Ivan Turgenev had lived in voluntary exile from his native land for a number of years by the time he wrote VIRGIN SOIL, and many critics said that the book showed how much he had lost touch with Russia; yet, with the hindsight of a century, it seems astonishing that he was able to foretell so accurately the events which were to sweep over Russia in the fifty years after the novel’s publication. The novel deals with revolutionaries, many of whom are ineffectual or halfhearted; but at the end of the novel, it is clear that some of these people will continue to work for radical change and that others will succeed them. As Solomin tells Marianna, they will not live to see the revolution triumph, and perhaps several generations will not see it, but eventually it must succeed. And, as he foretold, it did, for better or for worse, alter the world.
VIRGIN SOIL analyzes with shrewdness and great psychological penetration a broad spectrum of the individuals who are attracted to the revolutionary cause. Radical students, frustrated artists, unhappy young women, lonely young men, many different types fall together for a variety of reasons, not all of them idealistic. Because these people have so little in common, it is not surprising that they often fail to work together and frequently fight among themselves. Yet, for the most part, Turgenev pictures them sympathetically. Even those who are not admirable are understandable; Turgenev never condemns people out of hand but seeks to explain how and why individuals become what they are.
The novel is carefully structured, beginning and ending with Pahklin and Mashurin discussing Nezhdanoff and the Cause. Between these two scenes, the story of the little band of radicals and the people with whom its members come in contact develops skillfully, the many threads uniting to create a frustrating picture of Russia in a ferment of change. The plot is both suspenseful and subtle, relying more on psychological motivations than on melodramatic action. As in all of Turgenev’s novels, the story is told in exquisitely controlled prose, at once poetic and strong; the settings are brilliantly rendered but never allowed to intrude between the reader and the characters. Above all, Turgenev is an artist perfectly in control of his material.
The weakness of Nezhdanoff’s temperament is first suggested when he begins to compare himself to Hamlet, a comparison which then continues through the novel. Nezhdanoff is not certain that he believes enough in the radical cause to devote his life to it; he feels that he ought to believe, and he wants to believe, but he cannot make up his mind. Marianna later stirs him again, after his conviction has cooled, but eventually he again realizes that he has been deceiving himself: He never was a revolutionary at heart. Because of his inability to take a straightforward...
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