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What is it about Tatiana Larina? How is it that a young country girl, whose semblance is hardly remarkable and whose intelligence and judgment are suspect, has captivated literary culture and come to be regarded as “the Russians’ Mona Lisa” according to one prominent Russian literary scholar (Hasty, 1999)? Any sensible reader should root against her ill-matched and impulsive love, yet there is something irresistibly endearing and engaging about her innocent desire that pulls at the strings of even the most callous cynic’s heart. How is this accomplished? It is the charming eloquence of Pushkin’s most delicate love poetry in CHAPTER III, STANZAS XV, XVI – where Tatiana first admits her love obsession to her nurse, Filatyevna – that fully captures our heroine’s most cherished traits and helps explain the unjustified attraction that is inherently felt towards her.
In STANZA XV Pushkin offers Tatiana his fateful warning; the stanza opens with an ominous plea “Tatiana, dear Tatiana!; I now shed tears with you (Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, 1964).” The reader gets the sense that Pushkin’s appeal is doomed to be helpless as the he continues:
“Dear, you shall perish; but before,
In dazzling hope,
You summon somber bliss,
You learn the dulcitude of life…”
(CHAPTER III, XV, 5-8 (Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, 1964))
Pushkin continues with his helpless petition to Tatiana’s senses, using a series of portentous juxtapositions: perish in dazzling hope, somber bliss, and dulcitude (derived from Russian negu which connotes “dangerous euphoria” (Pushkin, Eugene Onegin: Commentary One to Five, 1964)). Pushkin’s masterful contrasts serve not only as a premonition of Tatiana’s fate, but also as a commentary on youthful love in general, and the two sides of infatuation’s coin. A certain idealistic sense of dazzling hope, bliss and euphoria consume every young lover, but the sobering reality – that love is a dangerous pursuit, especially when its gamble is not fully understood – can catch an unsuspecting lover off guard and leave him or her defeated, broken and perishing. Pushkin concludes his admonition by emphasizing the degree to which Tatiana has been left vulnerable and consumed by her love for Onegin: “everywhere, everywhere before you; is your fateful enticer (Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, 1964).” The burning passion within Tatiana can no longer be quenched through her sanguine ponderings; her beloved is inescapable in her mind’s eye, but this has ceased to satisfy. She yearns for concrete interaction and a tangible relationship to replace her imaginative optimism. Tatiana retreats to a moonlit garden to dwell on her heartache before finally confiding in her nurse the “impassioned anguish,” the “aching love” that is keeping her awake (CHAPTER III, STANZA XIV, LINES 9-10 (Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, 1964)).
The setting of STANZA XVI is remarkably effective in luring the reader into rooting for Tatiana’s ill-fated fantasies. Immediately after his appeal for her reconsideration of an impulsive, and doomed love affair, Pushkin follows Tatiana out to a romanticized garden where the “nightingale intones sonorous chants” and “the moon patrols the distant vault of heaven” (Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, 1964). The inspiriting presence of the picturesque moon inveigles the reader into accepting Tatiana’s desires, against our better judgment. After all, isn’t it right to root for youthful love? Pushkin goes on to hint at Tatiana’s innocent, fervent sexuality, as well as her rashness in lines 5-9:
“…her bosom has risen, her cheeks
Are covered with an instant flame,
Her breath has died upon her lips,
And there’s a singing in her ears, a flashing
Before her eyes…”
(CHAPTER III, XVI, 5-9 (Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, 1964))
Nobokov, in his commentary of Eugene Onegin, reminds us that ‘flashing’ connotes “a well-known photomatic phenomenon, typical of the slight insanity of adolescence.” This then, is another shot at the nature of Tatiana’s ill-considered, whimsical love; and the double meaning of the word, as a sort of celestial lighting or illumination of the stars, further suggests the romanticized nature of the setting.
In creating such a highly dramatic and sexualized scene, within the context of an Edenic and almost clich garden, Pushkin spawns sympathy toward Tatiana’s innocent naivety. Indeed, the garden scene feels contrived in its resemblance to a fairy-tale garden, where the animals, trees, and celestial bodies all cry out in unison for the heroine to act on her impulses – no matter how ill advised they are known to be. Pushkin’s poetry so artfully pushes his agenda, that despite the reader’s foreknowledge of the impossible fate of her foolish and precipitous fantasies, we can’t help but root for them. Moreover, even while Pushkin introduces and defines Tatiana as: “lacking fresh and rosy tone/a wild creature, sad, pensive/and shy (CHAPTER III, STANZA XXV (Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, 1995))” the reader is willing to compromise all of these pathetic characteristics and instead focus on the traits that we admire such as her courageous initiative, imagination, innocence, and self-determination.
