Ivan Turgenev Essay - Turgenev, Ivan (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Turgenev, Ivan (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Ivan Turgenev 1818-1883

Russian novelist, novella, short story, and sketch writer, playwright, poet, and essayist.

The following entry presents criticism on Turgenev from 1920 through 1996. For further discussion of Turgenev's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 21; for a discussion of the novel Fathers and Sons, see NCLC, Volume 37.

Called “the novelist's novelist” by Henry James, Ivan Turgenev was the first Russian author to achieve widespread international fame. Although he was originally linked with Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy as a member of the triumvirate of great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century, Turgenev's reputation began to diminish during the course of the twentieth century. He produced numerous works in a variety of genres but is most famous for his narrative prose, particularly Ottsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons), a work that was denounced by his contemporaries, both liberal and conservative.

Biographical Information

Turgenev was born on October 28, 1818, in the city of Orel into a family of wealthy gentry. He spent his childhood at the family's estate with his father, a charming but ineffectual cavalry officer, and his mother, a strong-willed but eccentric heiress whose extensive land holdings included the estate at Spasskoye and its 5,000 serfs. Turgenev's biographers note that his many fictional representations of strong female characters and weak-willed male characters replicate the personal dynamics of the Turgenev family. During Turgenev's early childhood French was the primary language spoken in his household, though his mother later permitted the use of Russian as well. Her library was extensive and her son spent much of his childhood reading literature in several languages. In 1824 the family moved to Moscow where Turgenev began his formal education, consisting of a combination of local schools and private tutors. In 1833 he entered Moscow University and a year later transferred to the University of St. Petersburg, where he began writing poetry. After graduation he went to Germany, enrolled at the University of Berlin, and studied philosophy for the next several years. In 1841 Turgenev returned to Russia and for the remainder of his life divided his time between his homeland and Western Europe.

Turgenev's first published work was a narrative poem that received little attention. Although he continued to write poetry and drama, he soon turned to narrative prose, producing short stories and sketches—many of them on the injustice of Russian serfdom—for the radical periodical The Contemporary. These stories were enormously popular with the public but attracted unfavorable attention from government officials. The publication of twenty-two of these sketches in the collection Zapiski okhotnika (1852; A Sportsman's Sketches), together with an admiring obituary of Nikolay Gogol that same year, resulted in Turgenev's arrest and imprisonment. After a month in jail, he was confined to Spasskoye, where he remained under house arrest for nearly two years.

In 1856 Turgenev began writing novels and in 1862 produced Fathers and Sons, now considered his masterpiece. Reaction among the various political factions within Russia was immediate, and the novel was denounced from all sides. Distressed by the unfavorable reviews, Turgenev began to spend more and more time in Western Europe in the company of such renowned authors as Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, and George Sand. His absence from his homeland only increased the attacks on his work, and his subsequent novels were offered as proof by his critics that he was out of touch with his native country. With the publication of his last novel, Nov’, (1877; Virgin Soil), Turgenev abandoned any attempt to deal with the Russian political scene and turned to the production of prose poems and stories that were philosophical and nostalgic. Turgenev, after a lengthy illness, died in 1883 near Paris. His body was returned to Russia, where he was widely mourned despite attempts by the government to discourage and restrict memorials.

Major Works

A Sportsman's Sketches exposed the miserable conditions of Russia's serfs and is often compared with Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, although Turgenev's message was far more understated. Some years later, when the serfs eventually won their freedom, Turgenev's text was credited with helping to secure their emancipation. In 1856 Turgenev produced his first novel, Rudin, introducing themes and character types that would inform his subsequent novels and stories—such characters as the political idealist given to words rather than action, the strong heroine willing to risk everything for love, and the passive, ineffectual suitor who abandons the heroine at the first sign of opposition. Turgenev's next two novels, Dvoryanskoe gnezdo (1859; A House of Gentlefolk) and Nakanune (1860; On the Eve), deal with similar themes of fatalism and frustration.

Turgenev's most famous novel, Fathers and Sons, features a protagonist who represented a new political type in Russia at the time—the nihilist. The character Bazarov rejects all elements of Russian politics and culture and believes in nothing except empirical science. His next novel, Dym (1867; Smoke), was a pessimistic appraisal of Russia's political scene, and his final novel, Nov' represented the Russian Populist Movement of the 1870s.

In addition to his six novels, Turgenev produced shorter works that attained great popularity, among them the short story “Mumu” (1852), and the novellas Pervaya lyubov' (1860; First Love), and Veshnie vody (1872; The Torrents of Spring). Turgenev's last published work during his lifetime was Stikhotvoreniya v proze (1882; Poems in Prose).

