Vasili Tropinin, Portrait of Aleksander Pushkin, 1827 Aleksander Pushkin, 1799-1837
Introduction to Eugene Onegin
Aleksandr Pushkin's Eugene Onegin is one of the most famous and remarkable works of Russian literature, and a good place to start when beginning your study of the Russian novel. Although the plot of the novel is by no means a new or original in its subject matter, its unique form and innovative treatment of the narrator prove it to be enjoyable and fascinating to read. Indeed, one of the most intriguing elements of Pushkin’s work is his decision to characterize it as a piece of verse rather than prose. Though the plot may sometimes read as a work of prose, the form of Eugene Onegin is indeed one of verse, strictly following Pushkin’s intentionally incorporated rhyme scheme—stanzas of iambic tetrameter with the unusual rhyme pattern of AbAbCCddEffEgg, an innovation that took the author nearly eight years to perfect (Culture of Russia). According to this scheme, now often called the “Pushkin sonnet,” the uppercase letters represent feminine rhymes whereas the lowercase represent masculine rhymes (Culture of Russia). In many ways, Pushkin’s work is as much a masterpiece of form and construction as it is of literary inspiration.
The Novel's Title
Original Publication Title Page
Many of Pushkin’s contemporaries were rattled by the subtitle, “A Novel in Verse”, and claimed they could not accept it as a “novel”, per se, citing its “digressive quality” as well as its “improvisatory” tendencies (“Eugene Onegin: An Inverted Byronic Poem”). Early critics, most distinctly Nikolai Polevov and Nikolai Nadezhdin, even concluded that Eugene Onegin lacked “unity and wholeness” and was no more than “a poetic album of lively impressions” (“Eugene Onegin: An Inverted Byronic Poem). Furthermore, these critics argued that Pushkin’s so-called “novel in verse” starkly resembles the attributes of romantic poetry, a genre associated most notably with the English poet Lord Byron; such similarities include the plot, the portrayal of the hero, the lyrical narration that profoundly heightens the work’s emotionality, and the abrupt opening (“Eugene Onegin: An Inverted Byronic Poem”). Therefore, the provocative title of Pushkin’s work not only recalls authorial wit, innovation, and originality, but it also references the romantic writing style made popular by Lord Byron and reveals the prominence of Romanticism in literary Russia.
According to Richard Freeborn, “Pushkin’s relationship to his ‘novel in verse’ is authoritarian: he is its author and he does not pretend otherwise” (The Rise of the Russian Novel, page 11). For instance, Onegin’s stanzas overtly follow a pattern pre-established by the author—all stanzas with the exception of the letters. Freeborn continues discussing the impact of the poetic form, stating,
- “What it achieves is never somber. It suggests a sprightliness and inherent vivacity even at those moments, particularly at the time of the duel and Lensky’s death, when the words and images are specifically intended to invoke solemnity. It is a rhythm primarily of the dance, not of the elegy or the ballad or the ode. It can encompass the full range of moods and manners from the pensive or philosophical to the most graceful and active” (The Rise of the Russian Novel, p. 12-13).
It is this unique style that distinguishes Pushkin’s work, particularly Eugene Onegin, to Russia and to the world.
History of Composition and Publication
The novel was written over a seven-year period between 1823 and 1830 and published serially between 1825 and 1832; it first appeared as a complete book in 1833, with a second edition (now widely accepted as the standard authoritative text) in 1837. The first chapter was published as a separate text in February 1825 and it immediately caused a sensation, sparking a series of critical responses claiming Pushkin to be Russia's new "national poet." The author's preface to the initial publication of the first chapter indicated that Pushkin had other chapters in draft form at the time, but stated that he himself did not know whether the novel would ever be finished (Lotman, Evgeny Onegin. Kommentarii, 546). Indeed, although the eight extant full chapters arguably form a complete whole, the additional incomplete fragments, "Onegin's journey" and the surviving sections of a tenth chapter, give the work a sense of being unfinished (see Nabokov for a comprehensive publication history).
