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Reading with Clarity: Intertextual Defamiliarization of Fictitious Morality Systems in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin

By Lucy Zavitz

In short, our gentleman became so immersed in his reading that he spent whole nights from sundown to sunup and his days from dawn to dusk in poring over his books, until, finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind. He had filled his imagination with everything that he had read, […] and as a result had come to believe that all these fictitious happenings were true; they were more real to him than anything else in the world. 

—Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, 27. 

Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is a decidedly intertextual narrative both inside its fictional reality and in its composition. Pushkin aligns his characters with various literary texts and heroes to aid in characterization, develop complex personal motivations, and emphasize the idealism of the fictional world. Pushkin uses his characters’ taste in literature to explain their values and desires to the reader—and these interactions with other texts develop a character’s understanding, or rather misunderstanding, of the world. As an aspiring libertine, Eugene Onegin is impressed with the amorality and cynicism of Lord Byron’s poetic satires. Conversely, Tatyana is affected by the supremely good and virtuous heroines depicted in the sentimentalist novels of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Samuel Richardson, and the poet Lensky admires the Sturm und Drang movement. Indeed, such references, on an authorial level, serve to demonstrate Pushkin’s immense proficiency in the European literary tradition and thus legitimize his authority as a perceived outsider, but they also allow Pushkin to explore the moral systems presented in fiction within his own text. By emphasizing the difference between existing heroes and the lived world of his characters, Pushkin brings his narrative out of abstract perfection into verisimilitude. Eugene, Tatyanna, and Lensky emulate and act according to the beliefs and values reflected in the books they read, and their respective conflicts illustrate the irreconcilability of fictitious moralities. Eugene amends his perspective too late, but Tatyanna frees herself from the idealized world of her novels after she learns to read correctly. Reading, therefore, becomes a method of clarification: a way for the characters to engage with the intricate contradictions of moral logic. In this essay, I will argue that Pushkin juxtaposes literary ideals in Eugene Onegin to defamiliarize the notion of a comprehensive ethical system. In doing so, Pushkin illuminates a space between broken ideals that is entirely sympathetic to heroes and villains alike. 

Intertextuality is often invoked at the formal or narrative level to call attention to the text as a work of art. In Eugene Onegin, Pushkin alludes to outside works, not just in form or with narration, but within the realities of the characters’ experiences. Pushkin uses his characters’ literary tastes to describe their attitudes about the world. Fiction illuminates the ideal selfhood that the characters strive to assume. We, as readers, tend to forget that the fictional world exists within a system of perfect morality, where the benevolent are rewarded, and the villainous are invariably punished. Of course, this structure of poetic justice is untenable in the ‘real’ world, as one cannot dogmatically apply the logic of the ideal to lived experience. Nevertheless, literature remains an essential method of working through the social, political, and philosophical problems afflicting society. Therefore, the question becomes: how can we rectify this ‘Quixotian’ problem of misreading? In Eugene Onegin, Pushkin portrays his characters in contiguity with their reading to address this issue. Instead of glorifying specific qualities or personal histories, Pushkin positions his heroes at a junction between the real and fictional worlds. Unlike the “fervent author[s]” of Tatyana’s older books, who “show / The hero in [their] work of fiction / Endowed with bright perfection’s glow,” Pushkin’s characters are far from idealized, a fact demonstrated by this implied comparison to other works of literature (3, XI, 2-5). Pushkin’s characters internalize their reading and define themselves by their ability to imitate the merits of the books they admire. Like real people, these characters, plagued by problems of contravening ambiguous moral systems, can never perfectly adhere to the precise moral duties that exist in fiction.  

