Lensky’s Idealism, and Why Onegin Fought a Duel

Yevgeny Onegin by Repin
Last night I finished my first re-reading of Eugene Onegin (Alexander Pushkin).  The plan is to use a different translation for each re-read–this time I used Henry Spalding’s, which you can find at Project Gutenberg.  While I didn’t stumble across any words like zen, I found parts of the translation to read awkwardly, as if a thesaurus had been referenced once too often.  On the positive side, it is overall a very readable translation, and it rhymes. 4.5/5 stars for the Spalding translation.

As for the re-read itself.  Much has been made of Tatyana’s bookish dreams, but I’m convinced now that the poet Lensky is the only idealist, the only dreamer in the whole book.  His last thoughts were what really stood out to me this time.  I understood better where he was coming from, and I actually felt very sorry for him.

(Spoiler alert)
After the ball–where Onegin childishly vents his anger by flirting with Olga–Lensky’s reaction goes from feeling hurt at his girlfriend’s behaviour to feeling determined to defend her from (whom he thinks is) his treacherous best friend.  In other words, his initial shock is riddled with jealousy, but it is actually truer than his second thoughts.  With his second thoughts, he forgives Olga, but romanticizes his situation to great extremes, driving himself unnecessarily to the “point of no return,” and placing his whole self-opinion in the hands of the callous, upper-crust society.  In a kind of poetic madness, Lensky lives his romantic ideals out to the ultimate end, so afraid is he of public humility and of not being taken seriously.  Not a single other character in the book goes that far.

To my mind, then, Lensky’s great faults are one, that he idolizes his own ideals, and two, that he lets public opinion dictate his actions.  But while I do not condone these things, or the action he chose to take, I do think that society was partly responsible for each of them.  In Lensky’s day, society’s shallowness provoked him to turn to his ideals, and an individual’s reputation hinged mercilessly on society’s opinion, which could be so easily altered by rumors.  And regardless if you were an idle “misanthrope” like Onegin or an aspiring artist like Lensky, there was no escape from aristocratic society.  Everybody knew everyone, whether they liked it or not.

So Lensky challenge Onegin to a duel, and we know Onegin accepted the challenge.

But why did he accept, anyway?

I have a theory that Onegin did it for Lensky’s sake.  Think about it.  We know that Lensky doesn’t really hate Onegin.  We also know that Onegin felt apologetic before the duel.  Furthermore he was psychologically tortured by its results.  He has also given up his social life, so while he might be partially interested in maintaining his honor and reputation, it couldn’t be the bulk of his reason for duelling his only friend.

One of Lensky’s fears was that Onegin would treat the duel as a joke, and I think Onegin knew that.  It seems strange to us modern-day readers, but I think Onegin, in a certain sense, was trying to make amends for his unkindness.  As he saw it, he could not apologize–that would be crushing to Lenksy’s pride and his own pride.  Instead, he agreed to the duel, as a way of saying “You were right, I was wrong, and I take you perfectly seriously.”  Probably Onegin, a believer in fate, even expected Lensky’s bullet to hit its target.

What Onegin didn’t factor-in was that, even if he were indifferent about dying, Lensky was not. Nor was Onegin prepared to be the one who killed him.

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    Fangirling over Eugene Onegin – A Classic 19th-Century Russian Romance – Classics Considered

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  2. JHH Avatar

    Consider the malicious role that Lensky’s second, Zaretsky played. As a second, he was supposed to work to prevent it; instead he fostered it. Pushkin understood dueling — he was involved in many before the one in which he died. It was a ritualized encounter, and Zaretsky was supposed to offer Onegin three opportunities to apologize. But after delivering the challenge, he never returned, and since Onegin was, by accepted custom, not allowed to approach Lensky personally, he had no choice but to show up that morning. Only another nobleman can be second in a duel — Onegin showed up with his valet! Zaretsky should have called it off immediately.

    Liked by 1 person

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