Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1607
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 his country for an armed revolution. When Andrei introduces Insarov to Elena, she does not at first find him to be remarkable, but during later visits she discovers that his passionate commitment as a patriot matches her own idealistic nature, and she becomes increasingly attracted to him.
On an excursion to view the scenery around Tsaritsino Castle, Insarov displays the characteristics of the man of action. All the members of Elena’s household—except her father—join in the sightseeing, accompanied by Andrei and Insarov. In a setting which contains rich, clear detail, the party picnics on the historic grounds and then goes boating on a nearby lake. (The boating scene is a masterful demonstration of the delicate mood that Turgenev can evoke with language.) When the party is preparing to leave, however, they are accosted by some drunken Germans. When the largest—a giant of a man with bull-like strength—refuses to move aside so that Elena’s party might pass, Insarov suddenly takes command of the situation, quickly manhandling the German into the lake. Insarov’s bold action stands in contrast to the artistic sensibility of Shubin and the moral steadfastness of Andrei; it matches Insarov’s passionate commitment to his ideals. Soon after this incident, as Elena is writing in her diary, she realizes that she has fallen in love with Insarov.
Andrei comes to the realization that he loves Elena, and he despairs of his lost opportunity, as Shubin had earlier, but Andrei, like Shubin, remains a faithful friend to Elena and aids her in whatever way he can. Another concern of the age was the role of self-sacrifice in an individual’s life, and Andrei, like Elena and Insarov, illustrates this concern. When Elena learns that Insarov is leaving to move back to Moscow, she goes by herself to Andrei’s lodgings—a bold move for a woman in this culture—to see Insarov. When it begins to rain, she dodges into a roadside chapel, and shortly afterward, she sees Insarov walking down the road. In a moving, romantic scene, Elena confesses her love, and Insarov admits that he was leaving because he had fallen in love with Elena and feared that this love would distract him from his patriotic duties. As the rain falls about them, the two embrace, committing themselves to each other as they vow to marry.
Because of Insarov’s lower social position, the lovers keep their commitment to each other secret. Shortly afterward, Elena’s father returns to the summer house, since his mistress has left on a trip. While in Moscow, her father found a suitor for Elena, a man named Yegor Kurnatovsky, who is a successful bureaucrat. During his visits, the suitor adopts a condescendingly superior attitude toward Elena. She cannot help but compare him to Insarov, and indirectly, Turgenev draws a similar comparison for the reader: Although Kurnatovsky is an efficient administrator, he does not measure up to Insarov, for he lacks the ability to make a passionate commitment. He is without the burning desire to lead men toward a common goal. Unlike Insarov, he is not a remarkable man, not a man capable of heroic action.
Before Insarov and Elena can marry, he suddenly falls ill and hovers between life and death for eight days. During his long, slow recuperation, the Crimean War between Turkey and Russia breaks out, and Insarov plunges into support for his fellow Bulgarian patriots, working very hard although still ill. During this period, after her family has returned to Moscow for the winter, Elena and he secretly marry. Before their departure for the Bulgarian war zone, Elena tells her parents of her secret marriage; they strongly disapprove, her mother actually falling ill from the news. Although Anna finally forgives Elena, Nikolai refuses to do so. When the time comes for the loaded sleigh to pull away, however, he unexpectedly arrives with champagne for a farewell toast, and, in a moving scene, he blesses the marriage.
By April, Insarov and Elena have traveled as far as Venice, Italy, but Insarov’s illness is steadily worsening; he has tuberculosis. While waiting for a boat to take them across the Adriatic Sea, one evening they attend an opera by Guiseppe Verdi. (Turgenev himself was in love with an opera singer for most of his adult life, and his description re-creates the artistic effect of the performance with compelling detail.) Turgenev also portrays the beautiful, unique city of Venice as the couple moves through it in a gondola. They spend their days waiting in a hotel, where Insarov’s illness takes a turn for the worse. Just before the captain of the boat arrives, Insarov suddenly dies.
The novel ends as Elena boards the ship with Insarov’s coffin. Her parents receive a letter from her saying that she is committed to Insarov’s cause and will not return to Russia. In the closing chapter, Turgenev relates that Elena’s father went to the war zone and searched for her, but she had disappeared; there were rumors of a woman accompanying the battle forces, but those could not be substantiated. The attractive but shallow Zoya has married Elena’s former suitor, Yegor Kurnatovsky the bureaucrat; it is a suitable match, meeting her expectations of a husband and his of a wife. Shubin has moved to Rome and is a promising sculptor, and Andrei is a professor who travels widely at government expense. Although Elena’s father has parted from his mistress, he now keeps an attractive housekeeper who dresses suspiciously well for a person in her position. Obviously, she is his present mistress.