Fathers and Sons

by Ivan Turgenev

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Places Discussed

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Marino. Family estate of the Russian gentleman Nikolai Kirsanov that is the first of four main settings in which the novel unfolds. Modeled upon Spasskoe, Ivan Turgenev’s family estate in Orel, it is the place where Arkady Kirsanov grows up, returns after earning a university degree, and finally chooses to settle in order to raise a family and to assist his father in transforming their five thousand acres into a profitable “farm” that will benefit the peasants who work their property.

The novel begins in May of 1859, when the recently graduated Arkady and his “uncivil” nihilist friend, Yevgeny Bazarov, arrive at Marino, which to Arkady’s discomfort, is in disarray. As such, it epitomizes so many estates throughout Russia that are owned by ineffectual nobles whose time has passed. Bazarov represents a defiant new force with which the Kirsanovs must contend, given that he rejects all that Marino symbolizes in the way of antiquated aristocracy and romantic idealism.

During his second visit to Marino, weeks later, Bazarov becomes involved in a farcical duel with Pavel Kirsanov, Arkady’s aristocratic uncle. Bazarov shoots Pavel in the leg, tends his wound, and then leaves the estate. Metaphorically, the inconclusive rifts that are played out at Marino suggest that neither the liberal generation of the 1830’s and 1840’s (the fathers) nor the radical generation of the 1850’s and 1860’s (the sons) has achieved an ideological victory that will benefit Russia in its immediate future.

Provincial capital

Provincial capital. Unnamed city to which Arkady and Bazarov journey after spending two weeks at Marino. There, they stay for a period of six days, during which time they encounter an assortment of vain government bureaucrats, revolutionary poseurs, and emancipated women intellectualizing about human rights while puffing on cigars. Scenes such as those at the governor’s ball testify to centuries of uncompromising patriarchal conventions. The provincial capital embodies the political life of the province, dominated at the time by the intellectual split between Westerners and Slavophiles—between those who look to Western Europe for models of progress and those who look to Russia to carve its own unique national identity. Literally and figuratively, Arkady and Bazarov remain strangers to city life.


Nikolskoe (ni-KOHL-ska). Estate belonging to the twenty-nine-year-old widow Anna Odintzov, whom Turgenev describes as representative of idle, dreaming, cold, gentry ladies. She resides in an elegantly furnished Alexandrine-style manor house (a style then popular in Moscow) that showcases her penchant for luxury and order. While at Nikolskoe, Arkady becomes drawn to Katya, Anna’s younger sister, and Bazarov unexpectedly falls in love with Anna. After enticing Bazarov to fall in love with her, Madame Odintzov retreats into her fashionable but listless surroundings, preferring her life of organized precision to any challenges posed by a loving a man who rejects social conventions. After his duel with Pavel Kirsanov, Bazarov revisits Nikolskoe, wanting to take a last look at the place where he has been pulled under by an emotion that he cannot explain to himself.

Bazarov estate

Bazarov estate (ba-ZAR-rof). Small estate belonging to Bazarov’s doting mother. Bazarov’s father, a retired army doctor turned agronomist, has decorated their plain six-room wooden house with an assortment of military weapons and anatomical drawings; his material belongings reflect his life. After being infected by love, Bazarov first ventures home, with Arkady in tow, to lose himself in his work. However, parental sentimentality and ennui soon overwhelm him. One afternoon, while he is watching an ant labor in the shadow of a towering haystack, he feels deeply nature’s indifference to human struggle. He later deliberately courts death after cutting his finger while...

(This entire section contains 669 words.)

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performing an autopsy on a corpse and neglecting to cauterize the wound. Infected with typhus, he dies.

Village cemetery

Village cemetery. Remote corner of the Russian countryside in which Bazarov is buried. It is described as a “sorry sight” of overgrown ditches and rotting wooden crosses. Bazarov’s aggressive challenges to conventional thinking seemingly are buried with him in his grave.

Historical Context

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Fathers and Sons is tied to Russia’s history, particularly to the period of social unrest and reform that began to come to a head with the rule of Alexander II. Following the Crimean War, during which Alexander came to power in 1855, Russian society—and Alexander himself—was made painfully aware of Russia’s backward place in the world. These were old concerns that were reawakened with the loss of about 250,000 men and some of Russia’s land.

This war was not received well in society and as a result, Alexander, who had been taught by an artistic, romantic tutor, and who was sympathetic to liberal concerns, sought reform. Pitting himself against the landowners who owned serfs, Alexander began to talk about abolishing serfdom. Says Victor Ripp, in his Turgenev’s Russia: From “Notes of a Hunter” to “Fathers and Sons”: “The Emancipation Act was signed by Alexander II on February 19, 1861, a little less than five years after he had openly declared his support for the abolition of serfdom.” In the time between Alexander’s announcement of the abolishment and the actual abolishment, Russia underwent some drastic changes as the nation prepared itself for reform.