Critical Reception

In the nineteenth century, scholarship on Turgenev centered around his six novels and the storm of controversy surrounding them in Russia, whereas elsewhere they were considered illuminating representations of Russia's sociopolitical scene. In the twentieth century, scholars began to concentrate more and more on Turgenev's shorter fiction, which consists of the sketches in A Sportsman's Sketches, as well as approximately 35 other stories and novellas. Vladimir Fisher, for example, suggesting that the stories have been unjustly overshadowed by the novels, concentrates on the autobiographical and historical elements in the shorter works, as well as their pessimism and fatalism. Thomas Eekman has also studied the shorter prose and maintains that Turgenev's “stock theme” in the stories, as in the novels, is love, and James B. Woodward argues that the “essential impotence of man is the most basic and consistent theme in Turgenev's fiction.”

Many late twentieth-century scholars focused on the role of women in Turgenev's work. Among them are Christine Johanson, who has studied the historical accuracy of Turgenev's female characters, and Jane T. Costlow, who examines the heroines of the novels, particularly Odintsova in Fathers and Children. According to Costlow, “Turgenev's heroines have been creatures of passion, not sensibility; they have been defiant and exultant, not carefully resigned.” Walter Smyrniw discusses Turgenev's part in the creation of the nineteenth-century iconic representation of the femme fatale. Suggesting that the author was influenced by similarly-themed representations in the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Smyrniw explains that Turgenev created sensual female characters who are endowed with the same erotic physical features Rossetti gave to his female subjects.

Many scholars acknowledge that Turgenev's reputation during and following the twentieth century and beyond has been overshadowed by that of his more famous countrymen, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Richard Freeborn, however, insists that Turgenev's work remains valuable since the author, as an eyewitness to the 1848 revolution in France, possessed a unique perspective on the political pressures and changes leading to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Elizabeth Cheresh Allen, studying Poems in Prose, acknowledges both the uneven quality of Turgenev's final effort as well as the author's declining reputation in the twentieth century. She concludes that in his ambitious attempt to secure Russia's place in literary history, Turgenev succeeded in securing his own.

Principal Works

*Parasha (poetry) 1843

“Dnevnik lishnego cheloveka” [“The Diary of a Superfluous Man”] (short story) 1850

“Mumu” (short story) 1852

Zapiski okhotnika [Russian Life in the Interior; also published as A Sportsman's Sketches] (sketches and short stories) 1852

Rudin (novel) 1856; enlarged edition, 1860

Asya (novella) 1858

Dvoryanskoe gnezdo [A House of Gentlefolk; also published as A Nobleman's Nest] (novel) 1859

“Gamlet i Don Kokhot” [“Hamlet and Don Quixote”] (criticism) 1860

Nakanune [On the Eve] (novel) 1860

Pervaya lyubov' [First Love] (novella) 1860

Ottsy i deti [Fathers and Sons; also published as Fathers and Children] (novel) 1862

Dym [Smoke] (novel) 1867

Mesyats v derevne [A Month in the Country] (drama) 1872

Veshnie vody [The Torrents of Spring] (novella) 1872

Nov' [Virgin Soil] (novel) 1877

Stikhotvoreniya v proze [Poems in Prose] (poetry) 1882

Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. 10 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, dramas, poetry, criticism, and letters) 1891

The Novels of Ivan Turgenev. 15 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, and poetry) 1894-1899

The Novels and Stories of Iván Turgénieff. 16 vols. (novels, novellas, and short stories) 1903-1904

The Plays of Ivan S. Turgenev (dramas) 1924

Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem. 28 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, dramas, poetry, criticism, and letters) 1960-1968

Turgenev's Letters (letters) 1983

*Most of Turgenev's works were originally published in periodicals.

†This work was written in 1850.


Vladimir Fisher (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: Fisher, Vladimir. “Story and Novel in Turgenev's Work.” In Critical Essays on Ivan Turgenev, edited by David A. Lowe, pp. 43-63. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1920, Fisher discusses features found in Turgenev's short stories and novels that reveal the author's experiences and observations.]


Turgenev's novels have overshadowed his stories. And in general, the latter were somehow unlucky. The critics, in the person of Belinsky, met the first story1 rather coldly. The success of Notes of a Hunter at the end of the 1840s and the...

(The entire section is 8848 words.)

Christine Johanson (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Johanson, Christine. “Turgenev's Heroines: A Historical Assessment.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 26, no. 1 (March 1984): 15-23.

[In the following essay, Johanson examines Turgenev's female characters as realistic representations of contemporary Russian women.]

“Kukshina … that progressive louse which Turgenev combed out of Russian reality”: thus Dostoevskii decried the false emancipée in Ottsy i deti.1 Dmitrii Pisarev, the literary critic whose radical social views disgusted the great novelist, thought differently: “Between Kukshina and the emancipated woman, there is nothing in common.”2 He went on to explain that...

(The entire section is 3538 words.)

