Ivan Turgenev’s First Love opens with a brief scene in which three apparently prosperous Russian gentlemen of the 1850’s propose to amuse themselves by recounting the stories of their first loves. Although they are seen but briefly, these phlegmatic characters can be identified as “superfluous men,” Turgenev’s phrase for those who exist comfortably without awareness or purpose. Indeed, only Vladimir Petrovich, a middle-aged bachelor, has anything of interest to say on this romantic topic, reluctantly admitting that his first love “was not quite an ordinary one.” He cautiously refuses to recount the tale to his companions immediately, insisting upon writing it out first and then reading it to them at a subsequent meeting. The first-person narrative that describes Vladimir Petrovich’s experience during the summer of his sixteenth year is framed by Turgenev’s introductory scene, thus presenting the story of Vladimir’s love for Zinaida as a remembrance of a vanished past and underscoring the tension between the naive youth whom the reader sees in the narrative and the mature man who tells the tale.
In the narrative, Vladimir Petrovich is portrayed as a sensitive and somewhat confused sixteen-year-old filled with a “delicious sense of youth and effervescent life.” He accompanies his parents to their summer home outside Moscow with the intention of studying for his university entrance examinations. Vladimir is distracted, however, by awakening romantic yearnings: “a half-conscious, shamefaced presentiment of something new, unutterably sweet, feminine....”
This presentiment becomes incarnate when Princess Zasyekin, a vulgar and impoverished widow, rents the dilapidated home next to his family’s, and Vladimir has the opportunity to meet Zinaida, Princess Zasyekin’s beautiful twenty-one-year-old daughter. Almost immediately, Zinaida becomes the focus of Vladimir’s romantic obsession. His adolescent desire is encouraged when Zinaida allows him to join in her nightly entertainment of an entourage of older courtiers. Although this odd assortment of suitors, who represent a variety of military, intellectual, and artistic accomplishments, are considerably older than Vladimir, they repeatedly display a humiliatingly adolescent devotion to Zinaida, humoring her whims and playing parlor games in which she toys with their emotions.
Zinaida treats Vladimir affectionately, but it is impossible for him to overcome his sense of immaturity. She playfully names Vladimir her page, a title which gives him a special place in her chivalric fantasy while simultaneously emphasizing his youth. His frustrating sense of inexperience is heightened when he gradually realizes that she is in love, a realization that becomes evident when she recounts her dream of meeting a romantic and dominating stranger in a garden. Vladimir tortures himself over the identity of Zinaida’s lover, and lost in the grip of his romantic passion, he even considers murder and stations himself with a knife outside Zinaida’s home. His bloody intentions are shattered by the appearance of his father and the revelation that Piotr Vassilich is Zinaida’s lover. This unexpected knowledge throws Vladimir into a painful state of emotional confusion.
The family’s stay in the country is cut short by Maria Nikolevna’s discovery of her husband’s infidelity. The bitter recriminations that follow show Vladimir the lovelessness of his parents’ marriage, but their return to Moscow shows that the pragmatic concerns of appearance and money continue to hold them together.
The climactic scene in the novella occurs shortly after the family’s return to Moscow. Vladimir goes riding with his father and inadvertently witnesses a secretive meeting between Piotr and Zinaida. In a revelatory moment, he sees his father become angry and strike Zinaida with his riding crop only to rush into her arms subsequently. This reversal of control—the Zinaida who once ruled over her parlor suitors now accepts physical abuse—forces...
(This entire section contains 768 words.)
Vladimir to realize that experiential passion is more complex than romantic fiction. It makes Vladimir feel that his love “with all its transports and sufferings” had been “something small and childish and pitiful beside this other unimagined something....”
The concluding chapter of First Love recounts the early death of Piotr, who warns his son on his deathbed to “‘fear the love of woman; fear that bliss, that poison....’” It then tells of Vladimir’s unexpected opportunity to see Zinaida four years later, after she has married. His emotional uncertainty repeatedly causes him to delay his visit to her hotel. When he eventually calls on her, he discovers that she died in childbirth a few days before. Although this final chapter does not describe the middle-aged Vladimir reading to his companions, its tone of regret, despair, and even horror effectively completes the narrative frame by reminding the reader of the aging narrator.