Ivan Turgenev 1818-1883
Russian novelist, novella, short story, and sketch writer, playwright, poet, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism on Turgenev from 1920 through 1996. For further discussion of Turgenev's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 21; for a discussion of the novel Fathers and Sons, see NCLC, Volume 37.
Called “the novelist's novelist” by Henry James, Ivan Turgenev was the first Russian author to achieve widespread international fame. Although he was originally linked with Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy as a member of the triumvirate of great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century, Turgenev's reputation began to diminish during the course of the twentieth century. He produced numerous works in a variety of genres but is most famous for his narrative prose, particularly Ottsy i deti (1862; Fathers and Sons), a work that was denounced by his contemporaries, both liberal and conservative.
Turgenev was born on October 28, 1818, in the city of Orel into a family of wealthy gentry. He spent his childhood at the family's estate with his father, a charming but ineffectual cavalry officer, and his mother, a strong-willed but eccentric heiress whose extensive land holdings included the estate at Spasskoye and its 5,000 serfs. Turgenev's biographers note that his many fictional representations of strong female characters and weak-willed male characters replicate the personal dynamics of the Turgenev family. During Turgenev's early childhood French was the primary language spoken in his household, though his mother later permitted the use of Russian as well. Her library was extensive and her son spent much of his childhood reading literature in several languages. In 1824 the family moved to Moscow where Turgenev began his formal education, consisting of a combination of local schools and private tutors. In 1833 he entered Moscow University and a year later transferred to the University of St. Petersburg, where he began writing poetry. After graduation he went to Germany, enrolled at the University of Berlin, and studied philosophy for the next several years. In 1841 Turgenev returned to Russia and for the remainder of his life divided his time between his homeland and Western Europe.
Turgenev's first published work was a narrative poem that received little attention. Although he continued to write poetry and drama, he soon turned to narrative prose, producing short stories and sketches—many of them on the injustice of Russian serfdom—for the radical periodical The Contemporary. These stories were enormously popular with the public but attracted unfavorable attention from government officials. The publication of twenty-two of these sketches in the collection Zapiski okhotnika (1852; A Sportsman's Sketches), together with an admiring obituary of Nikolay Gogol that same year, resulted in Turgenev's arrest and imprisonment. After a month in jail, he was confined to Spasskoye, where he remained under house arrest for nearly two years.
In 1856 Turgenev began writing novels and in 1862 produced Fathers and Sons, now considered his masterpiece. Reaction among the various political factions within Russia was immediate, and the novel was denounced from all sides. Distressed by the unfavorable reviews, Turgenev began to spend more and more time in Western Europe in the company of such renowned authors as Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, and George Sand. His absence from his homeland only increased the attacks on his work, and his subsequent novels were offered as proof by his critics that he was out of touch with his native country. With the publication of his last novel, Nov’, (1877; Virgin Soil), Turgenev abandoned any attempt to deal with the Russian political scene and turned to the production of prose poems and stories that were philosophical and nostalgic. Turgenev, after a lengthy illness, died in 1883 near Paris. His body was returned to Russia, where he was widely mourned despite attempts by the government to discourage and restrict memorials.
A Sportsman's Sketches exposed the miserable conditions of Russia's serfs and is often compared with Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, although Turgenev's message was far more understated. Some years later, when the serfs eventually won their freedom, Turgenev's text was credited with helping to secure their emancipation. In 1856 Turgenev produced his first novel, Rudin, introducing themes and character types that would inform his subsequent novels and stories—such characters as the political idealist given to words rather than action, the strong heroine willing to risk everything for love, and the passive, ineffectual suitor who abandons the heroine at the first sign of opposition. Turgenev's next two novels, Dvoryanskoe gnezdo (1859; A House of Gentlefolk) and Nakanune (1860; On the Eve), deal with similar themes of fatalism and frustration.
Turgenev's most famous novel, Fathers and Sons, features a protagonist who represented a new political type in Russia at the time—the nihilist. The character Bazarov rejects all elements of Russian politics and culture and believes in nothing except empirical science. His next novel, Dym (1867; Smoke), was a pessimistic appraisal of Russia's political scene, and his final novel, Nov' represented the Russian Populist Movement of the 1870s.
In addition to his six novels, Turgenev produced shorter works that attained great popularity, among them the short story “Mumu” (1852), and the novellas Pervaya lyubov' (1860; First Love), and Veshnie vody (1872; The Torrents of Spring). Turgenev's last published work during his lifetime was Stikhotvoreniya v proze (1882; Poems in Prose).
In the nineteenth century, scholarship on Turgenev centered around his six novels and the storm of controversy surrounding them in Russia, whereas elsewhere they were considered illuminating representations of Russia's sociopolitical scene. In the twentieth century, scholars began to concentrate more and more on Turgenev's shorter fiction, which consists of the sketches in A Sportsman's Sketches, as well as approximately 35 other stories and novellas. Vladimir Fisher, for example, suggesting that the stories have been unjustly overshadowed by the novels, concentrates on the autobiographical and historical elements in the shorter works, as well as their pessimism and fatalism. Thomas Eekman has also studied the shorter prose and maintains that Turgenev's “stock theme” in the stories, as in the novels, is love, and James B. Woodward argues that the “essential impotence of man is the most basic and consistent theme in Turgenev's fiction.”
Many late twentieth-century scholars focused on the role of women in Turgenev's work. Among them are Christine Johanson, who has studied the historical accuracy of Turgenev's female characters, and Jane T. Costlow, who examines the heroines of the novels, particularly Odintsova in Fathers and Children. According to Costlow, “Turgenev's heroines have been creatures of passion, not sensibility; they have been defiant and exultant, not carefully resigned.” Walter Smyrniw discusses Turgenev's part in the creation of the nineteenth-century iconic representation of the femme fatale. Suggesting that the author was influenced by similarly-themed representations in the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Smyrniw explains that Turgenev created sensual female characters who are endowed with the same erotic physical features Rossetti gave to his female subjects.
Many scholars acknowledge that Turgenev's reputation during and following the twentieth century and beyond has been overshadowed by that of his more famous countrymen, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Richard Freeborn, however, insists that Turgenev's work remains valuable since the author, as an eyewitness to the 1848 revolution in France, possessed a unique perspective on the political pressures and changes leading to the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Elizabeth Cheresh Allen, studying Poems in Prose, acknowledges both the uneven quality of Turgenev's final effort as well as the author's declining reputation in the twentieth century. She concludes that in his ambitious attempt to secure Russia's place in literary history, Turgenev succeeded in securing his own.