Eugene Onegin, first thoughts

(c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

First off – I’m feeling quite sheepish and sorry for my absence during this read-along!  This weekend I am, at last, finally writing my first post and catching up on all of your interesting insights!

Second apology: for my not-so subtle promotion of the 2013 Met Opera production, now on DVD.  I promise I’m not affiliated with the Met in any way – this is just my favorite adaptation of the story!  If you like opera at all, it’s worth checking out.

Back to the topic at hand.  This is my fourth year reading Onegin.  How it could possibly be the fourth, I don’t know; it’s just a tradition I started freshman year of college.  Each translation reads like a new book, and this time it’s Charles Johnston.

So far, I have mixed feelings about Johnston’s.  It might be the easiest to read yet, whether because of accuracies or liberties, I don’t know, though I suspect the latter.  It certainly rhymes better than the Mitchell translation –  there’s something to be said for that.  On the other hand, I feel like the word choices are too – cynical?  Or simply more opinionated, less subtle?  Both a strength and a weakness. I’ll be interested to see how this manifests itself later on.

Chapters 1 & 2 Questions

– First impressions of Eugene?

After I read other participants’ ideas on these early chapters, a thought came to mind that was so obvious but somehow new to me.  Eugene lives on first impressions (no pun intended).  First dances, first loves, new places, new people.  He loves the countryside, at first.  He likes Tatyana, at first.  But he becomes disappointed by everything new he pursues, and I think that is what repels him from Tatyana as well.  He doesn’t want to live old mistakes over again.

– What do you make of the narrator’s commentary?

It really used to bug me, but I like it now.  Pushkin is not too lofty or lowly, and he doesn’t try to pull or dare you into the story.  I picture him sitting in a living room or study, talking and telling the story informally to half-critical friends.  No pressure, just an invitation to listen.

– Thoughts on the characters sketched out in Chapter 2?

Eugene is delightfully unsociable; I love the bit in stanza 5 where he runs away every time someone comes to visit.  (I’m also guessing he’s kinder to his serfs out of pure laziness, not particular benevolence.)

Lensky’s character is already firmly established.  He gets quite – unduly? – attached to people, even the late Mr. Larin, whose memorial he visits with genuine sadness.

Olga is not given much description.  Tatyana’s childhood is actually described, which is significant in such a space-efficient novel.  I like the part “a chilled reaction / to horror stories told at night / in winter was her heart’s delight”.  It sounds ironic that a sensitive girl would like spooky stories, yet I was just the same way.  Also, it’s such a random but telling piece of her personality.

Chapters 3 & 4 Questions

– Impressions of Tatyana and Olga?

Olga is a bit of a mystery – even now we don’t get to really know her.  However, it is implied she is a bit indifferent to Lensky’s romantic verses.  Considering they were childhood friends, maybe she is not actually shallow, but just has different feelings towards him than what he has for her.

I don’t quite like Tatyana in this translation.  She comes across as particularly emotional and impressionable.  Again, this must be due to the translation, as previously I didn’t have that response.

– What do you make of Onegin’s reaction to Tatyana?

Very much in character.  Half of it is arrogance, and the “I’m older and wiser than you!” sort of thing.  The other half is the other half of Onegin, struck by his conscience and genuinely moved to an act of concern, maybe even kindness.

What I love also about this scene is that Tatyana saw it coming.  The book is full of Romanticism, but it’s these moments of realism that make it so true to life.

– How does the story, thus far, compare or contrast with another classic romantic novel (of your choice)? 

I think Eugene Onegin was in many ways ahead of its time.  Invariably, I must compare it to Jane Eyre, since it focuses as much on the heroine’s development as on the romantic plot.  But Eugene Onegin also deals with the effect of society on people’s actions, which makes it a little more universal.  Sort of the best of both Austen and Bronte, I would say.  🙂


  1. Amateur Reader (Tom) Avatar
    Amateur Reader (Tom)

    I will probably start the book later this week – I knew I would not follow that schedule. Nice to see so many people reading along.Could you go into what you mean by a cynical or opinionated word choice by the translator? Or an example? I wonder what you are seeing.


  2. Marian Avatar

    I'm glad to hear it – it's really not too late! One or two readers ended up reading it one sitting. It's mostly dealing with Tatyana's character where I see the curious word choices. E.g., there's Johnston's translation of the beginning of her letter:I write to you – no more confession is needed, nothing's left to tellI know it's now in your discretionwith scorn to make my world a hell.Versus Mitchell's (not my favorite, but better):I write to you – what more is needed?What else is there that I could say?It's in your power, I concede it,To punish my naivete.Johnston's is more dramatic, but in the same turn, more melodramatic. Whereas by Mitchell, Tatyana is given more depth of character and perception than simply outbursts of emotion. 🙂 Even comparing the second lines of these verses – \”what else is there\” suggests simplicity and honesty, while \”nothing's left\” uses negative language, to lesser effect.


  3. Amateur Reader (Tom) Avatar
    Amateur Reader (Tom)

    So interesting. The passages have the same basic content but sound so different. It would be great to do more of these comparisons, but they are so much work.Maybe I will get the energy to do one or two when I read the poem.


  4. cleopatra Avatar

    I know exactly what you mean about Johnston, Marian. He was the translator for my first read, so at that time I had nothing to compare him to. Now that I'm reading Falen, certain subtleties in the poem are coming alive for me and the progression is much clearer. Falen's version of the above is:I'm writing you this declaration –What more can I in candour say?It may be now your inclinationTo scorn me and to turn away;


  5. Marian Avatar

    That's rather different than the other two, as well! I love seeing these translations comparisons – thank you for sharing. 🙂


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