Eugene Onegin

3.07.2011

 "  Noise, laughter, bowing, hurrying mixed,
Gallop, mazurka, waltzing—see!
A pillar by, two aunts betwixt,
Tania, observed by nobody,
Looks upon all with absent gaze
And hates the world's discordant ways.
'Tis noisome to her there: in thought
Again her rural life she sought,
The hamlet, the poor villagers,
The little solitary nook
Where shining runs the tiny brook,
Her garden, and those books of hers,
And the lime alley's twilight dim
Where the first time she met with him. "
Eugene Onegin's portrait by Pushkin

Eugene Onegin
by Alexander Pushkin
Edition:  Oxford World's Classics, paperback
My overall rating:  5 out of 5 stars. 

Bored by the dissipation and drama of his youthful life, Eugene Onegin withdraws from society to his inherited estate in the Russian countryside.  His only friend is Vladimir Lensky, a young, romantic poet who is engaged to Olga Larin.  Her older sister, Tatyana, is a plain, quiet introvert.  She takes more interest in books and the countryside than anything else, until she meets Onegin.  Onegin has shut his heart to true love and second-chances, but Tatyana doesn't know this; and she writes him a spontaneous but sincere love letter, then waits feverishly for his response.

This is one of those books that makes you ask yourself "Why didn't I read this years ago?"  Actually, I only heard about this story via Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin "Polonaise" and "Waltz" (excellent music).  The synopsis sounded great, so I got the most convenient library copy and started it soon after I finished Blithedale.

First of all, the translation--it was a little too contemporary for me (words like "girlfriends", "zen", and the overuse of "modish" were rather irritating).  But it was a good translation, so far as I can tell.

Now, the story.  Well, where to begin?  If popular "doomed love" stories like Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, or Gone With the Wind left you *facepalming* in frustration, then you should give Eugene Onegin a try.  It's got all the drama of those other ones, but it's way more romantic, melancholy, and climactic in general.  The rhythmic, half-mournful, half-humorous poetry (in which the whole book is written) also helped make it a page-turner.  The story itself was very sad, but beautifully written--half fantasy, half realism.  And the ending!  It was one of those climax endings, but it felt realistic and complete.

The two protagonists were pretty flawed, but they were also likeable.  Onegin is the anti-romantic-hero--so disgusted by his previous experiences of love (in reality, just infatuation), that he's converted his emotions to pride, and his life to solitude and idleness.  At the same time, he's a grey character; in his selfishness there are glimpses of goodness, of a "better self", so to speak.  We never get to completely see his better character, though Tatyana seems to.


Pawel Petrowitsch Tschistjakow 001

Tatyana is the real main character.  She is probably the best portrayal of a heroine that a male author ever wrote--her weaknesses, strengths, and personality were brilliantly written and very believable.  When put to the test, she's a strong character who lives by her principles, putting duty and her parent's wishes before her own.  But it's not easy and she's not perfect; half of her is "sense", the other half "sensibility".  She's really a great, three-dimensional character.

Human nature, society's expectations, and virtue make up the triangular conflict of Eugene Onegin; and there's a lot in the story that's open to interpretation, so whether you like it or not may depend on your interpretation.  I was literally thinking about the book for a week afterwards.  It makes you think about life and people's choices; and it actually makes me grateful to live in a modern-day society.  And the book is a "tragic love story", but in some ways, it's also inspiring, because the tragedy isn't the ultimate end.  It doesn't have to be the end; and that was one point in the book that seemed very clear to me.

The Blithedale Romance

3.04.2011


The Blithedale Romance
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Edition:  Oxford World's Classics, paperback.
My overall rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars


19th century New England.  A group of men and women set out to establish "Blithedale", a community of farmers whose aim is to set an example to the world of their peaceful, profitable, and simpler life.  Blithedale is led by three celebrities:  Miles Coverdale, a poet and the narrator; Hollingsworth, a philanthropist; and the elegant "Zenobia", an author and women's rights advocator.  They are also joined by a strange, timid girl, Priscilla, whose very existence and loving personality changes their lives--or rather, it helps bring to light the true characters of those around her.

This book was not originally on my reading list; I chose it at random at the library, because I'd been wanting to read more Hawthorne and it looked very readable.  I really didn't know what to expect.

As a work of American literature, I think The Blithedale Romance is hugely underrated.  Not only is it easy to read, but it gives some excellent glimpses of American life/culture during Hawthorne's times.  The story, too, reads like a mystery novel, with a great climax and a heartbreaking ending.  Unlike certain other 19th-century American lit, this book is not lofty, verbose, or slow; instead, it's fast-paced, concise, and elegantly readable.

The word  "romance", though relevant also in modern-day meaning, would nowadays translates to "fantasy".  Rather than describing life in detail at Blithedale, Hawthorne simply uses the "community atmosphere", as well as a rather unlikely plot, to make a study of the four main characters.  They certainly make it an interesting read.

Miles Coverdale is a much more participating narrator than one would expect...mostly because he's just plain nosy.  He makes it his business to delve into people's secrets, then he feels all hurt when nobody wants to confide in him (ha!).  He's certainly an unusual narrator and oddly likeable at times. 

Priscilla is a bit of a mystery.  Her personality is simplistic; at first she's likeable, but later on she gets to be irritating. 

Hollingsworth may well be more of a mystery than anybody else.  He's a man who has turned all his devotion to his philanthropic cause, leaving his personal life greatly drained of emotion, humanity, and conscience.  Not cool.

Last but far from least, Zenobia.  She's an anti-heroine, but one can't help but have a little sympathy for her.  Her story is as tragic as any Thomas Hardy book, only more subtle and very poignant.

As for the plot, there's a sort of love rectangle going on, a couple appearances by the enigmatic Professor Westervelt, and some weird magic show subplot that isn't ever explained.  Though ambiguous plots are fun to write, I wish Hawthorne had explained everything more--it's a trifle frustrating.  The ending, too, was sad. One thing I did like about the book, though, was that it reads like a movie or a play--there's a heavy touch of drama and mystery in it.  It would make an excellent costume drama!

Now, I subtracted 1/2 star for some of the plot elements and the fact that the narrator is very annoying at times.  Other than that, it was a good read, and I recommend it!