Fathers and Sons

by Ivan Turgenev

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Fathers and Sons

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 652

In the spring of 1859, a middle-aged Russian gentleman, Nikolai Kirsanov, welcomes back to his estate his university-educated son, Arkady. The latter is accompanied by his fellow student Bazarov, whom he greatly admires. Bazarov soon finds himself engaged in fiercely ideological debates with Nikolai’s brother, Pavel, who dresses in elegant English fashion, parades the most fastidious of manners, and defends the conservative views of the “generation of the 1840’s” against the brusquely irreverent attacks of Bazarov’s “generation of the 1860’s.” Bazarov meets and finds himself falling in love with a wealthy, refined but frigid widow, Anna Odintsov; Arkady meanwhile romances her younger sister, Katya. Bazarov’s relationship with Madame Odintsov ends abruptly when he declares his love for her and she retreats hastily, whispering, “You have misunderstood me.”

At the Kirsanovs’ residence, Bazarov is challenged to a duel by Pavel, wounds him slightly, and therefore finds further stay there impossible. He returns to the home of his old-fashioned parents and helps his father with his medical practice. While dissecting the body of a peasant who died of typhoid fever, Bazarov cuts and infects himself, finds no caustic available as antidote, and dies within a few days. Arkady marries his Katya, and Nikolai Kirsanov jumps the class barrier to wed his servant-mistress, Fenichka.

The meaning of the novel hinges heavily on Bazarov, who unites its various foci of interest. He proudly calls himself a “nihilist,” yet is hardly a revolutionary: He has no coherent system, strategy, tactics, no opportunity or time for political action; his only ally, Arkady, soon abandons him. Bazarov’s basic urge is to clear the rotten ground of the establishment’s inertia and smug self-satisfaction, in order to replace it with a new improved society based on tough-minded individualism, hard work, scientism, and utilitarianism. “A decent chemist is twenty times more useful than any poet,” is a characteristic Bazarovian statement.

Turgenev maintains a delicate balance in his characterization of Bazarov. He shows his hero’s provocative rudeness, anti-aesthetic coarseness, and brusque cynicism, but he also portrays Bazarov’s integrity, energy, passion, and valor. In a retrospective essay, he declared, “with the exception of Bazarov’s views on art, I share almost all his convictions.”


Costlow, Jane T. Worlds Within Worlds: The Novels of Ivan Turgenev. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. Presents the concept that Turgenev’s fourth novel focuses on the structures of human lives, especially on the sense of place. It is also an ideological work dealing with the years in Russia before the 1861 emancipation of the serfs. Turgenev’s social resolve is bolstered by his psychological perceptions.

Freeborn, Richard. Turgenev: The Novelist’s Novelist. London: Oxford University Press, 1960. Chapter 5, “Four Great Novels,” explores how Turgenev assimilated the short story form into the novel. The figure of the hero unifies the novel and establishes the tradition of organic form in Russian literature.

Knowles, A. V. Ivan Turgenev. Boston: Twayne, 1988. The novel reflects Turgenev’s keen interest in politics and his abhorrence of violence. Studies the time frame and construction of the novel, emphasizing its logical progress and sense of inevitability. Also explores character development and theme.

Lowe, David A., ed. Critical Essays on Ivan Turgenev. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. Lowe’s “Comedy and Tragedy in Fathers and Sons” suggests the novel’s structure is determined by a sequence of trips and a set of confrontations which contribute to its dualism—two parallel but contrasting patterns of tragedy and comedy. Some discussion of other critical readings of the novel are included.

Ripp, Victor. Turgenev’s Russia: From “Notes of a Hunter” to “Fathers and Sons.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980. Discusses the novel in the light of the Emancipation Act, the contemporary reaction to Turgenev’s treatment of his hero, and his impact on his successors. Bazarov absorbs politics into psychology. The novel also develops the theme of a home away from the corrupt world.

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Critical Overview