I dare you, double-triple-dog dare you¹, to find a Russian person who has never heard of Evgeniy Onegin.
¹ If you do somehow manage to find this living-under-the-rock person, I unfortunately cannot provide you with a monetary reward since I have no money to speak of. Instead, I will treat you to the my horrified expression akin to Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'. Sorry.
This novel in verse permeates all aspects of Russian culture, lauded both in the tsarist Russia and the USSR. Children read it in literature class and are made to memorize passages from it starting in elementary school. There are operas, ballets, and films. The phrases from it have become aphorisms and are still widely used in the Russian language. It even dragged the name Tatyana out of the obscurity to the heights of long-lasting popularity (now the lines 'Her sister's name was Tatyana./It's the first time we dare/ To grace with such a name/ The tender pages of a novel' seem outright silly).
Yes, the familiarity of Russians with 'Evgeniy Onegin' is quite stunning. And yet I think most of us, when you get to the bottom of things, have only superficial recollections of it, the bits and pieces of storyline (which may or may not feature a love story?), a duel, a passionate letter, a few aphorisms, and a phrase coming from the recesses of the third-grade memory: "Winter! The peasant, triumphant
..." And at the same time most of us, I think, would be hard-pressed to point out exactly why this book is so great - not unexpected given that 200+ pages of verse read at age 15 may not necessarily create a meaningful imprint on teenage minds.
And this is why I embarked on a re-read - and as a result having unintentionally impressed my literature teacher mother (yay, the perks of Pushkin! I wonder - is it a coincidence that my brother and I have the names of Alexander Pushkin and his wife Natalie?)
I wanted to discover those gems that critics and teachers see, and which evaded me the first time I read it at seven and then at fifteen. And, reader, I found them!
Did I mention before that this book is over 200 pages of verse, rhyming in a particular stanza structure that came to be known as 'Pushkin sonnet' ("aBaBccDDeFFeGG" with masculine endings in lower case and feminine endings in upper case - for you, literature buffs!). That seems like a huge feat to accomplish - and it did take Pushkin a decade to complete and publish it. And yet, despite the gargantuan effort, this novel reads so incredibly easy and effortlessly that it's almost too easy to overlook its beauty sophistication under the deceiving cover-up of light simplicity.
These verses are two hundred years old, and yet sound very natural even to a modern Russian ear - a testament to Pushkin's amazing grasp of nuances and dynamics of living Russian language, not the stuffy official one (and that, admirably, was in the era where many educated Russians could speak flawless French, English or German but were often struggling with their native 'peasant' language - just like Tatyana Larina, actually!)
The plot of the novel can be easily seen as a love story - if you strip it down to its most basic elements, of course. A bored rich noble Evgeniy Onegin comes from the capital to a rural part of Russia, meets a young and naively passionate Tatyana Larina, a daughter of a local rural noble, and spurns her naive affections expressed in a passionate letter to him. A misunderstanding over Tatyana's sister leads to a duel between Onegin and his younger poet friend Lensky - and leaves Lensky dead. A few years later, Onegin runs into Tatiana in St Petersburg - now a married sophisticated lady of the higher society - and is smitten; but his affections get spurned by the older and wiser Tatiana who delivers a famous line that although she still loves Evgeniy, she "belong[s] to another and will be forever faithful to him". End of story.
What this simplified version that sticks in the minds of many readers years later lacks is exactly what makes this a great novel as opposed to yet another 19th century romance. What makes it unique is a masterful mockingly sarcastic portrayal of the entire 'cream' of Russian society so familiar to Pushkin, one of its members by birth.
From the very beginning, Pushkin assumes a conversational tone with the reader, breaking the literary fourth wall any chance he gets, emphasizing that the characters and customs he describes are well-known, contemporary and easily recognizable not only to him but also to his audience - the educated 'cream of the society' of whom he's making subtle fun.
Evgeniy is your typical "Byronic" young man, fashionably disenchanted with life, suffering from "хандра" - the Russian expression for ennui - and fashionably, as learned from the books (something that enamored with him Tatyana discovers to her distress), showing his tiredness of the world and showing off his trendy cynicism. He's reasonably good-looking, educated 'just enough' and unconsciously playing up a fashionable gothic stereotype, bored with life already at the age of twenty-six, sharply contrasted with Lensky, an eighteen-year-old poet ready to fall in love and sing it endless dithyrambs.
Evgeniy does seem fake in his boredom and despicable in his feeling of superiority and self-righteousness, and therefore his disappointment in pursuit of older, more interesting Tatyana's love comes as a deserved punishment, readers agree. And let's face it - despite the novel being named after Onegin, he in the hearts of the readers plays second fiddle to the one he first rejected and then hopelessly pursued - Tatyana Larina.
