Since the institutional and cultural reforms of Peter the Great beginning at the end of the seventeenth century, Russia increasingly adopted European ideals of government and culture. The aristocratic and educated classes in particular often prized the more artful and expressive French language over their native Russian language. From his upbringing, Pushkin experienced both European and Russian culture, so it is no surprise that he should be so interested and insightful in the conflict between the two, a conflict which has never ceased to be an important issue for Russians even to this day.
In the novel, Pushkin illustrates the different cultures through his main characters, each of whom represents a certain European influence. Onegin is English due to his reading of Byron, Tatyana is French due to her love for French romance novels, and Lensky is German due to his time spent in Germany and affinity with the German Romantic poets. Although the only purely Russian characters are the peasants, mentioned only as background characters, Onegin, Tatyana, and Lensky still have a Russian essence to them. However, it may be argued that Onegin has no real essence, but only an empty character fashioned from Byronic novels, as Tatyana believes.
Life in the Provinces vs Life in the Captials
In Pushkin's time, the centers of Russian political, social, and cultural life were the two capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Part of the aristocracy lived outside of these urban areas in what is commonly known as the provinces, where they would manage their own manors and farms. The narrative arc of the novel moves from St. Petersburg to the countryside to Moscow and finally returns to St. Petersburg, an itinerary which mirrored Pushkin's own life of exile. Indeed, Pushkin began Onegin while in exile and continued work on it after he had returned to St. Petersburg, so we may believe that many of his inspirations for the work were firsthand.
In the first chapter, Onegin takes advantage of his new inheritance to leave the dissipated city life he has grown tired of, but unlike Pushkin he finds little of interest amid the nature of the countryside. Moreover, his urban dandyism alienates him from the provincial nobility and the simple country folk. He disdains their lack of elegance, and they don't like his carriage. He bonds with Lensky over this alienation.
When Tatyana is introduced, Pushkin stresses that her honest, rustic spirit is her defining feature. Especially when contrasted against her coquettish sister and the coterie of experienced coquettes who populate the courts, Tatyana shines clear and genuine like the moon. After she has adapted to married life in St. Petersburg, Tatyana assumes a cool, almost stern exterior but never takes on airs or relinquishes the sensitivity which she had as a girl.
Pushkin was known to have a strong adherence to the idea of fate, and he makes clear demonstration of his opinion in the novel. In fact, the first plot movement in the novel is caused by fate: Onegin's father and uncle die, leaving him with money and an estate. Attentive readers will also remember that these two deaths end Onegin's plans to travel around the Mediterranean with Pushkin and as such separate the author and his hero; at the end it is once again by chance that Pushkin sees Onegin at the ball.
Since topics of weight tend to flock together, we find fate also involved in both love and death. In Tatyana's letter she writes regarding her love, "The heavens chose my destination /And made me thine forever more!" and refuses to consider a hypothetical married life spent apart from Onegin (III. Letter) However, such a married life does come to be, and when it does Tatyana accepts it, just as she had accepted her love for Onegin and then his rejection.
However, Onegin, as he writes in his letter, once cherished the idea of freedom, though he later found that it did not give him happiness; had he acted in accordance with his warm feelings when Tatyana confessed to him, he may have avoided the catastrophe he meets at the end of the novel.
The most fatalistic moment of the novel is Lensky's death. Aside from the inevitability of a conflict between the poet Lensky and the anti-poet Onegin, the duel itself occurred despite many potential saviors. Pushkin mentions that Tatyana could have realized the situation and reconciled the two but she was isolated; Tatyana's nurse could have also intervened but her wits were dulled by age; and Lensky could have told Olga but he thought he would be saving her from Onegin. Even more so, the experienced duel-enthusiast Zaretsky seems at every conjunction to disregard all custom in order to bring about the fatal conflict: he extracts Onegin's acceptance of the duel very briskly, does not call the match a forfeit when Onegin is late (as was the rule), and did not work with Onegin's second to attempt a reconciliation between the two fighters (as was also the rule). His waking up Lensky at dawn to go to the dueling ground suggests his power over the younger man, and during the duel itself he acts as a kind of conductor leading the two through the mechanical motions which end in death.
The Death of Youth
It is always important to remember that Pushkin wrote the novel over a wide and variegated period of his life (1824-1831), over the course of which he passed the momentous and frequently mentioned 30-year milestone. Just as the relationship between Lensky and Onegin may be read as a conflict between poetry and prose, genuineness and artifice, etc., the two characters represent blithe youth and jaded maturity, specifically in the experience of Pushkin himself.
Lensky is a close depiction of Pushkin in his glory days as a poetic prodigy at the Lyceum, fully devoted to his Muse, a time which he describes at the beginning of Chapter 8. Although the more mature Pushkin and Onegin are aware of the young man's naivety, they see no reason to condemn him for it, since it is appropriate for his age. Moreover, although Onegin only views his past with unmitigated regret, Pushkin is very nostalgic for the vitality and inspiration of his earlier years, writing wistfully in several authorial asides of his hopes to regain some of what he has since lost.
This theme of the loss of youth and poetry is, of course, invested entirely into the death of Lensky, whose symbolic tragedy even Onegin himself immediately recognizes. Pushkin mourns the untimely death, Onegin travels to escape the guilt, and though the Larin sisters do not visit his grave for long, his tombstone is inscribed with sadness for his young passing.
Genuineness of Love
When the readers are first introduced to Onegin, they learn of his amatory prowess and understand that neither he nor any of the coquettish court ladies whom he seduces have experienced true love. In the countryside, we find the seemingly ideal couple in Lensky and Olga, who are set for marriage, but Onegin and Pushkin create some doubtfulness by pointing out Olga's shallowness and conventionality. As it turns out, Olga is easily wooed by Onegin and then the lancer after Lensky's death, but Lensky loved genuinely, enough to forgive Olga and to choose to write a poem to her on his last night instead of reading Schiller. However, Tatyana loves the most honestly, to the point that she braves embarrassment and hurt to confess her love to Onegin. She does not deem Onegin's love at the end to be genuine.
The Poet's Craft
Pushkin writes in frequent asides about his own past as a poetic prodigy and his aims for his future literary development. His crafting of Onegin and Lensky, who represent prose and verse respectively, also indicate Pushkin's artistic direction. He sees himself as past the youthful, poetic stage of his life, which in the novel is marked by the death of Lensky, but he nevertheless does not take to the English Romantic tradition of prose, as shown by Onegin's unhappy fate. He also traces the development of his Muse from a provincial girl who first inspires him in the Lycee to her dazzling, but unaffected, entrance into high society.
The Influence of Literature upon Life
Each of the three main characters - Onegin, Lensky, and Tatyana - are characterized by the kinds of books they read. Onegin is very much the Byronic hero which he reads about in his English novels, Lensky the fiery German poet, and Tatyana, at first, a dreamy French romantic. However, whereas Lensky dies in his poetic naivety and Onegin never really changes, remaining a kind of parody as Tatyana discovers while looking through his books, Tatyana alone breaks through her literary stereotype via the force of her genuine personality.
Eugene Onegin Questions and Answers
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