With this established disjunction between reality and fiction, Pushkin uses intertextuality as a mode of ‘defamiliarization’ in Eugene Onegin. In his essay, “Art as Device,” Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky coined the concept “остранение” or ‘making strange’ as a technique in which familiar things are represented in an unfamiliar way in art to achieve a more complex understanding of the world. Shklovsky writes that “[t]he purpose of art, […] is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition. By ‘estranging’ objects and complicating form, the device of art makes perception long and ‘laborious’” (6). I argue that Pushkin’s intertextuality “estranges” common or well-known literary moral systems from our understanding of reality. He inserts widely read fiction into his narrative’s reality to critique the role of the reader. Where the poor reader will see the artistic ideal and attempt to emulate it exactly, the competent reader will understand art as a tool that allows us to see the world from new perspectives. Indeed, art challenges our “perception” of reality: these recognizable conceptions of the villainous Don Juan or the virtuous heroine are pervasive not merely because they reflect the world but because they destabilize a reader’s reality. Pushkin’s narrator is conscious of literature’s effect on a reader’s conception of reality and uses intertextuality to defamiliarize the moral systems from these fictitious worlds.   

The most frequent, and perhaps the most striking, literary allusion in Eugene Onegin is to Byron and his satiric epics. Given the fact that Pushkin read the “first five cantos” of Byron’s Don Juan “during the crucial time when Onegin [as a composition] took on its decisive shape and tone,” it is reasonable to assume that Byron’s epic greatly influenced Pushkin in Eugene Onegin (Garrard 432). However, defending an extended comparison between Eugene Onegin and Don Juan is difficult. Despite commonality in subject and poetic style, the two works seem to have more differences than similarities. For one, Byron’s mock epic inverts the traditional understanding of Don Juan as a malicious womanizer into the victim of ignoble seductresses, while Pushkin’s hero participates in his immoral lifestyle with direct intention (though his misdeeds become forgivable). Secondly, Byron’s narrator keeps an ironic distance from the affairs of his characters and often comments on how he is not at “fault” for their indiscretions: “scandal’s my aversion—I protest / Against all evil speaking, even in jest” (I, 80, 8; 51, 7-8). Byron’s narrator occupies a position high above the affairs of his characters, and his disillusioned scrutinization satirizes their actions. Pushkin’s narrator, meanwhile, is not only a “good friend” of Eugene but also depicts his characters with sympathy even when he tires of telling the story: “Although I cherish / My hero and of course I vow / To see how he may wane or flourish, I’m not quite in the mood [to recount his tale] just now” (1, II, 9; 6, XLIII, 1-4). Pushkin’s narrative distance is offset by great compassion for his heroes, and when he embarks on long digressions, his commentary is lighthearted and introspective rather than judgmental. These apparent differences between the two works negate the simple reading configuring Eugene Onegin as a derivative of Don Juan, but the question of how we can explain the repeated Byronic allusions remains.  

This problem necessitates us to distinguish between Byron’s influence on Eugene Onegin as a narrative and Eugene Onegin as a character. Where Eugene Onegin, the novel, is in conversation with Don Juan, Eugene Onegin, the character, is clearly not emulating Byron’s rather pitiful construction of Don Juan. However, as John Garrard recounts in his article, “Corresponding Heroines in ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Evgenii Onegin,’” Pushkin, himself, was entirely dismissive of the notion of his narrative as an imitation of Don Juan. To this point, Garrard cites Pushkin’s 1825 letter to Aleksandr Bestuzhev: “[Don Juan] has nothing in common with Onegin. You speak of the Englishman Byron’s satire and compare it with mine, and demand that I write the same kind of satire! No, my dear friend, […] There is not a hint of [satire] in Onegin” (429). Pushkin’s indignant reaction towards this comparison reveals the extent to which Eugene Onegin can be understood as a defiant response to Byron’s Don Juan. The poets offer contradictory arguments regarding the morality of the libertine, though they arrive at a consensus in sympathy for the ‘playboy.’ While the recurring mythological figure of Don Juan is, like Byron, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” Byron’s reconstruction of the mythical villain is “Silent and pensive, idle, restless, slow” (I, 87, 1; Introduction vii). Byron characterizes Don Juan in such a pathetic manner to cast blame onto scheming women and vindicate the libertine. Pushkin’s novel, meanwhile, explains Eugene’s apathetic and licentious behavior through a lack of purpose: a fault that stems from the inadequacy of humanity rather than malice. Though Pushkin portrays Eugene’s misdeeds with candor, he does not villainize his hero. Instead, Eugene is construed as a foolish man without identity. 

