Pushkin’s Dear Tatiana

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 négu 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 cliché 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. BibliographyBriggs, 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.

Onegin and Lensky: Do Opposites Really Attract?

Alexander Pushkin’s novel, Eugene Onegin, gives the reader an excellent insight into his thoughts and beliefs regarding different types of human behavior. Throughout the novel Pushkin illustrates many of his own characteristics via the two main male figures, Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky, despite them being quite different from one another. However, an interesting distinction can be made between the ways that he approaches the two characters by comparing two stanzas from the novel. Stanza 45 in chapter 1 describes the hero of the novel, Eugene Onegin, and depicts his disenchantment with life, and with humans in general. This is also an excellent example of Pushkin showing parallels between himself and Onegin, whom Pushkin seems to take very seriously throughout the novel. On the other hand, in stanza 10 in chapter 2, we meet young Vladimir Lensky, described in a much more sarcastic manner. Lensky’s appreciation of poetry and nature are obvious here, although Pushkin’s tone is clearly mocking the young poet. Despite drawing characteristics of both characters from himself, they are extremely different and the narrator addresses them both in extremely distinctive tones.The first stanza comes towards the end of the first chapter, and at this point the reader has only recently been introduced to Eugene Onegin, to whom this stanza is referring. This stanza illustrates some of the main concepts from the previous stanzas, mainly the lifestyle and character traits of Onegin. He definitely leads a fashionable, comfortable life, but this does not leave Onegin satisfied. Eugene can be described as a Byronic hero, burned out and unhappy with life. This stanza clearly shows similarities between Onegin and Pushkin, although the author denies throughout the novel that Onegin is a representation of himself. The resemblance between the two can be seen in the following lines: “The cold sharp mind that he possessed; I was embittered, he depressed;” (1.45.7-8). Of course, there is the one glaring difference between the two, which is that Onegin has no love of poetry. Throughout the entire first chapter and much of the novel, Onegin is described as self-centered, uncaring, and superficial, and it is done in a serious tone more often than not.The second stanza describes Lensky in an entirely different way than that in which Onegin was shown. Lensky is not introduced to the reader until stanza six, and he appears to be another aspect of the narrator. He is portrayed as a young, stereotypical poet; much like Pushkin was before he was betrayed by his friends. He is still ambitious and hopeful about the future, quite different from Onegin’s view of the world. Lensky is genuinely interested in poetry, but the narrator makes this seem to be immature and humorous. It is clear in the last two lines. “He sang life’s bloom gone pale and sere—/ He’d almost reached his eighteenth year.” (2.10.13-14) In these two lines the narrator’s idea of Lensky seems to be more sarcastic and light-hearted; it is almost as if he is making fun of the young poet. There is definitely a difference in the tone with which the author regards these characters, which is much more serious towards Onegin and more mocking towards Lensky. Pushkin seems to be looking back on his younger years with a sense of nostalgia, and through Lensky, is remembering it affectionately.An intriguing aspect of both of these stanzas is the way the author is so similar to each of these characters, yet he attempts to keep his distance from them. It seems possible that Pushkin is looking at Lensky as himself in his youth, and Onegin more as what society had turned him into. With these two characters, he is showing the pros and cons of both ways of life without taking a side. In the first passage, the narrator says “The fire in both our hearts was pale;”, but soon thereafter introduces young Lensky, who still has that fire that the narrator and Onegin now lack. Onegin’s current view of the world is foreshadowing the eventual downfall of Lensky. He hasn’t had the experiences with the world or felt the pain of betrayal that both Onegin and Pushkin had – but he will. This concept appears to be somewhat humorous to Pushkin, who is looking back at how innocent and hopeful he was in his youth, and also how irrational he was.An important comparison between these two stanzas can be made in the last two lines of each stanza. They each give a clear example of the tone that the narrator has taken towards the two characters, Onegin and Lensky. In the first passage, the final two lines read:”While life was still but in its morn—Blind fortune’s malice and men’s scorn.”These lines have a definite somber tone, completely different from the sarcastic approach taken towards Lensky in the last two lines of the second passage.The two stanzas also have very distinctive approaches towards love, which are played out throughout the rest of the novel. In the first passage, regarding Onegin, the narrator says:”With passion’s game we both were sated;The fire in both our hearts was pale;”These lines illustrate the fact that neither the narrator nor Onegin are really passionate or loving towards anything anymore. They have had their experiences with love; THEY have felt the pain that can accompany it and are not interested in pursuing it further. Young Lensky, on the other hand, approaches love with a much more positive outlook. This is clear in the first line of the second stanza; “He sang of love, by love commanded,”. These differences in the two characters and their views on life allow the author to approach them with different tones and ideas, giving the novel a greater level of depth.When analyzing the characters in this novel, it is important to understand why it is that Pushkin describes them the way he does. Through consideration of Pushkin’s history, it is possible to consider the tone with which he regards the characters and also to draw something out of this. By observing the descriptions of these characters early in the novel, it is easy to rationalize their actions throughout the rest of the story. The fact that Lensky is shown to be immature and inexperienced leads all the way up to his untimely death. Furthermore, the comparisons made between Onegin and the narrator, particularly their disenchantment with life, and the tone that the narrator describes Onegin in, explain a lot of his interactions with others.Stanzas Analyzed:Chapter 1, Stanza 45I too had parted with convention,With vain pursuit of worldly ends;And when Eugene drew my attention,I liked his ways and we made friends.I liked his natural bent for dreaming,His strangeness that was more than seeming,The cold sharp mind that he possessed;I was embittered, he depressed;With passion’s game we both were sated;The fire in both our hearts was pale;Our lives were weary, flat, and stale;And for us both, ahead there waited—While life was still but in its morn—Blind fortune’s malice and men’s scorn.Chapter 2, Stanza 10He sang of love, by love commanded,A simple and affecting tune,As clear as maiden thoughts, as candidAs infant slumber, as the moonIn heaven’s peaceful desert flying,That queen of secrets and of sighing.He sang of parting and of pain,Of something vague, of mists and rain;He sang the rose, romantic flower,And distant lands, where once he’d shedHis living tears upon the bedOf silence at a lonely hour;He sang life’s bloom gone pale and sere—He’d almost reached his eighteenth year.

