Fathers and Sons, as the title suggests, is a book about generation conflict set in early 1860s, an important transitional period in Russian history. Arkady and Bazarov return to their families after completing their education in St Petersburg. Their parents are of different backgrounds: Arkady’s father, Nikolai Petrovich, is a wealthy and educated landowner whereas Bazarov’s father, Vasily Ivanovich, is a retired military doctor. They have something in common, though; they are both alienated from their sons.
The nihilist sons of Turgenev
Bazarov is the ultimate nihilist; he “does not acknowledge any authorities, doesn’t accept a single principle on faith, no matter how much that principle may be surrounded by respect”: government, society, marriage, religion, art, literature, nature and even emotions and relationships like love and friendship. He believes everything must change but decides “not to do anything about anything”. He ironically criticises social criticism all the while swearing at every social establishment. Pavel Petrovich, Arkady’s dramatic, once handsome and dandy aristocratic uncle, is especially outraged by the arrogance of the younger generation. He and Nikolai Petrovich represent the crumbling aristocracy who try to cling to their withering values by changing before dinner, wearing cologne, speaking French and reading French newspapers. Bazarov’s way of undermining the old-fashioned class system and negating it shows just how fragile aristocracy is in its nature; it survives for as long as ordinary people acknowledge its superiority. A bit like an unstable currency, its value is determined by people’s trust and respect to it.
… And the fathers
The older generation is in no way intolerant or blindly conservative. Both fathers laugh at their sons’ “witticisms” and try to keep up with them. Arkady’s kind and soft-hearted father, “a little softy liberal gent” as Bazarov describes him, reads poetry, quotes Pushkin, even plays the cello but these do not buy him Arkady’s respect who does not have a mind of his own but lives in the shadow of Bazarov’s radical views. The relationship between the father and the son is so stripped off of any exaggeration that one could believe the portrayal is as real as any father-son relationship they know of – the facial expresions, body language and intonations, disagreeing with every word the other says almost as a principle… And above all else the fragility; the father knowing that his son is now an independent young man free to go his own way, and the son knowing that his father’s authority on him no longer remains. This creates a veritable tension in the relationship, one that is probably only resolved when the son becomes a father.
Bazarov’s relationship with his father is even more distant: they hardly ever communicate. Vasily Ivanovich is incredibly proud of his only son and expects great things from him. However, he is afraid of offending him, therefore avoids every topic he might find disagreeable. With Bazarov, this amounts to every topic. Bazarov’s intelligent but superstitious mother is in an infinitely worse situation: she desperately loves her son, but cannot even ask him what he would like to eat for dinner, so as not to “bore” him.
By Alex Kulle
The reader sympathises with the fathers who strive for their sons’ respect, approval and love. However, we cannot criticise the sons either: their treatment of their fathers is in no way out of the ordinary, possibly the same as the fathers in the novel treated their fathers. Indeed, it almost feels like this is the natural flow of things, bitter as it is. Disrespect to one’s parents is never justifiable. Nonetheless, every political and philosophical movement is bound to become old-fashioned at some point. As a result, people supporting them lose their influence.
Bazarov and Arkady
Arkady utterly respects Bazarov, even when his “mentor” makes him feel small and insignificant. Arkady’s views and beliefs are superficial, unlike Bazarov who is firm and deeply rooted in his opinions. Their reaction to the “overblown emotion” of love demonstrates this and separates their ways forever. Bazarov scorns love and every other “romantic” ideal, so he becomes ashamed of himself for falling in love with the cold, attractive, wealthy, independent and intelligent young widow Odintsova who doesn’t return his affections. This feeling is alien and unpleasant to him; it is the declaration of the falseness of all his views and denials. But he ignores this fact, secretly hopes to grow cold of his attachment and does not let love alter him. Arkady, on the other hand, lets his lover, Katya (Odintsova’s younger sister), change him. He finally “frees himself from his influence” only to marry Katya and to come under her influence, or, as Bazarov puts it, “under her thumb” . When Bazarov finally says his farewell, he does not hesitate to draw the line between his firmness and Arkady’s fickleness, accusing the latter’s aristocratic upbringing: “You are not made for the bitter, sour-tasting, rootless life of people like me. You haven’t got the daring, you haven’t got the anger, all you’ve got is youthful courage and youthful fervour. Aristos like you’ll never go beyond noble humility or noble indignation and that’s all nonsense.”
An anti-climactic tragedy
Bazarov’s tragic end is a part suicide. He is so fed up with life and so tired to keep the lights on, he chooses not to act when he realises he might be infected with typhus. He lets himself die. In a way, taking no action is the natural course of things for him but one would expect more when it is a question of life and death. He sticks to his principals to the last moment by refusing to be applied extreme unction until he is unconscious, then his parents can do as they want to relieve themselves. This is generous of him, considering how much it means to his religious parents.
Turgenev, by Ilya Repin, 1874
Before Turgenev started writing Fathers and Sons, he created these incredibly realistic characters and watched their interactions from afar without meddling; he initially did not contemplate on a certain plot. Because of this the book is not plot driven and has excellent dialogue and chaarcter development. Many great authors, like Turgenev’s friend Tolstoy (my favourite author) usually have a character in their novels who works as a mouthpiece and reflects the writer’s views on politics, morality, other characters and the flow of the plot. Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace and Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina are good examples. However, Turgenev does not do that. The 245- page-long book ends with the question: “But where does Turgenev stand?” Does he side with the fathers or the sons? Well, neither. Instead he takes a step behind and shares his observations. Because there is no side to take: man starts as a son and ends as a father. This is a war in which each side loses. The sons ridicule their fathers as their view on the world is fresher and more modern, full of youthful energy and vigour, soon after their sons do the same. It is a inevitable vicious cycle. Turgenev depicts this so masterfully with characters so real that it is hard to deny this bitter reality.