In Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, what was human confrontation with mortality in the story?

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durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Whilst exploring the concept of human confrontation with mortality in Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev, the reader is faced with numerous characters whose reality conflicts with their ideal. As Bazarov is a central character around whom much of the plot develops, his political beliefs and active involvement with "nihilism" create a situation where human confrontation with mortality is at issue.

Nihilists reject any form of structure, including government and social norms, and insist that there is no meaning of life. These beliefs force them to confront their own mortality and accept human failings and weaknesses. Bazarov encounters this while living out his nihilistic principles and suffers the ultimate consequence.  

Arkady is keen to reveal "his own more emancipated outlook" (ch 1) to his father as he is Bazarov's staunch disciple. Bazarov forms opinions of Arkady's family very quickly and dispenses with social manners, having no need to impress others. Bazarov is dismissive of "old romantic idealists" preferring instead "progress" (ch 4). He has no time for unproven supposition nor for "provincial aristocrats" (ch 6). As Pavel observes, he appears conceited.

On discussing Bazarov's views, Arkady, his father and Pavel share their opinions of nihilists; Pavel comparing Bazarov to "a man who . . . who recognizes nothing" and therefore who exists in an "empty airless void." Arkady, in his friend's defence reveals that nihilists acknowledge and surrender to no external authority.

"A nihilist is a person who does not bow down to any authority, who does not accept any principle on faith, however much that principle may be revered." (ch 5)

In other words, nihilists deny truth except mechanistic truth in the natural world and scientific truths, which is why Bazarov is a student of medicine: medicine represents scientific, mechanistic materialist truth; he is not being altruistic and studying medicine for the good of humankind. 

Bazarov expects Arkady is a thorough disciple of nihilism and is surprised that he "still attach(es) significance to marriage" (ch 9). Ultimately, Arkady is unable to sustain his nihilist tendencies and succumbs to a more traditional and seemingly rational approach to life, encouraging his father to marry and marrying himself. He seemingly has faced his own mortality and welcomed his humanity.

Most uncharacteristically and in a moment of weakness, Bazarov declares his love for Anna who enjoys his company and his intellect but has no interest in pursuing a relationship with him. Having recognized his weakness, Bazarov moves on but does in a state of agitation and dejection.

After engaging his attention in the scientific pursuit of administering to the sick villagers, he, in nihilistic fashion, performs a procedure, with an inferior knife and inadequate supplies, on a person with typhoid, cuts and infects himself. He appears to accept death in a way expected of a nihilist even while finding comfort from Anna when she visits him. This example of human confrontation with mortality has, for Bazarov, proven the validity of nihilism to himself and he seeks courage to die instead of turning from nihilism.  

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