Characters Discussed

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N. N.

N. N., a middle-aged Russian country landowner who narrates the story of his unhappy love affair many years earlier. In his story, he is twenty-five years old, financially secure, and without responsibility. He travels throughout Europe anxious to experience life. He finds himself more fascinated by faces than by places. Although he possesses all the skills to move gracefully through society, he nevertheless is awkward around women; he has difficulty asserting his affection for them and is easily hurt by coquetry or rejection. A sensitive, self-conscious man, he seeks out natural landscapes that mirror his moods. When he meets two fellow Russians, a man his age and a younger woman, he is intrigued by their personalities and their relationship. He notes how different they are in looks and temperament, and he cannot believe that they are brother and sister, as they profess to be. His friendship with the man ripens quickly, and his awkwardness around the young woman becomes infatuation. His increasing social intimacy with the brother soon collides with his increasing emotional intimacy with the sister. The moment at which he must choose between etiquette and passion is the climax of the story.


Gagin (GAH-gihn), a former Guardsman, now a gentleman of leisure after inheriting the estate of his father, who passed away four years earlier. Twenty-four years old, tall, slim, and well-groomed, Gagin neither looks nor acts like (according to N. N.) the typical Russian on the Grand Tour in Europe. He spends his time showing his sister the towns and villages of the Continent and attempting to become an artist. He begins many drawings but finishes none of them; he ruefully concurs in N. N’s judgment that he is a “regular Russian soul,” simple and filled with noble thoughts, but without ardor and unable to bring a great task to conclusion. Gagin shares N. N.’s delight in the countryside and, when the two become friends, confides the secret of his sister’s birth. His feelings toward the girl are mixed: He loves her and cares for her, yet he feels ashamed of her origin. This latter feeling makes it impossible for him to believe that N. N. could indeed love his sister enough to marry her. Gagin brought his sister to Europe because her existence made his life in Russian society awkward. He precipitates the flight that separates the lovers forever.

Anna Nikolayevna

Anna Nikolayevna (nee-koh-LAH-ehv-nah), called by her nickname Asya, an emotional young woman who falls passionately in love with N. N. Short in stature and graceful in figure, Asya is seventeen years old. Her character is mercurial, one moment prankish, the next moment melancholy. She is physically active and daring. She runs when Gagin and N. N. walk, and she saunters on ledges where they fear to tread. The revelation of her parentage is the central mystery and problem of the plot. She is Gagin’s half sister, born of the love match between his father and a peasant woman after the death of Gagin’s mother. When the elder Gagin died, he enjoined his twenty-one-year-old son to take care of the girl. Asya proves too much of a problem for the young soldier, who can neither understand nor control her varied moods. She does not have a typical Russian soul: She possesses an inward passion that dares to strive toward completion and fulfillment.

Frau Luise

Frau Luise (frow lew-EE-seh), a German widow who befriends Asya. She is an elderly, wizened woman whose appearance strikes N. N. as odd and slightly malevolent. Asya visits her frequently, much to Gagin’s chagrin. Gagin is sure that Asya’s affection for the widow is only an affectation. Luise’s house is Asya’s refuge, however; it is there that she escapes the leisurely, indecisive pace of a gentleman’s life. There, too, N. N. and Asya have their final, tragic interview.

The Characters

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The narrator, N.N., is a familiar figure in Ivan Turgenev’s fiction, similar to the heroes of several other works, such as Pervaya lyubov (1860; First Love, 1884) or Veshniye vody (1872; Spring Floods, 1874; better known as The Torrents of Spring, 1897). The character has obvious autobiographical elements. His age, sex, social position, and “philosophy” are more or less identical with Turgenev’s own, but like other quasi-autobiographical characters, he is not endowed with the author’s literary talent and success. Private means, from estate (and serf) ownership, supply the resources so that these young men can devote themselves entirely to private life; concerns over money seldom obtrude themselves. Like Asya, several of Turgenev’s other stories take place outside Russia, particularly at spas in Germany (where Turgenev himself also spent much of his time until 1870), thus setting them apart from the Russian social concerns Turgenev evoked in such novels as Nakanune (1860; On the Eve, 1871) and Ottsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons,1867). Asya’s ambiguous situation, suspended by illegitimacy between two classes, echoes the position of Turgenev’s own illegitimate daughter, Polina, and also that of the illegitimate daughter of his uncle, who was actually called Asya.

N.N. is also typical of other Turgenev heroes. He exhibits a certain sexual fecklessness, an inability to move beyond the early stages of courtship. When the woman, contrary to conventional expectations, takes the initiative in the affair, the skittish male takes to his heels, often evoking some “moral” rationalization for his craven flight. With the episode safely in the past, he then can use it to infuse his life with an aura of nostalgic poetry.

Except for his artistic interests, Gagin is almost a carbon copy of N.N.The reader, however, has no view of Gagin’s inner world. Turgenev stresses the softness and sweetness of the artist’s nature, which he identifies as a national and class trait, and Gagin himself attributes his lack of progress as an artist to his “cursed Slavic lack of discipline.” He does, however, take seriously his responsibilities to Asya.

Asya herself is intended to produce an enigmatic impression; the puzzle of her social origin, solved early in the story, only partly solves the riddle of her character. She is more direct and uninhibited than the ladies of her brother’s social class, but the key to Asya lies in the clash between her naturally outgoing, passionate nature and her pride, which fears rejection and humiliation at the hands of those whose legitimacy and class status are beyond question.


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Annenkov, Pavel Vasilevich. “The Literary Type of the Weak Man: Apropos of Turgenev’s Story ‘Asja,’” in Ulbandus Review. I (Spring, 1978), pp. 90-104.

Chernyshevsky, Nikolai. “The Russian at the Rendez-vous,” in Belinsky, Chernyshevsky, and Dobrolyubov: Selected Criticism, 1962. Edited by Ralph E. Matlaw.

Dessaix, Robert. Turgenev: The Quest for Faith, 1980.

Freeborn, Richard. Turgenev: The Novelist’s Novelist, 1960.

Schapiro, Leonard. Turgenev: His Life and Times, 1979.

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm. Turgenev: The Man, His Art, and His Age, 1977.

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