There are some stories and characters which grip the collective imagination.They capture us at that first contact and never let go, haunting us, dwelling in our hearts, being returned to over and over like old friends or favourite memories. Crossing boundaries of time and place, they are told over and over, sometimes in the same form, sometimes in new ones. Eugene Onegin, the verse novel by Russian literary giant Alexander Pushkin, is one such story. Penned in the 19th century’s great flowering of Romanticism, it has since been translated into many languages, been turned into a much-loved opera by Tchaikovsky, a ballet, a play, and been made into the film Onegin, starring Ralph Fiennes.
I first came across the story as Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, which in turn led me to read Pushkin's novel. Though simple at first glance, Pushkin’s tale at the same time contains a depth and breadth that seems to stretch into infinity and eternity. Worldly, cynical St Petersburg socialite Eugene (or Yevgeni in Russian) Onegin meets teenage Tatyana Larin while staying in the country. She is shy, naive and unsophisticated, going around all day with her head in romantic novels, dreaming of love. Onegin’s friend, the idealistic young poet Lensky, is in love with Tatyana’s practical, worldlier sister, Olga. Onegin is struck by the wild and beautiful Tatyana. But when she writes a letter to him declaring her love, he coolly, condescendingly rejects her, saying he would grow bored with married life, that it is not for him, that her heart will heal and she will forget him.
Onegin annoys Lensky by telling him that if he were a poet, he would choose Tatyana, and not her sister. In a callous move, he proves his point by flirting with Olga at a ball. She is very receptive, flirting and dancing with Onegin while Lensky looks on. At last the poet can bear no more. He challenges his friend to a duel, and Onegin accepts. They meet in the wilderness, where Onegin shoots and Lensky is killed. He is tormented by guilt and unrest. For six years he travels abroad, but each new place only makes him more bored than the last. Filled with ennui and hopelessness, he returns to St Petersburg. There, he sees Tatyana at a ball. Now married to an aged war hero-prince, she is the toast of society, admired everywhere for her beauty and virtue. Onegin becomes obsessed with Tatyana. He sends her letters but receives no reply. In great turmoil, he seeks an audience with her. There he declares his love. Tatyana confesses she loves him still, but rejects his proposal to elope. It is too late. She is married to another, and she will not be unfaithful. She sends Onegin away, saying they can never see each other again.
It is a sad story. And Onegin is in many ways an unsympathetic character. He is shallow, vain, cynical, discontented, acts selfishly and is careless of the hurt he might cause others. We may dislike, or even despise, Onegin. But somehow, although he is very much a unique individual, Pushkin’s Petersburg socialite is universally compelling. Why? Because he is us; you, me and everyone else. Because it is he himself who stands between himself and what he desires. It is he who, through his own actions, denies himself happiness. We blame luck, circumstance and other people for most of our unhappiness and disappointments. But it is often our own actions and attitudes which create these obstacles and this unhappiness. Onegin could have had Lensky, Tatyana and a peaceful life on his country estate. Yet he threw it away in some vague reaching after excitement, in feeding a gnawing, nameless discontent.
And yet… This story’s tragedy is more complex than that. It seems to say that happiness is not truly possible in this life. If Onegin had married Tatyana, he likely would have grown bored. He only knows how much he needs and loves her because he has lived without her. And if Tatyana had left her husband for Onegin, she would have ruined her reputation and would have felt terrible guilt for wronging him. How would she have been able to be happy then? The only way Onegin could have been happy was if he had been a better man. And he the only way he could become a better man was through experiencing the pain and loss his faults caused.