Critical Evaluation

When Smoke appeared in 1867, Ivan Turgenev had been publishing prose fiction for twenty years and was well past the midpoint in his literary career. He had learned most of what he was to know of his craft and had defined his themes, which could be summarized as the Russian question and how it affects, or is affected by, adult love entanglements. The Russian question is simply that of Russia’s relation to the community of European nations and what might be done either to change that relation or to preserve it. Turgenev, who lived much in Western Europe and admired its values, saw that in science, industry, social attitudes, political institutions, and general progress, Russia was far behind Germany, France, and England, and he had little sympathy with conservative Slavophiles who felt that their native land was better off for being so. In his complicated relationship with Pauline Garcia Viardot, a highly successful French singer and actor who had both a husband and children, he saw further the impediment to purposeful action in men (or women) who were not secure or even fulfilled in love matters.

Although Smoke is set in Baden, a fashionable German spa, virtually all the characters are Russians, falling into three groups. First, there are nonentities such as the liberals Litvinoff meets in Gubaryoff’s rooms, brittle and shallow people who pretend to liberalism and intellectuality though they lack the character and the purpose to serve their homeland well. Then there are the aristocrats, some of them military men, who have no interest in bringing about change in Russia, which suits them as it is. Finally, there is the novel’s hero, Grigory Litvinoff, and a shadowy figure, Sozont Potugin, civilized and thoughtful, with whom Litvinoff becomes acquainted. Both these men seem to embody qualities of character and intelligence by which the condition of Russia and its people might be improved, but both are under the influence of Irina, who is now married to Ratmiroff, a brilliant young general and Russian aristocrat, whose social set Irina detests even as she is unwilling to leave a marriage that gives her power and a comfortable social place. Her brief liaison with Litvinoff seems motivated by genuine passion and true regard, but neither impulse is as strong as the tie...

(The entire section is 939 words.)