Finally, after a lonely stroll through the garden, Tatiana confides her feelings in the senile, yet good-intentioned Filatyevna, which prompts a comfortless reminiscence of her nurse’s past. Indeed, Filatyevna spends much more time talking in this exchange, and as her story drones on it lends to the suspense that the reader shares with Tatiana – who has drifted off into day-dreaming about her own perceptions of love, rather than the aged and unidealized notions that her nurse presents. The dialogue concludes in STANZA XX, with some of Pushkin’s most affecting love poetry.
“ ‘Oh, I’m in love,’ again she pleaded
With her old friend. ‘My little dove,
You’re just not well, you’re overheated.’
‘Oh, let me be now…I’m in love.’ ”
(CHAPTER III, XX, 1-4 (Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, 1995))
Tatiana’s insistent independence is accentuated in this exchange. So too is her innocent idealism. She repeats the phrase “I’m in love” two times in this stanza (and once in the stanza prior,) which suggests that she is trying to reinforce the legitimacy of her love, as she also tries to convince herself that she is actually in love. Additionally, the reader gets the sense that Tatiana likes the prospect of being in love as much as the act of actually loving; in her adolescent state, the word ‘love’ seems to rolls off of her tongue with mature overtones, it dignifies her. As she begins to grasp the meaning of love, she falls further and further into it. This is reflected in her reiteration of her love. Here the first statement of love seems to be her realization; the second, her defense; and the last, her conclusion, whereby she is certain that she is in love, her mind is made up, and there is no turning back.
Also interesting to note in STANZA XX is Pushkin’s second mention of the moonlit setting. Suggested by this familiar backdrop is a sense of enchantment and comfort for the lovesick Tatiana, as she resolves that she must be bold in action in as she courts Onegin. Pushkin concludes the stanza with a dark and disquieting image which serves as an omen of what lays ahead for Tatiana: “And all the world in silence lay; Beneath the moon’s seductive ray (Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, 1995).” Here, in the foreboding darkness, the moonscape is held responsible for seducing the innocent Tatiana and causing her to fall in love. Some of the blame is lifted off of Tatiana’s impulsive naivety as it is suggested that nature has instigated and determined her fate through the alluring power of the moon. Thus, the stage is set for Tatiana to spill her heart out in a love letter to Onegin – a letter whose fate is predetermined, but whose message is so beautifully articulated that the reader can’t help but hope and wonder if it has a chance.
Alexander Pushkin’s poetry in CHAPTER III, STANZAS XV and XVI is incredibly effective in how it subtly persuades the reader into Pushkin intended state. After plainly stating the numerous pitfalls of Tatiana Larina when he introduces her character, and after compounding her imperfection towards the end of the novel – “One couldn’t label her a beauty (Pushkin, Eugene Onegin, 1995)” – it is hardly conceivable that Pushkin managed to immortalize his heroine among fictional literary figures. She is depicted as spontaneous and emotionally vulnerable, while her beloved Eugene Onegin is portrayed as enigmatic, cold and calculated – an impossible pairing. Yet, we can’t help but hope that these differences are resolved and that ultimately young love will prevail. It is only through masterfully crafted love poetry, which cleverly influences the reader’s response in the subtlest of ways, that we are able to fall in love with Tatiana, and disregard all of the reasons why we should root against her. This elusive capability of Pushkin’s poetry distinguishes him, and it is one of the intangible characteristics of Eugene Onegin that makes it so captivating and timeless.
Briggs, A. (1992). Landmarks of World Literature, Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin. Melksham, Wiltshire, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.
Hasty, O. P. (1999). Pushkin’s Tatiana. Madison, Wisconsin, USA: University of Wisconsin Press.
Pushkin, A. (1964). Eugene Onegin. (V. Nabokov, Trans.) New York: Bollingen Foundation.
Pushkin, A. (1995). Eugene Onegin. (J. E. Falen, Trans.) New York: Oxford University Press.
Pushkin, A. (1964). Eugene Onegin: Commentary One to Five. (V. Nabokov, Trans.) New York: Bollingen Foundation.
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