Themes and Meanings
In the 1850’s, Russia was moving into an age when the traditional ways of the landowning aristocracy were being questioned. Turgenev captured the spirit of those social concerns in writing about the members of the aristocracy whom he knew so well; he himself was a very wealthy man who inherited a large estate, and he personally faced the problems of that class. Those concerns are evident in the title, for the novel was written “on the eve” of one of the most significant events in the history of Russia: the freeing of the serfs in 1861. Until that time, the peasants who worked the land were considered to be the property of the landowner. This reform was but one manifestation of the social and intellectual activity which began in Russia during the decade of the 1850’s; the political role of women in society and the nature of idealism and of self-sacrifice were also being considered, as is reflected in the thoughts and actions of the characters.
The fact that Andrei knows of no outstanding Russian of the period is significant, for indirectly, it suggests that, in general, contemporary Russian men were not capable of leading the revolutionary social and political movements of the age. Turgenev viewed most Russian men as the “superfluous man”—ineffectual, uncommitted, but deeply sensitive men who were not capable of decisive action. In his story “Dnevnik lishnyago cheloveka” (1850; “The Diary of a Superfluous Man”), Turgenev assigned the term to a long line of such characters in Russian literature. Turgenev believed that men of action were needed to accomplish the transition to a more enlightened society and also those women—such as Elena—who could emotionally support such men. Although Turgenev believed in Russia’s movement toward progressive Western ways—he considered himself to be a Westerner, one who believed in the ways of Europe—he was not radical in his actions, and, in fact, radicals of the period attacked him for his moderate position.
The importance of romantic love in a person’s life is a theme which Turgenev explored repeatedly in his work. Turgenev’s lovers always experience the most exquisite aspect of life in their loving, but, as in this novel, their happiness is almost always ill-fated.