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 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 naïveté. 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 Pushkin's 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 entire 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-centered 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?"
However, the "devil comes for Onegin" when he both literally and figuratively kills innocence and sincerity in shooting Lensky in the duel and rejecting Tatyana. Tatyana learns her lesson: armored 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". In the dream, 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 nightmare is contrasted to the open vitality of the "real" people at the country ball, giving dramatic emphasis to the war of warm human feelings against the chilling artificiality of society.
Thus, 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, but is in fact illustrated by Pushkin's own fate: he too was killed in a duel, falling victim to the social conventions of Russian high society.