Readers are introduced to the young rakish aristocrat Eugene Onegin as he flies through the streets of St. Petersburg spending his night at parties, ballets, and balls. Though his outstanding wit and charm allow him to navigate and manipulate his way through high society with ease, Onegin becomes jaded with the artificiality of his life and, when his uncle dies, he leaves for the countryside to live at the estate he has inherited.
There he meets the passionate young poet Vladimir Lensky, and despite the differences between the two, the cold, world-weary Onegin and the fiery, vivacious Lensky become fast friends. When Lensky brings Onegin on one of his visits to their neighbors the Larins in order to show Olga, his love, to his friend, Onegin meets the elder Larin sister, Tatyana. While the charming and girlish Olga occupies Lensky, Tatyana is far more nuanced, a melancholic reader of romance novels and a dreamy wanderer in the moonlight.
Having fallen in love with Onegin, Tatyana writes him an artless and utterly honest letter confessing her love and begging for his. Onegin, however, meets her in her garden to deliver a cool and didactic speech rejecting her love and asking her to mature to the realities of love, plunging Tatyana into despair.
When Lensky brings Onegin to Tatyana's name-day party, Onegin finds his dislike of parties stirred up and thereby decides to avenge himself upon Lensky. He steals Olga away from Lensky for all of the dances and, employing his experienced charm, makes her blush, which sends Lensky home in a furor.
The following morning Onegin receives a challenge to a duel from Lensky and accepts. Lensky spends the day with a clouded mind with Olga. Realizing that she still loves him, he writes a poem at night inspired by her, and then wakes at dawn the next day for the duel. Onegin, however, wakes up late and arrives tardily. Their battle almost driven on by the dueling-hawk Zaretsky, Onegin and Lensky draw pistols, and Lensky is killed.
With the bright young life of the poet snuffed out, Onegin departs on a long journey, chased by his guilt. Meanwhile, Tatyana visits his house where she reads through his Byronic novels and discovers that the man she loves is an empty character based on the books he has read. In order to find her a mate, Tatyana's mother brings her to Moscow.
Later, Onegin returns from his travels and attends a ball at St. Petersburg, where he is shocked to meet a now-married and eminently mature Tatyana. Though she is still as pure and unaffected as before, nowhere does he find the young vulnerability she once conveyed to him in her letter. Stricken with newfound love for her and tormented by her cold reaction to him, including the lack of any response to several love letters he writes, Onegin retreats into his den for the winter and broods in depression.
Come spring, Onegin reemerges and walks unannounced into Tatyana's home, where he finds her exposed as she was before, crying over his letters. Though he beseechingly kneels before her and tearfully asks for her love, it is Tatyana's turn to give a speech. She explains that she will not oppose the fate that has led her into marriage and berates Onegin for selfishly trying to seduce her. As she leaves the room, Onegin is left alone and destitute.