Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

First Love is a story of maturation in which the naive protagonist is initiated into the painful ironies of adult life and love. At the start of the narrative, Vladimir’s emotions and behavior are shaped by the romantic fiction he has read. He is blinded to the complexities of experience by his naive idealism, but he learns a more mature sight through two painful, revelatory experiences: the discovery that his father is Zinaida’s lover and his observation of his father striking Zinaida. These experiences show Vladimir the limitations of his own romantic illusions and intimate that mature love is psychologically mysterious, a risky emotional state that is full of both appeal and threat.

First Love is, thus, a commentary on romanticism, a story that defines romantic idealism’s failure to describe experiential reality. The code of chivalry is shown to be an inadequate guide to the labyrinth of love, but the alternative, Piotr and Zinaida’s hedonistic passion, is shown to be inevitably destructive. Both the adolescent and mature forms of love are ephemeral, and Turgenev’s story offers no other happy path to follow. When the middle-aged Vladimir considers the intense emotions of his youth, he realizes that nothing else in his life has equaled them: “I should not wish it ever to come again: but I should think myself unfortunate had I never experienced such an emotion.” The story condemns neither Vladimir’s naive idealism nor Piotr and Zinaida’s self-justifying hedonism; instead, the middle-aged Vladimir expresses sympathy for all who experience love, for life and love eventually end: “[I] longed to pray for her, for my father—and for myself.” Thus, First Love expands from a discussion of a particular youth’s maturation to become a poignant statement about the human condition.

Psychologically, First Love explores the theme of dominance and subjugation. The central characters compete for control of their relationships, and the novella effectively displays the ironies of such competition: Zinaida manipulates her suitors while secretly longing to be dominated; Piotr conquers Zinaida only to find himself consumed by the poison of passion; Maria uses financial threats to force Piotr to maintain outward appearances but wins only a loveless marriage.