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Eugene Onegin: Summary, Characters & Analysis

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin is a novel in verse, sometimes described as an anti-novel. A satirical masterpiece of the early nineteenth century, it's a touchstone of Russian literature. It both characterizes and comments on the Romantic movement.

Eugene Onegin: Summary and Analysis

If you're reading Eugene Onegin expecting an ordinary novel or even a straightforward narrative poem, you're likely to be both disappointed and confused. Pushkin's novel in verse is satirical and deliberately weird; the author himself even makes a cameo appearance. It is not, however, obscure; it is beautifully symmetrical, composed in a series of brilliant vignettes, or short impressionist scenes. Many translations try to preserve the rhyming playfulness of Pushkin's language.

A drawing by Pushkin of Onegin and himself
self-portrait

Chapters I-IV

The first two chapters of Onegin introduce the contrast between urban and rural culture. In Chapter I, each stanza functions as a little set piece, offering a window on St. Petersburg society. As Eugene Onegin goes from ballet to theatre, we learn about his education (negligible), his reputation (uncertain), and his finances (bad). When his father dies, Onegin is left with only debts, so he goes to stay with his rich, dying uncle in the country.

Chapter II introduces us to the cast of characters in the 'enchanting country nook' (stanza 1). Onegin hates it. Here (as Pushkin hints in the chapter's epigraph by Horace, praising the countryside) people are untouched by the fast-paced, gossipy world Onegin is used to. Out of sheer boredom, Onegin befriends the idealistic poet Vladimir Lensky. This stark contrast - between environments and characters - will drive the events of the novel.

The novel's pace quickens in the third and fourth chapters. Through Lensky, Onegin is introduced to his country neighbors, the Larins, a family with two daughters. Lensky is engaged to the younger daughter, Olga. The older sister, Tatyana, is instantly attracted to Onegin. To her, he seems the incarnation of all the heroes of Romantic literature. Impulsively, she writes him a letter confessing her love. She waits for his response expecting it to define her future life.

Having ended Chapter III on a cliffhanger, Pushkin finally tells us how Onegin reacts to Tatyana's confession in Chapter IV. Their conversation is painfully recognizable to anyone who's been in a similar situation, having to give (or listen to!) a speech beginning 'I think you're great, but...' Onegin can't return Tatyana's feelings, but he's gentle in telling her so. This doesn't stop country gossip about them; it's enough that he's a bachelor living next door. The other significant event of the chapter is the announcement of Lensky's engagement to Olga. As Pushkin remarks, there's nothing to do in long country winters except gossip and drink.

Chapters V-VIII

Chapters V and VI are comparatively short, and see the climax, or turning point, of the poem's dramatic action. The sometimes painful contrasts in temperament between the sophisticated, cynical Onegin and the naive Lensky come to a head.

In the first part of Chapter V, Tatyana has an ominous dream. Later, at a party held in her honor, Onegin's free city manners cause a scandal. He dances with Lensky's fiancée Olga. Twice. This may not seem like a big deal to modern readers. It doesn't seem like a terribly big deal to Onegin. But social dancing, in the nineteenth century, provided the single biggest opportunity for unmarried men and women to share physical contact and private conversation. Seeing Onegin flirt thus with his fiancée, Lensky rushes off.

Onegin shoots Lensky in their duel
duel

During the long night, as the party drags on, Lensky makes up his mind to challenge Onegin to a duel. The terse, sharp language of the poem in Chapter VI reflects the fast pace of events, and their ominous outcome. This is particularly notable in the twenty-ninth stanza, devoted entirely to the loading of Lensky and Onegin's pistols. When Onegin kills Lensky, his own youth ends.

Chapter VII deals with the aftermath of Onegin and Lensky's fatal encounter. Tatyana leaves her family, and her beloved nature, to go to Moscow. Her experience of urban society as chaotic and superficial mirrors Onegin's in the first chapter.

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