Fathers and Sons

by Ivan Turgenev

Start Free Trial

Views of Women

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, women play very important and influential roles in the plot. Anna Odintsov attracts Arkady and Bazarov, who are both trying to remain true to their nihilistic beliefs, which attempt to deny love—an irrational force. This surrender to love shakes the very core of Bazarov’s foundation. Eventually, he tries again at love, stealing a kiss from Fenitchka, which leads to the duel with Pavel. In the meantime, Katya wins over Arkady. Women are at the center of just about every major plot point in the book. But what does Turgenev think about women in general? The author makes several contradictory statements— through his characters—about how women are viewed, but in the end, he indicates that women are a necessary force, and a saving and nurturing influence on men.

At the beginning of Fathers and Sons Turgenev introduces four men, all of whom are strong Russian males. Arkady comes home from school a graduate, and brings his friend Bazarov, a nihilist with very powerful views. Almost at once, this younger generation of men conflicts with the older generation—Arkady’s father; Nikolai, a liberal landowner; and Arkady’s uncle Pavel, a retired military officer. Pavel does not like Bazarov from the start, calling him an “unkempt creature” after his first meeting with the younger man. This tension escalates when the younger men start expressing their radical views. Arkady informs his father and uncle that nihilists regard “everything from the critical point of view,” and in the conversations between the two generations over the next fortnight, the young men criticize many of the institutions that the older generation holds dear. Bazarov— backed by Arkady—denounces all irrational pursuits including art, claiming, “a good chemist is twenty times as useful as any poet.” For their part, the older generation says that “If we listen to you, we shall find ourselves outside humanity, outside its laws.” This struggle between the two generations, the main theme in the book, is depicted throughout in passionate and violent terms.

However, just as this struggle culminates in the silly and ineffectual duel between Bazarov and Pavel, the men’s manly debates are also ultimately ineffectual. While these strong men argue about philosophy and art, they are being quietly conquered by women who, like Fenitchka, only seem meek and mild, as when Fenitchka brings in Pavel’s cup of cocoa and “dropped her eyes” in the presence of the men. “It seemed as though she were ashamed of having come in, and at the same time felt that she had a right to come.” Of course, the men do not always realize the power that the women contain. In fact, through his male characters especially, Turgenev expresses many of the views of women that were prevalent at the time. One of the dominant views was that women were not very smart and could not hold their own against literate men. As Bazarov notes to Arkady about his own mother, “If a woman can keep up half-anhour’s conversation, it’s always a hopeful sign.” Bazarov is similarly condescending to Madame Kukshin, an independent woman who has separated from her husband. When Kukshin learns that Bazarov is interested in chemistry, she thinks they have something in common: “You are studying chemistry? That is my passion. I’ve even invented a new sort of composition myself.” However, Bazarov is skeptical in his reply: “A composition? You?”

Bazarov does not always think that an inferior, uneducated woman is a bad thing, as he notes to Arkady when discussing Anna Odintsov’s sister, Katya: “She now is fresh and untouched, and shy and silent, and anything you like....

(This entire section contains 1738 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

She’s worth educating and developing. You might make something fine out of her.” However, while Bazarov thinks that Katya can be manipulated, he holds no such illusion over Anna, whom he refers to as “a stale loaf.” This negative depiction of Anna is due to the fact that she has already started to affect him in ways that he does not like, such as the effect Anna has on Bazarov at their first meeting: “Bazarov himself was conscious of being embarrassed, and was irritated by it.” Bazarov cannot handle feeling out of control, and so when he and Arkady discuss Anna and Katya, he is critical. Arkady remarks “what an exquisite woman” Anna is, while Bazarov says, somewhat condescendingly, “Yes . . . a female with brains. Yes, and she’s seen life too.” Although Bazarov tries to explain that he means this in “a good sense,” he nevertheless describes Anna with the “stale loaf” reference.

Bazarov is afraid of Anna, both for the power she is beginning to hold over his heart and because he has very little power over her; he cannot manipulate her as he initially believes Katya can be manipulated. Hypocritically, Bazarov, who warms to the idea of manipulating women like Katya into an image that is pleasing to him, complains of the manipulative quality of women. When Arkady previously asked his mentor, “Why are you unwilling to allow freethinking in women?’,” Bazarov replies: “Because, my boy, as far as my observations go, the only freethinkers among women are frights.”

Bazarov’s view of freethinking women is even worse after Anna has “forced” him to confess to her that “I love you like a fool, like a madman.” Anna slights his charms, letting him know that she is not interested in him in this way, and Bazarov tells Arkady that, “to my mind, it’s better to break stones on the highroad than to let a woman have the mastery of even the end of one’s little finger.” Bazarov feels he has let his guard down and been manipulated by Anna and becomes bitter at the thought that he has been played in this way.

Besides being looked at as inferior or manipulative, Turgenev’s characters also view some women as independent. In fact, before he is rebuffed by Anna, Bazarov agreed to some extent with a woman’s right to advance her circumstances. As Bazarov notes to Arkady just prior to meeting Anna (and prior to being rattled by her): “to my mind, to marry a rich old man is by no means a strange thing to do, but, on the contrary, very sensible.” If Bazarov had not been affected by his love for Anna, he might have still held this view, instead of denouncing women as manipulative. In fact, as Barbara Alpern Engel notes in her book, Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-century Russia, the nihilists in general were very supportive of women’s rights, and “devoted considerable attention to women’s problems.” Engel notes that during the 1860s especially, these nihilists “tried to help women by encouraging them to become autonomous and by providing alternatives to the traditional family.”

This is certainly addressed through the character of Madame Kukshin, who Sitnikov, a professed nihilist, adores for her independence: “She’s a remarkable nature, émancipée in the true sense of the word, an advanced woman.” Kukshin is proud of the fact that she has separated from her husband, and loves the power and responsibility she holds: “I manage my property myself.” Kukshin states to her gathered men—Sitnikov, Bazarov, and Arkady—that Russia needs to change its education system, since “our women are very badly educated.” In fact, Kukshin cannot stand the writings of women like George Sand, who Kukshin says “hasn’t an idea on education, nor physiology, nor anything. She’s never, I’m persuaded, heard of embryology, and in these days—what can be done without that?” Kukshin, like her young male counterparts, rests her hopes on objective fields like science in an attempt to be “advanced.” In fact, Sitnikov also criticizes other women who are not at the same level of advancement as Kukshin, as when he describes Anna Odintsov: “Clever, rich, a widow. It’s a pity she’s not yet advanced enough.”