Because the novel was written over an extended period of time covering the reigns of two tsars (Alexander I and Nicholas I) and including the tumultuous events of the December uprising (after which a number of Pushkin's friends were sent to Siberia or sentenced to death), the work varies in tone and texture ranging from youthful sprees and erotic musings to darker passages on disappointment, betrayal, and a pointless, wasted life. Much of the writing of the chapters 3, 4, and 5 was carried out during Pushkin's own internal exiles at his family's estate in Mikhalovskoe, and most of chapter 8 was completed during a three-month cholera quarantine at his family estate in Boldino. The protracted composition of the novel led to a change in plans several times concerning the its overall composition. In the end, the final thematic dominant of each chapter of novel is as follows:
- Chapter 1: Onegin (a day in the life, family history, inheritance)
- Chapter 2: The Poet
- Chapter 3: Tatiana
- Chapter 4: The Russian Countryside
- Chapter 5: The Name Day Party
- Chapter 6: The Duel
- Chapter 7: Moscow
- Chapter 8: The Grande Monde (Onegin's letter)
- Fragments of Onegin's Journey
- Remaining Fragments of Chapter 10
The plot of Eugene Onegin is rather skeletal and simplistic: A young St. Petersburg dandy inherits his uncle's estate and moves to the country only to languish in boredom, break the heart of a young girl, and kill his best friend in a classic Romantic duel. After this unintended tragedy he leaves town (and the novel) for an extended period of time, and in his absence the young girl who had been so captivated by his urbane posturing, Tatiana, riffles through his personal library to gain insight into his inner soul, only to discover him to be a shallow, Europeanized philistine and "a parody." Despite being a simple country girl, Tatiana proves herself to be a character of significantly greater depth: she is sent to Moscow to find a husband on "marriage mart," and after making brilliant match she is transformed into a high society lioness; however, her greatest desire is to return to the simple country life, which is now forever behind her. Predictably, when Onegin returns to St. Petersburg some years later he falls hopelessly in love with the gracious, but impenetrable, Tatiana. Her pledge of eternal fidelity to her husband only heightens the misfortune of missed opportunity and love lost due to poor timing.
For nearly two centuries critics have pointed out that the essence (суть) and magic of Eugene Onegin lies not not in its plot, but in its extensive and numerous digressions: Eugene's daily grooming routine and dress, Tatiana's family traditions, the history of Russian belle letters, the condition of Russian roads in springtime, and the alluring beauty of women's feet are all treated (among many other subjects) with affectionate poetic virtuoso. The narrator, a figure similar to Pushkin's public persona who ironically plays with this proximity to the author, on many occasions steals the show with his delightful descriptions of Russian life and culture, high and low, which have caused this work to become known as an "encyclopedia of Russian life."
The Narrator: The narrator of Eugene Onegin is both omniscient and omnipresent, and though he seemingly narrates from a point in history several years after the story he tells, he is still very active and present in the plot (“Lyric and Narrative Consciousness in Eugene Onegin”). The narrator’s involvement and relationships to the other characters are quite apparent, particularly his sympathy towards Tatiana and his friendship with Onegin.
Lidia Lemoshenko, Tatyana with a Romance Novel
Eugene Onegin: Often deemed a friend of both the narrator and author, Onegin is the quintessential dandy who is bored by the lifestyles of high society. Onegin’s character is complex and posed in a system of binary contradictions. As the reader we want to understand him, but it seems that Onegin simply will not let us. In literature, Eugene Onegin may often be characterized as the superfluous Man or the Byronic hero.
Tatyana: Presented as the heroine of Eugene Onegin, Tatiana is the pure, uncorrupt, and morally deep counterpart to Onegin’s character. After Onegin refuses her, Tatyana never ultimately leads a life of happiness. Despite this, though, her influences on Russian literature are optimistic and profound: according to Vissarion Belinsky, she is the “apotheosis of Russian womanhood”; for Craig Cravens, she is the first fully-developed character in Russian literature, a woman who is allowed “unmediated self-expression (Lyric and Narrative Consciousness); and to Barbara Heldt she represents the ideal character of the perfect woman.
Lensky: Lensky is the foil to Onegin’s character, and in many ways he is emblematic of the stereotypical Romantic character. He is naïve and enthusiastic and has a passion for life, and his innocence and youthful idealism serve as a direct counterpart to Onegin’s maturity and worldly skepticism (The Rise of the Russian Novel).
Olga: She, much like Lensky to Onegin, represents the innocent, idealistic, and vain counterpart to her sister Tatyana’s character. She is simple-minded and easily swayed and soon becomes engaged to Lensky.
Fiction and Real Life
Within Eugene Onegin there is a profound inclusion of “real” details and facts and incorporation of them into the narrative. Such details include: place names; people names, such as Chaadayev; allusions to contemporary European celebrities, such as Adam Smith and Rousseau; and lists of food and wine. Pushkin’s characters are also placed into a “realistic” context, as they are sometimes detailed with features from Pushkin’s own life (namely Onegin, who may be deemed a direct parallel of the author) and placed into particular areas of society that we all know and recognize (Freeborn).
