Alexander Pushkin

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Alexander Pushkin World Literature Analysis

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The essential characteristics of Pushkin’s style are clearly marked and remain constant throughout much of the poet’s literary career and through all the various genres in which his work appeared. Pushkin’s language conformed to that of the educated classes and to the standards of elegance that the eighteenth century had sanctified. Although he made innovations and greatly enriched the language of poetry, he remains a classical poet in his balance, restraint, and harmony. Associated with his predilection for cool simplicity and elegance is a wonderfully light touch and a delicate wit. Pushkin possessed the ability to make the most complex matters appear easy and even amusing.

Pushkin shows great powers of insight and observation in his verse. According to him, it was not literature’s function to serve a moral or didactic purpose. His aesthetic sensibility remained far stronger than any moral impulse in his works. It is this characteristic that differentiates him from many other Russian writers of the nineteenth century.

Yet most Russians regard Pushkin as their national poet. That might come as a surprise to Western readers, who are probably more familiar with the works of Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoevski than with any of Pushkin’s work. Pushkin assimilated previous literary traditions and added to them touches of his own genius. He forged much of Russian literary language and set an aesthetic standard. It is generally maintained that Pushkin heard the Russian language and saw Russian life with unprecedented clarity.

Pushkin’s early poetry displays the influence of French classical poets and Russian poets of the eighteenth century. These poets taught him neatness, clarity, and restraint, which remained dominant in his writing throughout his career. Pushkin’s fundamental classicism had deep roots in his own genius—namely, in the precision of his language, his artistic concentration, his sense of balance and harmony. He had a strongly developed literary taste and with it, the ability to assimilate and transform many various literary styles.

During the years 1820 to 1823, Pushkin came under the influence of Byron. From Byron, he borrowed the loose narrative form, aspects of the disillusioned hero, and a sweeping lyrical tone. Pushkin’s “Byronic” poems are notable for their mellifluous language and euphonic effects. Pushkin abandoned this manner for a style with a subtler correspondence between rhythm and intonation. Much of his greatest lyric poetry, composed between 1823 to 1830, is in this later manner. The lyrics written during these years are marked by the poet’s increasing awareness of his isolation in society, a profound disquiet at life’s aimlessness, and a preoccupation with the passage of time.

Though Pushkin applied himself increasingly to prose in the last years of his life, his poetic output at this time shows the same mastery. His style became more austere and increased in aphoristic concision. At the same time, his works acquired a tragic dimension from his heightened awareness of humanity’s defenselessness before the powers of time and fate. Pushkin’s works exhibit, in these later years, a growing concern with paradoxical human situations. This concern is expressed powerfully in The Bronze Horseman, which shows the unresolved conflict between the ruthless workings of power and the individual’s claim to happiness.

Pushkin’s prose pieces exerted a strong influence on the development of fiction in Russian in the nineteenth century. For Pushkin, it was essential that Russian prose be simple and to the point and that the language should be rid of all poetic effusiveness. He wrote mostly short stories characterized by their concision and sparing detail. He also experimented with the form of the historical novel in The Captain’s Daughter , a story that grew...

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out of his historical research on the Pugachov Revolt of 1773-1774, a popular uprising that occurred during the reign of Catherine the Great.

During his relatively brief writing career, Pushkin explored many different kinds of writing. He has often been described as a writer of protean genius. His works exhibit a variety of tones from cynical to passionate, meditative to vehement, frivolous to solemn. While his work may lack the central vision that characterizes the work of some other writers, there are important recurrent themes. Pushkin’s poetry expresses a zest for life, an appreciation of wit, and an intense feeling for beauty, poignantly contrasted with the irretrievable passage of time and the vulnerability of human life.

Eugene Onegin

First published: Evgeny Onegin, 1825-1832, 1833 (English translation, 1881)

Type of work: Novel

A young, provincial girl’s love for a disillusioned playboy is rejected, but years later the tables are turned.

Eugene Onegin is considered Pushkin’s most outstanding and characteristic work. It has been called the first Russian novel because of its firm grasp of character and its realistic presentation of scenes of Russian life. Pushkin combines the virtues of slow development of character and situation of the novel with the quick epigrammatic wit of the discursive poem. He combines the pathos of a psychologically plausible affair of the heart with the charm of genre painting. The work reflects the author’s own gradual growth as a writer, since it was written and revised over a period of nearly ten years.

The novel is written in fourteen-line stanzas, known simply as the Onegin stanza, since there have been no other attempts to create a work using this verse form. The stanza implements an intricate rhyme scheme, which ends in a couplet. The couplet rounds off the stanza and invites an epigrammatic or aphoristic conclusion. The typical stanza contains a proposition, an exposition elaborating it, and a summation with a final flash of wit.

The plot of the novel is very simple, and its loose form allows for a wealth of description and poetic excursus. Only approximately one-third of the novel is concerned with the plot. The rest consists of descriptive passages and the narrator’s digressions on the theater, literary or social polemics, amorous recollections, or soliloquies on literary art.

