Eugene Onegin

Major themes

One of the main themes of Eugene Onegin is the relationship between fiction and real life. People are often shaped by art and the work is suitably packed with allusions to other major literary works.

Another major element is Pushkin's creation of a woman of intelligence and depth in Tatyana, whose vulnerable sincerity and openness on the subject of love has made her the heroine of countless Russian women, despite her apparent naivety. Pushkin, in the final chapter, fuses his Muse and Tatyana's new 'form' in society after a lengthy description of how she has guided him in his works.

Perhaps the darkest theme – despite the light touch of the narration – is his presentation of the deadly inhumanity of social convention. Onegin is its bearer in this work. His induction into selfishness, vanity, and indifference occupies the introduction, and he is unable to escape it when he moves to the country. His inability to relate to the feelings of others and his frozen lack of empathy – the cruelty instilled in him by the "world" – is epitomized in the very first stanza of the first book by his stunningly self-centred thoughts about being with the dying uncle whose estate he is to inherit.

"But God how deadly dull to sample
sickroom attendance night and day
...
and sighing ask oneself all through
"When will the devil come for you?"[1]

However, the "devil comes for Onegin" when he literally kills the innocent and the sincere, shooting Lensky in the duel, and metaphorically kills innocence and sincerity when he rejects Tatyana. She learns her lesson, and armoured against feelings and steeped in convention she crushes his later sincerity and remorse. (This epic reversal of roles, and the work's broad social perspectives, provide ample justification for its subtitle "a novel in verse".)

Tatyana's nightmare illustrates the concealed aggression of the "world". She is chased over a frozen winter landscape by a terrifying bear (representing the ferocity of Onegin's inhuman persona) and confronted by demons and goblins in a hut she hopes will provide shelter. This is contrasted to the open vitality of the "real" people at the country ball, giving dramatic emphasis to the war of warm human feelings with the chilling artificiality of society.

So, Onegin has lost his love, killed his only friend, and found no satisfaction in his life. He is a victim of his own pride and selfishness. He is doomed to loneliness, and this is his tragedy.

The conflict between art and life was no mere fiction in Russia. It is illustrated by Pushkin's own fate, having been killed in a duel. He was driven to death, falling victim to the social conventions of Russian high society.


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