At a provincial posting station, Kirsanov waits impatiently for his son, Arkady, who has completed his education at the university in St. Petersburg. Kirsanov reflects that Arkady probably has changed, but he hopes his son has not grown away from him entirely. Arkady’s mother is dead, and the widower is strongly attached to his son.
At last the coach appears, rolling along the dusty road. Arkady jumps out, but he is not alone. Lounging superciliously behind is a stranger whom Arkady introduces as Bazarov, a fellow student. Something in Arkady’s manner tells Kirsanov that here is a special attachment. In a low aside, Arkady begs his father to be gracious to his guest.
Feeling some qualms about his unexpected guest, Kirsanov is troubled during the trip home. He is hesitant about his own news but finally tells Arkady that he took a mistress, Fenichka, and installed her in his house. To his great relief, Arkady takes the news calmly and even congratulates his father on the step. Later, Arkady is pleased to learn that he even has a little half brother.
Kirsanov soon finds he has good reason to distrust Bazarov, who is a doctor and a clever biologist. Arkady seems too much under his influence. Worse, Bazarov is a nihilist. At the university the liberal thinkers consciously decided to defy or ignore all authority—state, church, home, pan-Russianism. Bazarov is irritating to talk to, Kirsanov decides, because he knows so much and has such a sarcastic tongue.
Pavel, Kirsanov’s older brother, is especially irritated by Bazarov. Pavel is a real aristocrat, bound by tradition, who comes to live in retirement with his younger brother after a disappointing career as an army officer and the lover of a famous beauty, the Princess R——. With his background and stiff notions of propriety, Pavel often disagrees with Bazarov.
Luckily, Bazarov keeps busy most of the time. He collects frogs and infusoria and is always dissecting and peering into a microscope. He would be an ideal guest, except for his calmly superior air of belonging to a generation far surpassing Pavel’s. Kirsanov, loving his son so much, does his best to keep peace, but all the while he regrets the nihilism that so greatly affects Arkady.
Kirsanov is harassed by other troubles. Soon, by law, the serfs will be freed. Kirsanov strongly approves of this change and anticipates the new order by dividing his farm into smaller plots that the peasants rent on a sharecropping basis. With their new independence, however, the peasants cheat him more than ever and are slow in paying their rent.
Arkady and Bazarov, growing bored with quiet farm life, go to visit in the provincial capital, where they have introductions to the governor. In town, they run into Sitnikov, a kind of polished jackal who feels important because he is one of the nihilist circle. Sitnikov introduces them into provincial society.
At a ball, the two friends meet and are greatly taken by a young widow, Madame Odintzov. Arkady does not dance, but he sits out a mazurka with her. They become friends at once, especially when she finds that Arkady’s mother was an intimate friend of her own mother. After the ball, Madame Odintzov invites the two men to visit her estate.
Arkady and Bazarov accept the invitation promptly. In a few days, they settle down to the easy routine of favored guests in a wealthy household. Katya, Madame Odintzov’s young sister, is especially attracted to Arkady. Bazarov, older and more worldly, becomes the good friend of the widow. Although Bazarov, as a good nihilist, despises home and...
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family life, he makes a real effort to overcome his scruples. However, when he finally begins to talk of love and marriage to Madame Odintzov, he is politely refused. Chagrined at his rejection, he induces Arkady to leave with him at once. The two friends then go on to Bazarov’s home.
Vasily, Bazarov’s father, is glad to see his son, whom he both fears and admires. He and his wife do all they can to make the young men comfortable. At length Arkady and Bazarov quarrel, chiefly because they are so bored. Abruptly they leave and impulsively call again on Madame Odintzov. She receives them coolly. Feeling that they are unwelcome, they go back to the Kirsanov estate.
Because Bazarov is convinced that Arkady is also in love with Madame Odintzov, his friendship with Arkady becomes greatly strained. Arkady, thinking constantly of Katya, returns by himself to the Odintzov estate to press his suit of the younger sister. At the Kirsanov home, Bazarov becomes friendly with Fenichka. He prescribes for her sick baby and even for her. Out of friendship, Fenichka spends much of her time with Bazarov. One morning, as they sit in a garden, Bazarov kisses her unexpectedly, to her distress and confusion. Pavel witnesses the scene by accident and becomes increasingly incensed at the strange nihilist.
Although Pavel does not consider Bazarov a gentleman, he challenges him to a duel with pistols. In the encounter, Pavel is wounded in the leg, and Bazarov leaves the house in haste, never to return. Pavel recovers from his wound, but he feels a never-ending shame at being wounded by a low nihilist. He urges Kirsanov to marry Fenichka, and he returns to his old life. He spends the rest of his days as an aging dandy in Dresden.
Bazarov stops briefly at the Odintzov home. Still convinced that Arkady is in love with Madame Odintzov, he attempts to help his friend in his suit. Madame Odintzov ridicules him, however, when Arkady makes his request for the hand of Katya. With a sense of futility, Bazarov takes his leave and rejoins his own family. Vasily is the local doctor, and he eagerly welcomes his son as a colleague. For a time, Bazarov leads a successful life, helping to cure the ailments of the peasants and pursuing his research at the same time. When one of his patients contracts typhus, he accidentally scratches himself with a scalpel he used. Although Vasily cauterizes the wound as well as he can, Bazarov becomes ill with a fever. Sure that he will die, he summons Madame Odintzov to his side. She comes gladly and helps to ease him before his death.
Madame Odintzov eventually makes a good marriage with a lawyer. Arkady is happy managing his father’s farm and playing with the son born to him and Katya. Kirsanov becomes a magistrate and spends most of his life settling disputes brought about by the liberation of the serfs. Fenichka, at last a respected wife and mother, finds great happiness in her daughter-in-law, Katya.