Richard Freeborn (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Freeborn, Richard. “A Centenary Tribute to Turgenev.” Journal of European Studies 14, no. 3 (September 1984): 155-71.

[In the following essay, Freeborn discusses Turgenev's literary legacy one hundred years after his death.]

Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev was born in 1818 and died in 1883. He was born into the privileged, serf-owning world of the Russian nobility, educated at the universities of Moscow and St Petersburg and abroad, at Berlin. The experience of Western Europe turned him into a devotee of European civilization, so that he became known as a Westernist or zapadnik. For forty years of his life, from 1843 until his death, he was a devoted...

(The entire section is 7483 words.)

Thomas Eekman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Eekman, Thomas. “Turgenev and the Shorter Prose Forms.” In Text and Context: Essays To Honor Nils Åke Nilsson, edited by Peter Alberg Jensen, Barbara Lönnqvist, Fiona Björling, Lars Kleberg, and Anders Sjöberg, pp. 42-52. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1987.

[In the following essay, Eekman discusses the recurring love theme in Turgenev's short stories as well as his repeated use of first person narrators and framed story-within-a-story structural devices.]

Few books in world literature have such a misleading title as Turgenev's Zapiski ochotnika. The actual hunting is restricted to just a few paragraphs, and usually the...

(The entire section is 5506 words.)

James B. Woodward (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Woodward, James B. “Determinism in the Novels of Turgenev.” Scando-Slavica 34 (1988): 17-27.

[In the following essay, Woodward discusses Turgenev's consistent treatment in his novels of characters who are powerless and unable to direct their own lives.]

The essential impotence of man is the most basic and consistent theme of Turgenev's fiction. In the works of no other major Russian writer is the individual portrayed as so limited by the very nature of his being in his freedom of choice, in the opportunities allowed him to shape his own destiny. He is perpetually prey to the influence of “forces” which he is usually powerless to resist or comprehend....

(The entire section is 4841 words.)

David A. Lowe (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Lowe, David A. “Turgenev and the Critics.” In Critical Essays on Ivan Turgenev, pp. 1-15. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988.

[In the following essay, Lowe provides an overview of the critical response to Turgenev's work.]


As an artist, Ivan Turgenev has long since acquired the reputation of an apostle of moderation. As Dmitry Merezhkovsky noted in a presentation delivered in 1909, “In Russia, in a land of every sort of maximalism, revolutionary and religious, a land of self-immolations, a land of the most frenzied excesses, Turgenev is practically our only genius of the right measure after Pushkin....

(The entire section is 6312 words.)

A. V. Knowles (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Knowles, A. V. “The Last Two Novels.” In Ivan Turgenev, pp. 89-103. Boston: Twayne, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Knowles discusses Turgenev's novels Smoke and Virgin Soil, both poorly received in Russia but acclaimed by critics elsewhere in the world.]


Smoke, Turgenev's fifth completed novel, appeared in Katkov's Russian Herald in the early part of 1867. The idea for the book probably first occurred to him in 1862, immediately after the publication of Fathers and Sons. Apparently he originally thought of writing a love story, but his reaction to the reception of Fathers and...

(The entire section is 7147 words.)

A. D. P. Briggs (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Briggs, A. D. P. “One Man and His Dogs: An Anniversary Tribute to Ivan Turgenev.” Irish Slavonic Studies 14 (1993): 1-20.

[In the following essay, Briggs examines the importance of dogs in Turgenev's life and literature.]


I wish to honour the name of Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev in a curious way—though it is one which certainly would have appealed to him—by drawing attention to his interest in dogs.1 Dogs played a significant role for him, both in real life and in literature. He grew up surrounded by them at Spasskoye; one of his earliest recorded memories is of going out hunting with his father at the...

(The entire section is 8218 words.)

Peter I. Barta (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Barta, Peter I. “Superfluous Women and the Perils of Reading ‘Faust.’” Irish Slavonic Studies 14 (1993): 21-36.

[In the following essay, Barta discusses Turgenev's short story “Faust” in conjunction with the author's 1856 review of a translation of Goethe's Faust.]

Both Turgenev's fiction and his criticism reveal an unusually strong interest in great literary works of the past: Hamlet, Don Quixote, King Lear and Manon Lescaut mark important stages in Turgenev's career. At times, Goethe's Faust in particular preoccupied Turgenev. He translated part of the drama into Russian, wrote a detailed review of Mikhail...

(The entire section is 6823 words.)

Elizabeth Cheresh Allen (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Allen, Elizabeth Cheresh. “Turgenev's Last Will and Testament: Poems in Prose.” In Freedom and Responsibility in Russian Literature: Essays in Honor of Robert Louis Jackson, edited by Elizabeth Cheresh Allen and Gary Saul Morson, pp. 53-68. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Allen considers Turgenev's Poems in Prose as the appropriate conclusion to a great literary career in an attempt to reassert the author's position in literary history.]

