The novel opens with a complaint from Eugene Onegin, the titular character himself, against the boredom of caring for his dying uncle. Pushkin goes on to introduce "the hero of my current tale" as a young aristocratic man skilled in learning and, more importantly, dexterous in charm (I.2). An eloquent conversationalist with a forte for analyzing and interpreting others, Onegin effortlessly succeeds in wooing ladies in the high-class world of St. Petersburg.
Pushkin challenges the reader to keep up with Onegin's furious pace as he dashes through the night on a sleigh to a sumptuous dinner and then just as quickly off to the sparkling world of the ballet. The dancers and their art Pushkin describes with great admiration, but almost at first glance Onegin yawns, dismisses it all as boring, and thence leaves for home.
There Onegin rests a moment and scrupulously prepares his toilette before rushing on a carriage to a ball, where the Petersburg elite dance to a mazurka. Pushkin then digresses from Onegin's story to express his own ambivalence towards the youthful exuberance of balls and launches into an impassioned encomium to the beautiful feet of a girl he loved.
When we return to Onegin, we find him making his sleepy way back to his house as the morning dawns and the city awakens. There he will sleep until the afternoon, and when he rises it will be to a day already fully planned out with same revels as the night before. Onegin, trapped in a thoughtlessly repetitive decadent lifestyle, gradually becomes unbearably wearied of it.
Having lost his interest in his former life, Onegin quits the company of both the idly garrulous upper-class ladies and the senselessly sensuous lower-class prostitutes. He turns to books for a sense of purpose, but in vain, for he finds nothing intelligent, well-written, or exciting.
At this time Pushkin meets Onegin and, in a similarly world-weary disposition himself, becomes fast friends with his own protagonist. The two find further common ground in the soulful sensitivity they share, which keeps them ever painfully conscious of their respective dissipated pasts.
As author and character drink together in silent melancholy by the Neva River, Pushkin yearns to journey to the warm and lively Mediterranean. However, his plans to travel with Onegin are interrupted by the consecutive deaths of Onegin's father and uncle, which provide Onegin with a sizable inheritance and his uncle's provincial manor.
Onegin hopes to find solace in his new position as a master in the countryside, but he quickly becomes as bored of the rural as the urban. Pushkin leaves Onegin at this point to speak of his, Pushkin's, own love of nature and poetic mission, both of which he hopes will make clear the distinction between him and Onegin. He closes the chapter with enthusiasm for his new poem and proud indifference to expected censors and critics.
The main epigraph to the novel, "from a private letter" written in French supposedly by Pushkin, lists the key traits of a certain unnamed man: "vanity," "indifference," and "a sense of superiority, perhaps imaginary"(229). As soon as he is introduced, Eugene Onegin, the titular "hero," as Pushkin calls him, of the novel, will fit this description closely, raising the question of whether Pushkin had written it specifically for Onegin or used an actual private letter to describe his character. Regardless of the exact nature of the epigraph, it immediately establishes the connection between literature and life which will remain intensely important through the whole novel. For one, Pushkin himself takes on both the role of narrator (above the story) and character, as Onegin's friend (within the story).
Pushkin's dedication, originally written to his friend and first publisher of Eugene Onegin, P. A. Pletnyov, was later changed so that there is no specified dedicatee; and thus it seems to address the reader of the novel. Just as the epigraph presages Onegin, so does the dedication present the ambivalent nature of the novel. A "novel-in-verse," it represents a transition or turning point in many aspects - Pushkin's change from idealistic youth to mature adult, poetry to prose, the heart to the mind - all of which are intimately connected.
The very first stanza establishes one of the most important themes in Onegin's life: "boredom" (I.1). Onegin himself speaks directly to the readers complaining of having to take care of his sick uncle. However, at that moment Onegin is actually riding through St. Petersburg at a maddening pace which he will continue to hold through the rest of the night in the first chapter; hence the epigraph to the chapter, "To live he hurries and to feel makes haste."
As Onegin dashes from parties in restaurants to a ballet to his toilette at home to a ball, we the readers learn that it is not so much for the enjoyment of all those activities in themselves but rather the sheer dizzying experience of constant acceleration that he seeks. The clever man and master of charm that he is, Onegin has the ability to manipulate the hearts of other similarly artificial people of high society; moreover, due to his exceptional intelligence, he stands above them all but is also alienated.
Though he ceaselessly pursues a decadent, merrymaking lifestyle, at nearly all turns Onegin makes his characteristic yawn and departs in boredom. At the ballet he speaks a second time to complain, "It's time for something new… /I've suffered ballets long enough, /But now Diderot is boring stuff" (I.21). Moreover, as Pushkin mentions, Onegin is in "the very springtime of his days," but "Yes, soon he lost all warmth of feeling/ the social buzz became a bore" (I.36, 37).
Pushkin goes on to define this change in Onegin in two powerful lines: "The spleen is what the English call it, / We call it simply the Russian soul" (I.38). Here, as in many other places in the first chapter such as Onegin's toilette, Pushkin deals with the contemporary problem of Western influence in Russia. Since Peter the Great began the process of Europeanization in the late seventeenth and early eighteen centuries, the Russian aristocratic class has become increasingly European, especially French and German, and less so Russian.
The "social buzz" which Onegin detests is a product of this imported culture, and in the above quotation Pushkin considers it to be antithetical to a true "Russian soul." As such, he would expect young men like Onegin to become dissatisfied and take on the kind of melancholic, tormented personality most famously associated with the writings and life of Lord Byron, an Englishman. Tatyana will later discover a portrait of Byron in Onegin's study and, trying to solve the riddle of his person, will realize that he is very much an empty character, a derivative of the English books he has read. In the same stanza Pushkin already compares Onegin to Byron's character Harold from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, an archetype of the world-weary Byronic hero.
In this moment of displeasure with his past life and lack of direction for the present, Onegin meets Pushkin, who has similarly departed from a reveling past. The two drink together, the author and his protagonist in close camaraderie, but inevitably they are separated, Onegin to his uncle's estate and Pushkin back to his place floating above the story as a narrator. Although Pushkin still makes his appearances in the story, it is not until the final chapter that he once again interacts with the characters, meeting Onegin once more at a ball once he has returned from his journey. It will be useful to note the parallel between the journeys that Onegin had planned to take with Pushkin and the journeys he eventually took on his own, both of which were meant to escape a haunting past for a new environment.
Despite the connection that Pushkin draws between Onegin and himself - Onegin and Lensky, introduced in the following chapter, form two halves of Pushkin's personality - he is sure to make the distinction of poetic sensibility: even though Onegin is highly literate, he never takes to writing verse. Moreover, Onegin does not love the bucolic countryside as Pushkin did during his own exile there. In drawing a line between himself and his protagonist, Pushkin writes against the Romanticist tradition of Byron, whose characters are intensely autobiographical.