Fathers and Sons

by Ivan Turgenev

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Critical Evaluation

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In Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev attempted to examine the forces for change operating, for the most part in isolation and frustration, in mid-nineteenth century Russia. The storm of protest and outrage produced from the moment the novel appeared indicates that he had indeed touched a sensitive nerve in Russian society. In fact, Turgenev never really got over the abuse heaped upon him; his periods of exile in Germany, France, and Italy were all the more frequent and of longer duration after the publication of the novel. One wonders at the excitement occasioned by Fathers and Sons, for a cooler reading undertaken more than a hundred years later indicates that Turgenev clearly attempted and achieved a balanced portrait of conservative and revolutionary Russia—a triumphant achievement in political fiction, where the passions of the moment so often damage the artistic effort.

The subtlety and rightness of Turgenev’s technique are most clearly seen in the central character Bazarov. Bazarov is a pragmatist, a scientist, and a revolutionary idealist. He is put into a relationship with every important character, and it is from these relationships that the reader gets to know him and to understand more about him than he understands about himself. A master of literary impressionism, Turgenev liked to do an “atmospheric” treatment of his characters, vividly rendering visual, auditory, and other sense impressions in a nicely selected setting. This technique admits all sorts of lively and contradictory details and prevents the novel—and Bazarov—from falling into mere ideological rhetoric and political polemic. Most of all, for all of his roughness and bearishness, Turgenev really liked Bazarov and sympathized with him (“with the exception of [his] views on art, I share almost all his convictions,” he wrote).

Bazarov’s chief conflict is with Pavel Kirsanov, a middle-aged bachelor with refined continental tastes and a highly developed sense of honor. Pavel stands for everything Bazarov despises: an Old World emphasis upon culture, manners, and refinement, and an aristocratic and elitist view of life. He represents the traditions that Bazarov vainly struggles to destroy in his efforts to bring a democratic, scientific, and utilitarian plan of action into widespread use. For Bazarov, “a good chemist is more useful than a score of poets,” because the chemist attacks the central problem of poverty, disease, and ignorance. The old humanism represented by Pavel is, for him, a manifestation of ignorance that perpetrates and countenances needless suffering, particularly for the lower classes. His rude and sneering treatment of Pavel is undercut by his participation in the duel, which is an absurd custom of the upper classes he despises. Bazarov is the loser in the duel and he knows it. His passion, which he tries to cover up with a cold, clinical attitude, leads him into it.

His relationship with Madame Odintzov shows that Bazarov is at heart a romantic, though he would hardly admit it. This cool and cultured widow provokes the most ardent response from him—despite his contention that women are mere instruments of amusement and pleasure. With Madame Odintzov, however, Bazarov has unfortunately chosen an inadequate object for his passion. She is lovely but cold and detached and is unable to respond to him.

Bazarov’s romanticism, however, is chiefly frustrated in social and political matters. He deeply believes that conditions can be changed and that he and others can work together to that end. When readers look at these “others,” they see how painful and tragic his situation is. Arkady, his schoolmate and friend, is a kindly fellow who imitates Bazarov’s revolutionary attitudes. He is in awe of his friend’s rough manner, but he...

(This entire section contains 909 words.)

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does not understand that Bazarov really intends to follow his ideas to the end. Rather, Arkady is not even dimly aware at first that he is incapable of supporting Bazarov all the way. Like most men, Arkady is conventional and conforming out of natural adaptability. His marriage to Katya is a model of bourgeois comfort and serves to underline Bazarov’s loneliness and ineffectuality. Like his father before him, Arkady chooses domestic satisfactions and a life of small compromises over the absurd “heroism” of his schoolfellow. The Kirsanov homestead remains, on the whole, ill-managed and unimproved. No revolution in land management has occurred even though the peasants are about to be freed. Life goes on in a muddle despite the passionate efforts of one or two enlightened persons to reform it.

Bazarov’s curious and potentially violent behavior to Arkady when they are lying in a haystack suggests that he knows that Arkady cannot follow him. Furthermore, this scene reveals that Bazarov is full of violent distaste for those who pretend to be reformers. He cannot spare them ridicule, and his frustrated energies burst forth in threatening gestures. He is a leader without followers, a general without an army. Nevertheless, he loves his parents, two kindly old representatives of the traditional way of life, for they do not pretend to be anything they are not.

Bazarov’s death is a form of suicide. His willingness to take no immediate steps to prevent the spread of infection after he has carelessly cut himself suggests that he has seen the absurdity of his position and, to some extent at least, given in to it. In his delirium, he states that Russia needs a cobbler, a tailor, a butcher more than she needs him. Nevertheless, for Turgenev, Bazarov was “the real hero of our time.”

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Fathers and Sons