Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Eugene Onegin: Alexander Pushkin

Eugene Onegin is an epic poem written by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.  The poem published in 1833 profoundly depicts Russian culture of that period.  The poem is a story of a young girl, Tatyana, who is passionately in love with young rake Eugene, a man who has inherited a neighboring estate from his uncle, a man whom Eugene despised. Eugene is a man notable for treading upon theatre patrons feet with crass indifference. Eugene has a remarkable tendency to offend people with a cavalier swagger.  Eugene is a misenthrop, a precursor to the superfluous man, a wealthy land owner without any purpose in life, who is imprisoned by social convention, and who is unable to make any meaningful contribution to society. This lack of social graces will prompt Eugene to make callous decisions that will chart the decision making process of Tatyana after she has matured into a sophisticated societal married woman and is forced to make a choice. Tatyana is trapped in a world of social tedium, but when forced to choose she refuses to abandon her husband for Eugene who is now passionately in love with her.

Tatyana is a young woman trapped on a landed estate in rural Russia before the emancipation of the serfs.  Russia during this time was a highly stratified society with classes of people ranging from landed serfs to aristocratic gentlemen.  Social mobility between classes was impossible.  However, it was not uncommon for serf girls to become impregnated by land owners.  Pushkin fathered a child with a servant girl on his family estate while in exile. Pushkin abandoned this girl, and when she died, he expressed in a poem no regret or interest in her or his child. On rare occasions a land owner would marry a serf girl. But in most villiages the land owner's illegitimate children would live with the mother in poverty and would run about among the peasant children.  However, for women, standards were byzantine and exacting.  The slightest indescretion could ruin a reputation of a young woman forever.  A young woman writing a young man an innocent love letter was expressly forbidden.  Public shaming of women accused of infidelity was not uncommon. Smearing pitch on a gate post of a home of an accused woman would invite public community redicule and shame her forever.  Even if the accusation had no basis in fact.

Tatyana faced a second problem.  Young Russian women above twenty five years old were considered by frantic parents as destined spinsters.  Plus the availability of desirable suitors was limited by geography and class.

After Eugene departed without a word after he killed Lensky in a duel, Tatyana stubbornly refused numerous proposals for her hand.  But for poor Tatyana times were changing. Although Tatyana and Olga made numerous forays to Lensky's lonely grave to mourn Olga's engaged shortly after the duel, over time memory fades and people are replaced.  Tatyana's bosom companion Olga forgot poetic Lensky, she met and married a military man who was on assignment to a distant front. After Olga left with her paramour, Tatyana faced terrible loneliness. Determined to do something, Tatyana's desperate mother decided to take Tatyana to St. Petersburg to the match makers and marriage market. Tatyana was placed in a sleigh, driven to St. Petersburg, shopped among balls, and eventually she married a "fat general." The idyllic lifestyle Tatyana had envisioned as a simple country housewife with Eugene had vanished forever.

Lensky was an idealist and a romantic with poetic aspirations.  Lensky was enamored with Olga, a silly, flighty girl. In contrast to Eugene, Lensky loved social gatherings and life. Lensky persuaded Eugene to attend a name day party for Tatyana, under the false pretense that there would be few guests.  However, when they arrived every land owner in the district was at the party.  Even though Eugene was extremely irritated by Lensky's ruse, he did manage to spark love in the heart of Tatyana.

Occasionally Eugene would accompany Lensky when he visited Olga.  Tatyana longed for these visits to see her imagined lover.  Tatyana was a wholesome Russian girl, superstious, she would not have refrained from casting salt over her shoulder to wort off the evil eye. She loved the outdoors and the rustic life.  Tatyana was also an impulsive, impatient, head strong girl. When Eugene did not respond to her advances, she made a rash decision to send him a letter declaring her intention to serve as his faithful devoted wife, and she arranged a clandestine meeting with him in her family garden to discuss her proposition. These rash acts, the letter and meeting, were very dangerous for her reputation if she were to be discovered.

Before the meeting, Tatyana spent time in flights of fantasy, she would visit her favorite grove of trees and pick her favorite flowers.  On the night of the engagement, when Eugene arrived with Lensky, Tatyana raced from her bedroom down the stairs to the garden to speak to her lover before anyone could intervene.  Eugene assured Tatyana that he would agree to marry her if that was her wish.  When Eugene and Lensky left her home, Tatyana spied upon Eugene from her bedroom window.  She passionately drew the initials E.O. in the frost on her windowpane.  Tatyana was certain of her success.