The idea of a woman being “advanced” is not new at this point and is not attributed only to the nihilists. In fact, Nikolai, Arkady’s father, fell in love with a smart woman: “She was pretty, and, as it is called, an ‘advanced’ girl; she used to read the serious articles in the ‘Science’ column of the journals.” However, whereas the nihilist view called for new, autonomous relationships for advanced women that were outside of the family, in the end Turgenev seems to imply the opposite. The two symbolic weddings at the end of the novel do more than heal the rift between Arkady and Nikolai; they also indicate Turgenev’s true view about the appropriate role for women—powerful matriarchs. At the end of the novel, Fenitchka, who was meek and mild in the beginning, is “different.” As Turgenev’s narrator notes, she is “respectful towards herself and everything surrounding her, and smiled as though to say, “I beg your pardon; I’m not to blame.” And Anna Odintsov, who is portrayed throughout as the ultimate independent woman, remarries. As the narrator notes, “They live in the greatest harmony together, and will live perhaps to attain complete happiness . . . perhaps love.”

Even Bazarov, who had previously denounced women as inferior and manipulative, has had a change of heart, as he indicates to Anna in his final visit to Nikolskoe: “Before you is a poor mortal, who has come to his senses long ago, and hopes other people, too, have forgotten his follies.” This is a far cry from the person who was never concerned with the way that people viewed him. In addition, Bazarov is also respectful toward the institution of marriage, something which he has never appreciated before. In his final conversation with Arkady, he is complementary about Katya’s power: “Many a young lady’s called clever simply because she can sigh cleverly; but yours can hold her own.” Whereas before, Bazarov viewed Katya as weak and impressionable, now he acknowledges her strength. In the past, Bazarov would have viewed this power as dangerous, fearing that Katya might manipulate men in a bad way. However in the end, Bazarov, and indeed Turgenev, conclude that this manipulation is a good thing: “she’ll have you under thumb—to be sure, though, that’s quite as it ought to be.”

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Fathers and Sons, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

The Elements of Both Comedy and Tragedy in Turgenev's Novel

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Sometime during the first months of 1862 Afanasy Fet sent Turgenev his reactions to Father and Sons. Fet’s letter is not extant, but we do have Turgenev’s reply, and it reinforces the often expressed conviction that one ought not to pay too much attention to what writers have to say about their own works. In the letter of April 6/18, 1862, Turgenev writes: “You also mention parallelism; but where is it, allow me to ask, and where are these pairs, believing and unbelieving?” . . . [In] spite of Turgenev’s protests parallelism is one of the two basic principles at work in the novel. The other is contrast. No doubt there are few works in world literature that do not depend to some extent on parallels and contrasts for the building blocks that hold them together and give them coherence. In Father and Sons, however, their significance is allinclusive and extends to matters of composition, characterization, and thematics. In Father and Sons, a novel whose very title both links and contrasts the generations, form and content are one. That pronouncement is not the pious repetition of a Formalist cliché. As the examination proceeds it should become increasingly apparent that in Father and Sons thematics determine form. As the first step in proving the validity of that contention, let us turn our attention to matters of composition and their relation to the novel’s thematic concerns.

One way to look at the novel’s structure is as a series of trips: Arkady and Bazarov are thus examined and illuminated in a variety of environments. At Marino Arkady is at home and Bazarov is the stranger. In town and at Nikolskoe, both Arkady and Bazarov are thrown into an unfamiliar environment, while at Bazarov’s parents’ estate Arkady is the stranger (though, paradoxically, he is less an outsider there than is Bazarov). Parallelism and contrast are immediately evident in such a scheme: Bazarov is the newcomer in one milieu, Arkady in another. But even within the series of trips we can establish cycles. Brazhe writes of two cycles of trips from Marino to Bazarov’s home. Such a calculation takes into account only Bazarov’s point of view. It would be more accurate to identify three cycles of trips. The interesting structural note here is that Arkady’s and Bazarov’s travels consistently dovetail with each other, even when the two protagonists are not together. In the first cycle, Arkady and Bazarov go from Marino to town to Nikolskoe to Bazarov’s home and back through Nikolskoe to Marino. In the second cycle, Arkady goes to Nikolskoe on his own. In a later and parallel development, Bazarov arrives at Nikolskoe on his own. Finally, in the last cycle, Bazarov goes home alone, as does Arkady. Implicit in this view of the novel’s structure is one of the novel’s major themes: children cannot turn their backs on the world of their fathers. Imperfect as it may be, it represents the mainstream of humanity. Children ultimately do go “home” again, and willingly or grudgingly, they are reconciled to the family hearth. At that point, as Joel Blair notes, “the lives of the fathers become patterns for understanding the lives of the children.”

A second way of viewing the structure is as a series of confrontations. Such an interpretation is particularly widespread, since it provides abundant opportunities to discuss the ideological battles of the 1860s. Thus, we can map out the structure of Fathers and Sons as a series of ideological duels between Bazarov and Pavel, the ideological duels then capped by a real duel in which politics and social issues are as much at stake as personalities. Doubling the ideological skirmishes is Bazarov’s series of erotic clashes with Odintsova. All discussions of the structure of Fathers and Sons in terms of confrontations are ultimately spinoffs from Gippius’ Formalist analysis of composition in Turgenev’s novels. (Rarely are they acknowledged as such.) Gippius’ analysis is quite sophisticated, and there will be a need to return to it in some detail. It is nonetheless limited because, like most analyses of Fathers and Sons, it proceeds from the assumption that the novel is a tragedy and that Bazarov is the novel’s only significant protagonist. These assumptions lead critics to attempt to identify a single, all-embracing structural pattern in the novel, whether it be trips, confrontations, love stories, or whatever. But the assumption needs to be reexamined. Fathers and Sons is a novel wholly dependent upon parallels and contrasts for its composition, and its structure is dualistic: it involves two parallel but contrasting patterns. The first is that of tragedy, while the second is comedy.

