If you were given a chance to travel through time, and if you decided upon visiting the countryside Russia of the late 1820s, you might be lucky and, whilst walking through a peaceful forest enjoying the delight which a birdsong can bestow upon one’s ears, you might stumble upon a peculiar young lady who finds tranquillity in the woods and serenity by the lake; a solitary maiden whose friends are books, flowers and birds, and who feels more at home surrounded by tall soulful trees than in the candlelit salons full of people; a lady who is introverted and timid on the outside, but is full of warmth, passions and feelings on the inside; this creature delicate as a fawn is Tatyana Larina – Pushkin’s wonderful literary creation and the love interest of Eugene Onegin, the Byronic Hero of Russian literature.
“Eugene Onegin” is Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse, first published in 1833, although the current version is that of 1837. It is representative of Russian literature of Romanticism and Pushkin spent ten years writing this lyrical masterpiece which has been called by V.G. Belinsky as ‘the encyclopedia of Russian life’, and indeed it covers a broad scale of topics; pointlessness of life, love and passion, death, provincial life, superficiality of the upper classes, rigidity of etiquette, conventions and ennui. The main character is the ‘mad and bad’ or rather cynical and bored Eugene Onegin, a cold and world-weary nobleman who had, at the beginning of the novel, inherited an estate after his uncle’s death and arrives at the countryside. He is bored with his social life in St Petersburg, filled with superficial chatter, games, flirtations, balls and dinner parties; he finds this cycle tedious and repetitive and therefore hopes to find something fresh and interesting in the countryside. Onegin is exactly the kind of person who will shit all over things you love just because he feels no passion for living at all, and mock things you adore because he finds value in nothing.
He is a ‘superfluous man’, which is Pushkin’s literary creation based on the demonic Byronic hero. A Superfluous man is full of contradictions, he feels superior to his surroundings and yet he does nothing to use his potentials and talents but chooses to walk aimlessly through life, prone to self-destruction, haunted by a strong sense of the boredom of life. Lermontov’s character Pechorin in ‘A Hero of Our Time’ is another example of a superflous man and was directly inspired by Pushkin’s Onegin. May I add that in the film Onegin (1999), Onegin is played by the wonderful Ralph Fiennes and I think he played him perfectly, you can feel the cynicism and ennui in his voice. So, if you’re not inclined on reading the novel, you can spare two hours of your life and watch the film which happens to be on Youtube. In the film, Tatyana is played by the gorgeous Liv Tyler.
Second character to be introduced in the novel is Vladimir Lensky; a hopeless romantic and an idealist, a proud and polite young man, carried away by the romantic spirit of the times, but his character, I feel, is adorned with more sentimentality than deep feelings, his poetry and his love for Olga are as shallow as a puddle after rain which dries with the first rays of sun, and he is so naive, but forgive him, he is only 18 years old! This is how the narrator (or Pushkin) describes him:
“Vladimir Lensky, is the man
Handsome, young, a Kantian.
Whose soul was formed in Gottingen,
A friend of truth: a poet then.
From misty Germany he brought
The fruits of learning’s golden tree
His fervant dreams of liberty
Ardent and eccentric thought,
Eloquence to inspire the bolder,
And dark hair hanging to his shoulder.”
And here’s a description of his poetry, I can’t help but being amused by Lensky. You should see him in the film, singing Schubert in the forest, giving his heart and soul to it, although the effect is pathetic and Onegin mocks him later on, saying that ‘Poor Schubert, his body barely in the grave and and his work is being butchered by amateurs’ and stating that Lensky is ‘desecrating Schubert’:
“He sang of love, to love subjected,
Clear and serene his tune…
He sang of parting and of sorrows,
Misty climes, and vague tomorrows,
Of roses in some high romance;
Sang of all the far-off lands
Where on quiet desert strands,
His living tears obscured his glance;
At eighteen years he had the power,
To sing of life’s dry withered flower.”
Mikhail Nesterov, Girls on the Banks of the River
Lensky is madly in love with Olga Larina, a charming and pretty younger sister of Tatyana. She is frivolous and coquettish, blonde and fair, with an ability to charm with her looks and singing, but inside she is empty, her feelings are superficial and calculated; her mad love seems fleeting for after Lensky died in a duel, it did not take her long to forget him and marry another man. She is like a porcelain doll; if you break her, you’ll find nothing inside.
