Article by Jimmy Chen

Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin is often regarded by Russians as the greatest work of literature in the Russian language. For the English-speaking world, Pushkin's Onegin is relatively unknown, obscured by the voluminous tomes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Western audiences are usually introduced to the work via Tchaikovsky's operatic adaptation from 1878.

The reasons for Onegin's relative obscurity are easy to imagine. Pushkin described Onegin as a novel in verse: the majority of the work is composed of 14-line stanzas in iambic tetrameter, sometimes known as 'Pushkin sonnets.' This structure is part of the work's appeal in Russian: Pushkin masterfully combines the tragic plot with fleeting verse and light-hearted digressions. For this reason, it is difficult for an English translation to do justice to Pushkin's mastery of the Russian language, and the work loses some of its allure.

This is not to say it is impossible for the English-reading audience to enjoy reading Onegin, especially when armed with a good translation. (My recommendation is James E. Falen's translation published by the Oxford University Press.) At this moment, for the sake of readers who have not read Pushkin's masterpiece, it might be worth summarising the key points of the plot. Those who are familiar with Onegin will have to bear with me:

Eugene Onegin, a Petersburg dandy is seen hurrying to the estate of his dead uncle. Tired of life in the city, Onegin tries his hand at being a country gentleman but soon becomes bored. He befriends the poet Lensky, who is engaged with Olga Larina, from a neighbouring estate. In a fit of boredom, Onegin offers to accompany Lensky to the Larin household, where he meets Olga's older sister Tatiana. Tatiana falls in love with Onegin and declares her affections in a letter, but is coldly rejected. Onegin reluctantly accompanies Lensky to Tatiana's name day, but is soon bored. Hoping to get his own back with Lensky, Onegin casually flirts with Olga. The two friends quarrel and Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel, during which the former is killed instantly. Onegin is forced to leave, but Tatiana remains in love with him and refuses to marry anyone. Her stubbornness is eventually broken and she goes to Moscow, where she catches the eye of an old general. Onegin suddenly appears in Petersburg and sees Tatiana as a princess, one of society's grande dames. He realises that he is in love with her but his appeals are to no avail. Her fate is already decided and she refuses to leave her husband.  

Anyone who has experienced the heartbreak of unrequited love will be able to sympathise with the protagonists as they attempt to make sense of their emotions. But while the key elements of Onegin and Tatiana's relationship can be found in many romantic novels, the ending contains a Russian twist. A French or Italian Onegin would have most likely taken a bullet to the head. Instead Pushkin leaves his protagonists midstream, spending the rest of their lives wondering what might have been. Счастье было так возможно, Так Близко!

Yet more than the plot itself, it is the restlessness of Onegin which encourages the reader to turn the page. Over the course of the novel, Onegin embarks on an odyssey across Russia. Yet unlike Odysseus and his Ithaca, Onegin's final destination is unknown. The so-called лишний человек popularised by Pushkin has since become a key part of Russian literature. In his quest to find his place in Russia (both in a literal and figurative sense), Onegin travels from Petersburg to his late uncle's estate, before travelling all over Russia and ending up back where he started. He has finally found a sense of purpose in his life, but it has taken him too long to discover it.

The search for identity takes place on more than one level. Pushkin himself is also embarking on a journey of self-discovery. In casual observations Pushkin expresses his ennui about the world around him: Привычка с выше нам дана, замена счастию она or Так люди...От делать ничего друзья.   Pushkin started writing Onegin in 1823 and the final chapter was not published until 1832. At the beginning of the period Onegin was exiled in distant Odessa, reflecting on his life in Petersburg with a sense of nostalgia, но вреден север для меня. He dreamt of going abroad and visiting the shores of his 'native' Africa. Yet by the time he finished his magnum opus, Pushkin was back in St Petersburg, a married man who was seeking a stable career. At the beginning of the eighth chapter Pushkin looks back to his past, accompanied by his Muse from Tsarskoe Selo to the wild steppes of Moldavia, before finding himself back in his native Petersburg.

In a larger sense, over the course of Onegin, Pushkin channels his own thoughts about Russia's identity. Straddling the border between Europe and Asia, it has never been easy to describe Russia as either European or Asian. On the one hand, Pushkin regrets the western influences on Russia. He regards society in Petersburg (a city built to imitate European fashions) as corrupted by vanity and idle gossip. He regrets the Frenchification of the Russian language, but at the same time is forced to admit he has no choice but to use some loan words. Pushkin holds up a mirror to Petersburg society, which is forced to laugh at its reflection. Pushkin's defence of Russian culture is coupled with his dissatisfaction with the political situation in Russia. Pushkin's hope for personal and political freedom in the initial chapters of Onegin transforms into a reluctant acceptance of the status quo by the end. Pushkin is aware of the consequences of the failed Decembrist Uprising, both for himself and Russia as a whole. The fate of Tatiana symbolises the fate of Russia. Rejected by Onegin the Petersburg dandy, she eventually casts her lot in with an elderly general. Following the suppression of the Decembrist rebellion, Tsar Nicholas I turns his back on western influences and establishes a militarised state.

The multiple of layers of meaning found in Eugene Onegin is a large part of the novel's appeal, especially for Russians, who are likely to have a greater understanding of both Russia's turbulent history and Pushkin's equally turbulent life. Tchaikovsky's opera, although a musical masterpiece in its own right, reduces Pushkin's three-dimensional text into a one-dimensional romantic tragedy. This was part of the reason why the initial reception to the opera inside Russia was so critical. For anyone who is only familiar with the opera, I can only recommend picking up a copy of the book. A mail-coach is waiting for you on the banks of the Neva. Pushkin is sitting in the driver's box, waiting for you to jump in. He has many stories to tell you. Listen carefully. If you are lucky, you might even discover something about yourself.