Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In The Torrents of Spring, Turgenev carefully distinguishes between the concepts of love and passion. Love is associated with the innocent idealism of Gemma and Sanin. It is portrayed as an essentially asexual mutual admiration based on the virtuous, selfless characteristics they see in each other. The novella, however, demonstrates that these young lovers’ perceptions are limited and immature. Their love is built on dreams, and they actually dehumanize each other by projecting their idealistic longings. In contrast, passion is portrayed as a selfish battle for emotional control, and the novella implies that sex destroys the possibility for love. Maria is a sexual predator, and her greatest enjoyment seems to derive from the conquest of men. Her seduction of Sanin is a triumph of appetite over idealism. Like the mythological Circe, she transforms her victims into spiritual swine.

In the novel Dym (1867; Smoke, 1868), Turgenev maintains that “man is weak, woman is strong, Chance is all-powerful,” and The Torrents of Spring demonstrates this idea. Both Maria and Gemma exhibit strengths that distinguish them from the male characters. Maria’s total self-possession and amorality make her powerful; Gemma’s unbreakable virtue gives her the strength to survive. In contrast, Sanin, Kluber, and Donhof display various signs of weakness, becoming secondary figures who revolve about the feminine centers of influence.

Although Turgenev rewrote the novella three times over eighteen months, he professed retrospective dismay over its message: “So immoral, I have never been.” This is a reference to the shocking manner in which Sanin betrays Gemma, but the novella does not, in the end, communicate an immoral lesson. Indeed, The Torrents of Spring argues that the cost of sin is spiritual death. Moreover, it shows the redemptive power of forgiveness and vigorously advocates the life of honor.