A romantic story of ill-fated love, On the Eve is set against the background of the social concerns of Russia in the 1850’s. As is typical of Ivan Turgenev’s love stories, the relationship between the lovers is rendered with sensitive but intense emotion. The action is structured around the heroine, Elena Stahov, a serious, idealistic young woman searching for a commitment which can give shape and meaning to her life.
One of the social concerns of the 1850’s was the political role of women in society, and Elena represents the determined but frustrated young woman of the day. Like many of Turgenev’s other strong heroines, she is presented first within the context of her home surroundings: The novel opens at her family’s summer home in the countryside outside Moscow in 1853 (a significant summer because it is just before the outbreak of the Crimean War). Although Elena appears to be tranquil, she lives an intense inner life which does not find expression in the outer world. She yearns to be doing good works but has no avenue to the larger world to fulfill this desire, and the other members of her family do not provide her with direction. She lives with her mother, Anna Stahov, who loves her daughter but is an ineffectual woman who can barely manage the household and her own frustratingly empty life; a companion, Zoya “Zoe” Muller, a physically attractive but shallow young woman more interested in her dress than in the larger concerns of the age; and slothful Uvar Stahov, an elderly relative who spends his days on the couch digesting his dinner. Elena has little patience with her father, Nikolai Stahov, who is staying with his mistress in Moscow against the wishes of her mother; Elena detests deceit in any form and consequently is not close to him. The one character who does possess an alert energy to match her own is Pavel Shubin, a talented young sculptor, a distant maternal cousin, who lives with the family and is being supported by Elena’s mother. Yet Shubin and Elena are not compatible; they remain friends, but he is a sensually self-indulgent young man who has affairs with the local peasant girls. With the emotional temperament of the artist, he does not have the seriousness of purpose for which Elena yearns.
Shubin does have a friend, however, a recent graduate of Moscow University who lives on a neighboring estate. A reticent, serious young man, Andrei Bersenyev is committed to intellectual ideas, and he interests Elena. Although Andrei is physically awkward, when he speaks to Elena about the intellectual issues of the day, he becomes eloquent. In a series of scenes between Shubin and Andrei, which are related in masterly dialogue—Turgenev was also a great playwright; he wrote the classic Mesyats v derevne (1885; A Month in the Country, 1924)—the charming loveliness of Elena as a woman is conveyed. Shubin confesses his love for Elena to Andrei, but, unfortunately, she caught Shubin kissing the arms of the attractive Zoya, and thus Shubin knows that Elena will never return his love. He has observed Elena and Andrei together, however, and he is convinced that Elena is falling in love with Andrei.
Just as the relationship between Andrei and Elena is beginning to evolve, the novel takes an unexpected twist. When Elena asks Andrei if he knows of any remarkable men at the university, he replies that he knows of no Russian who qualifies but there is a foreign student who is deserving of the term"remarkable.” After this conversation, Andrei invites the foreign student, Dmitri Insarov, out to his lodgings for the summer. Insarov is a Bulgarian patriot who is committed to overthrowing the Turkish rule in his country; when he was a child, his mother was violated and killed by a Turkish official, and when his father tried to avenge her, he also was killed. Insarov is now in exile in Russia, a poor student attending Moscow University while preparing to return to...
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