Comparing the Johnston and Nabokov Translations of ‘Eugene Onegin’

Charles Johnston and Vladimir Nabokov are the most well-known translators of Eugene Onegin, because they focused on different aspects of the text and ended up with entirely distinct renditions of the same work. Johnston, a British diplomat and translator of Russian poetry, wrote what is considered by many to be the best preservation of the Onegin stanza and Pushkin’s lyricism in translation. Nabokov, a prominent Russian writer himself, notoriously denounced several translations of Eugene Oneginin multiple languages before (and after) deciding to write his own in order to fix the problems he found in others. Nabokov believed that translations in verse sacrificed meaning and faithfulness to syntax for melody and rhyme structure, and therefore wrote his translation in prose (although his work still sounds poetic due to Pushkin’s vocabulary). In addition to translating the novel, Nabokov wrote over 1,000 pages of commentary and included discarded stanzas, lines, and even an extension which Pushkin started called “Onegin’s Journey,” ultimately publishing four volumes of work.

Pushkin begins each chapter with a short quote, which acts as a title and clue as to the chapter’s content. Several of these phrases appeared originally in Russian, although he also includes a few in French, one in Italian, and one in English (from his own beloved Byron). Johnston and Nabokov translated only the Russian quotes because, for example, despite the popularity of French in Russia at the time of the novel’s publication, it was still a foreign language, and must be kept as such. Throughout the novel, both translators also agree on Eugene instead of the Russian Evgeny to refer to the hero, although Johnston switches a few times to benefit from the extra syllable. One must wonder at the choice to anglicize Onegin’s first name, especially by Nabokov, since his last name remains the same, as do the names of other characters in the book, but translators seem to have accepted Eugene Onegin as the standard.

Nabokov and Johnston display their difference in styles with the first question in Chapter Three. Nabokov chooses the most direct translation possible of the Russian word куда (typically translated in 21stcentury English as “to where”), despite the strange formality of “Wither?” as a question on its own in English. Johnston goes with a more casual “You’re off?” which fits better with his translation of the rest of the line and overall looser translation. Both clearly retain the sense of motion described by the Russian word, although their tones differ slightly, a characteristic which continues throughout the novel. “Wither?” implies Onegin knew that Lensky planned on going somewhere, but does not know his destination, while “You’re off?” communicates a mild sense of surprise at Lensky’s departure itself. Four lines later, the translations present a more significant difference in meaning. When Lensky divulges his destination, Nabokov’s Onegin responds “Now, that’s a fine thing,” while Johnston’s says “But how mysterious.” Johnston clearly took some liberties with this line in order to rhyme it with the next, since the Russian words do not imply mystery, and the reader is left wondering why, exactly, it is mysterious that Lensky would visit the neighbors.

Directly after their evening with the neighbors, Johnston and Nabokov use different techniques to introduce Onegin and Lensky’s conversation in the carriage. Johnston informs the reader that she overheard this conversation secretly, while Nabokov invites the reader to join him in eavesdropping as the conversation transpires at that very moment. Nabokov keeps Pushkin’s sense of comradery with the reader, as if the narrator walks with her alongside the story while explaining every detail. Johnston remains informal, addressing the reader directly, but presents the story as finished and his account as merely a retelling.