Byron’s personal reputation as a philanderer deserves mention here, as the Byronic hero becomes synonymous with a libertine. While Pushkin’s characters emulate literary characters, Byron seemed to have modeled his fiction on himself. The “Editor’s note” in the Penguin edition of Don Juan attributes Byron’s “impulse” to compose Don Juan to his “temperament, reading, personal circumstance, […] past and present social environment, and what he thought and felt about them” (xxviii). In dissimulation, Byron attaches Juan’s culpability to the charms of his seductresses, perhaps to absolve his public image. Eugene’s characterization as a parody echos what seems to be Pushkin’s opinion of Byron; the narrator slyly implies that the poet, “hav[ing] penned / A mere self-portrait in the end,” uses the fictitious world to revel in “hopeless egotism” (3, XII, 13; 1, LVI, 9-11). Eugene’s proximity to the nefarious Byron critiques the poet’s conflation of fictional and palpable moral systems.  

Pushkin aligns Eugene with Byron to fracture the aloof, arrogant, and impressive facade of his identity and demonstrate the instability of self-projection in reading. Initially, our eponymous hero has all the characteristics of the traditional ‘Don Juanian’ libertine. Eugene is an effortlessly suave seducer who boasts all the “wit and charm” of “[a] London dandy” and delights ladies with “free and easy conversation,” and like any successful philanderer, Eugene “seize[s] a moment’s weakness / To conquer youthful virtue’s meekness / Through force of passion and of sense” (1, IX, 7; X, 9; XI, 5-7). Even for all his success in the social circles of Petersburg, however, Eugene feels devoid of purpose. Continually discontent with his surroundings, Eugene “yawned alike where’er he sat, / In ancient hall or modern flat” (2, II, 13-14). Ironically, Eugene attempts to rectify the “emptiness that plagues his soul / By making his the thoughts of others,” and with his “bookshelf overflowing,” he reads to find himself (1, XLIV, 2-3, 5). These efforts prove to be unsuccessful, and for all his education, he cannot grasp poetry: “He never knew, […] / A dactyl from an anapest” (1, VII, 3-4). Eugene finds faults in everything he reads, a fact that drives him to abandon his literary endeavors: “Some [books] raved or lied, and some were dense; / Some lacked all conscience; some, all sense” (1, XLIV, 7-8). However, when Tatyana later enters his library, we learn that Eugene, despite his disinterest in books, harbors an intense admiration of Byron, who writes “with power” (7, XXII, 6). Eugene, with “jaded” arrogance, excessive boredom, and a complete lack of concern for the needs of others, evidently sees himself in Byron’s “modern man” with “his immoral soul disclosed” (2, II, 12; 7, XXII, 8, 10). Eugene’s actions are a manifestation of the villainous hero: a feeble attempt to construct selfhood by a deficient and “frustrat[ed]” reader (1, XLIV, 6).  