Since many will probably find controversial the notion that Fathers and Sons is in any way comedic, let us begin with this, the less obvious structural pattern in the novel. In using the word comedy, what it intended is not comedy in the popular sense (a funny play with a happy ending), but in the Aristotelian sense, specifically in its modern formulation by Northrop Frye. Frye uses comedy as a term denoting a literary mode, as he calls it, not a genre. Thus, as defined by Frye, the term is equally applicable to drama and narrative prose.

Basing his treatise on Aristotle’s Poetics. Frye suggests that comedies deal with the integration of society. The standard comedic formula involves a young couple—the technical hero and heroine— whose marriage is blocked by other members of the cast (society). In realistic fiction employing the comedic mode, the hero and heroine tend to be dull but decent people, while the blocking characters are the truly interesting ones. The blocking characters are normally, but not necessarily, parental figures. They are consumed by a single passion (usually absurdly so), and they are in control of the society into which the hero and heroine seek entrance. The blocking characters are likely to be impostors, as Frye calls them, people who lack self-knowledge. At the conclusion of comedy the blocking characters are either incorporated into or expelled from the society, as a result of which the hero and heroine are free to wed. Thus, comedies often conclude with a wedding and the birth of babies, and have a rural setting (an escape to a simpler, less corrupt society). At the conclusion of comedy the audience feels that justice has triumphed, that the people who should have been united have been, and that everyone will live happily ever after in a freer, more flexible society.

This is a rather bald reduction of Frye’s Aristotelian description of comedy, but it should be sufficient to demonstrate that in, Fathers and Sons we are dealing in part with the comedic mode. However, Turgeneve spins some fascinating variations around the age-old comedic pattern.

Arkady is the technical hero about whom the comedic plot revolves. This is not to say that he is the novel’s central hero. He is the technical hero of the comedic plot. Significantly, Gary Jahn notes that “Arkady and Bazarov are the organizational focus of the novel [Italics mine-DL].” And true to comedic type, Arkady is a rather bland but not unattractive personality. As in Roman comedy, we have not a single hero, but a pair of heroes. Instead of the typical pair of young heroes, however, Tur- genev gives us a father and son, both of whose marriages are blocked, as is a genuine reconciliation between father and son. The blocking characters are Pavel and Bazarov, and consistent with the traditions of fictional comedy, both of them are considerably more interesting than the technical heroes and heroines, and both of them are removed from the stage at the culmination of the comedic plot line.

Bazarov’s negative influence on Arkady forestalls an accomodation between him and his father, and it temporarily blocks Arkady and Katya’s marriage, largely because Bazarov’s attitudes, which Arkady attempts in vain to adopt, prevent the latter from coming to terms with himself and his true nature. In this connection, James Justus points out that “the battle is not just fathers against sons, but sons against themselves.” Bazarov’s obstructing influence is apparent as early as the third chapter. Arkady, riding along in a carriage with his father, waxes lyrical, thus betraying his “unnihilistic” enthusiasm for the beauties of nature. He abruptly breaks off in mid-sentence. “Arkady suddenly paused, glanced back obliquely and lapsed into silence.” Bazarov’s presence prevents Arkady from being himself, and as a result the relations between father and son are strained. Bazarov is a blocker, and his status as an obstacle to reconciliation between father and son is emphasized in several of the novel’s passages. Just after the scene in which Bazarov suggests that Arkady wean his father away from Pushkin by giving him more adult food for thought, i.e., Büchner’s Stoff und Kraft (sic), we discover Pavel and Nikolay in conversation:

“Well, you and I,” Nikolay Petrovich, sitting in his brother’s room the same day after dinner, said to Pavel, “have fallen into the ranks of the retired, our song is sung. What’s to be done? Perhaps Bazarov is right; but I confess that one thing pains me: I was hoping just now to become close friends with Arkady; but it turns out that I have lagged behind, he has gone forward, and we cannot understand each other.”

By the end of the novel there is no doubt that it is precisely Bazarov’s sway over Arkady that temporarily thwarts mutual understanding between father and son. Furthermore, Arkady’s distorted image of himself as a fire-breathing, militant disciple of Bazarov’s impedes his progress toward the realization that his love is not for Odintsova, as he imagines, but for her sister Katya. It is Katya who articulates what the reader has sensed all along— Arkady has been under Bazarov’s thumb. “My sister was under his [Bazarov’s] influence then, just as you were,” Katya tells Arkady. She goes on to inform Arkady that he has nothing in common with Bazarov. When Arkady protests, saying that he wants to be strong and energetic like his friend, Katya lectures him: “You can’t just wish that. . . . Your friend does not wish for it, it’s just there in him.” Here Katya sounds another of the novel’s major themes: one cannot be what one is not. That Arkady’s attempt to play the nihilist causes him to be untrue to himself is made explicit when Bazarov suggests that they go to town:

“. . . Well, what do you think? Shall we go?”

“I guess so,” Arkady answered lazily.

In his soul he rejoiced at his friend’s suggestion, but felt obliged to hide his feeling. Not for nothing was he a nihilist!

Arkady’s transition from his false role as Bazarov’s protegé and a rival for Odintsova to his true status as his father’s son and claimant for Katya’s hand is signalled in a scene at Nikolskoe:

They did not find him [Arkady] soon: he had taken himself off to the most remote part of the garden where, resting his chin on his folded hands, he sat, sunk in thought. [Cf. Nikolay’s penchant for garden meditation.] They were profound and important, these thoughts, but not sad. He knew that Anna Sergeievna was sitting alone with Bazarov, and he did not feel jealousy, as had happened in the past; on the contrary, his face shone quietly; it seemed that he was surprised at something and gladdened, and that he was deciding on something.

It is appropriate that Arkady should come to such self-knowledge in the garden. Alexander Fischler has noted that the architecture of Fathers and Sons is linked to a garden motif, and that “the garden is a microcosm of nature, foreshortening its laws to uphold what ought to be.” Arkady’s postgarden proposal to Katya is a symbolic declaration of what he must be—independent from Bazarov: Arkady is now free to be himself, to express his true feelings. Bazarov’s dramatic farewell and rejection of Arkady are really no more than a recognition on the former’s part that he no longer has any influence over Arkady. Bazarov then retires to his father’s house, removing himself from the comedic plot line and freeing Arkady to marry Katya and to be reconciled with his father.

