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    Once you've decided to make a clean sweep, include the ground you're standing on, too!
          -Bazarov in Fathers and Sons

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:

            "Aristocracy, liberalism, progress, principles," said Bazarov. "Just think what a
              lot of foreign . . . and useless words! To a Russian they're no good for anything!"

                "What is good for Russians according to you? If we listen to you, we shall find
              ourselves beyond the pale of humanity, outside human laws. Doesn't the logic of
              history demand . . ."

               "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 your
              mouth when you're hungry. For what do we need those abstractions?"

                Pavel Petrovich raised his hands. "I simply don't understand you after all that.
              You insult the Russian people. I fail to understand how it is possible not to
              acknowledge principles, rules! By virtue of what can you act?"

                "I already told you, uncle dear, that we don't recognize any authorities,"
              interposed Arkady.

                "We act by virtue of what we recognize as useful," went on Bazarov. "At present
              the most useful thing is denial, so we deny--"



                "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 blushed
              with satisfaction.

                "But allow me," began Nikolai Petrovich. "You deny everything, or to put it more
              precisely, you destroy everything . . . But one must construct, too, you know."

                "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 himself

                "Unhappy boy," groaned Pavel Petrovich, who could no longer maintain his show
              of firmness. "Can't you realize the kind of thing you are encouraging in Russia with
              your shallow doctrine! No, it's enough to try the patience of an angel! Force! There's
              force in the savage Kalmuk, in the Mongol, but what is that to us? What is dear to us
              is civilization, yes, yes, my good sir, its fruits are precious to us. And don't you tell
              me these fruits are worthless; the poorest dauber, un barbouilleur, the man who
              plays dance music for five farthings an evening, even they are of more use than you
              because they stand for civilization and not for brute Mongolian force! You fancy
              yourselves as advanced people, and yet you're only fit for the Kalmuk's dirty hovel!
              Force! And remember, you forceful gentlemen, that you're only four men and a half,
              and the others--are millions, who won't let you trample their sacred beliefs under
              foot, but will crush you instead!"

                "If we're crushed, that's in store for us," said Bazarov. "But it's an open question.
              We're not so few as you suppose."

                "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:

                Bazarov smiled:
              I assure you the study of separate individuals is not worth the trouble it involves.
              All people resemble each other, in soul as well as in body; each of us has a brain,
              spleen, heart and lungs of similar construction; the so-called moral qualities are the
              same in all of us; the slight variations are insignificant. It is enough to have one single
              human specimen in order to judge all the others. People are like trees in a forest; no
              botanist would think of studying each individual birch tree.

                Katya, who was arranging the flowers one by one in a leisurely way, raised her
              eyes to Bazarov with a puzzled expression, and meeting his quick casual glance, she
              blushed right up to her ears. Anna Sergeyevna shook her head.

                "The trees in a forest," she repeated. "Then according to you there is no difference
              between a stupid and an intelligent person, or between a good and a bad one."

                "No, there is a difference, as there is between the sick and the healthy. The lungs
              of a consumptive person are not in the same condition as yours or mine, although
              their construction is the same. We know more or less what causes physical ailments;
              but moral diseases are caused by bad education, by all the rubbish with which
              people's heads are stuffed from childhood onwards, in short, by the disordered state
              of society. Reform society, and there will be no diseases."

                Bazarov said all this with an air as though he were all the while thinking to
              himself. "Believe me or not as you wish, it's all the same to me!" He slowly passed
              his long fingers over his whiskers and his eyes strayed round the room.

                "And you suppose," said Anna Sergeyevna, "that when society is reformed there
              will be no longer any stupid or wicked people?"

                "At any rate, in a properly organized society it will make no difference whether a
              man is stupid or clever, bad or good."

                "Yes, I understand. They will all have the same spleen."

                "Exactly, madam."

                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, crouching
              on the floor as he packed his trunk. "Well, it's a good thing. Only you needn't have been
              such a humbug about it. I expected you'd go in quite a different direction. Perhaps,
              though, it took you unawares?"

                "I certainly didn't expect this when I left you," answered Arkady; "but why are you
              being a humbug yourself and calling it a 'good thing,' as if I didn't know your opinion of

                "Ah, my dear friend," said Bazarov, "how you express yourself. You see what I'm
              doing; there happened to be an empty space in my trunk, and I'm putting hay into it;
              that's how it is with the luggage of our life; we would stuff it up with anything rather
              than leave a void. Don't be offended, please; you probably remember what I always
              thought of Katerina Sergeyevna. Many a young lady is called intelligent simply because
              she can sigh intelligently; but yours can hold her own, and indeed she'll hold it so well
              that she'll have you under her thumb--well, and that's quite as it should be." He slammed
              the lid and got up from the floor. "And now I say again, farewell . . . because it's useless
              to deceive ourselves; we are parting forever, and you know it yourself . . . you acted
              sensibly; you were not made for our bitter, rough, lonely existence. There's no daring in
              you, no hatred, though you've got youthful dash and youthful fervor; that's not enough
              for our business. Your sort, the nobility, can never go farther than noble resignation or
              noble indignation, but those things are trifles. For instance, you won't fight--and yet you
              fancy yourselves as brave fellows--but we want to fight. So there! Our dust would get
              into your eyes, our mud would soil you, but you're not up to our standard, you
              unconsciously admire yourselves and you enjoy finding fault with yourselves; but we're
              fed up with all that--we want something else! We want to smash people! You're a fine
              fellow, but all the same you're a mild little liberal gentleman--ay volatoo, as my parent
              would say."