“Always humble, always truthful,
Always smiling as the dawn,
Like the poet’s life as simple,
Sweet as the kiss of love, that’s born
Of sky-blue eyes, a heavenly blue,
Flaxen hair, all gleaming, too,
Voice, manner, slender waist,
Such was Olga…you can paste
Her description here from any
Novel that you choose to read,
A charming portrait, yes, indeed,
One I adored, but now it bores me.
Reader, I’ll enhance the vista,
Let me describe her elder sister.”
“Fired by longing, circumstance,
In solitude her heart was burning,
Crushed by adolescent gloom,
Her soul was waiting…but for whom?“
And now let’s finally talk about the elder sister, my dearest and sweetest Tatyana Larina, a character for whom I felt affection immediately, and re-read parts about her many times, and found I can relate. Wistful, melancholic and dreamy, forever lost in her thoughts, you will find her wandering the forest, picking flowers, or sitting by the window daydreaming while others are chatting and laughing, and a book is always in her hands. This is how Pushkin describes his heroine:
“So, she is called Tatyana.
Not a beauty like her sister,
Lacking rosy cheeks, the manner,
To attract a passing lover.
Melancholy, wild, retiring,
Like a doe seen in a clearing,
Fleeing at the sign of danger,
To her family a stranger.
She never took to caressing
Her father, mother, not her way
To delight in childish play,
With the others, sweetly dancing.
But often to the window glued
She’d sit all day in solitude.”
Tatyana was withdrawn and shy even as a child. When her sister Olga and other children played tag or sang, she would wander the meadows on her own, preferring the company of her thought to the loudness of the crowd. Unlike other girls, she had interest in dolls. Taking care of dolls was meant to prepare girls for their future roles of mothers, but Tatyana was a stranger to all childhood’s silliness and playfulness, and daydreams seem to fill her days from very early on:
“Her dearest friend was reverie,
From the cradle, the slow stream
Of placid dull rusticity
Enriched by meditative dream.
Her tender fingers never held
A needle, never once excelled,
Her head above the silk inclined,
In working something she’d designed.”
“Now with greater concentration,
She reads the sweet romances,
Finds a deeper fascination,
In those soft seductive glances!…”
Instead, books and nature were her friends. I’ve known it from experience that a book can be a source of delight and inspiration more than a human being can, and a sight of flowers or a tree can fill one’s soul with more kindness than a common person can. And daydreams, I assure you, can fill you with as much feelings as real events can, but they never leave the bitter taste in your mind like cruel reality does. Tatyana knows that too! And literature, novels about romances in particular (just like those read by Emma Bovary) proved an amusement and a diversion for her already vivid imagination:
“From the first she craved romances,
Her great delight, she loved them so,
Whatever chapter most entrances,
In Richardson or in Rousseau.”
Naturally, soaked in those novels for days, Tatyana begins to see herself as a heroine and lives through the books for a person who reads lives not one but many lives. And when she closes the book, a reality check; a quiet birdsong, a soft breeze through the birch trees, smell of grass, distant murmur of a river, yes, she is still in the countryside, not in a Medieval castle in Switzerland or a beautiful mansion in England:
“And sees herself the heroine
Of all the authors she admires,
Clarissa, Julie, or Delphine;
Wanders among forest choirs
With some dangerous volume roams,
Through its pages swiftly combs,
To find her passion, and her dream,
Her overflowing heart, love’s gleam.
She sighs and in herself possesses
Another’s joy, another’s sorrow…”
Source: here. Could this be the way Onegin’s mansion looked from afar, in a frozen Russian fairytale landscape?
Pushkin even writes about the types of heroes Tatyana daydreams about. Never ever, underestimate the power a book can have a on a person who is lonely or has a wild imagination:
“All the British Muse’s lumber
Now disturbs a young girl’s slumber,
Her idol, someone to admire,
Is the blood-sucking Vampire,
Melmoth, Maturin’s traveller,
The Corsair or the Wandering Jew,
Nodier’s Jean Sbogar too.
Lord Byron with a shrewd despair,
Displays a hopeless egotism
As saturnine romanticism.”
Isaac Levitan, Autumn Landscape, 1880
Pushkin tells us that Tatyana finds refuge in long walks, seeking comfort in nature which soothes the torment of love:
“Haunted by love’s pain, Tatyana,
Takes to the garden, walking
Eyes downcast, till her languor,
Prevents her from even moving.
Her breast heaves, her cheeks aflame,
Burning suddenly with shame,
The breath on her lips is glazed,
A roaring in her ears, eyes dazed…
Night falls, and the moon patrols
The vault of heaven. Near her room,
A nightingale, from woodland gloom
Its rich sonorous cadence rolls.