According to Richard Freeborn in his book, The Rise of the Russian Novel:
- Validity and authenticity of background provide for validity and authenticity of character: such is the principle behind Pushkin’s method. It follows that it is Pushkin’s aim to make his fiction appear to be a replica of history. Moreover, the ‘story’ in which hero and heroine become involved can be seen to have it special chronology… The chronological exactness of the novel’s story is very striking: it is set in an historical time and in an authentic context… The fiction appears to be motivated by the assumption that, as time passes, situations and people change (19-20).
Lidia Timoshenko, Tatyana and Onegin Years Later
Love, rejection, and loneliness:
One of the main plots in Eugene Onegin is the relationship between Tatyana and Onegin, a relationship that serves as an important characterization of both figures. Had Onegin not wooed Tatyna, nor had Tatyana addressed the supposed love between them, a substantial portion of the narrative would have become nonexistent. Likewise, had Tatyana not led such a sheltered lifestyle in the country swayed by romance novels and had Onegin not wasted such a critical time of his life in the hustle of society, the concept of love would have not been so painful as in this novel. According to Freeborn, “The ironic Pushkin now insists that one should love only oneslf; indulgent egoism is the only worthwhile emotion” (30). Both Onegin and Tatyana ultimately lead lives of unsatisfied love, and the only element of happy, simple love lies in the relationship between Olga and Lensky. Not coincidentally, though, Onegin kills Lensky, therefore symbolizing the defeat of simple love by one that is complex and tortured.
Fate, death, and social convention:
Freeborn says that “the enigma of Onegin has caused perennial debate” (24), and indeed, his puzzling and elusive character dominates the narrative. In a letter Pushkin wrote to Gorchachov in 1822,
- I wanted to describe him, that indifference to life and all its pleasures, that premature aging of the soul, which has become the distinguishing feature of the youth of the nineteenth century (Freeborn, 23).
Pushkin intended his character to reflect the impact of various social and psychological pressures, the result of upbringing and prolonged life in a particular environment, namely the city. Onegin’s only familiar world is that which he finds in St. Petersburg, and it is in the unfamiliar—everything outside of St. Petersburg—where his fate and tragedy lie (Freeborn, 24). Within Onegin’s character we can see the interplay of fate and death and their almost interdependency. For instance, the death of his uncle took him to the countryside, where he meets Tatyana and ultimately begins the unraveling of his fate of unsatisfied love. The influence of social customs and conventions also proves to have a major impact on character development, especially with regard to Onegin. Freeborn says,
- The observance of social custom dictates the habitual daily round of Onegin’s life in St. Petersburg. More than this: the despotism of social orthodoxy is as important as fate, it would seem, in determining Onegin’s character and his subsequent behavior in the novel. The effect of fate in the context of social relations is both to condition man to the hierarchical structure and to emphasize the insignificance of his human individuality… For his serfs, being their master, he played the role of fate, just as conventions, social or otherwise, had their part to play in determining his own destiny, his own view of mankind and his view of himself (25-26).
Ilya Repin, The Duel between Onegin and Lenksy, 1901
Lensky, Onegin and the duel:
The relationship between Lensky and Onegin is marked by the contrast between innocence and maturity and youthful naïveté and world-weary skepticism. Whether or not the relationship between these two characters reflects an actual relationship in Pushkin’s own life, they represent a classic “Pushkinian stricture that friendship is impossible” (Freeborn 26). Lensky’s role in the novel is that of innocence victimized by a patronizing friend character (Onegin). Though his character may sometimes be a refreshing counterpart to the perpetually enigmatic Onegin, he nevertheless represents human transience and the contrast between simplicity and complexity (which is later portrayed, by the death of Lensky, as the dominance of complexity).
One of the key moments in the novel’s plot is the duel, a subject which all four characters influence. Onegin, irritated by Tatyana at the nameday feast and by Lensky for taking him there, acts vengefully against his friend and dances with Olga, Lensky’s love and fiancé. An offended Lensky then challenges Onegin to a duel, which he ultimately looses. Throughout the novel, never less poignant during the duel, is the importance of public opinion. Onegin admits to making light of a young and innocent love, saying that Lensky, then only eighteen, could be forgiven for such naïve foolishness. Public opinion, however, is not so compassionate, and for that reason Lensky must die. Pushkin therefore suggests “that our lives follow conventions and that they who create such conventions behind the scenes—the gossip-mongers, the social law givers—are the source of the tragedy” (Freeborn, 32).
Tatyana’s dream: Chased across a frozen winter landscape by a ferocious bear and bombarded by demons in a hut that she hopes will provide shelter, Tatyana’s dream represents the aggressive nature of the world that had until recently remained concealed. This is a classic dream of being chased, but in it are the binaries that remain so prevalent throughout the novel—most notably, particularly with regard to the dream, the contrast between superstition and rationality. The dream doesn’t necessarily move the plot, but by including it Pushkin perhaps provides a commentary of Russian society, again calling attention to artificiality and superficiality versus authenticity.
