Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2023
Article abstract: Turgenev combined the lyrical with the realistic in fiction that had a powerful influence on social conditions in his own time and on later writers such as Anton Chekhov and Henry James, who truly ushered in the modern period in literature.
Ivan Turgenev was born November 9, 1818, in Orel, Russia, to Varvara Petrovna, a wealthy landowner, and Sergey Turgenev, a cavalry officer. According to Turgenev’s own comments, he was an enthusiastic reader at an early age, reading not only the fiction and poetry of Russian writers but also the English fiction of Charles Dickens.
His family moved to Moscow in 1827, and in 1833 Turgenev entered the University of Moscow, which he attended for one year, when, upon another family move to St. Petersburg, he entered the university there. He was graduated in 1837 and went to Berlin, where he was enrolled at the University of Berlin, studying philosophy for three years. Upon returning to St. Petersburg in 1841 and failing to find an academic position, he secured a minor post with the Ministry of the Interior. While traveling in Europe in 1843, he met Pauline Viardot, a French singer, who became his lifelong love and inspiration.
Turgenev retired from the civil service in 1845 and began to devote himself full-time to writing poetry. Because his mother disapproved of this decision as well as of his infatuation with Viardot, a married woman, she cut off his allowance. Turgenev followed Viardot, who tolerated his infatuation, to Europe to be near her. He returned to Russia in 1850 because of his mother’s serious illness. When she died, he was left the heir of a substantial fortune and was thus able to follow his literary interests, which at this time he very successfully shifted from poetry to fiction. In 1847, he had begun the writing of the short stories which, in 1852, were to be published as one of his greatest works, Zapiski okhotnika (Russian Life in the Interior, 1855; better known as A Sportsman’s Sketches, 1932).
When A Sportsman’s Sketches were being published in periodical form, they created a social uproar in Russia, for they presented the serf as more than a mere slave and, in fact, as often more human and genuine than the landowners themselves. Because the stories were seen as a protest against the serf system, the authorities began to watch Turgenev closely. In 1852, when he wrote an enthusiastic obituary notice on the death of his fellow writer Nikolai Gogol, he met further disapproval; the authorities banished him to his country estate, where he was forced to stay for a year and a half.
When he returned to St. Petersburg, after the publication of A Sportsman’s Sketches in book form, he found himself to be the leading light of St. Petersburg literary culture. A Sportsman’s Sketches has often been considered historically important for the influence it had on the abolition of the serf system in Russia; in fact, the book has even been compared in this regard to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852). Yet the aesthetic and critical importance of the stories, the reason many of them continue to be read, lies in their unique blend of the lyrical and the realistic. Such stories as “Bezhin Meadow” and “The Country Doctor,” two of the most familiar in the collection, create a dreamlike and sometimes surrealistic world, even as they manage to remain solidly grounded in phenomenal experience. As a short-story writer, Turgenev historically stands somewhere between the folktale fantasy of Nikolai Gogol and the nightmare reality of Franz Kafka.
For the next few years after the success of A Sportsman’s Sketches, Turgenev, who felt inspired by travel, was forced to stay at home because of the Crimean War. Moreover, many biographers suggest that he was in a deep depression because of the impossibility of his tireless love for Viardot. As a result, he published little during this period, with the exception of his short novel Rudin (Dmitri Roudine, 1873; better known as Rudin, 1947), which appeared in 1856. In a drastic shift—which may have resulted partly from his freedom to travel and partly from his acceptance of the Viardot situation—within the next five years Turgenev alternated between traveling on the Continent and writing some of his most respected works, including the novels Dvoryanskoye gnezdo (1859; Liza, 1869; better known as A House of Gentlefolk, 1894) and Nakanune (1860; On the Eve, 1871), the novella Pervaya lyubov (1860; First Love, 1884), and the essay “Gamlet i Don Kikhot” (1860; “Hamlet and Don Quixote,” 1930). He also finished his best-known novel, Ottsy i deti (Fathers and Sons, 1867), in 1861 and had it published the following year.
Fathers and Sons is built around what Turgenev perceived as an emerging type of man in Russia, a type which he named “nihilist,” a term to which Turgenev’s novel gave great currency at mid-century. The character Bazarov in Turgenev’s novel is one who rejects religion, art, and the Russian class system and emphasizes instead scientific empiricism. Turgenev was vilified by Russian intellectuals and praised by the Russian secret police for this depiction, for the novel was misinterpreted as supporting the conservative “fathers,” while casting doubt on the radical “sons.” Turgenev, in a defense of his work, argued that by “nihilist” he really meant “revolutionary,” and that his work was directed against the gentry as the leading class. As a result, Russian critics began to see the work as the herald of the coming revolution.
In addition to frequently coming in conflict with either the authorities or the radical dissenters, Turgenev’s life was also often plagued by conflict with his literary relationships. He was friends with such great Russian writers as Ivan Goncharov and Leo Tolstoy but had bitter quarrels with both of them. Goncharov accused him of plagiarizing from an unpublished manuscript, and Tolstoy accused him of moral illness because of his liaison with Viardot. The quarrel with Tolstoy, which occurred at a dinner party and involved a disagreement about helping the poor, almost resulted in a duel and lasted for seventeen years. A few years later, he also had quarrels with Fyodor Dostoevski because of a debt Dostoevski owed Turgenev.