Tatyana, in the darkness lying,
To her nurse is softly sighing.”
“‘I am in love’ Tatyana sighs,
In a soft whisper, gives a moan.
‘Dear, you can’t be well,’ replies,
The nurse. ‘It’s love. Leave me alone.’
Meanwhile, the sad moon dreams,
On the girl’s pale beauty gleams,
Shines above, its tranquil light….
And all the world lies still, below,
Bathed in the moon’s enchanted glow.“
Speaking to no one, confiding in no one, only the moon and the nurse know her secrets. But Tatyana decides to act upon her dreams and confess her love in a letter. This is how it starts, the famous “Tatyana’s letter”:
“I write to you – is more required?
How can I possibly explain?
It’s in your power, if desired,
To crush me with a cold disdain.
But if this longing you’ve inspired
Awakes the slightest sympathy,
I know you won’t abandon me…”
Although she had barely talked to him, and he showed no particular interest or affection towards her, Tatyana found herself over night besotted by this strange, brooding aristocrat with a flair of St Petersburg around him. In his figure and the few words they’re exchanged, she saw all the heroes that she’d spent her short life fantasising about; “Werther – born to be a martyr”, Grandinson, Cottin’s Malek-Adhel, de Krudener’s de Linar, and the lover too of Rousseau’s Julie Womar:
“A single image as it were:
The foolish dreamer sees them whole
In Onegin’s form, and soul.”
It’s easy to understand why she felt about Onegin the way she did, if you think of her lonely and boring existence in the countryside, with a mother and a sister who neither understand her nor try to do so because they are of entirely different natures. Vain, selfish and coquettish Olga can never dream of experiencing the depth of Tatyana’s feelings, and likewise Tatyana can never even dream of indulging in light amusements and flirtations which seem to fill Olga’s days. Pushkin warns us that, while Olga’s love is more a fleeting coquetry, Tatyana loves with all seriousness:
“Tatyana is no cool coquette,
She loves in all seriousness,
Yields to it like a child, as yet
Full of innocence and sweetness.”
Up to meeting Onegin, Tatyana has spent her life wandering around, reading about romances and exciting adventures, yet never experiencing anything of the sort, and now, all of a sudden, a stranger comes to their lonely countryside and stirs her soul. She thinks of him day and night, and finds no rest until, in the letter, she writes everything that lies on her soul. All that her shyness has prevented her mouth from saying, the hand dared to write, scrawling with black ink on paper, under moonlight, offering her life to a man she barely knows, and seals it with wax before sending it.
But her passionate outburst of feelings was welcomed with coldness from the other side. When they meet at the party, she anxiously awaits him in the garden, and he – oh, that dreadful Onegin! – he disdainfully returns the letter to her, advising her to restrain her feelings in the future, to shun her affections and act with reserve and coldness because another man, one not as ‘kind-hearted’ as he was, would surely take advantage of her naivety and innocence. Onegin mercilessly ‘with a cold disdain’ crushed the feelings of this delicate wild flower. When I was reading this, I thought: What a brave thing to do, what a straightforward gesture, especially for a woman of her time, and what a hard thing it must be to write someone a love letter, but after reading about Onegin’s cruel respond, I’ve learnt that it is unwise, and maybe reason should, in this case, prevail over sensibility. Jane Austen seemed to think that too because her heroine Marianne Dashwood was in a way punished for her sensibility.
Why Tatyana fell in love with Onegin is a mystery to me, I find him fascinating as a literary character but he is nowhere near the romantic heroes she’s read about. I suppose she must have felt that underneath that cold, cynical exterior there must lie a heart full of feelings and that she might awaken them, but she was wrong because Onegin is selfish to the core and is not even capable of love. Her daydreams and inexperience seem to have made her a poor judge of character. This is how Onegin felt upon receiving the letter:
“Yet now, receiving Tanya’s note,
Onegin’s heart was deeply moved;
The tender style in which she wrote,
The simple girlish way she loved.
Her face possessed his memory,
Her pallor, and her melancholy,
He plunged, head first, into the stream,
A harmless, and delightful dream.
Perhaps the ancient flame of passion,
Thrilled him in its former way,
Though he’d no wish to betray
A soul so trusting, in that fashion...”
This is part of what Onegin tells Tatyana as reasons why they could never be happy together:
“‘I was not born for happiness,
All such is alien to my mind;
Of your perfection too, no less
Am I unworthy, you would find.