Pavel is a blocking character vis-à-vis Nikolay [Nikolai] and Fenchka [Fenitchka]. His presumed hostility to the idea of their marriage dissuades Nikolay from regularizing his liaison with Fenechka. Note Nikolay’s reaction when Pavel asks him to marry Fenechka:

Nikolay Petrovich took a step back and threw up his hands. “Is that you saying this, Pavel? You, whom I have always considered an implacable foe of such marriages? . . . But don’t you know that it was only out of respect for you that I haven’t fulfilled what you so rightly call my duty!”

So Pavel encourages Nikolay to marry Fenechka—an act that will assuage Nikolay’s guilty conscience and allow him to feel more at ease with his son.

Then, at the culmination of the comedic plot line the blocking characters have been expelled (or have expelled themselves): Pavel prepares to spend the rest of his days in Europe, where he will continue his superfluous existence, while Bazarov retires to his father’s home, and the pairs who belonged together all along are at last united.

Some critics have noted the importance of couplings, uncouplings, and recouplings in the novel. [F. R. Reeve] writes:

Characters in pairs . . . relate each to the other through a succession of still other people, each relationship forming a temporary triangle, each triangle imperfect. . . . The third person’s action always in some sense splits the original pair.

Or, as Blair formulates it:

The principle of composition operating in the novel is the grouping and regrouping of characters; our understanding of the novel develops as we observe the initial groups of characters dissolve and perceive the formation of new pairs. Eventually, those characters who seemed most unalike are aligned; their similarities become more important than their differences.

This general movement toward the final, “inevitable” pairings is the stuff of comedy. The double wedding noted in the epilogue underscores the emergence of a new, pragmatically freer society, a salient feature of comedy. The crystallization of this less rigid society is underlined by Pavel when he urges Nikolay to marry Fenechka: “No, dear brother, enough of high-mindedness and thinking about society: we’re already old and peaceful people; it’s time we put aside empty pretense.” The new society, though not earthshakingly different from the old, is a little less rigid, a little more spontaneous: Nikolay, a member of the gentry, has become free to take Fenechka, a peasant, as his lawfully wedded wife. In this respect [Viktor Shklovsky,] overstates the case in arguing that “What is new in Turgenev’s novel was that he understood the love story as the confrontation of new people with a world built on old principles.” It is really Nikolay and Fenechka who confront old social values with new ones, Arkady and Katya’s thoroughly conventional marriage with their own socially “progressive” one. Shklovsky’s assessment nonetheless shows that he perceives a comedic base in the novel. Fischler, who emphasizes the classical bases of Fathers and Sons, also sees comedy at work here. He writes of the epilogue as “prostodushnaia komediia, ‘artless comedy’— life itself or a play in which the author’s strings no longer matter. In such comedy, the naive pursuit of happiness by the characters remaining on the stage blends with the timeless designs, overwhelming what momentarily stood out and was disturbing because of its alien, fortuitous or fateful appearance.”

What are the implications of the novel’s comedic structure? One, obviously, is that the comedic mode is extraordinarily hardy and adaptive. But, more importantly, an analysis of Fathers and Sons in terms of comedy explains in generic terms why many critics read the novel as an affirmative one—one that celebrates life and nature (or, more accurately, Life and Nature). Strakhov, for instance, argues: “Although Bazarov stands above everyone in the novel, life stands above him.”

But what kind of life stands above Bazarov? Some critics dismiss the life led by Katya, Arkady, Nikolay, and Fenechka as banal, mediocre, poshly. Pisarev, for one, suggests: “The life of a limited person always flows more evenly and pleasantly than the life of a genius or even just an intelligent person.” [G. A. Byaly] asserts that Pavel and Nikolay are “finished” (konchenye liudi), that “life is passing them by.” . . . Thus, for Byaly, Nikolay is not even involved in life.

Do Nikolay and Arkady and their wives represent mediocrity? Yes, but not in a negative sense. Their mediocrity is that of the middle way, the golden mean. Arkady and Nikolay may be ordinary, but, as Paul Bourget suggested, nearly a century ago, there is something fresh and appealing about Turgenev’s average man. Turgenev himself spoke of Goethe’s Faust as the defender of “the individual, passionate, limited man” who still has the right and the opportunity to be happy and not be ashamed of his happiness.” Boyd writes: “The love of Arkady and Katya gives a healthy, optimistic balance to the novel. [A. Batyutor] calls the novel’s love scenes life affirming. And Vinogradov writes:

The novel in essence is a battle of “cerebral” negative theories with the mighty power of love, with the inexpressible beauty of nature, with all the intermix of human feelings which, though “old,” are alive and warm—a battle that ends with the triumph of “humanness,” “nature,” “beauty,” over “nihilism.”

The comedic couples may be limited, but they are hardly vegetables, nor is their existence gray. Arkady is a competent estate manager, and all the Kirsanovs’ lives, ordinary as they may be, are enriched by an instinctual and profound attraction to nature, art, and their fellow man. They represent an ideal that Turgenev himself was unable to attain. While working on Fathers and Sons, he wrote a letter to K. N. Leontiev in which he confessed:

And that I, as you write, have lately become gloomy, there’s nothing surprising in that: I will soon be 42 years old, but I haven’t made a nest for myself, haven’t secured any spot for myself on earth: there is little cause for joy in that.

It must be admitted, however, that Turgenev claimed (post-facto) that in Fathers and Sons he had taken a contemptuous, despairing attitude toward bourgeois domesticity. In a letter of April 14/26, 1862, to Sluchevsky, Turgenev responds to what seems to have been Sluchevsky’s summary of the reactions of Russian students in Heidelberg to Fathers and Sons (no letters from Sluchevsky are extant). The students’ reactions are indicative, as is Turgenev’s reply:

What was said about Arkady, about the rehabilitation of the fathers, etc., only shows—forgive me!—that I haven’t been understood. All my povest [short novel] is directed against the gentry as a progressive class. Examine closely Nikolay Petrovich, Pavel Petrovich, Arkady. Weakness, flabbiness (vialost), or limitedness (orgranichennost).

