Fathers and Sons

by Ivan Turgenev

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The Generation Gap
The very title of the novel indicates one of the major themes. The gap between the older and younger generation is very pronounced, especially between fathers and their sons. Nikolai Kirsanov notes to his brother, Pavel, how they are “behind the times” and that the younger generation has surpassed them. He is wistful, however, at the implications of this gap: “I did so hope, precisely now, to get on to such close, intimate terms with Arkady, and it turns out I’m left behind, and he has gone forward, and we can’t understand one another.”

Bazarov’s father makes a similar observation, when he gets into a discussion about new versus old ideas: “Of course, gentlemen, you know best; how could we keep pace with you? You are here to take our places.” This gap seems to grow between them as they talk, and the old man tries to fit in by telling a funny story: “The old man was alone in his laughter; Arkady forced a smile on his face. Bazarov simply stretched. The conversation went on in this way for about an hour.” When Bazarov’s father complains about this fact to his wife, she tells him that there is “no help for it, Vasya! A son is a separate piece cut off.”

Although Bazarov’s early death prevents him and his father from closing their generation gap, the case is different for Arkady and Nikolai: “A week before in the small parish church two weddings had taken place quietly. . . . Arkady and Katya’s, and Nikolai Petrovitch and Fenitchka’s.” The double wedding leads to Arkady and Katya staying at Maryino, where Arkady eventually pitches in and runs his father’s estate for him. As Turgenev’s narrator says, “their fortunes are beginning to mend.”

Poverty is a very real issue in the story, even for formerly wealthy landowners like Nikolai. In the beginning, when Nikolai’s farm, Maryino, is described, the peasant’s portion is depicted as follows: “the peasants they met were all in tatters and on the sorriest little nags; the willows, with their trunks stripped of bark, and broken branches, stood like ragged beggars along the roadside.” The peasants are not the only ones who feel the pinch. Nikolai often “sighed, and was gloomy; he felt that the thing could not go on without money, and his money was almost spent.” For these reasons, Nikolai’s farm is infamous; “the peasants had nicknamed it, Poverty Farm.”

Bazarov’s parents are even poorer. When Arkady first arrives at the residence, the reader sees that “his whole house consisted of six tiny rooms.” And, as Vassily Ivanovitch notes: “I warned you, my dear Arkady Nikolaitch. . . . that we live, so to say, bivouacking.” This military term, from Vassily’s time in the military service, denotes a rougher lifestyle akin to camping in the rough.

In the story, Turgenev sets up a conflict between the older generation of fathers who believe in art and other irrational activities, and the nihilists— scientific materialists like Bazarov who accept nothing. Bazarov is very critical of anything that does not serve a purpose, especially art. “A good chemist is twenty times as useful as any poet,” Bazarov tells them.

For their part, the older generation of Kirsanov men does not agree. Says Pavel to Bazarov, “If we listen to you, we shall find ourselves outside hu- manity, outside its laws.” Furthermore, Nikolai tells Bazarov that he does more than “deny everything . . . you destroy everything. . . . But one must construct too, you know.” For Bazarov and other nihilists, leveling society...

(This entire section contains 1382 words.)

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and starting with a clean slate is the only way to get rid of “our leading men, so-called advanced people and reformers,” who “are no good.” Being a liberal himself, Nikolai understands his son’s desire for reform, but cannot understand the total exclusion of the arts: “But to renounce poetry? . . . to have no feeling for art, for nature?”

As for Arkady, Bazarov’s disciple, he finds it tough to maintain his nihilistic attitude as the novel goes on: “In his heart he was highly delighted with his friend’s suggestion, but he thought it a duty to conceal his feeling. He was not a nihilist for nothing!” By the end of the novel, Arkady has totally forsaken his nihilistic beliefs for marriage, music, and nature, three ideas that nihilism does not allow. Bazarov also experiences a change by the end of the novel. After he is slighted by Anna following his unprecedented profession of love, he tells her, “Before you is a poor mortal, who has come to his senses long ago, and hopes other people, too, have forgotten his follies.”

Bazarov has started to realize the error of his ways. While he is staying with his parents, they notice it too. “A strange weariness began to show itself in all his movements; even his walk, firm, bold and strenuous, was changed. He gave up walking in solitude, and began to seek society.” And when he is dying from typhus, he encourages his parents “to make the most of your religious belief; now’s the time to put it to the test.” Although, it is telling that when Bazarov has the chance to try to save his soul with his parents’ religion, he declines. Even though he has changed, allowed himself to love, and admitted the folly of some of his ways, he is not ready to embrace religion even on his deathbed.

The idea of romantic love permeates the novel and is most apparent with Arkady and Bazarov, who experience two different types of love. Arkady experiences a love that is based on friendship. Before he even meets his true love, Katya, he is smitten by Madame Anna Odintsov. Unfortunately, the older woman looks at him “as married sisters look at very young brothers.” With Katya, however, the situation is different, even from the start. He “encouraged her to express the impressions made on her by music, reading novels, verses, and other such trifles, without noticing or realizing that these trifles were what interested him too.” From this tentative friendship, their love starts to blossom, and Arkady’s love for Katya starts to replace his love for Madame Odintsov: “He began to imagine Anna Sergyevna to himself, then other features gradually eclipsed the lovely young image of the young widow.”

The night before Arkady plans on leaving Nikolskoe with Bazarov, he is distraught: “I’m sorry to lose Katya too!” Arkady whispered to his pillow, on which a tear had already fallen.” Eventually Arkady becomes so attached to Katya that he is ecstatic when he arrives unannounced and sees her first: “His meeting with her struck him as a particularly happy omen; he was delighted to see her, as though she were of his own kindred.” Finally, Arkady owns up to his feelings, and eventually lets her know that “My eyes have been opened lately, thanks to one feeling.” The feeling is love, but in Arkady’s case, it is a love that builds slowly from friendship.

For Bazarov, on the other hand, the love is more passionate, forceful. Bazarov shows the signs of an irrational love at his first meeting with Anna. While she is sitting calmly, “leaning back in her easy-chair,” and “He, contrary to his habit, was talking a good deal, and obviously trying to interest her—again a surprise for Arkady.” As Bazarov stays at Nikolskoe, he begins to exhibit “signs of an unrest, unprecedented in him. . . . and could not sit still in one place, just as though he were possessed by some secret longing.”

For her part, Anna gives Bazarov her terms for love: “My idea is everything or nothing. A life for a life. Take mine, give up thine, and that without regret or turning back. Or else better have nothing.” Bazarov takes these conversations as a sign that Anna loves him and on the eve of his departure, lets her know that “I love you like a fool, like a madman . . . There, you’ve forced it out of me.” However, Anna’s intentions are not amorous, so her words are crushing to the passionate lover who has let his emotions overtake him for the first time: “You have misunderstood me.”