Eugene Onegin

Eugene Onegin is a classic Russian story by Alexander Pushkin, first published serially in the early 1800s before being published as a book. The most unique feature of the story is that it is all written in verse. In fact, Wikipedia says the form of poetry used in the book has come to be known as the “Onegin stanza” or the “Pushkin sonnet.”

Eugene is only 26, but he is rich and bored with his world, tired of balls, parties, etc. He’s self-centered: when the uncle who was to provide his inheritance was sick, Eugene complained of how boring it was to sit by his uncle’s sickbed. Euegen is described a couple of times as a misanthrope.

Eugene meets and befriends a young poet named Vladimir Lensky. Lensky is engaged to Olga Larina and invited Eugene to dine at the Larina’s house.

Olga is fun-loving and carefree. Her sister, Tatyana (or Tattiana, depending on the translation) is introverted and bookish. Tatyana is particularly fond of romance novels. For some reason, she falls hard for Eugene. After he leaves, she pours out her heart to him in a letter.

When Eugene comes again, he tells her he is flattered but not interested in marriage. She would be his pick if he did marry, but even though they might love each other intensely, he would eventually grow bored with her. He also warns her about naively being so open and vulnerable—some men might take advantage of her.

Tatyana is, of course, embarrassed and heartbroken. They don’t see each other for a while, until Lensky invites Eugene to Tatyana’s name day celebration. Lensky leads Eugene to understand that the celebration will be with just a few people. But instead he finds it’s a country version of the type of balls he is so bored with. He’s so irritated with the situation, he flirts and dances a lot with Olga. Lensky gets mad and challenges Eugene to a duel.

In duel having killed his friend
And reached, with nought his mind to engage,
The twenty-sixth year of his age,
Wearied of leisure in the end,
Without profession, business, wife,
He knew not how to spend his life

Some years later, Eugene attends a ball in St. Petersburg. He sees a beautiful woman and realizes it’s Tatyana. She is married to an older man now, called a prince in one place and a general in another. Eugene finally feels alive and determines to declare his love. Tatyana still loves him but refuses him. She’s determined to remain faithful to her husband.

That’s pretty much the whole plot, though there are a few side scenes, including a nightmare of Tatyana and a visit from her to Eugene’s house when he is not there.

I listened to the audiobook available free at Librovox. Even though it was nicely read, it was very hard to follow. The parts that contained action or dialogue were understandable, but suddenly the narrator would be off in some kind of musing where I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. At one point, he even says, “Haste, haste thy lagging pace, my story!” I read parts of it, but I think it would have been better to read the whole thing (this Kindle version was 99 cents but Project Gutenberg also has it online here). This version was translated by Henry Spalding, who gives some helpful comments on footnotes. One example: “It is perhaps worthy of remark, as one amongst numerous circumstances proving how extensively the poet interwove his own life-experiences with the plot of this poem, that it was by this road that he himself must have been in the habit of approaching Moscow from his favourite country residence of Mikhailovskoe, in the province of Pskoff.” It’s amazing that he could translate from Russian to English and still have it come out rhyming.

Wikipedia’s article helped me get more from the story than I would have on my own. I especially liked this line: “Another major element is Pushkin’s creation of a woman of intelligence and depth in Tatyana, whose vulnerable sincerity and openness on the subject of love has made her the heroine of countless Russian women.” There’s also an interesting section on how the duel didn’t conform to the usual rules.

Probably most people are familiar with the story through the opera by the same name written by Tchaikovsky. I watched it last night on YouTube (which thankfully had subtitles) while Jim was out of town. The music was wonderful (only the music at the opening of Act III was familiar to me, but it all sounded very Tchaikovsky-ish). The opera left out the boring parts and added in a few things, but it kept the greater part of the story elements. In fact, I picked up on points that I missed in the book. I have to say I much preferred the opera to the book in this instance. While looking for more information on some of the singers, I found this nice review of the DVD version of this performance.

I’ve not watched opera in a long time. I’m always amazed by the power of operatic voices. Opera writers and singers know how to milk a dramatic moment for all it’s worth. 🙂 I thought the first ball, the country one, looked a little clunky and mused that the smoother ones in movies are probably heavily edited: we usually just see various steps and moments rather than zooming out to see the whole thing. But then the later ball in St. Petersburg was very synchronized. So perhaps the first one was clunky on purpose to show it was a “country” one.

One side note I found interesting. I had wondered how Onegin was supposed to be pronounced. The narrator of the audiobook pronounced it with a long O and E and soft G, accent on the second syllable. But in the opera it sounded like O-nya-gin–long O and A and soft G, which I am sure is more accurate.

I read/listened to this book for the “Classics in translation” category of the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate. One advantage this book has as opposed to others in its category is that it’s a lot shorter. Other Russian books I’ve read are some of the longest novels. But I am glad to be familiar with the story now in both the book and the opera.

Are you familiar with Eugene Onegin?

9 thoughts on “Eugene Onegin

    • Listening to classics usually helps me with the slowness. I don’t mind them meandering so much when I am doing something with my hands while listening. This one was hard to follow that way, though. But I’m glad to be familiar with the story now. It’s funny how, after I’ve read a classic, I suddenly hear references to it in unexpected places.

  1. Ha Ha! I’m amazed at your stamina, my friend. I think I would put that book aside very quickly! And opera is not my thing either. But it sounds like quite a story! Tchaikovsky, though, I do enjoy anything by him.

  2. Oh yes! It was one of the favorite of my operas I watched (multiple times) during the pandemic when the MET ran a free one each evening. Prior to that, it was new to me. I love Tchaikovsky anyway. I read the book after too, and like you, prefer the opera. The music is wonderful. I downloaded it from our library’s free download program and often listen to part of it (it’s in 4 convenient 30-min. chunks) on the way to or from church. From what I’ve heard, in Russian it’s said basically Yev genny On YAY gin (hard g’s). During one of the opera intermissions one of the Russians in it said that schoolchildren there grow up reading EO — it’s one of their classics and they even memorize large portions of it.

    • The opera brought out things I had missed in the book. Like the song about habits in place of happiness. I wondered if that was in the book and searched for it–and there it was! Somehow it hadn’t made an impression until I heard the song.

      • I confirm, we pass EO in school as one of the main classic book. The girls learn Tatiana’s letter by heart and the boys Onegin’s letter by heart 🙂

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