Day 211: Onegin, off again

Recently on Twitter someone posed the question, “why did you pick the 18th century to study?” and I replied, “The 18th century picked me, probably because I’m so constitutionally delicate.”

I was being half silly, half serious (which is my constitution in a nutshell: half silly; half serious; delicate all over).

One reason why I instinctively deflect such questions is that although I can tell a story about why I picked the eighteenth century, such stories feel similar to those we tell about falling in love; retrospectively, it’s pleasing to cast the experience as a coup de foudre but in reality it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where, when, how, or why something shifted. Here, I find a rare moment of accord with Fitzwilliam Darcy, who says, when Lizzy presses him to account for what precipitated his fall, “I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun” (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Volume III, Chapter XVIII).

Another reason why it wasn’t facetious to say that the eighteenth century picked me because I’m constitutionally delicate is that I really am constitutionally delicate! Just a couple of weeks ago I became faint and was given smelling salts—which I didn’t realize were even a thing any more. (They smell awful. I could feel them in my nostrils for days.) When I’m feeling troubled, I cry a lot. The other day I couldn’t stop weeping and wondered: was I drawn to eighteenth-century novels because I’m constitutionally delicate? Or have I become constitutionally delicate because of all the eighteenth-century novels? N.B. Weeping and wondering is, according to Hester Piozzi, precisely the response that eighteenth-century novels induce. [1]

Even before that especially weepy day, I had already become preoccupied by the question of the causal relationship between reading eighteenth-century novels and one’s constitution because of Eugene Onegin. Pushkin’s novel is not an eighteenth-century novel—it was published in serial form between 1825 and 1832—but its lovely, bookish heroine, Tatiana, is an avid reader of eighteenth-century fiction:

“From early youth she read romances,

And novels set her art aglow;

She loved the fictions and the fancies

Of Richardson and of Rousseau.” (Chapter 2, Canto 29) [2]

It seems fair to say that the ideas about love that Tatiana gleans from eighteenth-century novels prime her to fall in love with the caddish Eugene, whom, as Pushkin’s narrator can’t help pointing out, is “ … none the less / No Grandison in Russian dress” (Chapter 3, Canto 10).

Pushkin makes this observation more in sorrow than in scorn. One thing I love about Pushkin’s treatment of Tatiana is that he doesn’t patronize or castigate her as a naïve reader. On the contrary, he evokes how reading allows her to discover her own feelings.

I have always experienced both reading and writing in this way: as experiences that allow me to discover what I think and feel.

A brief digression: I was recently on a committee that had to assess a revision to the university’s writing program, one that placed more emphasis upon writing as a mode of thinking. As the only literature person on the committee I was asked to comment on the proposal; but all I had to say was that it seemed strange to me that writing hadn’t been taught this way before. I know that not everyone experiences writing like this. But I tend to be baffled when people describe doing research or having ideas and then writing. For me, thinking and writing are not usually distinct, sequential activities, but rather intervolved within each other; I write to discover what I think.

Likewise, Tatiana discovers her feelings and fantasies through reading novels.

“She wanders with her borrowed lovers

Through silent woods and so discovers

Her secret passions, and her dreams.” (Chapter 3, Canto 10)

***

My students and I read Eugene Onegin this quarter on the heels of Pride and Prejudice. Reading the two novels in that order was poignant and illuminating. Eugene Onegin reads like a darker, Russian, Pride and Prejudice. Structurally, the narratives parallel each other. In both, a world-weary young stranger turns up in the countryside, where he immediately alienates everyone with his brusque manners.

In both, the young stranger has an amiable friend. In Onegin, this amiable friend is Lensky, who is basically Bingley if he had taken a gap year in Göttingen. Bingley-Werther takes a shine to a local girl, Olga, who is characterized by the narrator as a generically attractive young woman—i.e., a Jane (or a Betty, as we’d say, if we were talking about Emma). “Glance in any novel,” Pushkin’s narrator advises us, if we wish to know more about her appearance. He adds, “I liked it once no less than you, / But round it boredom seems to hover” (Chapter 2, Canto 23).