Believe me (conscience is my guide)
Wed, the fire would soon have died;
However I wished to prove true,
Habit would cool my love for you.
Then you would weep, yet your tears,
Your grief, would never move my heart,
But madden me, spur me to depart.
What thorns, not roses, through the years
Would Hymen strew along our way,
Many a night, and many a day?”
Onegin was actually very kind towards her, because I don’t think she could truly be happy with a man like that.
Pushkin takes a moment to ponder on who is to be blamed for this unfortunate misunderstanding:
“Why then consider Tanya guilty?
Because her simplicity, it seems,
Is ignorant of deceit, and still she
Believes completely in her dreams?
Or because her love lacks art,
Follows the promptings of her heart?
Because she’s trusting, and honest
And by Heaven has been blessed,
With profound imagination,
A fiery will, a lively mind,
A soul for passion’s fires designed,
A spirit tuned to all creation?
Surely, then, you can forgive,
A fierce desire to love and live?”
Clock is ticking; cold, bitter and lonely Russian winters are passing, and Tatyana is on her way to become an old maid. She still has feelings for Onegin, maybe secretly hopes that he might change his mind and come back to her, but Onegin isn’t coming back and the pressure of her mother is becoming too much:
“Tatyana’s bloom is all but gone,
She, more pallid, and more silent!
Nothing can provide distraction,
Or stir her soul, no incitement.
Whispering solemnly together,
Neighbours shook their heads, forever
Sighing: ‘It’s high time she was wed!’…
Enough. It’s high time that instead,
I painted over this sad scene,
And portrayed love’s happiness,
Though, dear Reader, I confess
I’m overcome, by pity I mean;
Forgive me: I’ve loved from the start
My Tatyana, with all my heart.”
And so Tatyana was married to another man, a general. She doesn’t love him but tolerates him. Years pass, Pushkin brings the reader on a journey from the countryside to the glamour of St Petersburg. We are at a ball; musicians are playing a charming tune, candles are flickering, couples are dancing… Onegin is there too; equally bored and cynical as he was years ago, but something or someone captures his attention; a beautiful woman, in the film shown wearing a gorgeous red gown. The woman carries an air of dignity and seriousness around her – it is Tatyana, now grown into a wise, mature, confident woman, who stands gracefully by her husband’s side. Onegin is mad with passion, he writes her letters full of declarations of his love and adorations, but she doesn’t respond: she is a married woman after all, and a faithful one too. He takes a certain perverse delight in reawakening the strong feelings that she had, not with ease, managed to tame and lull to sleep. When he happens to steal a moment of privacy with her, he proposes that they elope together and fulfil their love, but now she is the winner in this chess game of love, she tells him it is too late for their love, that he had his chance and now she will remain faithful to her husband. It is a poignant scene in the film, as she tells him through tears that she waited for him but he is too late. Onegin just doesn’t get it because nothing matters to him; he wants her because he can’t have her.
In the end, Tatyana is left as a lonely, unhappy woman in a sad, but tolerable marriage, and Onegin, having killed Lensky in a duel early on, and crushing Tatyana’s affections years ago, is left completely alone, and that is his ultimate punishment. The acts of killing Lensky, that innocent, dreamy idealist, and rejecting Tatyana’s love, Onegin symbolically ‘kills’ the innocence that crossed his life path. And Tatyana is suppose to represent the wideness of the Russian soul and was seen as a symbol of an ideal woman. She also embodies Gogol’s concept of a ‘Slavic soul’: a melancholic soul of a dreamer and thinker, a mysterious and sad soul. A sense of darkness, sadness and tragedy hovers over most of Slavic literature like a rainy cloud. It is immensely interesting to me that in both novels; Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermontov’s The Hero of Our Time a duel takes place and the superfluous man wins while the romantic idealist dies, but in reality both Pushkin and Lermontov died in duels. Wicked destiny!
I first read Eugene Onegin exactly three Aprils ago, but I remember it vividly as if it was yesterday; those three or four magical nights when I flipped through the pages, relishing in the lyricism and musicality of the verses, loving the character of Tatyana and being highly amused by Onegin’s cynicism and his conduct with Lensky. In my little room, under the warm, yellow light of the lamp, in the flowery and exuberant nights of spring, a whole new world and sensibility came to life. Although I’ve enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half, because the story gets really sad and full of hopelessness after Onegin rejects her, I must say that it still remains one of my favourite books.