In this time of uneasiness, Turgenev chose to set his book. As Ripp notes, “it is the spring of 1859, and the emancipation of the serfs, with all its uncertain consequences, is only two years ahead.” Even two years before this historic event the effects could be seen in many locations. Nikolai Petrovitch, a more liberal landowner, has already freed his serfs before he is required to, although he is wary about giving his former slaves any control in any major business affairs. Says Nikolai: “I decided not to keep about me any freed serfs, who have been house servants, or, at least, not to intrust them with duties of any responsibility.”

Not everybody was as enlightened as Nikolai, however. Some, especially the older Russian nobility with much land to lose, decried the reforms, like Bazarov’s mother. She used to be a member of the landed gentry, but turned her land over to the care of her husband, a poor, retired army surgeon. She “used to groan, wave her handkerchief, and raise her eyebrows higher and higher with horror when her old husband began to discuss the impending government reforms.”

However, those who observed the decline of Russia, as Arkady does in the novel, realized that reform was sorely needed: “this is not a rich country; it does not impress one by plenty or industry; it can’t, it can’t go on like this, reforms are absolutely necessary.” Of course, as Arkady notes shortly thereafter, “how is one to carry them out, how is one to begin?” There seemed to be no clear answer to that, since Russia was mired in corruption, which, even though it started at higher levels, worked its way down. As the narrator notes of the young governor’s official sent to a provincial town, he “was a young man, and at once a progressive and a despot, as often happens with Russians.” This young man is both a sympathetic liberal and a tyrant when he is given the power to abuse. The same was true about the behavior of the lower classes. When given any power at all, they abused it, as Nikolai’s farm manager does: “The overseer suddenly turned lazy, and began to grow fat, as every Russian grows fat when he gets a snug berth.” Likewise, once Nikolai puts the peasants on a rent system and does not enforce it, he has problems. “The peasants who had been put on the rent system did not bring their money at the time due, and stole the forest-timber.”

Even when the serfs were about to be emancipated in 1861, the actual Emancipation Act caused much confusion. As Ripp notes, “In its efforts to please all factions, the Editing Committee produced an immensely complicated document.” This general feeling of failure on the part of the Emancipation Act is expressed in the novel through the character of Nikolai, who is entrusted to carry out the upcoming reforms at the end of the novel. He drives around his district, giving long speeches that say the same thing over and over again, but as Turgenev’s narrator notes, “to tell the truth, he does not give complete satisfaction either to the refined gentry. . . . nor to the uncultivated gentry. . . . He is too soft-hearted for both sets.” Neither the landed class nor the lower classes wanted a hesitant legislation, but unfortunately, in its attempts to please everyone, the Emancipation Act pleased almost no one and eventually led to more unrest. As Ripp notes, Turgenev is aware of all of this as he writes the book in 1862, a year after the act has been implemented: “Turgenev wrote Fathers and Sons, his greatest novel, while directly under the influence of the crisis caused by the Emancipation Act.”

Literary Style

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The setting in Fathers and Sons is crucial to the effect of the novel. The various provincial settings— Maryino, Nikolskoe, Vassily Ivanovitch’s unnamed homestead—are seen as backward and uneducated when compared with the cities, which are vibrant with new ideas and scholarship. As Bazarov notes to Arkady at one point, if they were to look at their fathers’ country existence from a certain perspective, it could be seen as enjoyable, having a routine to keep busy: “When one gets a side view from a distance of the dead-alive life our ‘fathers’ lead here, one thinks, What could be better?” However, for Bazarov, this life could only ever be “dead-alive,” unlike Arkady. On a different occasion, Arkady, who likes the nature one finds in the country, challenges Bazarov: “And is nature foolery?” Arkady hopes to stump Bazarov, but the nihilist is not disturbed and as always, has an answer: “Nature, too, is foolery in the sense you understand it. Nature’s not a temple, but a workshop, and man’s the workman in it.” For Bazarov, nature is something to be dissected as he does with the frogs, or otherwise observed from a scientific viewpoint. Arkady cannot do this, however, and he eventually comes to prefer the country, moving into Maryino with his new wife and his father’s family, where Arkady becomes “zealous in the management of the estate” and turns it into a prosperous affair.

A situation is ironic when its outcome is contrary to what the character and reader expects. In Turgenev’s novel this happens many times. For example, Vassily Ivanovitch describes the bitter irony of the generation gap when talking to his son and Arkady about a philosopher of whom they are enamored: “you bow down to him, but in another twenty years it will be his turn to be laughed at.” Bazarov and Arkady feel strong and invincible in their youth, as if their ideas are the only ones and they will never be refuted. However, when Arkady’s son grows up, Arkady will no doubt realize, as Nikolai does, that aging and the decline of one’s ideas is “a bitter pill” and that every new generation is ready to tell the old to “swallow your pill.”

