One of the major undercurrents of classic Russian literature is the exploration of freedom vs. the constraint of society. While this theme is by no means unique to the Russians (or even the Western 19th century), Russia’s society at the time under Tsarists rule was far more restricted, far more smothering, routine, and conservative than most other nations. Perhaps these constraints are why Russian literature has enjoyed such success in and out of that country because the rules of society are well defined and easily learned by the reader and so all a writer must do is create a character who decides to break one (or more) of these rules and they instantly have a story with drama.
I kept thinking about constraints and restrictions during this novel whenever the rhyme scheme was particularly clever or when the main characters would attempt to remove themselves from society: either Eugene whiling away his days in isolation or Tatyana immersing herself in books. The entire structure of the novel, the AbAbCCddEffEgg scheme, never ceases or breaks form – it is, in a sense, Russian society itself: unbending and regimented, yet beautiful in its own way if you can learn to accept the structure. And of course this is where the drama for our heroes derives from, from the desire to break from that structure.
Eugene is bored with everything. Nothing in society interests him because he believes himself to be better than society. He is vain and shallow, he has only a topical knowledge of what’s going on in the world. When he’s given the chance to escape society he’s equally as bored in the country with all the provincial customs and less than cultivated neighbors. His fault is that he’s a combination of banality and self-important individuality. He knows how to play the game, he knows the rhyme scheme of society, but he’s not creative enough to break the rhyme.
Tatyana, too, is apart from society. She spends all her days reading books, but they’re all terrible romances that can teach her nothing about how the world really works. She believes she’s being cultivated by immersing her self in the books of the English at the expense of her own country – a language she can’t even read or write in. She believes she has found something superior to the Russian ways of doing things, when in reality she’s only fooling herself. She is Russian and her fate, like the rhyme scheme, is structured and preordained for her.
In fact everyone in this novel eventually has to settle for what Russian fate has in store for them. Lensky is literally killed by the rules of the game. Tatyana’s mother long ago accepted her lot, her nanny, too, had long ago at the age of 13 been married off. And while their emotions about their lack of control over their fate is complicated (we never really get her nanny’s true feelings about this though I get the suspicion Pushkin was attempting to show the perverse treatment of peasants), when it comes to Olga, we get a character who is more than happy to play within the rules. In fact Olga may be the only happy (or at least happier) character in the story. She knows the game, accepts it, and tries to make the best of it for herself.
And so Eugene and Tatyana are just as doomed as the nanny. They are both forced, one way or another, to abide by the rules, to give up and give in and play the endless game of banal society with its silly rituals and traditions and empty conversation and vapid personalities.
Perhaps this is the best insight we as foreigners can have into how Russian society really thinks. All through Russian history their society has been strongly regimented, either under the Tsars or under communism or now under Putin’s neo-authoritarian control. The Russians always seem to have to contend with the fact that Russia is too large, too powerful, too unforgiving to fight against and that all would be better if you just gave yourself up to the comfort of the controlled society and do the best for yourself within those rules, vapid and insipid as they might be.
And in some ways there is a lot of appeal for living under such structure because you can always know what to expect, there are no surprises and you do not have the stress of having to forge your own path anew as you do in other more democratic countries. The Russian society will provide the rhyme for you, whereas in the West you have to figure out a rhyme for yourself. (as an aside the documentary My Perestroika deals with this loss of comfort from the regimented rules of communism quite wonderfully).
But I don’t believe Pushkin is making the case that a strictly rhymed Russian society is the best, highest, and most noble of options. Eugene and Tatyana are quite miserable in the end for having tried to forge their own path. They both love each other but she will not break the rules anymore and he, through his own vanity and self righteous, has managed to pretty much exile himself from society. They both fought and they both lost.
Pushkin does not offer any solutions but he does clearly show us what is going on in Russia at the time, something nobody else had been capable of doing before. His genius was exposing Russian society for what it was – a regimented, stifling and controlling environment nobody can escape happily – which later writers and artists were able to use as the blueprint for affecting change. After Pushkin came Gogol who in Dead Souls was able to subvert the conception of how landowners used their serf labor, later still was Tolstoy who in Anna Karenina explored many of the same themes to show how little in Russian society had changed, especially for women, but that it was possible to escape by turning back to nature. Dostoyevsky explored how corrupt the society was, how infected man had become with sin and that the only solution was personal revolution – though what he envisioned and what really took place were the exact opposite of what he had hoped for.
Aside from Russia, however, can we learn anything about our own society in our own time – close to 200 years later – from this book? Does Pushkin speak to any universal themes larger than just Russia? While I, as an American, have a wildly different set of experiences than a Russian my same age, I too can relate to the idea of what it means to either take part in the rules of society or be pushed away by them. My culture may be very different, but I must still go along to get along, I must be able to find happiness within the rules or else be miserable because there is no escaping society, not though living in the woods or in books or by travelling abroad. None of us are special enough to not have to take part in society, none of us are better than anyone else. We must all take part in society and the harder we fight against it the more likely we will be doomed by it.
A funny saying these days is ‘Don’t be basic’ which means we acknowledge there is a lowest common denominator to our society but we should always be looking for a way to do better, too.