In 1863, when the Viardots went to live in Baden-Baden, Germany, Turgenev visited them there, where he was received as an old family friend, a role he seemed willing to play, if only for the opportunity to be near Pauline. Indeed, his desire to be near her was so great that he also moved to Baden-Baden. From all indications, his life there was happy and his health was good, in spite of the fact that his relationship with the beloved Pauline was less than he desired. Enjoying a life of hunting and social leisure, however, Turgenev did little work; Dym (1867; Smoke, 1868) is the only novel that he wrote during his eight years in the German resort.
Turgenev’s life always seemed dominated by his attachment to Viardot; when she moved once again, Turgenev followed, first to London and then to Bougival, France, where Turgenev and the Viardots bought a summer home jointly in 1874. In France, Turgenev began a close relationship with several prominent writers, including Gustave Flaubert, George Sand, Émile Zola, Edmond de Goncourt, and others. Once more, Turgenev seemed preoccupied with matters that kept him from his writing. The only important works he published during this period were two novellas, one of which was Veshniye vody (1872; Spring Floods, 1874; better known as The Torrents of Spring, 1897).
Turgenev began working on his last, and his longest, novel, Nov (Virgin Soil, 1877), in 1876. This story of love and revolution, published in 1877, was not well received by Russian critics; conservative commentators thought it criticized Russia too much, while radical critics thought the revolutionary characters were not true-to-life. Yet the work was enthusiastically read outside Russia, being immediately translated into many different languages and receiving rave reviews from influential critics.
Turgenev fell ill in early 1882 and moved to the summer home he owned with the Viardots in Bougival in June of that year. Although he was in much pain, his illness was not properly diagnosed as spinal cancer, and Turgenev did not believe his life was in danger. On September 3, 1883, after having dictated a story critical of the Russian aristocracy, Turgenev died surrounded by his family and friends. In a funeral that amounted to national mourning, he was buried in St. Petersburg in Volkov cemetery.
Ivan Turgenev always declared himself a realist whose every line was inspired by something that he actually observed. When his works were published, their importance lay less in their artistic and aesthetic qualities than in their documentation of the social realities of Russian life. Indeed, such works as A Sportsman’s Sketches were said to have been at least a partial cause for the abolition of the serf system, much as Uncle Tom’s Cabin had an effect on the abolition of the system of slavery in the United States. Turgenev’s later works are also remembered for their depiction of a world that was doomed to die with the Russian Revolution.
Yet when Turgenev is most studied today, it is not for his social realism, but rather for what has been termed his poetic realism. It is his stories and his novellas, in which reality is presented as often lyrical and dreamlike, rather than his novels, in which he sought to present reality concretely and socially, that have won for him a permanent place in the history of modern literature. The influence of his short-story style on those writers who ushered in the modern period, such as Anton Chekhov, Henry James, and later Sherwood Anderson and others, is his most important literary legacy.
Freeborn, Richard. Turgenev: The Novelist’s Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960. A general study of Turgenev’s novels, both in terms of their place in nineteenth century Russian literature and culture and in terms of Henry James’s view that Turgenev was a “novelist’s novelist.” Freeborn primarily discusses Turgenev’s four major novels: Rudin, A House of Gentlefolk, On the Eve, and Fathers and Sons.
Magarshack, David. Turgenev: A Life. London: Faber & Faber, 1954. A detailed but highly readable account of Turgenev’s life. Along with Yarmolinsky’s biography cited below, it is the most frequently referred work on Turgenev. The work attempts to account for the relationship of Turgenev’s art to his life and is particularly helpful in discussing the role that Turgenev’s dramas played in the development of his art.
Pritchett, V. S. The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev. New York: Random House, 1977. This popular study is quite accessible to the general reader, but it is largely based on the previous biographies of Magarshack and Yarmolinsky. Although little is new here, it is characterized by Pritchett’s lucid style and his critical understanding of Turgenev’s fiction. Pritchett’s approach is to use details from Turgenev’s life to increase the reader’s understanding of his novels and short stories.
Ripp, Victor. Turgenev’s Russia: From “Notes of a Hunter” to “Fathers and Sons.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980. This critical study deals only with Turgenev’s fiction between A Sportsman’s Sketches and Fathers and Sons and therefore does not deal with his drama. It is valuable, however, in clarifying Turgenev’s place in nineteenth century Russian literature and thought and in delineating the important cultural issues which inform his fiction.
Schapiro, Leonard. Turgenev: His Life and Times. New York: Random House, 1978. This biography makes use of materials about Turgenev’s life and work previously available only in Russian and materials about his relationship with Viardot previously available only in French. This is purely a biographical study and makes no efforts to analyze Turgenev’s work.
Yarmolinsky, Avrahm. Turgenev: The Man, His Art, and His Age. Rev. ed. New York: Orion Press, 1959. This is a revision of Yarmolinsky’s authoritative biography of 1926. Not only is it valuable in providing a detailed account of Turgenev’s life and artistic development but also it discusses his intellectual and artistic development and his contribution to an understanding of nineteenth century Russian culture.