Alas.  Eugene would terminate her dreams with his reckless behavior.  Invited to a ball the impetuous Eugene taunted Lensky by forcing Olga to dance with him all evening. Lensky was so incensed that he challenged Eugene to a duel.  This unfortunate event would not only kill Lensky, but it would doom the love of Eugene and Tatyana.  Some may argue that Eugene was a heartless beast who went to the duel with a callous indifference as to the consequences of his actions.  I disagree.  I think Eugene did not care to fight and he would have found a plausible excuse to avoid the whole issue if it were not for the prompting of his second, a retried military officer. Eugene overslept, missing the scheduled rendezvous, and he would have probably dimissed the whole duel with ennui had not his second arrived reminding him that he was late for the engagement.  When Eugene killed Lensky he was horrified at this senseless act.  The specter of Lensky would haunt Eugene forever.

Eugene disappeared.  He did not wish adieu to Tatyana, he simply ordered his carriage and horses one morning and vanished to parts unknown.  Tatyana was abandoned without a thought.  Alone and sorrowful Tatyana would take long walks until one day she arrived at Eugene's abandoned estate.  There she conversed with the old caretaker who out of sympathy allowed Tatyana to access Eugene's study and to peruse his books.  This was the pivotal moment for Tatyana.   Through her diligent research, she deduced from underlined passages and marginal notes Eugene's traits.  Also, the passage of time heals all wounds in love.  Separated from Eugene her ardor cooled.  Her feelings for Eugene had changed.  She was no longer in love with his character.

Eugene traveled from one station to the next over countless versts for two years aimlessly wandering all over Russia.   But one fine day he appeared at a social ball in St. Petersburg. Victims of Eugene's old pranks were not happy to see him.  But who did Eugene see dressed like a queen in her resplendent glory?  A woman he had completely forgotten, Tatyana! Worse she was married to a fat general!  When Eugene approached Tatyana she greeted him with icy reserve.  But at that instant Eugene fell madly in love with Tatyana.

The roles had been reversed.  Tatyana was now indifferent to Eugene.  When Eugene and Tatyana met by chance at receptions, Tatyana always met him with the same icy reserve. Eugene was so disconcerted that he went into seclusion, a veritable recluse, he retired to his study reading books round the clock as a diversion.  Did Eugene think Tatyana would thaw if he improved himself after a wasted youth of slothful dissipation?  Nevertheless, these attempts at reform did not improve his relationship with Tatyana.  She was as cold and reserved as ever.

This poem ends in sorrow.  Eugene was unable to endure another moment without Tatyana. Eugene threw down his book, ordered his coach and horses, and sped to her home. Stealthily passing her housekeeping staff, Eugene clamored up the stairs, and burst into her room. Tatyana was sitting on a chair sewing some lace. Eugene fell upon his knees and declared that if Tatyana would forgo the fat general and renounce her unhappy artifical repugnant social life, he would take her to his country estate, provide for her welfare, and remain loyal to her forever.  But Tatyana would not budge.  She woefully explained that even though she still loved him, and even though she did honestly prefer the homespun lifestyle she outlined in her letter, nevertheless, she would continue to live her current loveless life no matter how stifling.

Tatyana was convinced if she separated from her husband Eugene would regard her as a conquest, a trophy, to be bragged about in jest to all his deplorable friends and rivals all over St. Petersburg.  She simply did not trust him.  She thought his protestations of love poor acting and an insincere attempt to manipulate her under false pretenses.  Tatyana hated her husband and lifestyle but she would remain faithful all the same.  The fat general enters the room ending the conversation.  Eugene and Tatyana are destined to live miserable lives forever apart.

Tatyana was wrong in her reasoning.  I believe Eugene had abandoned his nefarious life and he had grown weary of his nomadic wanderings.  He didn't return to St. Petersburg by accident. I also believe that the death of Lensky weighed like an albatross around his neck.  His chance encounter with Tatyana gave him a new sense of purpose in life. Eugene regretted his stupidly squandered years of dissipated youth.  But the reconciliation was not to be.

Pushkin had intended a sequel for Eugene.  But Pushkin was killed in a duel by Georges d' Anthes a very young man in a dispute over his wife.  The sequel was never written.

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