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. Like
              almost all our graveyards, it has a melancholy look; the ditches surrounding it have
              long been overgrown; grey wooden crosses have fallen askew and rotted under their
              once painted gables; the gravestones are all out of position, just as if someone had
              pushed them from below; two or three bare trees hardly provide some meager shade;
              the sheep wander unchecked among the tombs . . . But among them is one grave
              untouched by human beings and not trampled on by any animal; only the birds perch
              on it and sing at daybreak. An iron railing surrounds it and two young fir trees have
              been planted there, one at each end; Evgeny Bazarov is buried in this tomb. Often
              from the near-by village two frail old people come to visit it--a husband and wife.
              Supporting one another, they walk with heavy steps; they go up to the iron railing,
              fall on their knees and weep long and bitterly, and gaze intently at the silent stone
              under which their son lies buried; they exchange a few words, wipe away the dust
              from the stone or tidy up some branches of a fir tree, then start to pray again and
              cannot tear themselves away from that place where they seem to be nearer to their
              son, to their memories of him . . . Can it be that their prayers and their tears are
              fruitless? Can it be that love, sacred devoted love, is not all powerful? Oh, no!
              However passionate, sinful or rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers
              growing over it peep at us serenely with their innocent eyes; they tell us not only of
              eternal peace, of that great peace of "indifferent" nature; they tell us also of eternal
              reconciliation and of life without end.

Turgenev has masterfully depicted the eternal delusions of the young here.  Sons are always rebelling against their fathers, yearning to tear down the world that they inherit and remake it as their own.  But Turgenev demonstrates both the mindless nature of those desires and the impossibility of living a life according to such stridently nihilist standards.  Ultimately Bazarov is easily distracted by romantic love, ends up doing meaningless scientific experiments rather than taking the bold actions that he champions and is in a sense betrayed by science and the very peasantry for whom he claims to speak.  It is no wonder that after penning this lacerating portrait of young revolutionaries, Turgenev was persona non grata amongst Russia's radicals.  This great prophetic novel simply cut too close to the bone.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Ivan Turgenev (2 books reviewed)
Russian Literature
Ivan Turgenev Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Ivan Turgenev
    -PODCAST: Tessa Hadley on Ivan Turgenev’s First Love: In Conversation for the Windham-Campbell Prizes Podcast (Windham-Campbell Prizes Podcast , February 28, 2024, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Why Turgenev Remains One of the Most Important Russian Writers (And Why You Should Read the Constance Garnett Translation) : Josh Billings on the Pocket Universes of a True Literary Master (Josh Billings, December 19, 2022, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Liberals, Radicals, and the Making of a Literary Masterpiece: Ivan Turgenev achieved greatness with a novel detested by almost everyone he cared about. (Keith Gessen, 9/05/22, The New Yorker)

Book-related and General Links:
    -BIO/BIBLIO: Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883)
    -BIO: Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev (1818-1883)(Melissa McDaniel)
    -ETEXT: Fathers and Sons
    -REVIEW: (Bryan's Reviews Page)
    -ESSAY : Howóand How Notóto Love Mankind (Theodore Dalrymple, Summer 2001, City Journal)
    -ESSAY: Bazarov's Byronic Roots: Tracing Byron's Influence on the Creation and Development of the Nihilist Bazarov in Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons (Daniel Hocutt)
    -ESSAY: IDENTITY: A Study of Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons  (Frederick Corney,  Assistant Professor Department of History U of FL)
    -Shchi: A tale by Ivan Turgenev that heartbreakingly and ironically sets forth the epic economic divide between master and serf in 19th century Russia (Soup Tales)
    -REVIEW: of FLAUBERT & TURGENEV. A Friendship in Letters: The Complete Correspondence. Edited and translated by Barbara Beaumont (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of FIRST LOVE AND A FIRE AT SEA By Ivan Turgenev. Translated by Isaiah Berlin (John Bayley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Two Lives: Reading Turgenev and My House in Umbria by William Trevor (John Banville, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: of Turgenev's Letters selected, translated, and edited by A.V. Knowles (Isaiah Berlin, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: of Turgenev: His Life and Times by Leonard Schapiro (Henry Gifford, NY Review of Books)
     -REVIEW: of The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev by V.S. Pritchett (Conor Cruise O'Brien, NY Review of Books)