The Eugene Onegin Guide – Bonus post: Onegin as a demon

An extra blog post in which I explore the relation between Pushkin’s well known poem A Demon and his masterpiece Eugene Onegin.

I originally intended to save A Demon and its relevance for Eugene Onegin for the conclusion of this series, but it turned out that there was so much to tell and philosophise about, that I felt it deserved a separate blog post.

The poem A Demon

The poem was written in the autumn of 1823, a few months after Pushkin had started to write in Eugene Onegin. In chapter 8 the relevance of the poem becomes clear, as the first four words of chapter 8 are exactly the same as the first four words of A Demon: ‘В те дни, когда’, ‘in days when’ in the Falen translation, literally ‘in those days when’. In stanza 12 Pushkin makes a direct reference to the poem and links Onegin to the demon: ‘or even Demon of my pen’ followed in the next line with ‘Eugene, (to speak of him again)’.

In the poem a still young, pure and idealistic poet (Pushkin) is visited by a demon. This demon mocks all the pure and beautiful things that inspire the poet and causes him to doubt his talents. He personifies that little voice in your head that tells you that you’re not nearly as good at something as so and so, so why should you even start to write, study, do anything? He’s the main cause of your procrastination habits and writer’s block. The demon stands opposite the muse, the bringer of inspiration and motivation. Luckily for us Pushkin overcame his demon and continued to write.

The Poet – Muse – Demon triangle

You could say that Eugene Onegin is an elaboration (or processing) of the poet-muse-demon idea: the poet is the narrator / Pushkin; the muse is the narrator / Pushkin’s muse and Tatyana; and Onegin is the demon.

Pushkin assumes that the reader is familiar with his other work and private life. The hint he gives by starting chapter 8 with the same words as his well known poem, would have been picked up by the reader of that time: the demon (Onegin) will make his appearance. Only this time the four words are followed by the entrance of the muse first and Onegin appears later. Seven beautiful stanzas long praises Pushkin his muse, clear proof that she has conquered over the demon and is now his faithful ally.

Onegin became at some point in his youth bored and disillusioned (1:38) and the narrator, who was then in a similar life phase (1:45) (or possibly even infected by Onegin (1:46)), became friends with him. To escape their daily spleen they are planning to go travelling together. Due to the unexpected death of Onegin’s uncle, the narrator has to go alone. The narrator manages to find inspiration again, but Onegin is soon bored again. Now the naive Lensky becomes his friend. This goes well for a while, but eventually Lensky will bring out the worst in Onegin, which results in him killing Lensky, as foreseen in Tatyana’s dream.

Pushkin created some kind of alter ego with Lensky; a stylised version of his young self, full of poetic ideals, but also a lot of commonplaceness. Even the choice of his muse, Olga, is too predictable: ‘But glance in any novel – you’ll discover her portrait there; it’s charming, true; I liked it once no less than you, but round it boredom seems to hover’ (2:23). Pushkin lets Lensky take all the demon’s (Onegin’s) negative impact and even sacrifices him to the demon.

The naive Lensky fails to see that Onegin is a demon and allows himself to be tricked into jealousy by him. This failure shows his incapability to grow as a poet. In addition to this his choosing Olga as his eternal muse is a sign that he does not really have what it takes. And so he has to die as a young poet.

Onegin does not deserve Tatyana, who is a true and good muse, because he is no poet, and because of his incapability to grow out of this phase of imitation and negativity. Even if he eventually shows some capability of having real feelings for Tatyana, this is too little too late.

The muse, Tatyana, conquers. Onegin is left behind defeated while she leaves the room with her head held high (8:48). And so Pushkin has successfully turned his demon into a muse and a masterpiece was born.

*****

I hope to see you all on Sunday for the grande finale!

I used the following works for this blog post:

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

The poem ‘A Demon’ was translated by James Falen

Text and photos © 2020 Elisabeth van der Meer

The Eugene Onegin Guide – Chapter 6

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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.

The duel

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).

Farewell

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. 

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* 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.

Bonus Material

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.

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*****

Chapter 7 is scheduled for the 24th of May:

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

The Eugene Onegin Guide – Chapter 4

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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. 

Women

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.

His reaction

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.

