“The true paradises are the paradises we have lost.”
—Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past
From a young age, we hear stories of love. Of romance. Of happy endings. And then at some point along the way, we realize that there are no happy endings. Romance is almost as dead as chivalry. And love is on the way out. So what is left? Is that it? Love simply isn’t possible, so you might as well just throw in the towel now and resign yourself to a loveless life, devoid of color? In his novel in verse Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin argues that no, it’s not yet time to give up; love is attainable, romance is possible (though don’t hold your breath for happy endings). Through the development of his titular character, Eugene Onegin, and the heroine of the novel, Tatiana Larina, Pushkin illustrates his view of romantic love. And according to him, the only true love is unrequited love. Only unrequited love can survive; all other kinds are precluded by the human condition. And so only with unrequited love can one reach fulfillment.
Pushkin introduces Tatiana to his reader as a girl of “contemplative disposition”: silent, calm, rather serious for her age (“to her doll with gravity/ [she] impart[ed] mamma’s morality” (46)), and one generally more pleased by her own company than that of others. Indeed, Pushkin’s narrator seems quite enamored of her as he describes how she was accustomed “to watch the dancing stars receding/ That on the pale horizon moved” (47) and he even confesses later on in the novel that he “love[s] Tatiana so,/ It’s hard for [him] to let her go” (86). Tatiana is heavily contrasted with her more vapid, worldly sister Olga, who—in direct opposition to the later description of Tatiana—is described as “childish” and, by the narrator, boring (44-45). In the early part of the novel, both girls are shown to be in love, though their loves, like their characters, could hardly be more different. In Olga’s case the love appears to be happily mutual: Lensky, friend to Onegin, loves Olga (perhaps to a fault) and Olga seems to be perfectly content with Lensky. However, Tatiana’s love is of a far less rosy nature. Immediately upon meeting Eugene Onegin, Tatiana falls desperately and naïvely in love with him, apparently under the influence of the many novels she loves to read. Her love for him, perhaps unsurprisingly, is unrequited and the knowledge of this causes Tatiana immense suffering, driving her to bare her heart to Onegin in a heartbreakingly innocent letter. Initially, it seems that the narrator and Pushkin are poking fun at Tatiana’s plight: oh silly, naïve girl, she took her novels too seriously and believed that her life could follow the same path as those of her romantic heroines; disappointment was inevitable and her love was never even real in the first place. The narrator refers to the contents of Tatiana’s letter as “affecting rot” and describes her mental state throughout its writing melodramatically, in a style reminiscent of the very novels Tatiana takes so much pleasure in reading. This reading also fits in with Onegin’s reaction to the letter: a stern “sermon” to Tatiana detailing his disillusionment with love and her own naïveté in believing in love’s existence.
Up to this point, all of that is well and good: poor Tatiana got her heart broken, but, really, it was her own silly fault for putting such stock in romance novels and convincing herself of a false love. However, the plot does not end there. It is not, in fact, a simple morality tale warning against the dangers of novels. Quite the opposite. Following the action earlier on the book, there is a gap of several years before the story picks up again with Onegin attending a ball in Moscow—a ball at which he is captivated by none other than Tatiana Larina, now married to a prince. And suddenly, their positions are reversed. Tatiana is no longer the naïve country bumpkin possessed by her love for Onegin; she is a disillusioned ice princess of Moscow, far more aware of the realities of love than she was years ago when she bared her soul to Onegin. And Onegin’s cold, bitter façade cracks as he falls in love with Tatiana, just as she fell in love with him all those years ago. But Tatiana rejects his advances (made in the exact same form hers were years before), making sure that his love and hers remain unrequited as she vows to stay by her husband’s side. And so the novel closes upon Onegin, broken, suffering, but far more likable, as he stands, shocked by Tatiana’s rejection.
With these developments, it becomes necessary to re-examine the judgement of Tatiana’s initial love for Onegin. Was it really false? In Tatiana’s rejection of Onegin she states that she “loved him then” (192) and looking back upon it, it would appear that this is true. In fact, in the context of the rest of the novel, Tatiana’s actions earlier on make sense and it becomes clear that Pushkin, the narrator, and even Onegin sympathized with her. During his “sermon,” no matter how cold his words, Onegin “had no wish to undermine her trustfulness, her pure devotion” (80), recognizing the truth in her feelings. Similarly the narrator speaks of how he treasures Tatiana’s letter and reads it with “a secret shudder and cannot get [his] fill of it” (69), completely contradicting his disparaging remark referring to it as “rot.” The narrator would not cherish a letter full of false sentiment; what would be the point? Clearly, he recognizes the truth of her innocent adoration. The narrator’s concern is also evident when he apostrophizes Tatiana, warning: “you’ll perish, dear; but till we lose you/ The dazzling light of hope imbues you:/ You’ll summon up a sombre bliss,/ Discover life’s felicities,/ Imbibe the magic bane of yearning. . .” (61). The narrator recognizes the perils of unrequited love, but also the state of bliss that being in love affords one as compared to the flatness of the rest of existence and does not want to rob Tatiana of that experience, no matter the tole it may take on her.
