by Alexander Pushkin
Edition: Oxford World’s Classics, paperback
My overall rating: 5 out of 5 stars.
Bored by the dissipation and drama of his youthful life, Eugene Onegin withdraws from society to his inherited estate in the Russian countryside. His only friend is Vladimir Lensky, a young, romantic poet who is engaged to Olga Larin. Her older sister, Tatyana, is a plain, quiet introvert. She takes more interest in books and the countryside than anything else, until she meets Onegin. Onegin has shut his heart to true love and second-chances, but Tatyana doesn’t know this; and she writes him a spontaneous but sincere love letter, then waits feverishly for his response.
This is one of those books that makes you ask yourself “Why didn’t I read this years ago?” Actually, I only heard about this story via Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin “Polonaise” and “Waltz” (excellent music). The synopsis sounded great, so I got the most convenient library copy and started it soon after I finished Blithedale.
First of all, the translation–it was a little too contemporary for me (words like “girlfriends”, “zen”, and the overuse of “modish” were rather irritating). But it was a good translation, so far as I can tell.
Now, the story. Well, where to begin? If popular “doomed love” stories like Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, or Gone With the Wind left you *facepalming* in frustration, then you should give Eugene Onegin a try. It’s got all the drama of those other ones, but it’s way more romantic, melancholy, and climactic in general. The rhythmic, half-mournful, half-humorous poetry (in which the whole book is written) also helped make it a page-turner. The story itself was very sad, but beautifully written–half fantasy, half realism. And the ending! It was one of those dramatic endings, but it felt realistic and complete.
The two protagonists were pretty flawed, but they were also likeable. Onegin is the anti-romantic-hero–so disgusted by his previous experiences of love (in reality, just infatuation), that he’s converted his emotions to pride, and his life to solitude and idleness. At the same time, he’s a grey character; in his selfishness there are glimpses of goodness, of a “better self”, so to speak. We never get to completely see his better character, though Tatyana seems to.
Tatyana is the real main character. She is probably the best portrayal of a heroine that a male author ever wrote–her weaknesses, strengths, and personality were brilliantly written and very believable. When put to the test, she’s a strong character who lives by her principles, putting duty and her parent’s wishes before her own. But it’s not easy and she’s not perfect; half of her is “sense”, the other half “sensibility”. She’s really a great, three-dimensional character.
Human nature, society’s expectations, and virtue make up the triangular conflict of Eugene Onegin; and there’s a lot in the story that’s open to interpretation, so whether you like it or not may depend on your interpretation. I was literally thinking about the book for a week afterwards. It makes you think about life and people’s choices; and it actually makes me grateful to live in a modern-day society. And the book is a “tragic love story”, but in some ways, it’s also inspiring, because the tragedy isn’t the ultimate end. It doesn’t have to be the end; and that was one point in the book that seemed very clear to me.