Gender as a signifying system: The city (urban) and the country (pastoral) provide an excellent framework for a series of gender-defined characterizations that further reveal the personalities of Onegin’s main figures. The city, as defined by masculinity, represents a Western Russia, selfishness, new-fangled modernism, cynicism, elitism, passivity, and inauthenticity. The country, as defined by femininity, symbolizes a Slavic Russia, virtue, morality, loyalty, sacrifice, tradition, idealism, naïveté, sincerity, activity, authenticity, and closeness to the Russian people. Revealed in the contrast between pastoral and urban life is also a binary of simplicity and complexity, respectively. Complex characters seek a sense of inner and outer peace, whereas simple characters crave something more adventurous. Tatyana, for example, begins as a country girl who falls in love with a corrupt, enigmatic man from the city. She eventually leaves the country and marries a high-ranking public official, where she in turn craves the pastoral, simple life in which she is more secure and content.
The significance and influence of Eugene Onegin in the history of Russian letters is difficult to overstate. Its own composition was influenced by Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Griboedov's Wit Works Woe, and the works of Pushkin's teacher and mentor, Vasily Zhukovsky, himself one of the early Russian Romantic poets. Pushkin has been credited with establishing the Russian literary language and with bringing Russian literature in line with the other great European literatures an original national literature in its own right. Eugene Onegin occupies a special place in this legacy by problematizing Russia's European heritage on the levels of plot, themes, digressions, and gender. The novel has been hugely influential on the subsequent development of Russian literature, and especially on the novels of Turgenev and Tolstoy. The figures of Onegin and Tatiana have functioned as archetypes for the subsequent development in Russian literature of such figures as the "superfluous man" and the ideal Russian woman, whose moral superiority to her male counterpart has become a defining feature of the gender binary in Russian literature (cf. Barbara Heldt).
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin debuted in 1879 at the Maly Theater in Moscow, performed by students from the Moscow Conservatory. In 1881, a grander and more accomplished version was premiered at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. In the same way Eugene Onegin adapted various Western European literary styles, most notably the concept of the Byronic Hero, Tchaikovsky transformed Western European operatic forms into a distinctly Russian piece of instrumentation and performance.
John Cranko’s ballet adaptation of Eugene Onegin premiered in April of 1965. Rather than using Tchaikovsky’s score, though, Cranko commissioned an arrangement from Kurt-Heinz Stolze, who ultimately used none of Tchaikovsky’s music from his own operatic version of Eugene Onegin. Since it’s opening, many critics claim this piece as Cranko’s masterpiece.
A more modern ballet interpretation by Boris Eifman was debuted in 1991. The characters and setting are in modern Moscow, and like Cranko, Eifman also commissioned music from another source, Alexander Sitkovesky, rather than the esteemed Tchaikovsky. Many critics, though, find Eifman’s adaptation to be too eccentric and a piece that takes away from the profoundness and brilliance of Pushkin’s novel.
In the Soviet Union in 1936, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s play adaptation was set for production to commemorate the centennial year of Pushkin’s death. Under the direction of Alexander Tairov and accompanying music by Sergei Prokofiev, the play’s production was unfortunately halted and dismissed because of Stalinist disapproval regarding the writer’s various liberties as well as the disagreement between Tairov and Krzhizhanovsky. In 2012 the theater department at Princeton University staged Krzhizhanovsky’s play, though it is still considered a somewhat disagreeable version of Pushkin’s novel.
In 1989 Christopher Webber’s play Tatyana was written for Nottingham Playhouse for actress and comedian Josie Lawrence.
Yevgeni Onegin (1911)—Russian silent film directed by Vasili Goncharov and starring Arseniv Bibikov, Petr Birjukov, and Pyotr Chardynin
Eugene Onegin (1919)—German silent film directed by Alfred Halm and starring Frederic Zelnik
Eugene Onegin (1958)—Russian film adaptation of the opera by Tchaikovsky directed by Roman Tikhomirov and starring Vladim Medvedev, Ariadna Shengelaya, Igor Ozerov, and singers of the Bolshoi Theater
Eugen Onegin (1972)—German music film
Eugene Onegin (1988)—Film adaptation of the opera by Tchaikovsky directed by Peter Weigl starring Michal Docolomanský and Magdaléna Vásáryová (argued to be one of the twenty-five best opera films)
Yevgeny Onyegin (1994)—TV film by British director Humphrey Burton starring Wojtek Drabowicz.