Bingley-Werther, keen to introduce Eugene to Olga, invites him to join them at her family’s house one evening. Of course Eugene is like, kill me now, I can’t even with these provincial get-togethers; but he goes along for Bingley-Werther’s sake. At this gathering Eugene and Tatiana, Olga’s older sister, first lay eyes on each other, and, although they don’t exchange a word, each makes a striking impression upon the other.

Tatiana and Lizzy are not the same, temperamentally. Tatiana is dreamy and pensive where Lizzy is playful and wry. (Tatiana is basically a Goth; she dislikes smiling, small-talk, and playing games. She likes gory stories, sentimental novels, and star-gazing.) But Lizzy and Tatiana are both highly intelligent young women who feel keenly constrained by the parameters of the worlds they inhabit—parameters made stark by the limited orbits their respective mothers inhabit.

Both Lizzy and Tatiana are intrigued by the brooding stranger in their midst. But where Lizzy recoils from Darcy, Tatiana falls for Eugene, who is also attracted to her; but for him it’s a passing fancy. For her it’s a life-changing event.

It’s at this juncture in each narrative that the parallels and contrasts between the two novels emerge most strongly. Tatiana has learned from eighteenth-century fiction that she should be open with her feelings and that she should express them in epistolary form. And so she writes boldly to Eugene declaring her love:

“I’m writing you this declaration—

What more can I in candour say?

It may be now your inclination

To scorn me and to turn away;

But if my hapless situation

Evokes some pity for my woe,

You won’t abandon me, I know.” (Chapter 3, Tatiana’s letter to Onegin).

Both Tatiana and Lizzy defy their society’s expectations of how women should behave towards men in order to attract them. As Lizzy observes, her open contempt for Darcy departs from the “civility … deference,” and “officious attention” to which he is accustomed (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). Likewise, Tatiana’s warmth and openness departs from the strategic coldness and reserve—the “inaccessibly serene” air—affected by the society belles with whom Pushkin declares Eugene has become bored (Chapter 1, Canto 42). Lizzy supposes that it is her departure from the norm that attracts Darcy: “I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them” (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). By making Eugene’s propensity for boredom his main character trait, Pushkin primes us to expect that Tatiana’s ingenuousness may move him as Lizzy’s irreverence moves Darcy.

But where Lizzy gains from resisting a prevailing ethos of servility, an ethos that results in Darcy “thoroughly despis[ing]” the women “who so assiduously court” him, Tatiana loses by resisting a prevailing ethos of studied indifference (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). In fact, the same economy of desire seems to operate within both novels: both men are only attracted to women who seem immune to their charms. Although Eugene thinks he’s tired of the performance of inaccessible serenity, it turns out to be the only thing that actually moves him.

Accordingly, both to Tatiana’s dismay and to ours, her letter inspires in Eugene, not a declaration of desire but rather a speech that is rightly described as a “sermon,” and which is, as one of my students observed, essentially a long-winded version of, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Eugene insists, in this speech, that he’d just make her unhappy if they were a couple; he then consoles (“consoles”) her by informing her that she’s young and predicting that she’ll get over him soon and fall in love again. He closes by recommending she exercise a bit more restraint in the future when expressing her feelings.

Oof.

He’s just awful: cold; condescending; self-righteous, unkind. One could be generous and argue that he is purposefully unkind in a misguided attempt to shift Tatiana’s feelings. But he honestly seems so caught up in his own performance of piety that I doubt her feelings even cross his mind.

Nobody in my class, including me, had read the novel before. Especially coming on the heels of Pride and Prejudice, this turn of events was especially wrenching. After our first class on Eugene Onegin, when it still seemed like things might work out for Eugene and Tatiana, I’d asked the class how Tatiana struck them. One student observed that she seemed like Elizabeth Bennet in her intelligence and discomfort with the strictures governing women’s conduct. We’d already established that cool, detached Eugene was not terribly sympathetic—but then neither was Darcy! Everyone was primed to see our girl Tatiana ruffle his composure. I’d read ahead and knew what was coming but I couldn’t bear to tell them.

The next class, after everyone had read the chapter in which Eugene rejects Tatiana, the change of atmosphere in the room was palpable. There was something about the quotidian nature of Eugene’s bad behavior that seemed to gut us all—but especially the women in the class. The ordinariness of his shortcomings made them all the more believable. He’s not abusive; he’s sanctimonious. He’s not sadistic; he’s thoughtless. He’s not intentionally mean; he’s self-absorbed. He’s not a villain; he’s just really disappointing.

