The Eugene Onegin Challenge – Chapter 3

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In which Onegin receives a love letter

Elle était fille; elle était amoureuse – a line from a poem by Malfilâtre about the unrequited love of Echo for Narcissus, who is in love with his own reflection.

Tatyana falls in love with Onegin in the summer of 1820. The feelings that up until then she only knows from books, are now becoming her own. And now that we are getting to know her better, we might as well call her ‘Tanya’.

From fiction to reality

Tanya is the only member of her family who reads, and she has to make do with the books that are available to her: French and English romantic novels that were hugely popular in her mother’s youth. Among Tanya’s favourites we find Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), Rousseau’s Julie (1761) and Madame de Staël’s Delphine (1802). All three are sentimental epistolary novels in which the heroine’s passions threaten to destroy her. The modern novels mentioned in stanza 12 are yet unknown to Tanya; she will read them in chapter 7.

We do not know much about the first meeting between Tanya and Onegin, apart from the fact that Onegin mentions to Lenski that he finds Tanya more interesting than Olga. It is definitely not love at first sight for Tanya. If anything it’s almost as if she were talked into the idea. Due to the lack of any real news, Tanya’s country neighbours take to speculations. They even invent wedding plans for Tanya and Eugene. Although she finds the gossip embarrassing, it does make her think of Eugene in a different way…

Tanya, nyanya, Vanya

She falls head over heels in love. One night her feelings become so intense that she can’t contain them any longer (17). She wakes up her nurse (her nyanya) and wants to talk with her about love. The scene is delightful in every possible way: Tanya asks her worried nurse if she was in love when she got married. Her old nurse is taken by surprise by this sudden talk about love and replies that in her days they didn’t even know what love was. When she was 13 the marriage was arranged and her Vanya was even younger than she was. And that was that. 

The letter

Although the nurse is normally the confidante of the infatuated young lady, like Shakespeare’s Juliet, Tanya cannot talk about her passionate feelings to her nurse. But her feelings are so overwhelming that she needs to give expression to them in some way. And so she writes them down in a letter. She writes the letter in the moonlight as if in a trance. For a girl in 1820 it was a risky business to send a love letter to a man she barely knew, and her feelings must have been pretty strong to overcome her rational thinking. Not only does she write the letter, she actually sends it! 

Pushkin assures us from stanza 22 to 31 that Tanya’s letter is original and sincere. Even though Tanya only knows passionate love and its expression from the sentimental novels that she likes to read, her letter shows only minimal signs of that influence. In the letter, that lacks a heading and closure, she writes about hope, torture, fated love, dreams and their first meeting, when she knew he was the one (which we have reason to doubt). Halfway she switches from the formal ‘вы’ to ‘ты’, only to change back again in the last line.

According to the narrator/Pushkin the letter was written in French by Tanya, who like most girls of her class, spoke Russian very well, but felt gramatically more comfortable with French. Moreover her literary examples were also written in French. Pushkin is again blurring the lines between fiction and reality, because the letter never really existed of course. The letter does not follow the strict rhyming scheme of the rest of the novel, a clever trick to make the letter seem like freely written prose. By waiting ten whole stanza’s before showing us the actual letter, the anticipation is built up high.

Nurse, who apparently never experienced passionate love herself, has given all her love to Tanya and her sister. In stanza’s 33-35 she calls Tanya ‘my sweet, pretty one, my little early bird*, my pet, and sweetheart’. Clearly Tanya’s happiness and wellbeing are her main concern**. As she doesn’t understand Tanya’s sudden passionate feelings at all, she also sees no harm in helping to get the love letter from her little early bird delivered to one of the bachelor neighbours, the one with the questionable reputation (2:5).

A reply?

Tanya spends the whole day waiting for a reply that doesn’t come. It turns out that reality is different from the novels, in which there is always a written reply! In the evening Lensky comes to visit. Alone. Suddenly the sound of hoofs*** announces Onegin’s arrival and Tanya flies through the backdoor into the yard like lightning. Her (beautifully described) panicky flight (38) forms a sharp contrast with the calmness with which she wrote the letter. And it definitely forms a parallel with Onegin’s own escape whenever he sees a neighbour coming (2:5:2). Exhausted she sits down on a bench. Somewhere in the garden serf girls are singing a folksong (made up by Pushkin) about temptation, to prevent them from being tempted to eat the raspberries that they are picking. But Tanya is only listening for footsteps… Just as she thinks that the coast is clear, Onegin suddenly arrives. Unfortunately Pushkin is too tired to continue, so we’ll have to wait for chapter 4 to read what happened next.

*Tanya rises when Onegin goes to bed.

**A Russian serf was connected to the same family his or her whole life. The nurse, often a wet-nurse, took a special place in the family. She slept with the smallest children and even after all the children were big, she would continue to live in the house with them. Pushkin was extremely fond of his (actually his sister’s) old nurse.

***Most likely Onegin arrived in his carriage, but most illustrations depict Onegin on horseback. 

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Chapter 4 is scheduled for the 12th of April 2020:

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020