Ivan Turgenev World Literature Analysis - Essay

Ivan Turgenev World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Nineteenth century Russia was divided by a cultural debate between Slavophiles and Westerners. Slavophiles were conservatives who tended to regret the effort of Peter the Great to impose the culture and technology of Western Europe on his people. They believed that Russia was different from the West and superior in that difference. Westerners were liberals who were deeply troubled, if not simply contemptuous, of autocratic repression, which they saw most obviously displayed by the serf system, which effectively made chattels of the peasant class. They favored a reordering of Russian society that would liberate the serfs and establish a constitutional monarchy, if not a people’s democracy. In this debate, Turgenev sided with the Westerners.

His position and how he expressed it in his art were not readily apparent except for his obvious dislike of serfdom. Turgenev’s inclination to a moderate view may be related to the paradoxes in his character. He was a tall, well-made, handsome man who was generally harmless in his relations with women; he seems not to have had much passion in his life despite his attachment to Pauline Viardot. He was a very gentle person who loved shooting game birds. He lived in Western Europe much of the time but almost always wrote of his homeland and native people. Because he saw many sides to life, he could not create stories that would satisfy zealots. He could not divide the world into bad people and good people, but this did not keep him from believing that Russia would be made better by liberal reform.

In January, 1860, Turgenev published the essay “Gamlet i Don Kikhot” (“Hamlet and Don Quixote,” 1930) in the Contemporary Review. He expresses the thought that the world comprises passive, introspective, ineffectual Hamlets and active, energetic, outward-looking Don Quixotes. He suggested that the Russian problem was too many Hamlets and not enough Don Quixotes, that something in the national character kept Russia from realizing its potential, but it is tempting to see these observations as Turgenev’s unwitting revelation of himself. Whether he was consciously dominated by strong women throughout most of his life is a question to be debated but never finally answered. That he wrote fictions that included irresolute men who are perhaps not strong enough for the women whom they desire seems obvious.

In fact, most of Turgenev’s novel-length works are studies in character, which tends to encourage a psychoanalytical approach in reading them critically. It does well to remember that Turgenev also wrote plays, for his stories contain more drama than adventure. People gather in a parlor or garden and talk to one another. Characters enter and exit the scene. Then some of the characters move to another location where the same pattern is repeated, with new characters added to replace those who have been left behind. This pattern repeats until the reader reaches the end of things, which is usually a failed love relationship (A House of Gentlefolk, The Torrents of Spring) or a death (On the Eve, “A Lear of the Steppes”) or both (Fathers and Sons).

What gives Turgenev’s stories their interest is the clarity with which he presents his characters and the subtlety of detail by which he makes them individuals. When Turgenev began a novel, he constructed biographies of his characters and became intimately familiar with them. By this method, he was able to create convincing portraits of that part of Russian society in which he lived, particularly the Russian gentry who, it seemed to him, were becoming increasingly irrelevant as the world changed. His novels make clear that he was aware of the larger world and that he had opinions about it, but the people who drew his attention were those who did not quite fit, who were superfluous. The thought that members of Russia’s leisured class were largely superfluous had been around since the time of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel Evgeny Onegin (1825-1832, 1833; Eugene Onegin, 1881).

Except for A Sportsman’s Sketches and “First Love,” most of Turgenev’s fiction employs a third-person narrative voice, which takes the reader into thoughts and feelings of a multiplicity of characters. This technique also promotes impressionistic description of the external world, the look of characters and the Russian landscape that they inhabit. For that matter, Turgenev’s first-person narratives are effectively descriptive, but when...

(The entire section is 1845 words.)