“All I can say,” commented one student, shaking her head, “is that men have not changed.”

There were general murmurs of assent. I felt slightly bad for the two men in the room, who stayed quiet. [3]

I put it to the class that what made Eugene so disappointing as a person was also what made Eugene Onegin so satisfying as a novel. Like Darcy, Eugene comes across initially as arrogant and condescending. But where Pride and Prejudice makes Lizzy turn out to have been blind to Darcy’s hidden depths, Eugene turns out not to have any hidden depths. He seems shallow from the beginning. And what Tatiana discovers when she looks more closely is that he actually is shallow.

There’s something, I maintain, satisfying about this as a reader.

In both novels, the hero’s character reveals itself more candidly in his own writing and in his empty house than in face-to-face encounters. In both novels, reading the hero’s own words and touring his vacant mansion are transformative experiences for the heroine.

After Eugene leaves the countryside, Tatiana, on impulse, “requests permission / To see the vacant house alone / And read the books he’d called his own” (Chapter 7, Canto 20).

She discovers that his tastes run to

“The bard of Juan and the Giaour,

And some few novels done with power,

In which our age is well displayed

And modern man himself portrayed.” (Chapter 7, Canto 22)

I mean, I love Byron too. But a guy who mostly has Byron—and novels lionizing “modern man”—on his bookshelf? If that’s not a red flag, I don’t know what is. What is telling, moreover, is not only Eugene’s selection of books but also the markings he has made upon them: those places where he has literally impressed himself onto the page:

“Some pages still preserved the traces

Where fingernails had sharply pressed;

The girl’s attentive eye embraces

These lines more quickly than the rest.

And Tanya sees with trepidation

The kind of thought or observation

To which Eugene paid special heed,

Or where he’d tacitly agreed.

And in the margins she inspected

His pencil marks with special care;

And on those pages everywhere

She found Onegin’s soul reflected—

In crosses or a jotted note,

Or in the question mark he wrote.” (Chapter 7, Canto 23)

It’s inspired on Pushkin’s part to have the bookish Tatiana discover Eugene’s character by reading his marginalia. According to Nabokov’s commentary, Pushkin “toyed … with the idea of having Tatiana discover Onegin’s St. Petersburg diary,” before opting instead to have her divine his character from his marginalia. [4]

In a further stroke of genius, Pushkin does not provide any examples of the marginalia that enables Tatiana to see Onegin for what he is: an empty poser. What he shows us instead is her dismayed reaction to what she discovers:

“What was he then? An imitation?

An empty phantom or a joke,

A Muscovite in Harold’s cloak … ?” (Chapter 7, Canto 24)

What. on earth. did Eugene. write. in those margins? [5]

 As one of my students observed, chuckling and shaking her head, “I’d really like to see what he wrote that made her change her mind!”

To be clear, after reading this marginalia, Tatiana reluctantly agrees to go to Moscow, where her mother deems her marriage prospects will be brighter. And, indeed, shortly after she is married off to a wealthy old and seemingly harmless but also possibly armless General.

In other words, reading this marginalia has consequences. [6]

So tantalizing is Pushkin’s withholding of what it is exactly about Eugene’s marginalia that so disillusions Tatiana that I must forgive Nabokov for speculating, in his commentary, about which passages from Byron’s Giaour and Don Juan Onegin might have marked. This, to be clear, is based on no evidence in the text at all[7]

The mood in the class lifted after we discussed the scene in which Tatiana reads Onegin’s marginalia. Why? Perhaps because we felt a little protective of Tatiana earlier, in Chapter 3, Cantos 11-12, when the narrator intimates that the sentimental novels Tatiana adores aren’t fashionable any more and that tastes have moved on to darker, more Byronic fare—the type of stuff that Eugene favors. Even as the narrator sympathizes with Tatiana it’s clear that Eugene would regard himself as having more sophisticated taste than she does.

It is therefore extremely satisfying to have Tatiana discover in this scene that Eugene is a terrible reader. What’s also so economic about this episode is that, at the same time as it reveals Eugene’s character to Tatiana, it also deepens the reader’s sense of Tatiana’s character, supporting Pushkin’s initial characterization of her as intelligent and discerning.