While Eugene represents the Byronic figure, Pushkin characterizes the love interest, Tatyana, through the vastly more virtuous moral system found in Sentimentalist literature. Like Eugene, Tatyana feels great discontent in her life and longs for something beyond her lived experience. She is “[b]ored by [other girls’] noise” and “lack[s] the slightest predilection” for engaging in their conversation, so she “sit all day / In silence at the window bay” (2, XXVII, 13; XXV, 12-14). Unlike Eugene, however, she is “pensive, / shy, […] and “apprehensive,” and thus finds solace in the “fictions and the fancies / Of Richardson and of Rousseau” (2, XXV, 5-6; 2, XXIX, 3-4). Pushkin aligns Tatyanna with this particular literary movement to demonstrate her tenderness, empathy, and high moral ideals. Indeed, such a portrait of her character is far more laudatory than Eugene’s “arid vanity exposed” in Byron, but Pushkin still warns against conflating one’s person with fantasy (7, XXII, 11). Instead of engaging with the world around her, Tatyana “[p]erceives herself as heroïne— Some favourite author’s fond creation: / Clarissa, Julia, or Delphine” and languishes in Romance (3, X, 2-4). Tatyanna’s reading obscures her love for Eugene. She projects herself on these heroines, “possessing / Another’s joy, another’s pain” instead of cultivating true feelings in her real life (3, X, 10-11). Her perfect image of “Onegin’s face” is “borrowed [from the] lovers” portrayed in the books she loves, and when she writes her love letter, the narrator reminds the reader it is this fictionalized image of Eugene that she has in mind: “For whom, Tatyana, is it meant?” (3, IX, 14; X, 5; XXI, 13-14). Furthermore, it is important to note that these heroines—Richardson’s Clarissa, Rousseau’s Julia, and Mme de Staël’s Delphine—all choose death and renounce their pursuer to maintain their virtuous ideals. But why does Pushkin specifically align Tatyana with these heroines who never reach a happy ending, rather than the many sentimentalist heroines rewarded with marriage and bliss? Of course, this narrative choice foreshadows Tatyana’s ultimate rejection of Eugene, but their fatality also underscores futility in such a rigid understanding of duty: “My dear one, you are doomed to perish” (3, XV, 5). Tatyana desires to be with “Grandison in Russian dress,” but she also holds herself to the unattainable moral standards of Clarissa, Julia, and Delphine (3, X, 14). Pushkin’s narrator believes this conflation of fiction and reality to be a grave mistake: “Tatyana, O my dear Tatyana! / […] Relying on a tyrant’s honour, / You’ve now resigned to him your fate” (3, XV, 1-4).  

Pushkin uses Tatyana’s letter, a format which echos both the confessional epistolary used in Sentimentalist tradition and Julia’s touching letter in Byron’s Don Juan, to juxtapose Eugene and Tatyana’s contradicting worldviews. Despite the discrepancy in their circumstances, there are several striking similarities between Julia’s and Taytana’s letters that elucidate Pushkin’s critique of Julia and Juan’s romance. Firstly, both letters are written in French rather than the women’s native languages, for Byron’s narrator mentions at an earlier point that “Julia thought / In French,” and Tatyana “turn[s] for love’s discussion / To French….” (I, 84, 7-8; 3, XXVI, 9-10). This point appears insignificant, but it shows the extent to which their identities are a performance. Tatyana’s romantic traits come from her idealization of Sentimentalist novels, while Julia exhibits Byron’s construction of feminine feelings. Secondly, both women declare in their letters that they will never love another man: Julia believes that this love is her “whole existence,” and Tatyana, likewise, writes emphatically: “Another! No! In all creation / There’s no one else whom I’d adore” (I, 194, 1-2; 3, TL, 31). However, while Julia seems to accept that Juan “will proceed in beauty, and in pride, / Beloved and loving many,” Tatyana believes that Eugene will feel a duty to her: “But if my hapless situation / Evokes some pity for my woe, / You won’t abandon me, I know” (I, 195, 1-2; 3, Tatyana’s Letter, 5-7). There is a substantial difference between each woman’s expectation of her lover here, corresponding to the contrast between Byronic and Sentimentalist moral systems. Garrard argues that in these “few stanzas, as Julia writes her letter, Byron allows one of his characters to emerge from the narrator’s monologue and speak in her own voice”; however, this reading ignores the fact that Julia, as a love interest, behaves only according to Byron’s design (430-31). When Julia writes, “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart, / ’Tis woman’s whole existence,” she is not speaking in her own voice but adhering to the Byronic fantasy of what a woman should think (I, 194, 1-2). Tatyana, on the other hand, is not her author’s puppet, but she does hold herself to the Sentimentalist heroines’ moral standards.  

