Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

As On the Eve illustrates, Turgenev’s genius as a novelist was to harmonize all the various elements of the novel into one artistic focus. He was always in control of his material, continually setting one brilliant scene against another with a minimum of authorial intrusion, so that the story unfolds like a play before the reader’s eyes. After this novel, Turgenev went on to write his masterpiece, Ottsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons, 1867), in which, like On the Eve and his other longer works—Rudin (1856; Dimitri Roudine, 1873; also known as Rudin, 1947), Dvoryanskoye gnezdo (1859; Liza, 1869; also known as A House of Gentlefolk, 1894), Dym (1867; Smoke, 1868), and Nov (1877; Virgin Soil, 1877)—he consciously looked outward to social concerns as well as to the inner, personal lives of his characters.

Because of his artistic control, Turgenev achieved a place for the young Russian novel that it had not previously held. If Turgenev’s best novels do not possess the epic scope or the compelling intensity of the longer novels of his younger contemporaries Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski—both of whom Turgenev encouraged and influenced—they nevertheless exhibit a clarity of scene and language and a delicacy of structure and mood that place them among the best works in the tradition of the novel. Turgenev influenced a large number of novelists, including such American realistic writers as William Dean Howells and Henry James. His character of Elena, in her strong-willed desire to do good, was a forerunner of Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch (1871-1872) by George Eliot, a British writer who greatly admired Turgenev.