Pushkin and Chekhov: Exploring the Onegin Myth in Chekhov’s “Ionych”

Molly J. Thomasy, University of Wisconsin, Madison

In praising Chekhov’s work, Lev Tolstoy once noted that “Chekhov is Pushkin in prose.” This paper will analyze Tolstoy’s widely discussed claim: through an examination of parallels between Pushkin’s Evgenii Onegin and Chekhov’s short story “Ionych,” I will attempt to determine to what extent we can read the latter as a kind of poema in prose. Parallels between Pushkin’s novel in verse and Chekhov’s text are not only thematic, but also structural: I intend to demonstrate how the structure and content of each chapter of “Ionych” directly correspond to key compositional elements of the Onegin stanza.

Both surface and hidden references to Onegin in the plot, themes, and characters of “Ionych” make it plausible to draw general parallels between the narrative devices employed by both authors; to do this, I will focus on thematic divisions and narrative shifts that occur within each stanza. Scholars (L. Grossman, M. Gasparov, M. Wachtel) agree that the Onegin stanza is made up of three distinct parts: lines 1-4 establish the theme of the stanza, and lines 5-12 are generally a variation on the theme. The concluding lines 13-14 perform a special function: as a rule, they contain either commentary on the events of the stanza, ironic distancing, or digression from the action of the story, or they hint at events to come. The conclusion differs from the previous lines of the stanza in that we often hear the voice of the author-narrator in this irony, commentary, or foreshadowing.

Yuri Shcheglov’s 1986 study on the composition of Chekhov’s “Ionych” showed that each of the five chapters conforms to a three-part system of rising and falling action, in which the chapter begins on a calm note, rises to a moment of conflict, and resolves once again. I intend to demonstrate that compositional elements of the Onegin stanza are superimposed onto the structure of each chapter of “Ionych.” Each of Chekhov’s chapters seems to fit a pattern similar to that of the Onegin stanza: there is a theme, a variation on that theme, and, finally, a startling exclamation or twist. In a further development of Shcheglov’s argument, I will examine the marked statements and exclamations at the end of each chapter of the Chekhov story, in order to show that the final line(s) of each of the five chapters perform a function similar to that of the final lines of the Onegin stanza: commentary, foreshadowing, or ironic distancing from the action of the story.

As in much of Chekhov’s work, the narrator of the story remains in the background. Nevertheless, parallels between the final lines of the Onegin stanza and the “Ionych” chapter allows us to perceive the author-narrator’s essentially unspoken commentary. Thus we may read Chekhov’s “Ionych” as prose built on the poetic structural model of the Onegin stanza.