Vladimir Petrovich Voldemar
Vladimir Petrovich Voldemar (vlah-DIH-mihr peh-TROH-vihch VOL-deh-mahr), the romantic sixteen-year-old protagonist and the thoughtful forty-year-old narrator. The youthful Vladimir meets Zinaida during the summer of his sixteenth year while staying with his family at their summer home. He immediately becomes infatuated with her and tries to live this first love according to the dictates of the romantic novels he has read. He dreams of winning Zinaida’s love with acts of heroism and idealizes the object of his affection. He eventually discovers that his father has become Zinaida’s domineering lover. Disillusioned and confused by this revelation, particularly by the vision of his father reprimanding Zinaida with a riding crop as though she were an unruly mount, the young Vladimir cannot comprehend the brutal passion his father and Zinaida share. As the novella’s narrator, the middle-aged Vladimir is able in retrospect to sympathize with the lawless lovers, but it is obvious that he has never experienced such love.
Piotr Vassilich Voldemar
Piotr Vassilich Voldemar (pyohtr vah-SIH-lihch), Vladimir’s dashing father and Zinaida’s lover. Known for his skill at breaking horses, Piotr Vassilich is equally adept at managing people. A complete believer in the power of will, Piotr feels constrained neither by the responsibilities of family nor by conventional codes of behavior. Without his idealistic son’s knowledge, he initiates a brutally passionate affair with Zinaida. His single-minded pursuit of passion eventually consumes him, and on his deathbed he warns Vladimir against its destructive power.
Princess Zasyekin (zah-SYEH-kihn), the impoverished and widowed mother of Zinaida. Ugly and vulgar, she is a materialistic and quarrelsome opposite of her daughter. Princess Zasyekin shamelessly tries to use her daughter’s beauty to repair her own diminished wealth and social standing.
Zinaida Alexandrovna Zasyekin
Zinaida Alexandrovna Zasyekin (zih-nah-IH-dah ah-lehk-SAN-drov-nah), the beautiful twenty-one-year-old daughter of the impoverished Princess Zasyekin. Part saint and part temptress, Zinaida shares characteristics with both Vladimir and his father. Like Piotr, she is a willful character. She mercilessly uses her beauty to humiliate her numerous suitors and seems to enjoy exercising her power over them. Like Vladimir, she is a romantic, and she secretly yearns to give herself completely to a domineering man. This fantasy becomes incarnate in Piotr, who establishes her as his mistress. She eventually marries a man named Dolsky and dies in childbirth just before the middle-aged Vladimir decides to see her again.
Maria Nikolaevna Voldemar
Maria Nikolaevna Voldemar (MAH-ryah nih-koh-LAH-yehv-nah), Vladimir’s long-suffering mother. Meek and passive, Maria Nikolaevna is unsuccessful in her feeble attempts to control her husband’s wanton behavior.
Victor Yegorich Byelovzorov
Victor Yegorich Byelovzorov (yeh-GOH-rihch byeh-loh-ZOH-rov), a dashing young hussar. Handsome and athletic, Byelovzorov is the most persistent of Zinaida’s suitors, repeatedly proposing marriage and announcing his willingness to sacrifice his life in her honor.
Count Malevsky (mah-LEHV-skee), a handsome, clever, and insincere nobleman who courts Zinaida. The anonymous letter he writes to Maria Nikolaevna describing Piotr’s infidelity results in the Voldemars’ early departure from their summer home. It also reveals Malevsky’s essential cowardice.
Lushin (LEW-shihn), a cynical and intellectual doctor. The least fawning of Zinaida’s admirers, Lushin tries unsuccessfully to insulate himself from the humiliations to which she subjects all her suitors. More than the others, he understands Zinaida, but like the others, he ultimately is unable to resist her charms.
Meidanov (MAY-dah-nov), a poet. Another of Zinaida’s suitors, Meidanov demonstrates his love by composing lengthy poems dedicated to her.
Turgenev modestly claimed that a lack of imagination always forced him to work from known characters. He also...
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wrote thatFirst Love was largely autobiographical, based on an affair his father carried on with a beautiful neighbor. To whatever extent the novella accurately portrays the adolescent experiences of Turgenev, the subtle exploration of character is central to First Love, which focuses on the love triangle of Piotr, Vladimir, and Zinaida.
Piotr believes in will and the power of the individual to act. He rejects responsibilities to family or to abstract codes of behavior. He is a creature of passion, but he never seems out of control. Just as he has a rare knack for breaking horses, he is able to dominate the people and situations around him. In a rare communicative moment, Piotr advises his son to “[t]ake for yourself what you can, and don’t be ruled by others; to belong to oneself—the whole savour of life lies in that....” His willful independence parallels that of Bazarov in Ottsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons, 1867), the novel Turgenev finished soon after publishing First Love. Unlike Bazarov, Turgenev’s best-known protagonist, who adheres to a nihilistic rationalism, Piotr pursues the ephemeral ideal of passion. Eventually this unending pursuit consumes him, as his deathbed warning indicates.
Like Piotr, Zinaida is a willful character. Part saint and part temptress, she uses her beauty to escape the vulgarity and limitations of her situation. Her frivolity contrasts with the litigious and financial preoccupations of her mother. Her teasing games allow her to assert control over her suitors, and she seems to enjoy their helpless humiliation as much as she enjoys their companionship. The novella reveals, however, that her careless independence disguises a desire to be mastered: “[O]ut there...waits he whom I love, who holds me in his power.” This hidden need to be conquered is graphically revealed in the scene in which Piotr strikes her with his riding crop as though he were reprimanding an unruly mount.
Because of Turgenev’s narrative frame, Vladimir exists as two separate characters: the young protagonist of the novella and the middle-aged narrator. The youthful Vladimir is a creation of his own reading, trying to live through his first love as though it were a romantic novel, continually imagining himself in the role of hero and idealizing the object of his love: “I began picturing to myself how I would save her from the hands of enemies; how, covered with blood I would tear her by force from prison, and expire at her feet.” As Zinaida’s page, Vladimir imagines winning her according to the code of chivalry, but despite his dreams of heroic victory, he is incapable of decisive action when presented with evidence of Zinaida’s true nature. He enacts an imitation of adult passion without understanding it. He reacts to the climactic scene in which his father strikes Zinaida by recognizing the childish simplicity of his own love, but he still cannot understand fully the contradictions of the passion he witnesses. To him it seems “like an unknown, beautiful, but menacing face, which one strives in vain to make out clearly in the half-darkness....”
The middle-aged Vladimir who narrates the story has never fully recovered from the disillusionment of his youth. Although his maturity has enabled him to sympathize with the passion of his father and Zinaida, he has not experienced it himself. Indeed, he implies that such love is tragically doomed, a bright flame that must burn itself out. His only response to the contemplation of life’s beauty and brevity is a concluding desire to pray.
Hart, Pierre R. “The Passionate Page: Turgenev’s First Love and Dostoevsky’s The Little Hero,” in New Perspectives on Nineteenth-century Russian Prose, 1982.
Mirsky, Dmitry S. A History of Russian Literature, 1949.
Pritchett, V.S. The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev, 1977.
Schapiro, Leonard. Turgenev: His Life and Times, 1979.