The publication of A House of Gentlefolk established Ivan Turgenev as a great novelist. Although critical opinion generally awarded Ottsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons, 1867) the honor of being Turgenev’s masterpiece, this earlier novel was for more than half a century his most universally acclaimed work. A House of Gentlefolk is to be appreciated on two separate yet interlocking and organically unified levels: the social-historical and the artistic. Although in the novel as a work of art these two aspects are inextricably fused, they may nevertheless be studied individually to illuminate more clearly some of the work’s underlying themes and to gain deeper insight into the characters.
Any discussion of Turgenev is enriched by an understanding of social movements in Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. A cultural controversy had arisen during the author’s lifetime centering on the question of the relative worth of foreign (that is, Western European) versus exclusively Russian ideals. The so-called Westerners were a group of Russians who believed that democracy could cure the ills of society; these individuals repudiated Russia’s autocratic government as well as her Greek Orthodox religion as outmoded and repressive institutions. They viewed their homeland as morally, intellectually, and politically primitive in comparison with England, France, and Germany, which had, either through philosophical soul-searching or practical experimentation, advanced toward increasingly democratic institutions.
In bitter opposition to the Westerners, there arose a group known as the Slavophiles, composed of many of Russia’s finest poets and novelists, philosophers and scholars. These men viewed Western European culture as decadent, corrupt, and morally rotten; they looked to a new and pure Slavic society, headed by Russia, to rejuvenate Western philosophy. In their enthusiasm over Slavonic culture, the early Slavophiles often lived among the Russian peasant population to study their way of life, art and music, social customs, and legal arrangements. Ironically, rather than leading them to a seemingly obvious condemnation of the tyranny under which the bulk of the Russian population suffered, their experiences and worship of all things Slavonic led them instead to condone autocracy and Orthodoxy simply because the masses accepted them unquestioningly.
Although Turgenev is classified as a Westerner in this debate, such classification is misleading in that it does not account for his clear thinking on the issue. With his brilliant insight and objectivity, he saw the pitfalls of both camps and avoided their excesses. He was, like the Westerners, a passionate believer in democracy for the people, but he understood from his heart the deep and powerful force of the Slavophile argument. Nowhere is Turgenev’s lucidity and freedom of spirit more evident...
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