Fathers and Sons (1862)
Once you've decided to make a clean sweep, include
the ground you're standing on, too!
Ivan Turgenev is probably the most Western and democratic of all the Russian authors; perhaps that is why Fathers and Sons has always seemed to me the most accessible of the great Russian novels. In fact, Turgenev was attacked by other leading literary figures--like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky-- for being too much of a progressive liberal in the Western mode. He was also criticized for his inability to create a forceful and committed radical hero. Fathers and Sons resoundingly answers the first criticism and the central character, Bazarov, at least partially answers the second.
The novel opens with young Arkady and his friend Bazarov returning home from school to visit Arkady's father Nikolai Petrovitch Kirsanov, who lives on a declining estate with his young mistress and Nikolai's brother Paul. Nikolai is a reasonably well intentioned liberal aristocrat. The story takes place in 1860, the time of the liberation of the serfs, and he has tried to do right by them. But Bazarov is a nihilist, Arkady his willing acolyte, and kindly liberalism and half steps are not enough for them. Bazarov wants to tear down the entire structure of society and start over. His tirades offer a frightening foreshadowing of Russia's bloody future:
liberalism, progress, principles," said Bazarov. "Just think what a
"What is good for Russians according to you? If we listen to you, we shall
"What's the use of that logic to us? We can get along without it."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, this. You don't need logic, I suppose, to put a piece of bread in
Pavel Petrovich raised his hands. "I simply don't understand you after
"I already told you, uncle dear, that we don't recognize any authorities,"
"We act by virtue of what we recognize as useful," went on Bazarov. "At
"What? Not only art, poetry . . . but . . . the thought is appalling . . ."
"Everything," repeated Bazarov with indescribable composure.
Pavel Petrovich stared at him. He had not expected this, and Arkady even
"But allow me," began Nikolai Petrovich. "You deny everything, or to put
"That is not our business . . . we must first clear the ground."
"We shall destroy because we are a force," remarked Arkady.
Pavel Petrovich looked at his nephew and laughed.
"Yes, a force can't be called to account for itself," said Arkady, drawing
"Unhappy boy," groaned Pavel Petrovich, who could no longer maintain his
"If we're crushed, that's in store for us," said Bazarov. "But it's an
"What? You seriously suppose you can set yourself up against a whole people?"
"All Moscow was burnt down, you know, by a penny candle," answered
Later, the two young men prove unequal to the unyielding political standard that they have set themselves when both fall in love. They try manfully to keep up their facade:
Katya, who was arranging the flowers one by one in a leisurely way, raised
"The trees in a forest," she repeated. "Then according to you there is
"No, there is a difference, as there is between the sick and the healthy.
Bazarov said all this with an air as though he were all the while thinking
"And you suppose," said Anna Sergeyevna, "that when society is reformed
"At any rate, in a properly organized society it will make no difference
"Yes, I understand. They will all have the same spleen."
Madame Odintsov turned to Arkady. "And what is your opinion, Arkady
"I agree with Evgeny," he answered.
But eventually Bazarov offers himself to Madame Odintsov, only to be rejected, and Arkady pairs off with Katya. This confluence of events leads Bazarov to jettison his follower, who has chosen love of a woman over commitment to the struggle:
"So you propose to build yourself a nest?" he said the same day to Arkady,
"I certainly didn't expect this when I left you," answered Arkady; "but
why are you
"Ah, my dear friend," said Bazarov, "how you express yourself. You see
However, fate holds a cruel twist in store for Bazarov. Returning to his parents house, he begins a series of medical experiments and helps out local peasants with typhus. Ironically, scientific rationalism and the peasants he purports to champion bring about his death after he is infected too. His parents bury him nearby and regardless of his own worldview, they pray for him:
There is a small village graveyard in one of the remote corners of Russia.