In multiple places, Johnston uses a passive description where Nabokov chooses active. Stanza XXV discusses the habit of other young girls to play with the feelings of their admirers, as Johnston says: “We’ll take vanity, and let hope sting it.” Nabokov makes the girls part of the action with: “Let us first prick vainglory with hope.” This may be another example of an instance in which Johnston needed more syllables than a literal translation of words provided, forcing him to rearrange, since Pushkin’s words match those of Nabokov. Later, in lines 28-30 of Tatiana’s letter, Johnston’s Tatiana imagines her life had Onegin not visited and writes that “In the role of virtuous mother and faithful wife [she’d] have been cast,” compared to Nabokov’s Tatiana, who would “Have been a faithful wife and a virtuous mother.” In Johnston’s words, Tatiana plays no role in her own life, speaking as if she is but an actress and must follow the instructions of her director, becoming a virtuous mother and faithful wife. This makes it sound as if Onegin’s appearance changed her life for the better, and now she will not be forced into a role she does not want. Nabokov’s Tatiana sounds bitter because she would have been content to marry another and bear children, and if he had not visited, she could have gone through life as she expected to, without the excitement and confusion she feels.

One of the most important details in Tatiana’s letter is the most challenging to translate into English. Russian, like many other languages, has two different pronouns for “you,” a formal and an informal. The rules regarding which pronoun to use can be tricky, but generally people use the formal pronoun until they are well acquainted and mutually decide to switch to informal. This makes Tatiana’s letter even more of a risk because she continuously uses the informal pronoun, a massive breach of etiquette towards a man she has barely met, but English readers would never know. Johnston translates all of the pronouns into standard spoken English, not even hinting at her overly intimate address. Nabokov makes an effort by his use of the antiquated English informal “thou” when Tatiana confesses “I am thine,” though he translates to “you” for the rest of the letter to match the rest of the novel and avoid sounding stiff due to the common English misconception that “thou” conveys formality.

Beginning in the first stanza, Johnston leans toward a more aggressive translation style. When given options, he tends to choose English translation which sound harsh or have negative connotations. In the discussion of Lensky’s itinerary, Johnston has him contradict Onegin’s disdainful “You can’t be serious killing each evening off like that?” with an irritated-sounding “You’re wrong,” inserting conflict and tension into a scene which remains light in the original. (Nabokov stays truer to Pushkin’s Russian words with “You don’t find it difficult thus every evening to kill time?” and “Not in the least”). Another example appears in stanza II, when Johnston writes “For God’s sake, that will do,” compared to Nabokov’s “That will do, old boy, for goodness’ sake.” Pushkin does write “For God’s sake” in Russian, although Onegin uses a diminutive for Lensky which does not translate correctly into English (roughly translated as “sweetheart” or “dear,” but the Russian word lacks any romantic/gendered connotation), leading Nabokov to even out the sentence by changing “God” to “goodness” and choosing a term of endearment which does not sound quite so intimate, while Johnston simply cuts out the familiarity.

In stanzas IV and V, Pushkin uses the same adjective to describe the area which Lensky and Onegin drive through, as well as Lensky’s love interest, not using the adjective in the exact same sense both times (based on the Russian, this critic would refer to the country as “inane” in English and the girl as “foolish”). Nabokov takes this and uses one translation of the Russian adjective which fits for both descriptions, “silly,” and Johnston chooses two different descriptors, “pretty stupid” and “dumb.” Nabokov’s Onegin comes across as aloof, seeing the country and its people as foolish and shallow, while Johnston’s Onegin sneers rather maliciously and seems to see everything in the country as unworthy of his intellect. Later, in stanza VII, Johnston depicts Tatiana after her meeting with Onegin as imagining their wedding “Despite herself,” which, although comparable in meaning, has a negative connotation compared to Nabokov’s neutral phrase that she “Could not help thinking” of their match. Once again, Johnston’s word choice introduces conflict, this time inner, when he suggests that Tatiana tries not to fall in love with Onegin but does anyway, like she is too weak to stop herself. Nabokov’s phrasing reads more as if she unconsciously begins to picture a union, not realizing that she is falling in love until it is too late.

In the discussion of heroes and vice in stanza XII, Johnston writes “Even in novels, vice entraps us, yes, even there its triumph grows” versus Nabokov’s “Vice is attractive in a novel, too, and there, at least, it triumphs.” Johnston implies that as such a powerful force, vice conquers in the real world and even in the fictional, whereas Nabokov conveys vice as nothing more than temptation in people’s lives, that at least vice wins in novels, because it never does anywhere else. Pushkin’s words in this instance present a translational challenge, and can be used in support of either rendition due to his use of a Russian noun which possesses no real meaning of its own, but rather emphasizes the word in front of it (in this sentence “there”), which ambiguously could mean “even there” or “there, at least,” leaving neither Nabokov nor Johnston more “correct,” but forcing them to use their own interpretations, the divergence of which comes as no surprise.

Both translators accomplished precisely what they set out to do with their work on Eugene Onegin. Nabokov wrote an English version using the most precise translations of words and phrases from Russian, insuring the existence of an English translation faithful to Pushkin’s meaning, and Johnston crafted a translation which retained the audial beauty of Pushkin’s verse while still conveying the meaning of the story accurately, if not quite perfectly. Johnston and Nabokov tell the same overall story, but their translation styles present slightly different characters due to the imperfect nature of translation, which requires the men to use their own attitudes about the text in their linguistic choices. The diversity of translations gives English readers options based on what they deem important in a text, and for purists who want everything (but not enough to learn Russian), they can just read both.