Eugene’s response to the letter subverts his original characterization as a libertine, destabilizing the rigid dichotomy between fictional ideals. When Eugene rejects Tatyana, he cites his lack of “desire[] / To bind with family ties [his] life,” and this impulse seems to reflect his allegiance to the Byronic lifestyle (4, XIII, 1-2). However, the philanderous Byronic hero would likely not care whether or not he is “worthy of [her virtues]” as Eugene does (4, XIV, 4). The narrator’s sympathetic reflection on the discrepancy between Eugene’s fictionalized self-image and his actions produces a reading of Eugene as a real person rather than a Byronic parody: 

I know that you’ll agree, my reader,  

That our good friend was only kind  

And showed poor Tanya when he freed her  

A noble heart and upright mind. (4, XVIII, 1-4)

For all his arrogance and boredom, Eugene cannot actually bring himself to take advantage of Tatyana. When confronted with Tatyana’s love, Eugene briefly changes from the “jealous swain” to a man of “noble heart” (1, IX, 2; 4, XVIII, 4). Further, in writing this letter, Tatyana also strays from her idealized self-concept—as the coy and virtuous Clarissa would never write such a bold proclamation of affection—and even Eugene urges her “[t]o exercise restraint and reason / [because] innocence can lead to woe.” (4, XVI, 12, 14). The way Tatyana and Eugene behave regarding this letter, the format of which is a composite of both characters’ literary tastes, destabilizes our expectation of how they will carry out the moral practices they idealize. Neither Eugene nor Tatyana can behave according to their fictional moral systems, and Pushkin uses this incongruence between fiction and reality to defamiliarize how literature influences lived experience.  

Pushkin uses a second moral conflict between Eugene and Lensky to draw Eugene out of his fictionalized self-conception. Pushkin establishes a strong dichotomy between the two friends from the beginning: while Eugene is proud, callous, and “uncaring,” Lensky is of “noble heart, / [and] A spirit strange but full of fire” (2, VI, 11-12). The two friends with opposite perspectives “[find] everything a basis / For argument or food for thought,” and with such contradictory ideals, a romantic rivalry seems only natural (2, XVI, 1-2). Pushkin aligns Lensky, “a handsome youth / And poet […] / From misty Germany,” with the sensitivity and intense passion of heroes in the Sturm und Drang movement (2, VI, 7-9). Lensky reads “Goethe’s and […] Schiller’s” works and “proudly [sings] with open heart / Sublime emotion’s every feature” which he sees in Olga’s face (2, IX, 8, 11-12). Ironically, Lensky is indubitably better suited as a romantic partner for the idealistic and dutiful Tatyana, who admires “Werther, [the] rebellious martyr,” than he is to Olga, who is flirtatious and “bor[ing]” (2, XXIII, 12; 3, IX, 9). These characters, however, are both so blinded by their fictional fantasies that they do not notice what exists in real life.  

