Home » The Reception Of Eugene Onegin English Literature Essay

The Reception Of Eugene Onegin English Literature Essay

I chose to undertake Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin because I believe its creation and reception is key to the promotion of the ideas of the Russian literary canon. In addition to this work, the extent to which Pushkin’s legacy as an individual has been left upon the people is undeniably vast, and is so significant in the literary face of Russia. Aleksandr Pushkin has often been hailed as the founder of modern Russian literature, influencing many great novelists both in his native land and abroad for many subsequent years. His famous novel in verse, Eugene Onegin was published serially throughout the years 1825 to 1832 and it was reportedly ‘the most beloved child of his imagination’ [1] . Although considered one of Russia’s greatest poets, his reputation does not appear to exceed those of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky abroad, who serve most prominently as the figureheads of nineteenth-century Russian literature in the west. Pushkin however arguably created the Russian novel and through much research it is undeniable that many of these great Russian writers were influenced by him to such a great degree, and so he remains close to Russia’s heart and helps embody their national identity. Pushkin embraced his native tongue in his works, encouraging those after him to continue in their use of the vernacular language.

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To many, including Gorky, he stands as the ‘beginning of all beginnings’ [2] and his work on Eugene Onegin is one which expresses most plainly that which is most Russian through literature. I hope to demonstrate most effectively how Eugene Onegin fits into the criteria of the Russian canon, looking at the views of as many of the literary critics, historians and also the other nineteenth-century Russian authors that are available to me. It is also important to examine Pushkin’s personal life and the effect that Eugene Onegin had upon his literary fate. Among many other things, in Eugene Onegin Pushkin was able to ‘delineate the Russian wanderer as a type’ for the first time and in addition he introduced ‘a type of positive and indisputable beauty in the person of the Russian woman’ [3] which had not been seen before. Indeed ‘his death at the height of his creative vitality freezes for posterity the ever-youthful image of a poet who never reaches the limit of his potential’ [4] allowing him to live on through his work and through others.

In the novel Onegin serves the reader as a character most relevant to Pushkin own public image in the literary world. He is described throughout the work as a character who, although capable of doing good, is flawed by his own boredom with contemporary life, despite being wealthy and inheriting a luxurious lifestyle. He, like Pushkin, is drawn into a life dominated by social events and full of temptation which led him to gambling and womanising. We are told that he suffers from boredom ‘simply because he has extra money lying in his pocket which allows him to eat a lot, drink a lot to pursue “the science of tender passion”‘, [5] and not because he is of any higher calibre than anyone else. Both the protagonist and heroine of the novel, Onegin and Tatyana became the prototypes of many other characters which were to follow in works created by Pushkin’s literary successors.

In particular Lermontov’s character in A Hero of Our Time, Pechorin, who is one of the most famous superfluous men to come out of the Russian literary collection. He too enters a state of ennui and begins to entertain a life of socialising and gambling. In the character of Tatyana Pushkin created a woman of depth and intelligence, instead of simply a man’s subordinate. When Onegin and Tatyana are first introduced at a dinner through a mutual companion, Lensky, and immediately we learn through the verse that Tatyana falls deeply and irrevocably in love with Onegin. Despite her professions of her love, Onegin rejects her advances in a speech often referred to as Onegin’s Sermon. Following the tragic death of Lensky in a duel forced upon Onegin, he leaves choosing to travel to try and bury his grief and guilt. Later in a meeting in St. Petersburg Onegin is introduced again to a more worldly and mature Tatyana, and becomes attracted to her more wise and experienced demeanour. Mirroring his dismissal of her earlier in the novel however, Tatyana is unable to accept his love because of utmost loyalty to her new husband and lifestyle. The story is a bitter portrayal of his inability to love another and as a result his missed opportunities. In no uncertain terms Pushkin’s own life was subject to similar unfortunate events, culminating in his untimely death. The blame of his death ultimately fell upon the government, whose social restrictions of high society in Russia had forced him into the deadly duel.

The reception of Eugene Onegin by readers, literary critics and historians, as well as by other 19th century authors was long lasting and vast. Although Pushkin did not expect a particularly good reception, a point made in his original foreword in 1825, his contemporaries’ reception was initially enthusiastic. There is little doubt that this original novel in verse introduced themes and even characters from Russian society that had never before been prioritised in previous work. The depiction of St. Petersburg as a city full of universal influences encouraged the placement of Russian literature in a more global spectrum than had been formerly observed. The reception of Eugene Onegin by the famous Russian literary critic Belinsky is important to observe. Belinsky is said to have held the novel in high regard believing that ‘the work embodies [Pushkin’s] feelings, his concepts, his ideals’. [6] It was important to Belinsky for a writer to speak the truth, deeming that in such a rigid reign as Tsar Nicholas I the only outlet for any kind of liberty was through literature. He hailed Pushkin’s novel as the ‘encyclopaedia of Russian life’, [7] grateful for its loyalty to reality, although Pisarev rightly highlights that Pushkin ‘almost completely ignores the political and economic realities of the day’ among other important common thought. Despite this Eugene Onegin includes many scenes and images that capture, in Belinsky’s mind, all that is quintessentially Russian, including ‘an accurate record of the way many ordinary Russians of the day lived and thought’. [8] 

