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...
(The entire section is 1050 words.)