Eugene and Lensky’s duel becomes another platform to dramatize incongruous moral perspectives. In Eugene’s mind, so influenced by his idealization of the Byronic figure, his flirtation with Olga is just an “idl[e] jest,” but passionate Lensky, with “[a] perfect love of righteous ways,” is immediately “[c]onsumed with jealous indignation” (5, XLI, 6; 2, IX, 2; 5, XLIV, 11). The duel physically enacts the two men’s ideological conflict, and here again, Pushkin draws from two of the literary sources they emulate. In Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, the eponymous protagonist falls in love with a woman, Charlotte, who is betrothed to another man, Albert. After considering murdering Albert so that he be with her, “If Albert were to die?—Yes, she would become—and I should be,” Werther ultimately “resolve[s] to die” instead because he cannot endure the heartbreak or bear to kill the man who has caused it (103, 141). Lensky, emboldened by feverish jealousy, proposes a duel with Eugene. However, like Werther, when he is alone the night before the duel, the romantic poet seems to resign himself to death and writes, “I, perhaps, descend in sorrow / The secret refuge of the tomb…. / […] Of me the world shall soon grow dumb” (6, XXII, 3-4). While Lensky is awake in anguish, Eugene, “that idle sinner / […] sleep[s] soundly,” apparently unconcerned with the prospect of killing someone (6, XXIV, 1-2). Lensky, for all his heated feeling, essentially cannot bring himself to go through with the murder, and in the decisive moment, he “wait[s] / To close one eye and, only then, / To take his aim….” (6, XXX, 9-11). Lensky dies because he is committed to an unsustainable (German) Romantic ideal. He becomes paralyzed by two unviable impulses: to get revenge on Eugene and to maintain his honor. Lensky’s death symbolizes the infeasibility of the fictional ideal and becomes a prodigious turning point for Eugene because it confronts him with the painful reality of his actions. When Lensky falls, “Eugene, in sudden chill, despairs, / Runs to the stricken youth … and stares! / Calls out his name!” (6, XXXI, 7-9). This real-life consequence destabilizes Eugene’s apathetic persona, and his inflated ego breaks apart. Even in this awful moment, Pushkin’s narrator is sympathetic to his hero and asks the reader, “what would you … inside / Be thinking of… or merely feeling?” (6, XXXIV, 8-9). This sympathy offers a reading of Eugene not as a malicious or apathetic villain but as a broken man searching for an identity in an ideal. 

For all this conflict caused by the conflation of reality and fiction, it appears as though Pushkin construes the literary world as nothing but a false mirror that obscures our conception of reality. However, Pushkin reconstructs reading as a clarifying lens for Tatyana to better understand Eugene and herself. When she finds Eungene’s library and “read[s] the books he’d called his own,” she realizes that Eugene has constructed his entire persona around his reading of Byron: 

What was he then? An imitation?  

An empty phantom or a joke,  

A Muscovite in Harold’s cloak,  

Compendium of affectation,  

A lexicon of words in vogue …  

Mere parody and just a rogue? (7, XX, 13-14; XXIV, 9-14)

Pushkin uses this scene to give Tatyana access to Eugene’s interior world, and she can finally understand “His cold, embittered mind that seems / To waste itself in empty schemes” (7, XXII, 13-13). Once she realizes Eugene is “an empty phantom,” his haughty ego is no longer impenetrable. Eugene’s vulnerability here invokes empathy not just in Tatyana but also on behalf of the reader. Moreover, Eugene’s false persona parallels Tatyana’s tendency to project herself into the fiction she reads. Indeed, Eugene’s sophisticated indifference is an act, but Tatyana also has fallen in love with a fictional projection. It is only when faced with the truth of Eugene’s deceitful identity that Tatyana can recognize her own fantastical pretense. Pushkin portrays his characters in conflict to enact a literal juxtaposition of paragons, destabilizing the characters’ parodical self-conception. Pushkin’s defamiliarization of fictional value systems demonstrates how one cannot perfectly enact fiction in the real world; yet reading also becomes a means of clarification. When Pushkin introduces Tatyana to these “strange” books, she, with a skeptical eye, reads to understand Eugene’s perspective (7, XXI, 11). With this laborious and “slow” mode of critical reading, Tatyana is able to engage with an unfamiliar way of seeing the world (7, XXIV, 1). This new method of reading awakens Tatyana to the dangers of idealizing one’s life.  

