Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

In general, Russian criticism of Turgenev’s time, more oriented as it was toward social commentary than artistic analysis, paid far more attention to the series of topical novels Turgenev produced during this period in his career, such as Rudin (1856; Dimitri Roudine, 1873; better known as Rudin, 1947), On the Eve, and Fathers and Sons than to such novellas as Asya and First Love, which deal with purely private themes. (In contrast, with the exception of Fathers and Sons, late twentieth century readers often prefer these shorter works to the novels in which the topical material, much of it now outdated, is not always well integrated with the plot.) Asya, however, was something of an exception, for the leading radical critic and ideologue, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, used it as the text for a famous article entitled “The Russian at the Rendez-vous” in 1962. Chernyshevsky’s conclusion is that the Russian gentry, typified by N.N. and Gagin, are too lazy, shiftless, and incompetent to provide leadership for the country, which is entering a new era of progress and social change. This article became one of the classic texts of the radical Left.

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Though many admired the story’s psychological subtlety and lyricism, other critics have found the book fundamentally flawed. The character of Asya herself strikes some readers as contrived and artificial. The story’s greatest weakness, however, may be a consequence of the first-person narrative. To a modern reader, perhaps standing on Sigmund Freud’s shoulders, it seems clear that N.N.’s romance with Asya did not succeed because the narrator did not want it to succeed. Throughout his account of his encounters with Asya, he repeatedly expresses annoyance, irritation, and vexation with her behavior. He does not want the responsibility of a deep, lasting relationship, and he wriggles free from Asya’s (and Gagin’s) snares. There is, therefore, something spurious about his affectation of anguish and despair at the loss of Asya, his pursuit to London, and the aura of nostalgia that he casts over the memory. What is not clear, however, is the extent to which Turgenev has penetrated his character’s rationalizations. The emotions the narrator claims to have experienced seem somewhat false, an effort at self-deception, but since the author has no voice other than the narrator’s, the reader finds it difficult to know whether Turgenev sees through his creature’s illusions or actually shares them.

On reading Asya, Leo Tolstoy wrote in his diary, “Asya is rubbish.” Hedid not explain this harsh judgment, which may have been motivated by the jealousies of his personal relationship with Turgenev, but the story Semeynoye schastye (1859; Family Happiness, 1888), which he wrote soon afterward, clearly in some sense replies to Turgenev. Though as much a bachelor as Turgenev at that time, Tolstoy resolved in Family Happiness to do two things Turgenev never dared to do. He would present a first-person, reminiscential narrative of a romance from the woman’s point of view, and he would carry the romance to the altar and beyond, into the notably un-Turgenevian region of married life and babies.

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