Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050
Eugene Onegin is generally considered Alexander Pushkin’s most outstanding and characteristic work. Written between 1823 and 1831, the verse novel reflects Pushkin’s development as a poet and marks a transition to prose fiction, which occupied his later years. The time of the fictional action of the novel spans the years 1820 to 1825, ending with the period of the Decembrist uprising in a fragmentary tenth chapter. The eight full cantos, or chapters, as Pushkin called them, were published individually and as a complete edition in 1833.
The work is written in a highly ornate stanza form that is based on sonnet form and has been rarely attempted since. The plot is shaped by symmetrical refusals of love. First Onegin rejects Tatyana; then Tatyana dismisses Onegin. Although the form is highly polished, the plot is frequently overshadowed by the narrator’s digressions, many of which explore the author’s own biography and the process of writing the novel itself. Only about one-third of the novel concerns the plot, while the rest presents descriptions of life in St. Petersburg and the provinces and digressions on the theater, contemporary politics, amorous adventure, or literary craftsmanship. The work combines the pathos of a psychologically plausible affair with epigrammatic wit.
In spite of the strong French influence in his works, Pushkin expressed Russian life in lively Russian. The depth of his insight into Russian life led contemporary critics to call Eugene Onegin “an encyclopedia of Russian life,” even though the novel ignores the concerns of the peasantry and the growing urban middle class. The novel depicts, however, a lively account of Russian customs and beliefs as well as a variety of contemporary portraits, interiors, and landscapes. Eugene Onegin brings together conflicting discourses and worldviews, including the hackneyed provincial taste of Tatyana’s family, which lags several years behind that of fashionable society; the simple wisdom of peasant culture represented by the nanny; and the contemporary cosmopolitan lifestyle interpreted by the author-narrator, embodied in Eugene, and presented in Tatyana’s salon at the end of the novel.
Eugene Onegin raises a series of problems concerning the relationship between literature and life. It also concerns the limits on social action and artistic expression imposed by the conventions and expectations of polite society. Life and literature repeatedly intersect. Pushkin inserts readers, both friends and foes, whom he addresses throughout the text. In this way, the audience also enters the fictional world of the novel. The author-narrator enters his created world to befriend Eugene. The narrator’s muse merges with the novel’s heroine, Tatyana. Tatyana, Lensky, and Eugene attempt to re-create the literature they have read while the author-narrator parodies these same works. Tatyana models herself on the sentimental heroines of Samuel Richardson and of Madame de Staël. Lensky acts out patterns of romantic verse, such as that written by Vasily Zhukovsky or André-Marie de Chénier. Eugene plays the role of the disillusioned hero, typically found in the works of Lord Byron, who abandons civilization. Both Eugene, a dandy, and Tatyana, host of a fashionable salon, ultimately play roles that unite social and aesthetic goals. At the same time, the author-narrator, as a published writer, counters the literary aspirations of the young poet, Lensky, and the Byronic hero, Eugene.
The main characters, including the author-narrator and the fictionalized readers, belong to the Westernized gentry of Russia and therefore acknowledge the same cultural conventions. During the course of the novel, the characters trace several stages of development, which occur at different rates but span youthful enchantment, a period of disenchantment, and then mature re-enchantment. The author-narrator develops from a child writing sentimental verse to the author of the novel itself. Tatyana, who begins as a young girl who sees people as literary stereotypes, learns that life’s imitation of literature can be a parody and emerges as the host of a salon, which was the highest form of aesthetic creativity open to a woman at the time. Although Tatyana develops her ability to utilize cultural convention, Eugene finds himself trapped by a literary paradigm, while Lensky is never able to integrate life and art. All the characters live within a world from which there is no lasting retreat into the refuges of romantic imagination: nature, dream, and primitive society.
Although in the preface he refers to the novel as a satirical work, written “in the manner of Byron’s Don Juan,” Pushkin later diminished its satirical content. He did, however, admire the structure of Byronic poems. Like Byron, Pushkin shapes elliptical narratives with digressive asides and develops a stylistic link between the poet and his hero, who is also a product of contemporary society. Romantic irony, which presents the same ideas or events from conflicting points of view, colors the entire plot of Pushkin’s narrative and is emphasized in a number of ways. Internal discrepancies are consciously inserted to allow for variations of meaning. Pushkin purposefully does not introduce a unifying scheme of images to enhance the impression of an open novel. In addition, the author-narrator frequently interrupts with comments on the text itself. He also parodies contemporary literary works and the sentimental moods of the characters. The tone alternates between frivolous and profound, derisive and sentimental.
Eugene Onegin does not, however, merely copy Byronic elements but evaluates and extends popular Byronic conventions. Although the narrator’s point of view is frequently ironic, he, unlike Byron’s narrators, mocks the romantic mood rather than poetry itself. Eugene’s characters seem to exhibit the bitter rebelliousness, aristocratic arrogance, and passionate excess of one of Byron’s heroes, yet the imitation is conscious on Eugene’s part and parodic on the author-narrator’s. By the end of the novel, the pose is considered outmoded in St. Petersburg society, unwittingly leaving Eugene in a state of truly Byronic alienation.
Pushkin’s predilection for linguistic clarity, sparkling wit, and elegance is enhanced by a light touch, or the ability to make the complex configuration of plots, digressions, and intricate poetic arrangements appear easy. The loose structure of Eugene Onegin allows Pushkin to experiment with stylistic and generic convention while including a varied commentary on contemporary Russian life by way of the plot and the digressions from it. Eugene Onegin amply exemplifies Pushkin’s powers of observation and insight into life and art.