Later in the same letter Turgenev expresses bewilderment at the Heidelberg students’ having found Arkady “a more successful type.” Thus we have Turgenev’s own testimony that he did not intend to portray Arkady or Nikolay in a positive light. But an author’s intentions are one thing, the reader’s perceptions quite another. In spite of scornful depictions of “blissful” marriages in other Turgenev works, such as “Andrey Kolosov,” “Two Friends,” and “The Country Doctor,” and Turgenev’s protestations to the contrary, Nikolay, Arkady, and their wives add a healthy, optimistic note to Fathers and Sons. In this connection Gippius, discussing groups of poshly characters in Smoke and Nest of Gentlefolk, points out that these characters are “portrayed with exaggerated distortion, not at all as in Fathers and Sons, where the corresponding characters are presented in a significantly muted (smiagchenny) form, almost idealized, no matter how much Turgenev himself denied it.”

Arkady and Nikolay are not men of great stature, they are not great thinkers, but Turgenev’s having infused them with love of Schubert, Pushkin, evening sunsets, their families, and their fellow man makes it difficult to conceive of them and the life they lead as poshly. Turgenev portrays the Kirsanovs in a positive, if subdued light. And he does so within the context of a comedic structure, one that invariably leads the audience at the conclusion to recognize that “this is how things ought to be.” Bazarov’s death is quite another matter, of course. That is the culmination of the novel’s tragedic structure. But in the first part of the novel’s epilogue, where life and love are celebrated at Pavel’s farewell dinner, with its exaltation of marriage and family [as Strakhov writes] “Turgenev stands for the eternal foundations of human life, for those basic elements which may perpetually change their forms, but in essence always remain unchanged.”

But of course not all critics find such positive notes in Fathers and Sons. Most would probably argue that the novel is a tragedy. Such an analysis should surprise no one—it is a bromide of Turgenev criticism. But how and why Fathers and Sons is a tragedy—these are questions that until recently have remained largely unexplored. Once again Northrop Frye provides useful tools for analysis. The basic movement of tragedy, according to Frye, is toward the exclusion of a hero from a given society, with an emphasis on the hero’s tragic isolation. It is in this connection that Gippius’ analysis of the structure of Fathers and Sons is particularly apt. He perceives the novel’s “dynamic highway” in this way: “Having cast himself off from the elements of his milieu, the obviously hostile ones as well as the pseudo-friendly ones, the hero remains tragically alone.” Yury Mann sees a similar pattern, which he calls “one against all.”

According to Frye, the tragic hero must be of heroic proportions: “The tragic hero is very great as compared with us, but there is something else, something on the side of him opposite the audience, compared to which he is small.” Surely this is the case with Bazarov, whose greatness (implied, rather than shown) is, as Strakhov argues, less than the sum of life forces represented by the Kirsanovs and their spouses.

In addition, Frye conceives of the tragic hero as an impostor, someone who is deceived about himself, who plays a role that is not his to play. Significantly, Charles Bachman writes of “tragedy and self-deception” in Fathers and Sons, pointing out that “false self-images are crucial to the tragic view which the action of the novel seems to demand. . . .” Most of the characters in the novel suffer from identity crises: this is true not just in the case of the strong characters, as Bachman suggests, but also of such a person as Arkady. But Bazarov’s self-deception is the most extreme and his journey toward self-discovery the most painful and tragic. He dismisses the laws governing human life; his fatal infection, leading him to summon Odintsova for a last meeting in which he confesses that he is not the giant he had imagined himself to be, demonstrates that finally he understands the extent of his self-delusion.

The movement toward tragedy is generally toward a revelation of natural law, “that which is and must be,” so that the audience’s reaction to the hero’s fall is paradoxical: we feel a sense of rightness (the tragic hero represents an imbalance in nature and thus must fall) and horrible wrongness (how sad that this man must fall). Such indeed is our reaction to Bazarov’s death. Poignant as it may be, we nevertheless perceive, as Richard Freeborn formulates it, that Bazarov is a

usurper of divine right, whose arrogant self-will proclaims for itself a self-sufficiency in life which contravenes the limits of human experience and gives rise to a dilemma which is only to be resolved in death.

Fischler’s approach to the question of Bazarov throws additional light on Turgenev’s reliance on classical tragedic models:

One must first note that Bazarov belongs to a special category of protagonists, the tragic protagonist or even the nature hero. He fits there less because of his famous assertion that nature is his “workshop,” than because of his repeatedly underlined mysterious bonds with his natural surroundings. He is associated with nature not only by brute strength and passion, but by vaguer, though not necessarily less awesome bonds of sympathy: the world responds to him, follows him, at least so long as he chooses to practice and accept association, that is, throughout the first part of the novel. He is born with a gift for harmony with the creation, yet, as he himself points out to Arkady, it is a gift of limited usefulness: one may derive strength from nature so long as one yields to it through naive faith, so long as one is willing to believe in the talismanic virtue of an aspen tree by a clay pit; but, when the magic is lost, one must drift to the inevitable end. Nonetheless, even when Bazarov’s bond to nature ceases being a means for coping with the world, his fate remains associated with it by the structure of the novel. He is a nature hero, and, by ironic extension, he is even a nature “god”; he appears on the stage in spring (May 1859) to offer the traditional challenge to an existing order already undermined by inner and outer turmoil; he is defeated (expect perhaps in the duel with Pavel Kirsanov, the living-dead representative of the older order who, in many respects, is a projection of himself); then, largely through his own acquiescence and even complicity, he dies in August, at the height of summer, a traditional time for the death of gods. . . .

Comedy and tragedy coexist in Fathers and Sons. It is of course the novel’s tragic side that impresses us most deeply. Such is human nature. Moreover, Turgenev takes pains to reinforce the novel’s tragic overtones by placing the description of Bazarov’s aged parents weeping inconsolably at their son’s grave as the last element in the novel, the final chord of a tragic symphony, as it were. And yet, if we look closely at the very last lines of Fathers and Sons, we see that the narrator holds out a certain note of optimism, ambivalent as it may be:

Can it really be that their prayers and their tears are fruitless? Can it really be that love, sacred, devoted love is not all-powerful? Oh no! No matter what a passionate, sinful, rebellious heart may be hidden in the grave, the flowers that grow on it look at us serenely with their innocent eyes; they speak to us not only of eternal peace, of that great peace of “indifferent” nature; they speak as well of eternal reconciliation and of life eternal. . . .

