In Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev attempted to examine the forces for change operating, for the most part in isolation and frustration, in mid-nineteenth century Russia. The storm of protest and outrage produced from the moment the novel appeared indicates that he had indeed touched a sensitive nerve in Russian society. In fact, Turgenev never really got over the abuse heaped upon him; his periods of exile in Germany, France, and Italy were all the more frequent and of longer duration after the publication of the novel. One wonders at the excitement occasioned by Fathers and Sons, for a cooler reading undertaken more than a hundred years later indicates that Turgenev clearly attempted and achieved a balanced portrait of conservative and revolutionary Russia—a triumphant achievement in political fiction, where the passions of the moment so often damage the artistic effort.
The subtlety and rightness of Turgenev’s technique are most clearly seen in the central character Bazarov. Bazarov is a pragmatist, a scientist, and a revolutionary idealist. He is put into a relationship with every important character, and it is from these relationships that the reader gets to know him and to understand more about him than he understands about himself. A master of literary impressionism, Turgenev liked to do an “atmospheric” treatment of his characters, vividly rendering visual, auditory, and other sense impressions in a nicely selected setting. This technique admits all sorts of lively and contradictory details and prevents the novel—and Bazarov—from falling into mere ideological rhetoric and political polemic. Most of all, for all of his roughness and bearishness, Turgenev really liked Bazarov and sympathized with him (“with the exception of [his] views on art, I share almost all his convictions,” he wrote).
Bazarov’s chief conflict is with Pavel Kirsanov, a middle-aged bachelor with refined continental tastes and a highly developed sense of honor. Pavel stands for everything Bazarov despises: an Old World emphasis upon culture, manners, and refinement, and an aristocratic and elitist view of life. He represents the traditions that Bazarov vainly struggles to destroy in his...
(The entire section is 909 words.)