The events of the novel are set in the early 1820’s, and the settings are St. Petersburg and the Russian countryside. After an abrupt description of the hero traveling to visit his moribund country uncle, the plot moves to a flashback describing the education of the young St. Petersburg playboy, his introduction to St. Petersburg society, and his gradual withdrawal from society life to the country estate that he has inherited. There he is drawn into the family circle of a typical squire of the period. The shy, bookish, elder daughter, Tatyana, falls in love with him and writes an ingenuous declaration of her feelings. She is overcome and confused by emotions that she has never before experienced outside novels and throws herself upon his mercy. Onegin is touched but ultimately rejects her, lecturing her and sighing that his days of love are over.

Meanwhile, Lensky, an idealistic poet and Onegin’s friend, has won the affections of Tatyana’s sister, Olga. After a party, during the course of which Onegin flirts with Olga to tease Lensky, the latter challenges Onegin to a duel. Onegin, a seasoned duelist, accepts out of pride and kills Lensky in the duel. Onegin leaves the countryside in a state of even greater disillusionment than at his arrival, although Olga quickly recovers and marries a young cavalry officer.

The plot now turns to Tatyana, who visits Onegin’s abandoned manor and examines his library. Her family decides to take her to Moscow and there convinces her to marry a middle-aged dignitary. Years later, Onegin returns to St. Petersburg and recognizes Tatyana, now a regally poised society beauty, at a ball. He writes a declaration of his devotion to her and implores her to renounce her marriage in favor of him. She candidly admits that she still loves him but will be faithful to her husband.

The plot is artfully woven with descriptive passages and the narrator’s digressions. Onegin and Tatyana are the only extensively drawn characters. Lensky and Olga, the supporting couple, are kept deliberately sketchy as foils to the others. Pushkin treats his semiautobiographical hero with ironic detachment. He comes to the conclusion that Onegin is a product of his age to some degree. The most helpful clues to his character are those that Tatyana discovers on reading his books. Pushkin sketches an inventory of the literary ancestors of the “superfluous man,” a man disgusted by, and, at the same time, bored with, society. Tatyana, too, is characterized by the sentimental novels that she has read, as well as by her faith in folktale superstitions.

The author’s role in the work consists of three parts: that of the narrator, of an acquaintance of the hero, and of a character in the poem. This division creates a variety of levels to the narrative similar to that of Pushkin’s first long poem, Ruslan and Liudmila. This structure results in a lighthearted interplay of plot, description, digression, and confession. Discourse on poetic technique and literary polemics is often cast in the form of conversation with the reader.

Eugene Onegin has had an inestimable formative influence on the development of the novel in Russia. The contrast between a disillusioned but gifted man and an earnest, sweet girl has become an established tradition in Russian literature. Since his novel in verse was written over the span of much of Pushkin’s writing career, it engages many of the themes and images characteristic of his verse, as well as tracing his development as a writer.

The Bronze Horseman

First published: Medniy vsadnik, 1837 (English translation, 1899)

Type of work: Poem

In this complex narrative poem, the creation and destiny of Russia are contrasted with the destiny of one individual.

The Bronze Horseman is regarded as one of Pushkin’s masterpieces. Pushkin created the poem out of a complex web of personal, literary, and political themes, so that it is not surprising that interpretations of the poem have differed widely.

The poem consists of an introductory section and two parts. The title is taken from the statue of Peter the Great that stands in St. Petersburg on the banks of the Neva. Pushkin based the poem on a historical incident, namely the devastating flood that hit St. Petersburg in 1824. The introduction, however, begins many years before the flood. Peter the Great is depicted as standing on the site that was to become St. Petersburg, looking out over the desolate waters of the Baltic. He sees only swampy marshlands and dark woods but fatefully declares the founding of a great city that will “open a window onto Europe.” One hundred years have passed since Peter’s vision, and there is a prosperous city in place of the marshland. The thoughts and impressions of the narrator become enmeshed with the description of the city. He speaks of his love for the austere harmony of the city, praising Peter’s creation.

In part 1 of the poem, there is an abrupt change in tone. It is a cold, windy day in St. Petersburg as a young man named Eugene makes his way home. Once safely home, he tries to go to sleep but is kept awake by his own worries. He wants to gain his share of financial independence, even though he will have to work hard to do so. He is also kept awake by thoughts of the rising river. If the bridges are flooded, he will be separated from his betrothed, who lives on one of the islands in the Neva.

The next morning the city is flooded. Pushkin’s description of the flood is one of the most famous passages of Russian literature. The scene is one of chaos and destruction, such that even the czar is powerless. Eugene sits astride a marble lion near the statue of Peter the Great to escape the rising water. As he worries about his beloved, Parasha, he is contrasted with the statue. The Bronze Horseman, namely Peter the Great, is oblivious to the destruction.

