Ivan Turgenev Long Fiction Analysis - Essay

Ivan Turgenev Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The idealistic generation of the 1830’s and 1840’s, the so-called superfluous men and victims of the Russia of Nicholas I, comes to the fore in Ivan Turgenev’s first novel, Rudin. It is a philosophically articulate generation, little given to action.


Dmitri Rudin fascinates and charms the household of Daria Mikhailovna Lasunskaia with his poetic linguistic abilities and his brilliant capacity for discussion drawing on keen aphorisms and on German Transcendentalists (including Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel), so that instead of staying overnight, he remains for several months. In time, he declares his love for the young Natasha, yet, as the vainglorious human figure he is (something her “lioness” mother and patroness of the arts comes to discern), he withdraws spinelessly, though aware that his love is returned, when he learns of Lasunskaia’s opposition. He departs, leaving Natasha hurt.

The story is told by his friend Leznev, not always sympathetically, and it is probable that Turgenev originally wanted to satirize the budding anarchist Bakunin (the novel’s original, satiric title was “The Genius”). As such, Rudin would have emerged not as a superfluous man but simply as an unsavory boaster. Events in Russia changed quickly, however: Bakunin’s arrest, the death of the admired historian Granovsky, who liked the rebel, and other circumstances invited an “Epilogue” (1855-1856) and finally a last paragraph (1860). Here Rudin dies in the Paris barricades of 1848 in a kind of hero’s apologia, in which, from a vain failure, he becomes a tragic failure, a true superfluous man, full of remorse over his treatment of Natasha and conscious that he is “sacrificing [himself] for some nonsense in which [he does not] believe.” Now the Russian radicals protested (again the events were changing) against what they believed was an ideological acquiescence to older values. This was a typical Turgenevian situation: the incarnation of a problem in a hero by the writer and the argumentative reaction to it by society.

A House of Gentlefolk

One answer to the plight of the superfluous man is the return to the soil, to the Russian homeland, “tilling it the best way one can,” a task that can be accomplished with a deep sense of religion. A House of Gentlefolk, published in 1859—a Slavophile novel that was enormously well received and stirred no polemics—provides this answer. The European-educated nobleman Fedor Ivanovich Lavretsky has remained spiritually Russian and returns to his homeland from Paris when his frivolous wife, Varvara Pavlovna Korobine, beguiled by the delights of the French capital, is unfaithful to him. His goal is to organize his lands with humility, seeing to the well-being of the serfs. He comes across a distant cousin, the serious, religious, and dutiful Liza Kalitina, one of Turgenev’s most idealized portrayals—recalling Pushkin’s Tatyana in Evgeny Onegin (1825-1832, 1833; Eugene Onegin, 1881)—of Russian womanhood. Although the shadow of Varvara cannot be dispelled, they fall in love. The impossible union appears briefly possible when a newspaper account reports Lavretsky’s wife’s death; the story is incorrect, however, and Varvara appears at his home in Russia, only to leave the country estate and move on to the social pleasures of St. Petersburg, where she acquires a new lover. Lavretsky becomes a model landlord, and Liza retires to a convent.

While the plot is typically sparse, the characterization is typically rich: Vladimir Nikolaevich Panshin, the deceptively charming and egotistical young careerist (a pro-Western foil to Lavretsky), who courts Liza before Lavretsky’s appearance; her wealthy and widowed provincial mother, Maria Dmitrievna Kalitina; her old German music teacher, Christopher Lemm, a man of unrecognized talent reluctantly living in Russia; Lavretsky’s despotic and narrow-minded father; his harsh and fierce Aunt Glafira; his idealistic and poor university friend, Mikhyalevich, who speaks nobly about the duties of landed gentry toward the country and the peasants—these figures and others are to be added to the characters of Lavretsky, Varvara, and above all Liza herself, an array of portraits that pleased the artistic reader and an espousing of ideas that pleased the social forces of the time (the model landlord for the radicals, the Russian consciousness for the Slavophiles, the profound faith and devotion, rectitude, and determination of Liza for those seeking a sociomoral message, like Turgenev’s good, religious friend Countess Elizabeth Lambert).

On the Eve

On the Eve is also relatively plotless yet sensitive in its drawing of characters; it turns one’s eyes back to the West, though the heart of the story throbs in Bulgaria through the most ideal pair of lovers Turgenev ever conceived. There is a contrast between the trifling pedantry of young Russians and the vital commitment of youth elsewhere: The elegant and superficial Pavel Yakovlich Schubin, a fine-arts student, represents the French leaning, while the awkward but good and learned Andrei Petrovich Bersenyev represents the German. Both pursue the superior and beautiful Elena Nikolaevna Strahof, an ardent and noble-minded daughter of a dissipated aristocrat and a faded society belle. Her willpower is no match for her wooers, and it is not surprising that when the Bulgarian patriot Dmitri Insarov passes through (his cause is the liberation of Bulgaria from the Turks), she falls in love with him. Both of his parents having been victims of the Turks, Insarov, though not of sound health, is regarded as the leader of the coming revolt. (The “eve” of the revolt could be the approaching Crimean War and the forthcoming reforms of Alexander II that followed that war.)

Because he returns her love, Insarov fears on the eve of the conflict that Elena is distracting him from his mission and leaves her, but she seeks him out and tells him that her idealism will make her forsake everything for him and his cause. They marry and leave for Bulgaria but get only as far as Venice before he dies. Elena follows the coffin to Bulgaria, where, having no country now, she joins the Sisters of Mercy, who act as army nurses. Turgenev said that he derived the plot outline from a manuscript handed to him by one V. V. Karataev, who left for Crimea at the outbreak of the war in 1853. It would be reading something into the novel that is not there to see in the Bulgarian Insarov a forerunner of the Russian revolutionary hero, as it would be incorrect to see in the self-sacrificing and idealistic Elena, who is reminiscent of Anita, the wife of the famous Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi, whom Turgenev much admired, a prototype of the revolutionary heroine. In their own way, one religious and one secular, Liza and Elena are the same. At first, the novel disappointed the public, which expected to see the willful Russian man dedicated to a noble cause; theprotagonists pointed Westward, as it were, the way Ivan Goncharov’s active Stolz, a German, pointed away from the dreamy Russian Oblomov. Here again, however, the value of the work is better sought less in the ideological orientation than in the series...

(The entire section is 2972 words.)