Pushkin was not telling some tale about the silliness of those who trust in a romantic version of love. For in the beginning of the novel, who is it we liked more? Tatiana or Onegin? Clearly Tatiana, for Tatiana was near to bursting with emotion, whereas Onegin was a cold, blank slate, moving through his life ambivalently, feeling nothing. Of the two, which existence is preferable? Tatiana’s. Tatiana had the ability to love, to feel pain, to suffer, to smile, and, perhaps most importantly, she was content with herself, comfortable with who she was. Onegin had none of these things. He was empty, unsociable, discontented with his entire existence. So to be Tatiana would be preferable. What then is Pushkin saying about Tatiana’s love for Onegin? Her burning, unrequited passion? We know that he believes it preferable to Onegin’s initial state, but would it be preferable to, say, the “love” shared by Lensky and Olga?
Yes. It would be. What Lensky and Olga have is a contrived relationship, born out of Lensky’s idealizations of Olga. He created the Olga that he is in love with; she does not exist in reality. Instead, he projected onto her all that he thought she should be and fell in love with that, not, in fact, with Olga herself. And Lensky pays the price for his foolish love with his death. Pushkin does not kill Lensky by accident, nor does he do it to create some profound effect on Onegin (indeed, Onegin hardly seems bothered by his friend’s death). Pushkin kills Lensky, because Lensky must die. Lensky’s version of the world is so at odds with reality that his death is inevitable; he would have been unable to survive, whether or whether not he had gotten into the duel with Onegin. Pushkin believes that an approach to life like Lensky’s is not the right one, but will simply get one killed. For Olga’s part, her attachment was never too strong. Following Lensky’s death, she hardly mourned and immediately ran off with a military man to get married in a comfortable, but loveless relationship.
In fact, all of Pushkin’s portrayals of mutual relationships are negative. Lensky and Olga provide the most obvious foils to Onegin and Tatiana, but there is also the story of Tatiana’s mother to consider. It is revealed immediately following Tatiana’s introduction that her mother was forced to marry her father despite “sigh[ing] after another one/ Who, with his heart and mind, had won/ Her liking more than her intended” (48). So too, did Tatiana’s mother feel the pangs of unrequited love and, so too, was she forced to make due, as Tatiana later does in her marriage to the prince.
So, does unrequited love acquire more meaning for its lack of mutuality? Is that our lot? To be fulfilled only by unrequited love, for prolonged desire and increased meaning in life is preferable to brief fulfillment? Pushkin believes so. Indeed, unrequited love was the thing that gave his titular character’s life meaning. But he also recognizes the horrible irony of the situation: that the human condition prevents us from achieving our fulfillment, our love. And that is why the novel is full of snide comments poking fun at romanticism and love, for, though he knows it’s the way things are, Pushkin does not like it. Following Onegin’s rejection of Tatiana, the narrator comments “love’s a joke/ that Satan plays on gentlefolk” (85), and hardly could Pushkin’s sentiments be better summed up. He knows that it is necessary for men, in their search for the ideal, to set up in that ideal’s stead a concrete and necessarily unobtainable object because the longing felt for that object is preferable to the alternative emptiness of brief fulfillment or no fulfillment at all. For Pushkin’s Tatiana, that object is Onegin. For Onegin, it is Tatiana. For Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich, it is an overcoat. Whatever it is, we must spend our lives in longing and anticipation, the butt of a brutal joke. However, Pushkin is not oblivious to the ridiculousness of the situation, the cold irony, and so he cannot help but portray romanticism and unrequited love ridiculously, for that is what they are.
Neither, as it turns out, is Tatiana. In choosing Eugene Onegin as the object of her adorations, Tatiana knew that she was choosing to love a man she could never have. From the very beginning, the relationship was doomed simply because of the fact of Russian society. However, she chose to love him anyway (not consciously, of course) because her love for him would remain unrequited and therefore be sustained. Her marriage to the prince was inevitable, just as her mother’s marriage to her father was. But because her love for Eugene Onegin is still unrequited, it lives on inside of her and Tatiana, though she outwardly becomes stiff and cold as a result of her disillusionment, is able to maintain herself and her emotions. However, Onegin threatens all that when he shows up again in Moscow and declares himself in love with her. Tatiana is still in love with him, so she must actively make sure that both of their loves remain unrequited and so, though she confirms her loved in speech, she rebuffs Onegin, ensuring that their love is unrequited at least in action so that they might maintain their passions, preferring the fullness of longing to the emptiness of happiness. For it is not important to possess the object of love; it is important to love and not to possess the object of one’s love. And in rejecting Onegin, Tatiana ensures that this will be the case with both of them.
That Pushkin believes that the only true love is unrequited love is clear in Eugene Onegin. That he wishes this weren’t so is also clear. But he recognizes that, in the end, it is necessary. Unrequited love gives meaning to life, provides a reason to keep on living. For some this means living the way Tatiana and Onegin are forced to: knowing of their love’s existence, but being forever out of reach. For some, it might simply mean their relationship with God, their love for whom is most definitely unrequited and functions in the same way. But everyone needs something, some unrequited love, some goal, something to fill the void.
Pushkin, Alexander. Eugene Onegin. Trans. Stanley Mitchell. London: Penguin, 2008. Print.