Tatyana Larina, in contrast to Evgeniy, has always been the darling of Russian literature. She is viewed as uniquely Russian (the fact that Pushkin himself emphasizes, even when he acknowledges that like many of the Russian nobles of that time, Tatyana had a hard time speaking Russian), the embodiment of what a perfect Russian woman should be - sincere, idealistic and passionate, and yet strong, resilient and faithful to her partner despite the temptations. She can be easily seen as an inspiration to all those noble Decemberists' wives who were willing to leave everything behind and follow their duty and obligation to the depths of Siberia, if need be. Her rejection of Evgeniy is viewed as undeniable integrity and strength of character, and the unwavering ability to self-sacrifice for what is right.
That's how I was taught to think about Tatyana, in any case. She steals the stage from Evgeniy so effortlessly and naturally to become a heroine and not just the girl in love. And yet, as I was reading this novel now, likely at least a decade older than Tatyana when she falls in love, I could not help but notice the bits in her character that made me question her place on the pedestal of ultimate Russian womanhood - and because of that actually made her more dear and more relatable to me.
You see, the sincerity and passion with which Tatyana embraced her young love on this read-through did not really pass my scrutiny. Let's be honest - she does not fall in love with Onegin; instead, raised on cheap romances, she falls in love with an imagined ideal of him, having glimpsed him only during a single evening he spends in her home. She falls in love with this mysterious handsome haughty stranger because, as the stories have taught her, she's supposed to. She's young and impressionable (her age is never stated, but at some point there's a mention of a thirteen-year-old girl, which to me feels a bit too young to be Tatyana - and so I tend to imagine her about seventeen or eighteen, making her younger sister Olga a 'marriageable material' as well).
She plays the role of a typical quiet, introspective, shy, pale and dreamy young woman very well, having internalized the idea of a romantic heroine. Her love is likely no more real than Onegin's trendy disappointment with life. Her passionate letter, written in French, is open and brave - but yet, on a closer reading, full of cliches that are clearly taken out of romance novels that kept her company throughout adolescence.
So basically what I see here is the meeting of two people both of whom are instinctively and therefore very sincerely playing the exact roles society and culture expect them to play - the world-weary Evgeniy and the romantically passionate Tatyana. None of them is the ultimate Russian hero, let's face it. The conventions they both pander to is what does not allow them to be happy.
Tatyana three years later, having turned into a refined Petersburg married lady commanding respect and admiration, appears a much more interesting character - to Onegin as well, unsurprisingly. But her astounding transformation really seems to be just another role she tries on and fulfills with the same aptitude as she did the role of a romantic provincial young woman in love. Tatyana wears her new expectations as a glove - and so does Evgeniy, madly falling in love with her just as would be expected for a young dandy meeting a refined alluring woman of higher society. Once again both of them play a part that's expected for them, and play it well. And even Tatyana's ultimate rejection of Onegin may not be so much the strength of her character as the expected behavior of a woman in such a situation as portrayed in the romance novels with which she grew up (the alternative to Tatyana's decision decades later was described by Tolstoy in 'Anna Karenina' with all the tragic consequences that followed).
An ideal Russian woman? Perhaps not. A young woman tragically caught in the web of societal and cultural expectations in her youth and now in her adulthood? Perhaps so. And in this, I think, is the strength and the tragedy of this story.
Pushkin seems to have felt the societal conventions very well to so exquisitely poke fun at them while showing very subtly the pain they can lead to. He shows the tragedy of yet another societal convention of establishing masculinity and honor - the duels. Onegin kills his friend Lensky in a duel that both of them know is not necessary but yet expected by the society - and Pushkin is not subtle about showing the wasteful unnecessity of such an act.
And this is why neither me nor my literature teacher mother can even fathom how, in winter of 1837, 37-year-old Alexander Pushkin himself allowed ridiculous societal convention to take his life, losing his life in a duel which supposedly happened over a woman - the duel he described so aptly years prior in his masterpiece.
Bookworm buffs - check this out. The second greatest Russian poet, young Mikhail Lermontov, who wrote a famous and angry poem upon Pushkin's death in that ill-fated duel, proceeded to write a death-duel scene himself which almost exactly predicted his own death - also in a duel - a few years later.
What was going on with Russian literary geniuses recognizing the futility and tragedy of conventions leading to duels and then dying in the same manner that they described and mocked?
There was more to Onegin's story than we got to see in the finished version. As Pushkin wrote it when he has fallen out of favor, when he was in his Southern exile, he had Onegin travel all over Russia coming in contact with events and sights that the poet had eventually prudently decided were not risking his freedom over publishing and so destroyed those parts. How much do I wish those chapters had survived intact! There may have been some added depth to the character of the ultimate Russian world-weary dandy had they survived. But even without them, the 200+ pages novel in verse that has been the darling of Russian literature for two centuries now lives up to its hard-to-attain fame.
4.5 stars and extra respect from my mother for having reread it - and that ultimately is priceless.