Misunderstanding

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.

Contrast

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.

Bonus material

** 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

The Eugene Onegin Guide – Chapter 2

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In which Lenski and Onegin become friends and we get acquainted with the Larins

A cholera outbreak

Who would have thought that we would find ourselves in 2020 in similar circumstances as Pushkin in 1830, when he was kept at his family estate Boldino for a few month because of a cholera outbreak?! This period is now referred to as the ‘Boldino autumn’, a very fruitful period for Pushkin. He wrote among other things the final chapter of Eugene Onegin there. Pushkin was perhaps a bit unusual in the sense that he was always working on several things simultaneously. He loved the countryside, especially in the autumn. While he wrote to his fiancée Nathalie that he wanted nothing more than to be able to leave and see her again, the truth was that he was quite happy and making good use of his inspiring and quiet surroundings. 

Horace

The Roman poet Horace also enjoyed the countryside. Pushkin starts chapter two with a very short quote from Horace: O rus! The Latin word ‘rus’ means countryside (think of ‘rustic). This quote is immediately followed by Pushkin with ‘O Rus’ (О Русь!), a wordplay, ‘Rus’ being short for Russia. By combining these two exclamations Pushkin sets the reader up for an ode to the Russian countryside. Although according to Nabokov Eugene Onegin is anything but a realistic depiction of life in the Russian countryside;-) We shall stay there from chapter 2 to 7.

Rivers

Onegin’s new residence, that resembles Pushkin’s other family estate Mikhaylovskoye a lot, is standing next to a river (1:7). Rivers appear frequently in Pushkin’s works (which perhaps deserves a separate blog post some day). In chapter 1 (47) Pushkin and Onegin are often found staring at the river Neva during the short midsummer nights. Onegin’s name is derived from a river, the Onega. Following Pushkin, Lermontov named his hero in A Hero of Our Time, Pechorin, also after a river.

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He sang life’s bloom gone pale and sere—

He’d almost reached his eighteenth year.

Lenski

Lenski, who we first meet in chapter 2, is also named after a river, the Lena. Pushkin paints the portrait of a rather typical romantic poet. This dark-haired handsome stranger has just returned from Germany to his family estate which is close to Onegin’s. His poems are filled with all the usual romantic clichés. Nonetheless, Onegin, who does not like any of his new neighbours, takes a liking to the eighteen year old Lenski, and the two become good friends.

The Larins

Through Lenski we are introduced to the Larins. The Larins and the Lenskis are old friends. The fathers had agreed that one day their children would marry. By now both fathers are dead and the agreement is almost forgotten. Again Pushkin uses his sharp wit to describe the members of this family; the father was an old-fashioned man, loved by his neighbours for his generosity. His wife was a still very young and spoiled city girl when they married, who grew into liking being in charge of the household in the countryside. Their youngest daughter Olga was Lenski’s betrothed. A very pretty and skilled girl, but, says Pushkin, glance in any novel— you’ll discover her portrait there (23:8). 

Tatyana

Tatyana, now there’s another story. Olga’s older sister is pale, sad and pensive (25:5). She does not like to play with dolls, but prefers to read and sit silently at the window bay instead. She doesn’t fit in with the rest of her family (25:7 Tatyana seemed among her kin a stranger who had wondered in), just like Onegin doesn’t fit in with his countryside neighbours. Tatyana is a very popular Russian literary heroine that many Russian girls were named after and that many Russian girls identify with. A lot has been written about her. It’s probably because Pushkin is not too specific in describing her, that so many girls can identify themselves with her. 

Chapter 2

Chapter 1 was all about Onegin and the boredom that surrounds him. Chapter 2 has set the scene and introduced the cast. It’s a fine and promising example of Pushkin’s sharp pen and sense of humour. I think we are ready for some action!

*****

The next chapter post is scheduled for Sunday the 29th of March.

 

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

The Eugene Onegin Guide – Chapter 1

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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.

Boredom

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.

Landowner   

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.

Digressions

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.

Onegin’s Character 

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…

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*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).

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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.

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2020/02/16/the-eugene-onegin-challenge/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2020/02/23/the-eugene-onegin-challenge-an-introduction-to-the-novel/

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!