Eugene Onegin

May 14, 2014

eugeneIf you ask me, literature is like a locked chest and every book is a priceless jewel that needs to be examined and maintained with care. Let’s allow ourselves to welcome a little romanticism in our lives every once in a while, even if it is fictional. Therefore, allow me to tell you a few things about a book very dear to my heart and its author. Before I came across this novel, I found Russian literature hard to read and understand, but time shows me every now and then that generalisations are foolish and unjust.

Eugene Onegin or Eugene Oneguine (Евге́ний Оне́гин, pronounced Yevgeniy Onegin), with its subtitle A Romance of Russian Life In Verse, is a novel in verse written by Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, published in serial form between 1825-1832, the first complete edition appearing in 1833.

The edition that inspired this review is Henry Spalding‘s 1881 translation — the first English translation of Eugene Onegin. The book is made out of the following sections: Preface, Mon Portrait, A Short Biographical Notice of Alexander Pushkin and Eugene Onegin.

Mon Portrait is a poem written in French by Pushkin when he was fifteen years old, and the auto-irony found there may help us understand the resemblance between Pushkin and Eugene Onegin. Even though the poem suggests that the Russian poet may be the true source of inspiration for his beloved protagonist, no character can be completely identified with its creator.

In A Short Biographical Notice of Alexander Pushkin, we are informed that the poet was born in 1799, in Pskoff (though in other sources Moscow is his birthplace) in an aristocratic family. His literary talent may be a family heritage, because his father and uncle were friends with poets such as Dimitrieff and Joukovsky; not to mention that uncle Vassili Pushkin was a minor poet. Pushkin was not too fond of school, but of general reading, learning languages (French, English, Latin, German, Italian and Spanish) and versification. Besides poetry (like Ruslan and Ludmila or The Gypsies, he also wrote prose and drama, of which I shall just remind The Queen of Spades (1834) and Mozart and Salieri (1832)

Pushkin’s life was very agitated, as it happens with all genius writers and composers who changed our world. He moved from place to place, whether in Russia or Bessarabia, because he often fell out of favour with the Tsar and some of the noblemen. Pushkin unconsciously foresaw his death when he wrote about Lensky’s death in Eugene Onegin (Canto VI) As well as his character, Pushkin was a poet of genius, who hastened to challenge his presumed rival to a duel, without giving himself time to seek the truth. The Russian poet is prematurely killed when he was only 38 years old, in order to save the reputation of the woman he loved.

Eugene Onegin comprises of eight cantos with eight titles, eight mottos and 86 notes, of which I will talk later on. The story opens in St. Petersburg at the time when Eugene Onegin is about to inherit his uncle’s estate in the countryside. Eugene is eighteen years old and he lives his life eccentrically and to the fullest: he combs his hair in a fashionable manner, dresses like a London dandy, spends the money he has inherited on expensive prolonged dinners, likes going to balls, theatre and being involved in ephemeral pleasures. He is selfish, superficial, snobbish and behaves like his favourite characters. But he speaks in French fluently, knows how to dance mazurka and is adored by the ladies.

He moves in the country where his uncle’s mansion is, but he hates being surrounded by nature, because he is used to the stir of the city. There, he becomes friends with his neighbour, Vladimir Lensky, a handsome young man, a dreamer, an admirer of Kant and poet of genius, who has just come back from Germany.

Though he often feels bored, Eugene indulgently listens to Lensky’s heated poems about the glory of man and about love. He also hears that his friend is in love with a young woman named Olga Larina. When Lensky is invited to Olga’s house, he takes his friend with him to meet his fiancée and her family, whom the poet constantly praises for their excessive hospitality. Olga is very outgoing, sociable and thoughtless; but she has a sister, Tatiana, who is her opposite. Tatiana is introverted, romantic and melancholic like Svetlana (a Russian Lenora, a poem written by Joukovsky) and an avid reader of romantic novels.

Onegin’s presence makes a big impression on Tatiana and from that moment on, she begins to feel fond of him. Being touched by the flames of love and eagerly wanting to know how Onegin feels about her, she writes a love letter to him, in which she tells him that she tried to keep this love a secret, but she cannot conceal it anymore. She is ashamed for what she feels, but she would like to see him at least once a week, to hear his voice, talk to him and then to think of him until they meet again. She knows that he is the one whom she will love all her life, the one she will marry and with whom she will raise a family.

She doesn’t receive any answer to this sugary letter, thus her anguish grows. When the two eventually meet in the garden, Eugene imagepolitely rejects her love, saying that he is not worthy of her, that he only has brotherly affection for her; their union would produce grief for both of them, love would degrade in time. Of course, his words are the cause of her pain.

Lensky tries to bring Eugene and Tatiana together again; therefore he invites Onegin to Tatiana’s name day celebration, a ball. Eugene has grown fed up with balls, so he is irritated, because of the atmosphere and the guests, who gossip about him and Tatiana. In order to take revenge on Lensky, who had forcefully brought him there, he dances and flirts with Olga. Lensky is hurt by his friend’s gesture, therefore he sends him a note, challenging Onegin to a duel. Unfortunately, Lenski is killed (unwillingly) by Eugene and his body is buried where the duel had taken place. Onegin abandons his estate and flees to another country, for his traces to be lost.

After a few years of hiding, Onegin reappears, this time in Moscow, where he attends balls where the most important people of Russian society gather. He notices a beautiful woman who captures everyone’s attention and he immediately recognises Tatiana, now married to an aged prince.

Tatiana arises in Onegin a fierce passion, thus he becomes obsessed with her and desires more and more to be with her. However, Tatiana is no longer that credulous romantic girl, but a cold-hearted and insensible woman, who rejects Eugene’s attempts every time. Annoyed and desperate, he writes her several letters, but she doesn’t reply. He eventually succeeds in visiting her and confesses his love for her. Tatiana cries and tells him that she still loves him, but that she wants to be faithful to her husband. In that moment the handle moves and the prince enters into the room.

Henry Spalding’s edition informs us with the help of 86 notes about Russian culture, the way rich and poor people lived in imperial Russia, also explaining the literary allusions, which the Russian poet hides within the lines of his poem. For example, Onegin is considered a Russian Childe Harold — Byron’s protagonist from an eponymous narrative poem — or Tatiana is seen as Lenora – Burger’s well-known poem. There are also references to Ovid, Horace, Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Richardson, to poets who are friends of Pushkin and to his own works such as Ruslan and Ludmila and The Fountain of Bakhchisaray.

image2The narrative voice is very intimate with the reader, witty but also educated. Although the narrator is anonymous, he tells us that he is a close friend of Onegin’s, who knows the entire story of his life. He is very fond of the protagonist, because he calls him “my Eugene” or “Onegin mine”. The digressions which the narrator makes are mostly about society, love and literature. He calls his muse between the storyline and the digressions as if he were an ancient poet. At the end of the poem he apologises to the reader that he has left Onegin in an unfortunate moment and also for the grammar mistakes, if there are any.

Many critics regard Eugene Onegin as Pushkin’s masterpiece, because of its unique stanzas of iambic tetrameter with an unusual rhyme scheme, using a blend of feminine and masculine rhymes, which has since become known as the ‘Onegin stanza’ or the ‘Pushkin sonnet’. (p. 1461)

I really enjoyed this verse novel because it is easy to read and I finished it faster than I have expected. Eugene Onegin is a priceless jewel of Russian literature and everyone should read it. If all of Pushkin’s works are as magnificent as this one, I will read more of his writings.

Henry Spalding’s English edition of Eugene Onegin


by Alina Andreea Cătărău

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