But what does Turgenev mean by “life everlasting”? The life of nature, which renews itself annually? The life of humanity, which is everlasting inasmuch as a new generation always takes the place of the dying one? Does the narrator really have in mind the Christian notion of the immortality of the soul? He is purposely vague in this quasipantheistic, quasi-Orthodox formulation. What is clear is that life goes on. Bazarov is dead, but Nikolay and Fenechka, along with Arkady and Katya, are multiplying and bringing forth much fruit.

The novel’s tragic side predominates, but it does not overwhelm. Significantly, critics who write of Fathers and Sons as a tragedy often stop short of calling it a tragedy, pure and simple. Charles Bachman calls it “a basically tragic novel.” Helen Muchnic describes the novel as “tragic in its implications, but not in its tone.” Such hesitation can be accounted for on the formal level by the recognition of coexisting comedic and tragedic modes within the novel. Observing this relationship helps us to understand—in formal terms—the initial and continuing furor created by Fathers and Sons. In “Apropos of Fathers and Sons” Turgenev writes that he has an interesting collection of documents and letters from readers who accuse him of doing totally contradictory things in his novel. This is hardly surprising, since Turgenev is doing what seem to be contradictory things within the work. By combining the tragedic and comedic modes he seems to stand behind two diametrically opposed views of life at one and the same time. If we take the novel’s comedic structure out of context, we conclude that life is triumphant, rewarding, and meaningful. Such is the conclusion that any comedy forces upon us. And in Fathers and Sons the portraits of the Kirsanovs, their babies, their joyful participation in the natural cycle, all lead the audience to infer that all’s right with the world. On the other hand, if we take the novel’s tragedic side out of context, we are led to the view that life, which is ruled by fate and the irrational, is essentially meaningless: death is triumphant. Where does Turgenev stand? “Where is the truth, on which side?” We may ask, as does Arkady. And Bazarov’s answer is most appropriate: “Where? I’ll answer you like an echo: where?” An analysis of the novel’s dualistic structure shows that the truth is on both sides. Or, as Fischler argues, the problems raised in Fathers and Sons are insoluble and the rifts revealed can be mended only by time. This conclusion is supported by one of Turgenev’s letters to Annenkov, in which he writes: “I know that in nature and in life everything is reconciled one way or another. . . . If life cannot [do the reconciling], death will reconcile.” Thus Turgenev’s own view of life is dualistic, but not contradictory, and this dualism lies at the heart of Fathers and Sons: as we have seen in this [essay], it accounts for the novel’s structure.

Source: David Lowe, excerpt, from his Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons,” Ardis, 1983, pp. 15–27.

Tragedy and Self-Deception in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Though Ivan Turgenev dealt with self-deception in a number of his works, nowhere is the theme more pervasive, or more subtly or convincingly handled, than in Fathers and Sons. Here false selfimages are crucial to the tragic view which the action of the novel seems to demand, a view which in turn helps make it probably Turgenev’s greatest work. This self-deception is most obvious in the case of certain minor characters. Peter (Piotr), Nikolai Kirsanov’s “progressive” servant, is “a man whose whole merit consisted in the fact that he looked civil,” and he obviously believes himself so, even though his civility is little more than an appearance. The progressive dandy, Sitnikov, is a sycophant who believes himself brave and definite when he feels the support of his idol, Bazarov, Madame Kukshin compensates for feminine plainness and frustration with the self-image of a woman of “advanced” views, and Matvey Ilyich Kolyazin, Arkady’s relative who is sent to the town of X— to investigate the governor, is a “progressive” who “had the highest opinion of himself,” whose slogan was “l’énergie est la première qualité d’un homme d’état; and for all that, he was usually taken in, and any moderately experienced official could turn him round his finger.”

These characters help exemplify Turgenev’s satire on a society which wished to believe itself progressive; but they also reflect, in miniature as it were, the basic problem of self-identity of the three strong characters of the novel: Evgeny Vassilyich Bazarov, Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov and Anna Sergeyevna Odintsov. Turgenev distinguishes them as strong by giving them poise and self-confidence. They seem to feel superior to those around them, and have enough pride to trust their own personalities and judgements in social intercourse. By contrast Arkady, his father Nikolai, Bazarov’s parents and Sitnikov are more typical of Turgenev’s male figures: pliant and anxious to please. Arkady, for example, like Sitnikov, appears strong mainly when he senses Bazarov’s support, and Turgenev implies that he will always be a follower.

In the novel strength of personality causes both attraction and repulsion, so that the points of greatest tension occur when the strong characters interact: the debate over nihilism, Bazarov’s infatuation for Anna and the duel. These provide the major occasions through which Bazarov, Pavel and Anna each discover that the self-identity which formed the basis for their inner poise had been an illusion.

The chief encounter is that of Bazarov and Pavel, who at first appear to be opposite in several significant ways. The former is young, plainfeatured, gruff and rude in manner, disrespectful of tradition and the humanities, and unconcerned with form, social and otherwise. Pavel is past middleage, strikingly handsome, sensitive and careful in manner, strongly in favor of tradition and the humanities and over-concerned with form in dress, speech and behavior. While Arkady echoes Bazarov and Nikolai tries to be polite, the two main antagonists clash over the arts, tradition and nihilism. Their seemingly opposite attitudes and temperaments, however, and their contemptuous references to each other as “An antique survival” and “That unkept creature” can become the occasion for open conflict only because they are depicted as so similar in their egoism and their strength of personality. Both are accustomed to being deferred to, and cannot tolerate a lack of respect for themselves. Pavel is especially defensive. He “. . . had grown to detest Bazarov with all the strength of his soul; he regarded him as stuck-up, impudent, cynical and plebian; he suspected that Bazarov had no respect for him, that he had all but contempt for—him. Pavel Kirsanov!”