Turgenev's final published work, Poems in Prose (Stikhotvoreniia v proze), can prove puzzling—and even somewhat discomfiting—to those of his current...

(The entire section is 7628 words.)

Jane T. Costlow (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Costlow, Jane T. “‘Oh-là-là’ and ‘No-no-no’: Odintsova as Woman Alone in Fathers and Children.” In A Plot of Her Own: The Female Protagonist in Russian Literature, edited by Sona Stephan Hoisington, pp. 21-32. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, Costlow discusses Turgenev's treatment of female characters, particularly Odintsova, in his most famous novel.]

Turgenev Women discuss events,
know about actors,
look for oil,
talk about medicine,
perform on the stage …
Turgenev Women in the morning mist,
Turgenev Women right beside you …(1)

“Turgenev Women,” the contemporary song...

(The entire section is 7074 words.)

Walter Smyrniw (essay date 1995-96)

SOURCE: Smyrniw, Walter. “Turgenev's Femmes Fatales.” Germano-Slavica 9, nos. 1-2 (1995-96): 135-53.

[In the following essay, Smyrniw explores possible sources for Turgenev's representation of treacherous women in his novels.]

Nimm dich in acht vor ihren schönen Haaren,
Vor diesem Schmuck, mit dem sie einzig prangt.
Wenn sie damit den jungen Mann erlangt,
So läßt sie ihn so bald nicht wieder fahren.


In her comprehensive study of femmes fatales in literature and art, Virginia Allen has ascertained that the phrase “femme fatale” came into usage at the turn of our century, whereas the concept and the “erotic icon” of...

(The entire section is 9119 words.)

Robert Lagerberg (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Lagerberg, Robert. “The Open Frame and the Presentation of Time in Turgenev's First Love.Australian Slavonic and East European Studies 10, no. 2 (1996): 111-20.

[In the following essay, Lagerberg discusses the structure of First Love, which contains an opening, but not a closing, frame story.]

In terms of structure Turgenev's story First Love is unusual, if not unique, in Russian literature, since the frame used to open the story is not repeated at its end, as would normally be expected. A brief summary of the story's structure will make this clearer. First Love is told from the viewpoint of a middle-aged bachelor, Vladimir...

(The entire section is 3961 words.)

Sander Brouwer (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Brouwer, Sander. “Literary Character in Turgenev's Prose.” In Character in the Short Prose of Ivan Sergeevič Turgenev, pp. 31-73. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Brouwer studies elements of Romanticism and Realism in Turgenev's short stories, suggesting that the author creates a tension between the two styles in his short prose.]


As P. Brang noted (Brang: 50), Turgenev's prose, especially the short stories, reveals a tension between the Realist and the Romantic style. Turgenev himself first indicated this tension in his 1870 draft for the novel Virgin Soil, whose main...

(The entire section is 18251 words.)

Jane Costlow (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Costlow, Jane. “Abusing the Erotic: Women in Turgenev's ‘First Love.’” In Engendering Slavic Literatures, edited by Pamela Chester and Sibelan Forrester, pp. 3-12. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Costlow examines gender and power relations in Turgenev's novella First Love.]

At the midpoint of his novella of doomed infatuation—a work acclaimed as its author's most “enchanting and brilliant story”1—Turgenev dramatizes the initiation into sexual knowledge that is the story's central concern. Vladimir, the story's hero, clambers onto a garden wall only to leap down at the command of his beloved...

(The entire section is 5917 words.)

Nancy H. Traill (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Traill, Nancy H. “Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev: Tentative Beginnings.” In Possible Worlds of the Fantastic: The Rise of the Paranormal in Fiction, pp. 74-104. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Traill discusses elements of the paranormal and the supernatural in Turgenev's fiction.]

If the transformations in Dickens's fantastic tales correspond roughly to the order in which they were written, the same cannot be said of Turgenev's. Where Dickens moved fairly consistently towards the paranormal mode, Turgenev juggled with a variety of modes. For instance, in ‘Knock! … Knock! … Knock! …’ [‘Stuk! … Stuk! … Stuk!...

(The entire section is 15378 words.)

Further Reading


Bortnes, Jostein. “The Poetry of Prose—the Art of Parallelism in Turgenev's Ottsy i dety.Scando-Slavica 30 (1984): 31-55.

Discusses the novel Fathers and Sons from an aesthetic perspective rather than from the traditional socio-historical approach.

Brouwer, Sander. “The Use of Folklore Elements for the Characterisation of the Personages in Turgenev's ‘Poezdka v Poles'e.’” In Dutch Contributions to the Tenth International Congress of Slavists, Sofia, September 14-22, 1988, edited by André van Holk, pp. 45-70. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988.

Studies the use of folklore as a unifying...

(The entire section is 487 words.)