Fathers and Sons

by Ivan Turgenev

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Critical Overview

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In 1862, when Turgenev first gave the manuscript for Fathers and Sons to his editor Mikhail Nikiforovich Katkov, the Russkii vestnik (Russian Herald) editor was concerned about the potential backlash over the novel.

Katkov had reason to be concerned. As Edward Garnett notes in his Turgenev, “the stormy controversy that the novel immediately provoked was so bitter, deep, and lasting that the episode forms one of the most interesting chapters in literary history.” The controversy originated in the interpretation of the novel by the two main political forces in Russia at the time—the older liberals, or reactionaries, from the 1840s who were of Turgenev’s generation, and the younger radicals— whom Turgenev called “nihilists” in the novel—of the current, 1860s generation. It was with this second group that Turgenev had found favor with through the publication of some of his earlier works in Sovremennik (Contemporary). However, the same critics who had praised Turgenev’s earlier works now offered harsh criticism for Fathers and Sons as they had for Turgenev’s previous novel, Nakanune. One of the most vocal critics from The Contemporary was M. A. Antonovich, who remarked that Bazarov “is not a man, but some horrible being, simply a devil or, to express oneself more poetically, a foul fiend.”

Another radical critic, A. I. Gertsen, notes that in the book, “gloomy, concentrated energy has spoken in this unfriendly attitude of the young generation to its mentors.” The overwhelming majority of criticisms, both good and bad, concerned the character Bazarov. D. I. Pisarev, another of the younger radicals, was the only critic from his political party who did not describe Bazarov as a “vicious caricature” of the radicals, as Leonard Schapiro notes in Turgenev: His Life and Times. Instead, Pisarev writes to both radicals and liberals: “You may be indignant about people like Bazarov to your heart’s content, but it is most essential to acknowledge their sincerity.”

The book was also disliked by the liberals, many of whom blamed Turgenev’s book for the violence exhibited by young radicals. Turgenev himself recounts what is now a famous anecdote from his life, when he returned to Petersburg in 1862 on the same day that young radicals—calling themselves “nihilists”—were setting fire to buildings: “the first exclamation to fall from the lips of the first acquaintance I encountered . . . was: ‘Look what your nihilists are doing! Burning Petersburg!’”

The major problem in the book’s reception was the fact that both radicals and liberals thought that the book was aimed against them, especially in the portrayal of Bazarov. This problem was underscored by Turgenev’s own conflicting views on the character. Although he stated in a March 30 letter to Fyodor Dostoyevsky that “during all the time of writing I have felt an involuntary attraction for him,” he stated in a different letter on April 18 to A. A. Fet: “Did I wish to curse Bazarov, or extol him? I don’t know that myself, for I don’t know if I love or hate him!”

In 1881, William Ralston Shedden-Ralston, one of Turgenev’s English friends, publicized the author’s upcoming visit by noting that Turgenev was “the wielder of a style unrivalled for delicacy and seldom equalled in force,” and that “it will be easy to see that in his own field he stands alone.” George Moore notes of Bazarov that “he is a real creation, not a modernisation of some Shakespearean or classical conception, but an absolutely new and absolutely distinct addition made to our knowledge of life.” The famous American-born, English writer and critic Henry James notes the novel’s...

(This entire section contains 731 words.)

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“poignant interest,” that is created by the “young world” smiting “the old world which has brought it forth with a mother’s tears and a mother’s hopes.”

During the twentieth century, reviews were largely positive, as reviewers focused on Turgenev’s artistic techniques and prophetic powers. Peter Henry notes that “it is a brilliant stroke of irony on Turgenev’s part that Bazarov and Pavel Petrovich, so sharply contrasted in every way, are endowed with an essential identity as unsuccessful lovers.” In his Turgenev: The Man, His Art and His Age, Avrahm Yarmolinsky says that “throughout, his craftsmanship is at its best. Even the minor characters are deftly sketched in.” And Isaiah Berlin notes that today, “the Bazarovs have won,” since the world is ruled by technology and empirical science.

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