Other ironic situations are introduced in the character of Bazarov, whom the reader is led to believe from the beginning cannot be swayed to love. Bazarov is against love because there is no control over it, and it overpowers the senses that he holds dear and by which he rules his life. It is ironic, therefore, that Bazarov is stricken blind with love for Anna, and admits to her, “I love you like a fool, like a madman.” It is also ironic that Bazarov, the character who is depicted in an almost god-like, in- vincible light, is refuted in his advance, from Anna, who seems on the verge of giving her heart to Bazarov.

The cruelest irony of the novel, however, is the death of Bazarov. The young nihilist who appreciates the hard sciences more than anything else goes to the village, “where they brought that peasant with typhus fever.” Although there is a doctor there who is going to dissect the body, Bazarov, always eager for scientific knowledge, offers to do it. Unfortunately, in the process, he makes a careless mistake and cuts himself, contracting the infection that soon kills him. It is tragically ironic that Bazarov’s quest for knowledge is the thing that kills him in the end.

Point of View
The novel is told by a third person omniscient, or all-knowing, narrator who has the power to go within any character’s mind and display their thoughts. For example, when Bazarov and Pavel get in their first argument over their beliefs, Nikolai thinks to himself, “You are certainly a nihilist, I see that,” although what he says aloud is “Still, you will allow me to apply to you on occasion.” This is the style for most of the novel. However, there is a notable exception in the narration: at times, the narrator speaks directly to the reader, as when the narrator introduces Nikolai: “We will introduce him to the reader while he sits, his feet tucked under him, gazing thoughtfully round.” This style is also used at the end of the novel: “But perhaps some one of our readers would care to know what each of the characters we have introduced is doing in the present.” By book-ending the story with these two references that draw attention to the narrator, readers are reminded that they are reading a work of art and are encouraged to focus on the realities of the social situation the book describes— instead of just getting caught up in the story.

Compare and Contrast

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1860s: Under the leadership of Alexander II Russia embarks on a number of social reforms, including abolishing serfdom and improving communications, such as establishing more railroad lines.

Today: Russia remains a poor and unstable country after the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the twentieth century. In the wake of the brutal dictatorial regime that ruled “communist” Russia and other Soviet countries for much of the twentieth century, the plight of many Russians has worsened.

1860s: Like those in other countries, many of Russia’s youth adhere to a scientific materialism philosophy, questioning everything with a strict rationalism and not letting any “irrational” behavior overcome them.

Today: In many civilized countries there is a resurgence in art, nature, and other humanistic pursuits, due in large part to humanity’s increasing dependence upon technology.

1860s: Although modern medicine is improving with the such developments as vaccines, the “germ theory” of disease, and improved sanitation in hospitals, doctors are largely powerless. When cholera sweeps across Europe and Russia, many are killed.

Today: In most modernized countries, cholera and typhus, which are usually prevalent in poor, unsanitary areas, have been wiped out. Epidemic typhus persists in countries that experience famine, crowded living conditions, and other areas where sanitation is an issue. Cholera, on the other hand, has been largely dormant, and has not seen a major outbreak for more than a decade.

Media Adaptations

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Fathers and Sons was adapted as an audio book by The Audio Partners Publishing Corporation in 1998 and read by David Horovitch.

Ottsy i deti is the Russian version of Fathers and Sons. It was adapted as a film in 1959. It was produced by Lenfilm Studio and distributed by Artkino Pictures.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Antonovich, M. A., "Asmodey nashego vremeni (An As-modeus of our Time)," in Fathers and Children, edited by Patrick Waddington, Everyman, p. 253, originally published in Sovremennik (The Contemporary), No. 3, 1862.

Berlin, Isaiah, Lecture on Fathers and Children, in Fathers and Children, edited by Patrick Waddington, Everyman, p. 272, originally published in "Fathers and Children": the Romanes Lecture, delivered in the Sheldonian Theatre, 12 November 1970, Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 55-56.

Engel, Barbara Alpern, Excerpt, in Fathers and Children, edited by Patrick Waddington, Everyman, p. 273, originally published in Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-Century Russia, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 63.

Garnett, Edward, Turgenev, Kennikat Press, 1966, p. 110.

Gertsen, A. I., "Yeshchéraz Bazarov (Bazarov Again)," in Fathers and Children, edited by Patrick Waddington, Everyman, p. 257, originally published in Polyarnaya zvezda (The Pole Star), 1869.

Henry, Peter, "I. S. Turgenev: Fathers and Sons," in Fathers and Children, edited by Patrick Waddington, Everyman, p. 277—78, originally published in The Monster in the Mirror: Studies in Nineteenth-Century Realism, edited by D. A. Williams, Oxford University Press, 1978, pp. 55-56.

