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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Eugene Onegin as Pushkin’s version of Mr. Darcy

I have been of the opinion for the past few years that there is a complex, highly significant  allusion to Jane Austen’s immensely popular and influential novel Pride & Prejudice in Alexander Pushkin’s immensely popular and influential poem  Eugene Onegin. In the near future I will be posting some of the textual details which led me to this conclusion. In the interim, as an introduction to the depth of the allusion to P&P in Eugene Onegin, and also as a particularly good example of the capacity of some very astute readers of literature to deny what they have already seen, start with Tom Beck’s 2011 introduction to Eugene Onegin:

“[compares Onegin to Don Giovanni, then] The motto of Eugene Onegin, apparently written in French by Pushkin himself in a letter, would seem to sum up not only the hero of Pushkin’s novel, but also Don Giovanni himself…..The motto reads: ‘Filled with vanity, he had even more of that kind of pride which allows a person from a – perhaps illusory—sense of superiority, to admit to both his good and bad deeds with the same indifference.’  Yet we need not stray as far as Mozart’s Italianate world to understand Pushkin’s story in terms more familiar to an English speaking readership. The main characters of Pushkin’s novel are in many ways of a type already familiar to the English reader from an entirely different source, and one entirely unknown to Pushkin himself. Although the protagonists of JA’s P&P, written some ten years before Eugene Onegin was even started, are [English, not Russian], …there are marked similarities between the two works. Tatiana, perhaps the best loved character in all Russian literature, is in many ways a mixture of the two oldest Bennet girls. When we first meet her she is not dissimilar to the gentle, demure, and naïve Jane Bennet, trusting and quickly impressed, and also just as quickly snubbed by the man she loves. Tatiana, however, undergoes a profound change in the course of the story, and in the last chapter turns into something approaching Elizabeth Bennet as we know her at the start of JA’s novel, self assured and with a will and a mind of her own. The scene in which Tatiana reject Onegin (Chapter 8) is in many ways comparable to Lizzie’s rejection of Darcy when he makes his first proposal during a visit to Lady Catherine de Burgh.
Onegin himself has many of the characteristics of Darcy, at least of the Darcy we meet when JA’s novel begins. He too looks down on the simple country girls, their family, pastimes and surroundings. Indeed, in both novels it is a ballroom incident which plays a vital role in the story. Both Darcy and Onegin are so thoroughly bored by the company they find themselves in, that their future actions are dictated by what they experience. And as Darcy seeks to destroy his friend Bingley’s love for Jane Bennet, so Onegin also comes between his young friend Lenski and Lenski’s adored Olga, Tatiana’s younger sister. Darcy, like Onegin, is at first apparently a cold and supercilious figure, whose personality develops as the story progresses. But whereas JA provides us with a happy end, Pushkin leaves his hero’s fate open. Onegin comes to realize his earlier mistake, but his entreaties that the now married and aristocratic Tatiana give him another chance are rejected, although she loves him still. Even the gallery of secondary characters in P&P is matched by Pushkin. The haughty Bingley sisters, the appalling and hysterical Mrs. Bennet (evidently a close relative of Mrs. Larin), her three foolish youngest daughters (Olga would feel at home with them, Lydia in particular), the sycophantic Mr. Collins and his snobbish patroness Lady Catherine all find their parallels in Pushkin’s novel…” 

That Beck could see all those parallels, clustered together so closely around Mr. Darcy, and yet blithely state that P&P was entirely unknown to Pushkin himself, is amazing to me. Everything else Beck wrote in the above quoted discussion proves that even though Pushkin’s correspondence and biography do not mention P&P or JA, Pushkin must have read, or at least read or heard a great deal about, P&P, before he finalized Eugene Onegin. When literary scholars try to dismiss parallels as intentional, with the stock, lazy argument that there are only a handful of stories that get constantly recycled independently by writers, they ignore the detailed, specific clustering of textual allusions which could not possibly have occurred by a random process, or by different authors dipping their pens in the same pool of “ink”!

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

Two points:

1) Beck's summary makes clear that there is good reason to study P&P and EO together, independently of the issue of whether AP ever read JA. The issue of whether AP was intentionally alluding to JA or not is beside the point for such a study.

2) But of course the issue of whether AP ever read JA could also be an object of research.

I have that same edition of "Eugene Onegin", and I checked it to see if it said anything about Pushkin reading English. Right after what you quote, Beck refers to Nabokov saying that P tried and failed to learn English, so we can discount his actually having read Austen in English. The same paragraph, though, also says that Pushkin read Byron in French, so it's possible that Pushkin could have read Austen in French or Russian.

However, the Wikipedia page about Austen's reception has a section on translations that says that Austen was only translated into Russian in 1967. So if Pushkin read her, he read her like he read Byron: in French.

Most of that Wikipedia section appears to depend on this article by Cossy and Saglia:

Cossy, Valérie and Diego Saglia. "Translations". Jane Austen in Context. Ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

I don't have that book handy (though I could get it at my department's library), but the Wikipedia page points out that Cossy and Saglia conclude that early translations of Austen into French are quite different in effect than the original novels, specifically, they "injected sentimentalism into Austen's novels and eliminated their humour and irony" (Wikipedia paraphrase of C&S).

So if Pushkin read an early translation of P&P, then it would be particularly interesting to trace how potential allusions to P&P in EO might be connected to those "sentimentalizing" translations. Such a study requires English, French, and Russian, of course, but if an Austen or Pushkin scholar with all those languages could be found, then it would surely be an interesting project to pursue – and if specific allusions in EO to the early French P&P could be found, that would be the jackpot!

At some level, I want to defend scholars here, because my brief bit of research suggests that there's a good scholarly study to be done here, if the right (trilingual) person could be found to do it! And such research would give you more solid ground for the claim of a conscious link between P&P and EO than "must have read" or "must have heard a great deal about".