comet that Pierre observes when he is driving home in War and Peace.
***1:30:10 And yet, how long it took me to forget two special feet… there has been much speculation about who’s feet these were. Most likely they were Maria Nikolayevna Volkonskaya’s (see photo below).
So what did you think of the first chapter? What was you favourite line?
The next chapter post will go online in two weeks on the 15th of March.
Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020
Special thanks to Markus@POINT BLANK for gifting me the beautiful Russian edition that you see in the photo above!