Onegin (1999)—British-American film directed by Martha Fiennes and starring Ralph Fiennes, Liv Tyler, and Toby Stephens.
1. Characterize the hero based on these phrases: Romantic or Byronic? Tragic hero? “Round” character? Superfluous Man? Russian character? Anti-hero?
2. Why did Pushkin write this in verse as opposed to a less constricting style?
3. How is the novel structured? What is each chapter devoted to in terms of its content, and how does each chapter advance the narrative? What is the arc of this narrative and is it typical for European Romanticism?
4. What do you think the poetic and romantic Lensky is meant to represent? Why is he forgotten so quickly after his death?
5. What do you make of Tatiana’s dream in Chapter 5? What is the effect and purpose of this extended passage?
6. Compare Tatiana’s and Eugene’s letters. What do they say about each character, about literary conventions, and about the “spirit of the times”?
7. What do you make of Tatiana as a literary heroine? How is she treated in relation to the hero and counterpart, Eugene? Does the narrator favor one over the other? What do the two of them together convey about Russian culture in the beginning of the 19th century?
8. To what extent does Lensky’s death initiate character development in Onegin?
9. How does Westernization play a part in Pushkin’s masterpiece?
10. How does the narrator portray Russia in this novel? Give specific examples demonstrating how, where, and what exactly the narrator conveys of Russian culture. What kind of aggregate picture of Russia do we get from this novel?
11. In James Falen's introduction to the novel, he states, "To some, Onegin is a victim of his environment, a potentially creative man whose personal fulfillment is frustrated by the limited opportunities available to him in his era. To others he is an "anti-hero, an amoral hedonist and misanthropic egoist" (xviii). How do you interpret Eugene? Do you see him as one of many "superfluous men" in Russian novels? If so, why do you think the Russian literary tradition has produced so many such (male) heroes?
Iu. M. Lotman. Pushkin (in Russian, including "Евгений Онегин: Комментарий"). St. Petersburg: Iskusstvo-SPB, 1997.
Vladimir Nabokov, trans. Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse by Alexander Pushkin. Translated with a Commentary by Vladimir Nabokov. 2 vols. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975).
“Eugene Onegin: An Inverted Byronic Poem” (Journal Article) by Sona Stephan Hoisington. Comparative Literature , Vol. 27, No. 2 (Spring, 1975), pp. 136-152. Published by: Duke University Press on behalf of the University of Oregon. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1769709
Culture of Russia. “Pushkin: Eugene Onegin” by Jeremy Clark at Trinity University, Spring 2012. URL: http://mashaholl.com/culture/?p=118
The Rise of the Russian Novel: Studies in the Russian novel from Eugene Onegin to War and Peace by Richard Freeborn, Professor of Russian Literature, University of London. Published by Cambridge at the University Press in 1973
Alexander Pushkin: Eugene Onegin by A.D.P.Briggs. Published by Cambridge University Press in 1992
“Lyric and Narrative Consciousness in Eugene Onegin” (Journal Article) by Craig Cravens. The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 46, No. 4 (Winter, 2002), pp. 683-709. Published by American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3219907
Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature by Barbara Heldt Published by Indiana University Press at Bloomington and Indianapolis in 1987
"Eugene Onegin." Published by The Metropolitan Opera. URL: http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/broadcast/hdminisite/onegin.aspx
"Onegin." The Ballet Bag (Web Blog). September 17, 2012. URL: http://www.theballetbag.com/2010/09/17/onegin/
"Eugene Onegin and Zombies!" by Kathleen O’Connell. Published by danceviewtimes: writers on dancing (Web Blog). June 2, 2009. URL: http://www.danceviewtimes.com/2009/06/eugene-onegin-and-zombies.html
"Theater Review: Eugene Onegin" by De Palma, Lolita. Intersections (Web Blog). Published by Princeton University, February 18, 2012. URL: http://blogs.dailyprincetonian.com/intersections/2012/02/18/theater-review-eugene-onegin/
"Christopher Webber." URL: http://www.zarzuela.net/bio/cdw.htm
"The 25 Greatest 'Opera Films' Ever Made." Wonders in the Dark (Web Blog). WordPress.com. URL: http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2009/08/05/the-25-greatest-opera-films-ever-made/
"Eugene Onegin" by Wikipedia (Web Page)
Eugene Onegin, a complete translation in English by Charles Johnston
Евгений Онегин, the complete text in Russian
Onegin, part 1 (of 11) of Martha Fiennes' 1999 film adaptation of the novel
Ten different English translations of the first stanza of the novel