The beginning of the novel presents Eugene and Tatyana as idealists living in separate dogmatically defined textual worlds rather than a more nuanced reality, but, by the end, Tatyana has learned to be skeptical of reifying literary logic. When they meet again years later, Pushkin, with ruthless poetic irony, inverts their original positions. Eugene, “[a]nnoyed with leisure and inaction” and desperate for “purpose,” now plays the “demented” sentimental, but Tatyana gives “him not the least attention, / No matter what he tries to do” (8, XXX, 1; XII, 12,14; XXXI, 1-2). When Eugene’s love letter gets no reply, he “turn[s] to books and sages” and reads “Gibbon and Rousseau; Chamfort, Manzoni, Herder’s pages; Madame de Staël, Bichat, Tissot” (8, XXXV, 1-4). Though he reads the Sentimentalist and Sturm und Drang novels so beloved by the people he has wronged, Eugene is no closer to grasping reality as he reads without any critical reflection: “His feelings and his thoughts went slack, / While in his mind Imagination / Dealt out her motley faro pack” (8, XXXVII, 2-4). Incapable of seeing beyond himself and his immediate desires, Eugene again projects fiction onto life. When he confronts Tatyana, she admonishes his “offensive show of passion,” which comes too late to ignite her former “girlish dreams” (8, XXXVII, 2-4; XLV, 10). Tatyana’s rejection of Eugene represents a final disavowal of the reification of abstract ideals. When Tatyana leaves him, Pushkin’s narrator ends Eugene’s story and turns back to a ‘meta-criticism’ of readerly engagement: “Whatever, reader, your reaction, / […] Whatever end / You may have sought in these reflections— / […] You’ve found at least a crumb or two” (8, XLIX, 1, 4-5, 13). The narrator’s interjection here reminds us that critical reading is the best means of finding truth. After all, it is reading that allows Tatyana to overcome her innocent fantasies.  

The act of reading becomes essential in understanding how Pushkin configures morality. Eugene is not a malevolent villain but a man who cannot abandon his fictionalized self-concept. Pushkin juxtaposes these recognizable fictitious ideals to destabilize the reader’s notion of a coherent or fixed moral system in the real world. Byron’s narrator in Don Juan configures this lack of “certainty” in “Mortality’s conditions” as an irrefutable constraint: “I doubt if doubt itself be doubting,” but Pushkin implies that critical engagement with the moral logic of the literary world grants us access to greater truth (IX, 17, 5-6, 8).1 Byron uses this “doubt” in moral contiguity to satirize the concept of ethical duty and implicitly vindicate his libertine. Pushkin’s narrator meanwhile depicts these foibles of greed and cruelty with great compassion: “We all take on Napoleon’s features, / And millions of our fellow creatures / Are nothing more to us than tools … ” (2, XIV, 5-7). Pushkin invokes sympathy for the libertine by representing his poorly constructed self-concept as a universal human foible. The narrator does not define characters in terms of goodness or wickedness but portrays each of them with irrevocable sympathy. By aligning his characters with literary works, Pushkin both demonstrates the fragility of an idealized self-concept and implies that critical reading can rectify self-abstraction. Pushkin uses intertextuality to defamiliarize our understanding of what literature can achieve. By decontextualizing our pre-existing notions of ethical duty, literature allows critical readers to understand new perspectives. Through his intertextual juxtaposition of moral systems, Pushkin promotes a simple yet quintessential idea: critical engagement with literature allows readers to extend their empathy beyond themselves.

Works Cited 

Byron, Byron George Gordon, et al. Don Juan. Penguin Books, 2013. 

Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de, trans. Samuel Putnam. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote De La Mancha. The Catharijne Press, 2001. 

Garrard, John. “Corresponding Heroines in ‘Don Juan’ and ‘Evgenii Onegin.’” The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 73, no. 3, 1995, pp. 428–48. JSTOR, Accessed: 27 Apr. 2023. 

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang, trans. Boylan, R.D. Boylan. The Sorrows of Young Werther. Project Gutenberg, 2009. 

Pushkin, Aleksandr Sergeevich, trans. James E. Falen. Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse. Oxford University Press, 2009. 

Shklovsky, Viktor, trans. Sher, Benjamin. “Art as Device.” Theory of Prose. Dalkey Archive Press, 1990, pp. 1-14. Internet Archive. Accessed: 1 May 2023.