So often, narratives tell us that a heroine is sharp-witted and discerning but then what they show us is her misjudging a man who initially seems pretty mediocre but who turns out to be super underneath. It feels like a form of gaslighting.

I had already confessed to my students that I’d had a lot, like, a lot of trouble adjusting to the idea that Darcy was actually worthy of Lizzy when I first read Pride and Prejudice. More recently, as I now told them, I’d had much the same problem re-watching the Harry Potter films with my kids.

“ … It’s just really upsetting to me because Hermione is so smart and …”

I didn’t need to continue.

One of my students just said “Ron” and shook her head.

***

Eugene Onegin concludes with a peripeteia or reversal: when their paths cross again after many years, Eugene is immediately drawn to Tatiana, who is now married to her wealthy general and exudes an “inaccessibly serene” aura. Eugene writes to her; she ignores him. He declares his love in person; she rebuffs him. The reversal, however, is not as complete as this account makes it sound. Tatiana, as she freely admits to him, still loves Eugene. Reading his marginalia causes her to perceive his shortcomings, but not to fall out of love with him, because her falling in love was not based in the first place on an estimation of his goodness.

When is it ever? As Lizzy observes to Darcy, “to be sure, you knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love” (Volume III, Chapter XVIII). Moreover, although Eugene, at the end, is in love with Tatiana, it’s not clear that this change of heart results from any growth on his part. What has changed is structural: she is no longer accessible to him and so now he desires her. In this respect, their characters seem unchanged even as their positions have shifted.

Eugene Onegin shows us what we know is true about desire but don’t want to believe: that it’s almost always asynchronous; that no-one ever got anywhere trying to talk someone else out of their feelings; and that sometimes it’s just too late.

Pushkin portrait

Cover illustration: detail from “Aleksandr Sergevich Pushkin with his wife, Natalya Goncharova, at the Court Ball,” 1937, by Nikolai Pavlovich Ulyanov. Pushkin Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

My students seemed to find the end of the novel at once disappointing and cathartic. I asked them what they took from the novel’s conclusion. Someone said something about toxic masculinity. Someone else said that they admired how composed Tatiana is—how perfectly indifferent she is to Eugene when she encounters him in public at the end. I agreed. I’d like to be able to channel her composure. Tatiana is an inspiring example to all of us who are delicately constituted—whether by nature or literary influence—because her example suggests that, with practice, even the most tender hearted among us can perfect the art of affecting indifference.

 

Notes

[1] “Richardson, Rousseau, and Sterne meantime, to whose powers of piercing, or soothing, or tearing the human heart, all imitation of manners becomes secondary—even adventure and combination of STORY superfluous—will continue to be wondered and wept over while language lives to record the names of Clarissa, Julie, and Le Fevre.” (Hester Lynch Piozzi. British Synonymy; or, an attempt at regulating the choice of words in familiar conversation. 1794, p. 446).

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Eugene Onegin are from James E. Falen’s translation (Oxford, 2009).

[3] But only slightly bad.

[4] Aleksandr Pushkin, Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse. Translated by Vladimir Nabokov. 2 vols. Volume II: Commentary and Index. (Princeton, Princeton University Press, Bollingen Paperback Edition Series LXXII, 1990), Part 2, 104.

[5] I would like to try to recreate Eugene’s marginalia. I imagine there’s a lot of “Christ symbol” and !!! and ??? and “note to self: remember not to leave shoes out when hiding in married woman’s bedroom.” If anyone wants to collaborate on this please get in touch ASAP.

[6] In one of Nabokov’s very best notes (which I imagine him composing with his head cocked just so, as if trying to make out if he hears a Sternian resonance or if it’s just his imagination), he observes, of Tatiana’s statement to Onegin that her husband was “maimed in battle”:

maimed

[7] See, for example, Nabokov’s note to Chapter 7, Canto 22, which identifies the 1820 French translation of The Giaour by Chastopalli as that which would have been “known to Pushkin and Onegin,” and goes on to quote a particular passage that “Onegin might have marked.” He goes on to suggest, “Tatiana (in June, 1821) might have found the following passage [from Chastopalli’s 1820 translation of Don Juan] marked by Onegin” (Nabokov, Commentary, Part 2, 94).

Standard