The most basic reason for Pavel’s antagonism, however, lies deeper, and concerns his self-image. The great love affair of his life had been with the Princess R—, the glance of whose eyes was “swift and deep.” Her reply to Pavel’s statement that she was a sphinx indicated her intelligence: “‘I?’ she queried, and slowly raising her enigmatical glance upon him. ‘Do you know that’s awfully flattering?’ she added with a meaningless smile, while her eyes still kept the same strange look.”

In becoming infatuated with the Princess, Pavel had fallen in love with stupidity unconsciously masking itself as depth, and his tragedy in this affair had a conscious and an unconscious aspect. His whole personality was so bound up with her love that when she lost interest he became disillusioned with life. But a major reason for his be- ing attracted to her in the first place would seem to have been that, like the Princess, Pavel himself had grown accustomed to depending for his sense of identity upon the esteem and expectations of others— an esteem based upon his impressive mask of manners and physical appearance. His response to the Princess had a quality of desperation. Thrust by handsome looks and a dashing manner into the role of a romantic, Pavel came to believe the role himself. His pride grasped at it as a self-identity which seemed as impressive as was his appearance. “Much admired in society,” he “had read in all five or six French books.” “. . . a brilliant career awaited him. Suddenly everything changed.” The most ironic aspect of this change was that in becoming ensnared in the deep but “meaningless” gaze of the Princess’ eyes, Pavel had, not unnaturally, fallen victim to the same kind of deception as had the society which admired him. While he had perhaps read “five or six” more French books than the Princess, his statement that she was a sphinx was almost as unperceptive as her inane but pretentious reply.

After being deserted, and unaware of the irony implicit in his love, Pavel settled at Marion, where “he arranged his whole life in the English style.” Of course Turgenev is satirizing in this “man with the fragrant mustache” the snobbishness and artificiality of the Russian gentry. But the satire is mixed with sympathy, since Pavel’s artificiality and need for a style of life are largely unconscious attempts to retain in a new setting the romantic self-image with which he has so long identified himself. While Pavel and his brother are standing outside at night, however, and Nikolai “had not the force to tear himself away from the darkness, the garden, the sense of the fresh air in his face, from that melancholy, that restless craving,” Pavel’s feelings are similar to what would have been expected from Bazarov: “. . . he too raised his eyes towards the heavens. But nothing was reflected in his beautiful dark eyes except the light of the stars. He was not born a romantic, and his fastidiously dry and sensuous soul, with its French tinge of misanthropy was not capable of dreaming . . . .”

Pavel’s view of himself as a romantic, then, is quite obviously a self-deceptive illusion. In view of this, the underlying motive for his resentment of Bazarov would seem to be that he sensed in the younger man a rather complete image of his own genuine temperament: not only his egoism and pride, but his misanthropy and lack of romanticism as well. During the first argument (Chs. V and VI), his defense of nature, art and poetry against Bazarov, who refuses to acknowledge their value and is even “indifferent to the beauties of nature,” actually conceal an insensitiveness to the things Pavel is defending. His staunch support of “the traditions accepted in human conduct,” and of “personal dignity” and firmness of character as the “foundation for . . . the social fabric” are an overcompensation for the fear that in his encounter with Bazarov he is losing the basis for his own firmness of character—the image of self which he had so carefully though unconsciously created.

The duel not only forces the two antagonists into a grudging respect for each other’s courage, but also reveals that they seem to hold similar attitudes toward Nikolai and the peasants. Pavel believes that Bazarov “behaved honorably,” and they have a similar estimate of Nikolai’s character:

“There’s no deceiving my brother; we shall have to tell him we quarreled over politics.”

“Very good,” assented Bazarov. “You can say I insulted all Anglomaniacs.”

“That will do splendidly.”

Pavel is surprised at Bazarov’s statement that the Russian peasant does not understand himself, because he obviously shares this belief: “Ah! so that’s your idea! . . . Look what your fool of a Peter has done!”

These similarities, however, only further convince Pavel of the extent to which his self-image has been an illusion, and his joking with Bazarov is probably a cloak for this realization. What is even more significant is the major cause of the duel itself: Pavel’s feelings for Fenichka. Before the duel, Fenichka had become “more afraid of Pavel Petrovich than ever; for some time he had begun to watch her and would suddenly make his appearance as though he sprang out of the earth behind her back, in his English suit, with his immovable vigilant face . . .” After the duel, while mildly delirious, Pavel states that he sees a physical resemblance between the Princess R— and Fenichka, thus acknowledging that the latter has replaced the former as the symbol of his romantic illusion. The exclamation, “Ah, how I love that light-headed creature!” seems to refer to the Princess, but the object of Pavel’s subsequent threat is omitted by Turgenev: “I can’t bear any insolent upstart to dare to touch . . .” Both the Princess and Fenichka are meant, just as whatever rival had robbed Pavel of the Princess seems to be identified with Bazarov. By threatening the object toward which Pavel felt himself romantically inclined, both rivals have also threatened his careful illusion that he has a romantic temperament. His reaction in both cases is similarly desperate: in the first, disillusionment and exile from the Princess’ scene of activity; in the second, the challenge to a duel and subsequent disillusionment and exile from Fenichka’s scene of activity. After Bazarov’s departure, Pavel tries to convince Nikolai that he should marry Fenichka: “I begin to think Bazarov was right in accusing me of being an aristocrat. No, dear brother, don’t let us worry ourselves about appearances and the world’s opinion any more; we are old folks and resigned; it’s time we laid aside vanity of all kind.” In laying aside “appearances and the world’s opinion,” Pavel is acknowledging the falseness of the only self-identity he has consciously known, and the tear that rolls down his cheek as he exhorts Fenichka to love Nikolai is partly one of regret that the waste caused by this false self-identity is irrevocable. His suggestion that Nikolai marry Fenichka is really an act of despair. It is after the marriage that Pavel goes abroad, spiritually “a dead man.”