James, Henry, "Ivan Turgéenieff," in Fathers and Children, edited by Patrick Waddington, Everyman, p. 267, originally published in North American Review, Vol. CXVIII, April 1874, pp. 326-56. Moore, George, "Turgueneff," in Fathers and Children, edited by Patrick Waddington, Everyman, p. 265-66, originally published in Fortnightly Review, n.s., Vol. XLIII, February 1, 1888, pp. 244-46.

Pisarev, D. I., "Bazarov," in Fathers and Children, edited by Patrick Waddington, Everyman, p. 255, originally published in Russkoye slovo (The Russian Word), No. 3, 1862.

Ripp, Victor, Turgenev's Russia: From "Notes of a Hunter" to "Fathers and Sons," Cornell University Press, 1980, pp. 187, 190-91.

Schapiro, Leonard, Turgenev: His Life and Times, Random House, 1978, p. 185.

Shedden-Ralston, William Ralston, "Ivan Turguenief," in Fathers and Children, edited by Patrick Waddington, Everyman, p. 265, originally published in Saturday Review, October 22, 1881, p. 509.

Turgenev, Ivan, Fathers and Sons, Barnes & Noble Classics, 2000.

----, "Letter to A. A. Fet, Paris, 16 April 1862," in Fathers and Children, edited by Patrick Waddington, Everyman, p. 246, originally published in Literaturnyye i zhiteyskiye vospominaniya (Memories of Life and Literature), 1869, and subsequently translated into English and published in I. S. Turgenev, Complete Works and Letters in 28 vols, Moscow and Leningrad: Nauka, 1960-1968 (Letters), Vol. IV, p. 371.

----, "Letter to F. M. Dostoyevsky, Paris, 30 March 1862," in Fathers and Children, edited by Patrick Waddington, Everyman, p. 245, originally published in Literaturnyye i zhiteyskiye vospominaniya (Memories of Life and Literature), 1869, and subsequently translated into English and published in I. S. Turgenev, Complete Works and Letters in 28 vols, Moscow and Leningrad: Nauka, 1960—1968 (Letters), Vol. IV, pp. 358-59.

----, "On Fathers and Children," in Fathers and Children, edited by Patrick Waddington, Everyman, p. 251, originally published in Literaturnyye i zhiteyskiye vospominaniya (Memories of Life and Literature), 1869, and sub sequently translated into English and published in I. S.

Turgenev, Complete Works and Letters in 28 vols, Moscow and Leningrad: Nauka, 1960-1968 (Works), Vol. XIV, pp. 97-99, 103-05.

Yarmolinsky, Avrahm, Turgenev: The Man, His Art and His Age, Collier Books, 1959, p. 199.

Further Reading
Costlow, Jane Tussey, Worlds within Worlds: The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, Princeton University Press, 1990. Turgenev's books are well known for the accurate portrayal of life within his time. The author discusses this aspect of his writing combined with his exquisite style for words.

Freeborn, Richard, The Russian Revolutionary Novel: Turgenev to Pasternak, Cambridge University Press, 1985. Turgenev and Pasternak are just two of the Russian writers who faced persecution for their revolutionary works. One of the richest periods in Russian literature spans from the novels of Turgenev's time in the middle of the nineteenth century to those of Pasternak in the middle of the twentieth century.

Hayek, F. A., The Road to Serfdom, University of Chicago Press, 1994. Ahead of its time when first published in 1947, this book discusses the dangers to a society when the government gains increasing economic control. Hayek focuses mainly on the tyrannies of his time in Germany, Italy, and Soviet Russia, which were based on National Socialism. In this classic text, Hayek foresaw the failure of socialism.

Kolchin, Peter, Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom, Belknap Press, 1990. Kolchin's acclaimed comparative history study examines the institutions of slavery and serfdom in America and Russia respectively, including the emancipation efforts.

Lowe, David A., Critical Essays on Ivan Turgenev, Macmil-lan Library Reference, 1988. This book contains reprinted criticism—reviews and essays—that was originally published in the early to late twentieth century. The criticism was originally published in English, German, and Russian.

Roosevelt, Priscilla, Life on the Russian Country Estate: A Social and Cultural History, Yale University Press, 1997. The author gives a historical account of the rural, Russian aristocratic landowner class, which survived the emancipation of the serfs and was visible even at the end of the century. The book features many images and illustrations of a cultural world that has since vanished.

Waddington, Patrick, Ivan Turgenev and Britain, Berg Publishers Incorporated, 1995. This book discusses the influence that Britain had on Ivan Turgenev. The author visited England often and associated with many of the English literary class, including Tennyson and George Eliot. The book also reprints some previously unpublished articles and features an extensive bibliography.


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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.




Critical Essays