The floodwaters subside at the opening of part 2, revealing the death and destruction caused by the storm. Eugene hires a boatman to take him to Parasha’s house. Nothing remains where her home once stood, and Eugene begins to show signs of madness. Life quickly returns to normal in the city, except for Eugene. He wanders the streets aimlessly, until one day when he comes upon the statue of the Bronze Horseman. His mind grows clear, and he recognizes the man who founded the city. He confronts the statue of the czar and threatens him. In response, the face of the statue changes expression to one of intense anger. Eugene flees and hears the gallop of the Bronze Horseman after him. The poem concludes with the depiction of a small island, where a dilapidated house was washed ashore by the flood. Eugene was found lying dead on the threshold.

Pushkin’s style in the poem varies according to different moods, situations, and personalities. The majestic sonority of the lines about Peter the Great is contrasted with the abrupt, jerky rhythms of the lines about Eugene. The poem also contains a wealth of images intensifying the sensation of constant movement and restlessness, which pervades much of the poem, and personifying the river and the city itself.

The destiny of Russia is contrasted with the destiny of one man. There is, on one hand, the affirmation of Peter’s achievements and the promise of fulfillment of Russia’s destiny as a great power. Yet, on the other hand, these accomplishments are questioned by the destiny of one poor, insignificant man. The city was founded in defiance of nature by building it upon hostile marshland. It is only through the iron will of the czar, who acts as the embodiment of Russia’s destiny, that St. Petersburg was built and had prospered. It is also through the sacrifice of the individual that the city endures. It becomes apparent that one important theme in the poem is in challenging the notion that the individual must be sacrificed for historical necessity.

Eugene is the prototype of a series of characters in Russian literature who were rendered mad by the oppressive atmosphere of this unnatural city. Eugene is the victim of Peter’s city, of an indifferent metropolis. Pushkin’s acute powers of social observation, combined with his personal feelings about the callousness of the city, rendered a portrait of St. Petersburg that has become emblematic in Russian literature.

The Queen of Spades

First published: Pikovaya dama, 1834 (English translation, 1858)

Type of work: Short story

A cautious man orchestrates a deception to obtain a gambler’s secret of a sure bet but is himself deceived in the end.

The Queen of Spades stands at the peak of Pushkin’s achievement in prose writing. The story was popular with the general reading public at the time, particularly for its striking plot. The story opens with a number of young officers conversing after a card game. One of them, Narumov, wonders why his grandmother, who possesses the secret of winning at the game of faro, never plays. It is revealed that she was once an avid gambler and was given the secret of the game on the promise of using it only once to save her from poverty.

Hermann, a German engineering officer who usually never gambles, becomes obsessed with discovering the secret from the countess. He begins a correspondence with the countess’s young companion, Lizaveta, who hopes that Hermann will deliver her from her poor position. They arrange to meet, but once inside the house, he confronts the old countess. When she refuses to reveal the secret, he pulls out a gun, and she dies of fright. During the countess’s funeral, it seems as if the corpse winks at Hermann, and that night her ghost visits him and gives him the secret of winning. Hermann places the bets over three consecutive days. On the third day, he loses on the last card, the queen of spades. Having lost all of his money, he goes mad.

The story is a society tale, and part of its appeal, particularly at that time, was its depiction of the cold glamour that characterized fashionable society. Pushkin achieved the ultimate concision of detail, using adjectives and other sorts of description sparingly. Most of these details are doubled. If a theme or image is mentioned once, it is repeated later in the story. One example of this doubling are the roses that adorn the countess’s hair, which echoes an earlier image of the roses in her hair in the portrait.

It is often assumed that the plot of the story is based on fantastic events, but, on closer examination, these supernatural occurrences are based on Hermann’s developing monomania. Pushkin notes that “it seemed to Hermann” that the corpse of the countess winked. The queen that appears in the cards at the end is easily explained by the rules of the card game. The countess’s posthumous visit to Hermann’s room is actually a dream.

Pushkin’s characterization of Hermann is one of his most successful to this point in his career. He is one of the first characters in Russian literature who seems three dimensional. One of the salient features of his character is his dualism. His German side is cautious, calculating, and thrifty—yet another side to his character is developed as the plot progresses. It is revealed that he is also proud and superstitious. Psychological states are suggested by a compact description of physical reactions.

Card games have been seen traditionally as metaphors for life, where fate decides the outcome. In Pushkin’s story, the symbolic and realistic levels are intertwined, so that, in the end, Hermann loses at cards and at life. According to fortune-telling books at the time, the queen of spades signified an old, evil woman. The countess and Hermann, then, are joined by means of cards and the theme of the incomprehensibility of their characters.

Pushkin’s tone in the story, and particularly in his attitude toward the characters, is ironic. Pushkin forces the reader to see the humor in these situations and to see them seriously. The irony is pervasive but not destructive. It enables him to parody certain literary types and situations while still communicating humankind’s powerlessness against fate.


Alexander Pushkin Poetry: World Poets Analysis


Pushkin, Alexander (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)