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The interpretations of the novel have incited much literary debate, particularly over the character of Onegin. It has been suggested that Belinsky misinterpreted his character, choosing to see him as a ‘suffering soul’ [9] representing the social class to which he belonged. Pisarev on the other hand criticised this view, stating that Onegin was no more than ‘a man with an undeveloped mind and conscience.’ [10] 

In the later stages of the nineteenth-century Pushkin’s literary prowess was highlighted more prominently, particularly by Dostoevsky. He emphasises Pushkin ability to unite the ‘Western and Russian elements, knowing the ‘great secret’ of how to do this.’ [11] Similarly Gogol observed that ‘Pushkin is an extraordinary phenomenon and perhaps the most singular manifestation of the Russian spirit.’ [12] Dostoevsky examines the character of Onegin and the affect it had on the Russian literary tradition. He claims that he is a wanderer, a ‘restless dreamer,’ [13] and in direct comparison to him is Tatyana, who he argues is the real hero of the story, being ‘firmly rooted in her native soil’. [14] 

The varied reception of Eugene Onegin promotes the idea of the Russian canon as many critics have agreed with Belinsky that it serves the reader as an ‘encyclopaedia of Russian life’. [15] Literary historians have labelled the age of Pushkin in the nineteenth-century as a ‘Golden Age’ and a time of ‘the blossoming of romantic poetry.’ [16] The realism seen in Eugene Onegin was praised by Belinsky, and its use as a definitive literary school was continued by Pushkin’s successors, including Lermontov and Gogol.

The inclusion of the duel in the novel is also a key element seen in many works that followed Pushkin. In the story Onegin is tricked into attending a lavish name day party for Tatyana by his companion Lensky. In seeking harmless revenge on Lensky, Onegin dances and flirts with his fiancée Olga, and upon seeing this Lensky challenges him to a duel in his anger. Onegin, although desperate to avoid a duel with his friend, is forced as a result of social conventions to agree to a duel, and subsequently kills Lensky. It is interesting to note that this scene would be mirrored in future years in real life by Pushkin, who died as a result of a duel, and moreover, because of a woman. Such a scene would have been repeated in many works following this, including A Hero of Our Time, where Pechorin, much in the same position as Onegin, is forced to duel his friend after flirting with his love-interest. He too kills his friend, Grushnitsky, and similarly to Onegin experiences despair at the tragic event forced upon him, showing briefly that he is not as detached from the world as previously indicated. In addition to this, Pechorin also rejects the women most in love with him, notably Princess Mary and Vera, and remains throughout the story bored with his own existence. [17] 

The name of the protagonist chosen by Lermontov, Pechorin, is directly taken from that of the Pechora River. This certainly is in tribute to Eugene Onegin, as Pushkin’s protagonist was also named after the Onega River. It is true that after Lermontov read the work, he ‘found himself… under the powerful influence of the novel’ [18] which may account for many of the situational reproductions apparent in their works. These clear similarities show the effect the novel and Pushkin himself had on many writers who followed after him, and indeed his influence and well earned inclusion as part of the Russian literary canon

It became more clear to me as I studied Eugene Onegin how relevant it was as part of the literary canon, and how important he was as a person as ‘”all the currents of the eighteenth-century converge in Pushkin and all the rivers of the nineteenth-century flow from him.”‘ [19] He served Russia as the initiator of what was going to become their greatest addition in the West, as the producer of classic literature, whilst maintaining their national identity. Pushkin, we are told by Dostoevsky, had ‘grasped the essence of our being’, [20] and his contribution to Russian literature is unmistakably paramount. As a result of this ‘”the classicist, the romanticist, the realist, the symbolist, and the expressionist must all agree” in their appreciation of him.’ [21] 

I think Eugene Onegin is a key constituent of the literary canon because although it was written nearly two-hundred years ago, it contains morals and messages which are still relevant in today’s civilization. Its adaptation for both the stage, most notably in the 1879 opera of the same name by Tchaikovsky, and for film are testament to the novel’s important and significance in the literary world on an international scale. The character of Onegin is the prototype of many characters that were going to emerge in later works from successive authors, and the work ‘also aids greatly in consolidating a unified identity for the Canon as a whole.’ [22] 

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