Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1187
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 than in A House of Gentlefolk, where, in the character of Lavretzky, he embodies all the emotional and psychological richness of Slavophilism with none of its rigidness or excess. In a lengthy digression about Lavretzky’s lineage, which precedes his appearance in the novel, the author is careful to stress his hero’s dual background: His mother was a peasant, whereas his father belonged to the landed aristocracy and had become totally cut off from his people because of his extended residence in Europe. Lavretzky himself enters the story just returned from a stay in Paris with his shallow and unfaithful wife; he is coming home to his neglected ancestral estate in order to reestablish closeness to the land. In the sole political scene in the novel, it is Lavretzky who eloquently summarizes Slavophile doctrine, insisting that the essential life and spirit of Russia resides in the common folk; he completely annihilates the feeble platitudes of the unhealthy, superficial, and egotistical bureaucrat Panshin. It is crucially important, however, that Lavretzky, unlike his real-life counterparts, is a democratic revolutionary spirit in the truest sense of the word, as witnessed in his freedom and individuality and in his love for the land and its people.
The woman who grows to love and be loved by Lavretzky is Liza, the heroine of A House of Gentlefolk. Turgenev endows her character with all the attributes shared by generations of Russian women, thus giving her a universal quality. Liza’s personality, since it represents the spirit at the heart of the novel, is of central importance. She is a religious girl, beautiful in moral strength and purity rather than in physical attractiveness and impressive in her calm passivity, her endurance, and her single-minded devotion. She is never revealed directly to the reader by the author but rather develops as a character through her reflection in the people around her; readers learn most about Liza through the eyes and heart of Lavretzky, but in the last analysis, she remains an elusive, if entrancing, figure.
Artistically, A House of Gentlefolk is more like an extended short story than a novel. The plot is slight: In a time span of only two months (not counting the brief epilogue), Lavretzky returns home and falls in love with Liza; his wife returns after she is believed dead; Liza enters a convent; and Lavretzky goes to his estate brokenhearted. The central theme is embodied in the love story, around which all the elements in the novel revolve; setting, atmosphere, and minor characterizations all combine to produce the single effect of the love sequence. This powerful singleness of effect gives the novel an extraordinary cohesiveness and perfection of structure.
This cohesiveness is perhaps best seen in Turgenev’s evocation of a summer atmosphere, which coincides throughout the story with the emotions of the hero and heroine. The spirit of summer pervades the scene of Liza meeting Lavretzky in the garden, for example, imbuing the passage with an unsurpassed lyrical beauty. Likewise, the minor personages in the story, while being among Turgenev’s most brilliant sketches of character, owe their primary importance to their relationship to the hero or heroine. The odious Panshin; the passionate old German, Lemm; Liza’s mother and her crusty, wise old aunt, Marfa Timofyevna; Lavretzky’s malicious wife, Varvara: These unforgettable figures serve to reveal something about the two central characters. Along with the summer atmosphere and country landscape, of which they almost seem a part, they set the stage for the love story long before its participants make their entrance. The reader is given detailed portraits of a collection of minor characters before receiving any more description of Liza than that she is “a slender, tall, dark-haired girl of nineteen”; Lavretzky’s belated appearance is preceded by a nine-chapter digression on his genealogy.
In his usual fashion, Turgenev uses his characters’ love affairs to test their strength and worth. When in the epilogue Lavretzky returns after eight years to visit the house where Liza used to live, readers find that, despite his shattering loss of happiness, he has not only survived but emerged from the ordeal a better and kinder man. On one level, Turgenev has produced in his hero a symbol of the indomitable strength of the Russian soul; on another, he has shown the capacity inherent in all people for transcendence of pain and growth through suffering. A House of Gentlefolk is an elevating tale of melancholy but not defeat and of sadness mingled with hope.
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