The most ironic aspect of Bazarov’s effect on Pavel is that the former’s anti-romanticism and cynicism, which have made Pavel aware of these qualities at the heart of his own personality, are also an appearance concealing a different kind of person than Pavel ever realizes. Bazarov’s profession of physician and his intense faith in the validity of experimental research are in direct contradiction to his statements that as a nihilist he believes “in nothing.” But his infatuation with Anna is the chief event which reveals the romantic and at times lyrical sensibility beneath the gruff exterior. This is an ironic reversal for one who has characterized love as “romanticism, nonsense, rot, artiness.” His overt scorn of poetry rings false when he quotes a line of “Der Wanderer” to Anna, and in his lyrical recollection of childhood in his later conversation with Arkady:

“That aspen,” began Bazarov, “reminds me of my childhood; it grows at the edge of the claypits where the brick-shed used to be, and in those days I believed firmly that that clay-pit possessed a peculiar talismanic power . . .”

When alone, Bazarov “recognized the romantic in himself.” One probable reason for his resentment of Pavel, then, is also an insecurity with his own self-image—a fear that his real temperament contains some of the romantic idealism which Pavel avows.

A further irony is that Bazarov has criticized Pavel for allowing his whole life to become dependent upon his passion for the Princess: “Still, I must say that a man who stakes his whole life on one card—a woman’s love—and when that card fails, turns sour, and lets himself go till he’s fit for nothing, is not a man, but a male.” Yet after being rejected by Anna Sergeyevna, Bazarov himself loses most of his own drive and sense of direction. He visits his parents, but feels dissatisfied and bored. After three days he impulsively visits Anna again and returns to Marino, where he conceals his romanticism from all but Arkady and Fenichka.

The source of Bazarov’s disillusionment, however, is not only his discovery that his own selfimage was an illusion. Anna’s poise and serenity, which had attracted him and seemed to suggest genuine emotional depth, were actually manifestations of an emotional lethargy, an inability to feel deep passion. After Bazarov departs she begins to realize that there is something false about her conception of herself: “Under the influence of various vague emotions, the sense of life passing by, the desire of novelty, she had forced herself to go up to a certain point, forced herself to glance behind it, and had seen behind it not even an abyss, but a void . . . or something hideous.”

Bazarov realizes that, like Pavel, he has become infatuated with a deceptive appearance. He turns to Fenichka partly because he senses that in her there is no illusion of self, and therefore no false mask. His declaration to her that “I live alone, a poor wretch,” indicates the extent of both his trust in her and his disillusionment. The duel severs both him and Pavel from Fenichka, and Bazarov also becomes virtually a dead man, telling Arkady that “there seems to be an empty space in the box, and I am putting hay in; that’s how it is in the box of our life; we would stuff it up with anything rather than have a void.” He pays Anna one last visit, and the attempted casualness of their conversations cannot conceal the fact that they both feel ill at ease and empty. Feeling again “dreary boredom or vague restlessness,” Bazarov finally returns home, and his death by typhus, like the demise of several of Thomas Hardy’s heroes, is no artistic flaw in the novel, but an anticipated symbol of the death of his spirit which has already taken place.

Bazarov’s tragic dilemma approaches the perspective which Turgenev invites the reader to share. The social class in the novel which suffers least from self-deception is the one to which Bazarov, in a last fruitless attempt to reestablish an identity, instinctively returns: that of the peasants and small rural landowners. The aristocracy, on the other hand, which wishes to believe itself progressive, is the class which as a whole suffers most from self- deception. In spite of disclaimers of didacticism Turgenev stated in a letter [dated 14 April 1862] to the poet K. K. Sluchevsky that “My entire tale is directed against the nobility as a leading class.” Bazarov, however, like the, reader, has seen that not only “aristocrats” such as Pavel and Anna, but also all pseudo and genuine intellectual sophisticates, including himself, have been deceived as to their identity. Even Arkady, before his relationship with Katya, has had such illusions. As in Thomas Hardy the gain of awareness has brought an inevitable loss of a sense of integrity—a dilemma which foreshadows the questioning of the very possibility of self-identity so prevalent in post- Freudian literature and society. But Fathers and Sons, though lacking the detailed psychological penetration present in the greater works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, nonetheless moves beyond the depiction of a pathetic paradox toward genuine tragedy; and perhaps the most fruitful method of discussing the tragic quality of this novel is by comparison with tragic drama.

As in Sophoclean tragedy, pride in Turgenev’s novel is both a source of greatness and a tragic flaw. Because their pride is their own responsibility it becomes the main source of our admiration for Anna, Pavel and Bazarov, helping to give them magnitude and significance. Yet in contributing most to their perseverance in believing in and sustaining illusions of the self, their pride is also the major reason for their fall. Their own proud reserve and the modern universe in which they live prevent them from railing at the gods as did Lear, or examining the fatefulness of life as did Oedipus, Hamlet or Phèdre. But the questioning of the justice of fate, and the violent fall or destruction usually demanded by Sophoclean, Shakespearean and Racinian tragedy has become in Fathers and Sons the loss of self-identity: a paradox and a catastrophe which may well be as potentially tragic for modern man. This loss of self-identity, however, can be tragic rather than pathetic only if it involves a genuine, forceful and courageous internal and external struggle to maintain a sense of self. Necessary are both awareness and sheer stubbornness—which is presented rather than analyzed away. Through it would be foolish to argue equivalencies, this dilemma, which characterizes Bazarov and Pavel, and to a lesser degree Anna, is also that of Oedipus. The pride with which Bazarov and Pavel assert themselves so forcefully as compensation for an unconscious insecurity is unexplained; the forcefulness does not depend on the insecurity. Sitnikov is also insecure, but weak. This unexplained but human dignity of pride which “goeth before a fall,” combined with the seeming injustice—but not absurdity—of the fall, make it valid to classify Fathers and Sons as a basically tragic novel. The view of society and fate invited by the novel depends not upon Turgenev’s final phrases concerning “eternal reconciliation,” but upon the fact that for the strongest characters there has been no earthly reconciliation. In typical Turgenev fashion, the most assertive figure is killed off. The probability that the novelist’s compulsion to destroy such heroes was motivated by his own pliant personality is only relevent to Turgenev’s psychology, however. It does not affect the essential tragedy of Fathers and Sons, which lies in the fact that not only Bazarov, but all three strong characters in the novel have had self-images so dangerously false that, when uncovered, their personalities have been left shattered, dead of vitality or genuine hope.

Source: Charles R. Bachman, “Tragedy and Self-Deception in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons,” in Revue des langues vivantes, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, 1968, pp. 269–76.

Previous

Critical Overview