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Pushkin, Fate, and Modern Man

February 18th, 2005 | 2 min read

By Andrew Selby

Alexander Pushkin is often referred to as Russia’s national poet. Basically, as Virgil was to Romans so is Pushkin to Russians. A major theme in his legendary “novel in verse”, Eugene Onegin, is that of fate. The main character, Eugene, is often described as “playing his part” and fate rules over the actions of the characters. Pushkin frequently alludes to the lack of autonomy in the characters’ lives as they act out what has already been scripted for them.

The key example of this is the relationship between the novel’s hero, Onegin, and the heroine, Tatyana (who, incidentally, Dostoyevsky called “the apotheosis of the Russian woman). Tatyana, as her romantic 18th century French novels prescribe, fell madly in love with Onegin. She somewhat indecorously revealed her love to Onegin, who subsequently rejected her. As things turn out, however, Onegin runs into Tatyana later on and she has become a beautiful and elegant lady. Naturally, he falls madly in love with her, but she has married according to her mother’s wishes. The man she has married is a well-to-do general who was maimed in a war.

From Tatyana’s perspective, her husband certainly did not make her blissfully happy and her former flame charged back into her life and wanted her. Fate has struck and the hour has come for Tatyana to follow the script.

However, Pushkin shocks his reader (at least me!) and Tatyana rejects Onegin declaring, ‘I love you (why should I dissemble?); / But I am now another’s wife, / And I’ll be faithful all my life.’ This beautiful assertion of marital faithfulness is the only time I can find in the poem that a character breaks out of his or her scripting and acts in an unpredictable, free manner.

In this work about modern man and his attempt to deal with freedom and interact with society, Pushkin turns at the end to the ancient conception of freedom, which is to do what is moral and upright. The truly moral, selfless action ends up undoing the fetters of the scripted character and Tatyana emerges pure and bright. This story beckons the contemporary American reader to consider the nature of freedom and gives a clear picture of the abuse of freedom in Eugene.

I highly recommend this novel, but be sure to get the translation by James E. Falen published by Oxford University Press, 1995.