Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and SonsPrint
The power of specificity
By Dennis Covington
November 30, 2015
The one book I have kept coming back to again and again over the past 45 years is Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, the Rosemary Edmonds translation in particular.
The book’s charms are many, beginning with the fact that it’s a Russian novel, but short.
It was Fathers and Sons that introduced me to the power of specificity. The moment the servant on the first page is pinned as a “man of the advanced modern generation” because of his “single turquoise ear-ring … dyed pomaded hair and … mincing gait,” I knew that details, rather than drama, would move the narrative forward. This wouldn’t be a story with sweeping generalizations or rambling asides. They’d be replaced by a “large speckled hen who strutted gravely about” and the “smell of warm rye bread.”
The way Turgenev achieved this effect in descriptions from nature, or in the portrayal of minor characters, seemed obvious enough, but the way he did it in the creation of major characters mystified me. Bazarov, the scientific materialist and occasional physician, rises to the height, or sinks to the depth, of misogyny when he responds to Madame Odintsov’s beauty by saying he would love to see her body “on the dissecting table.” But still, he remains a compelling figure in the book—multidimensional, magnetic. And his admirer Arkady, sentimentalist though he proves to be, likewise doesn’t invite our ridicule or contempt. The two friends prove to be twin vines coiling around the trunk of the same tree.
I first read Fathers and Sons when I was 22. I’d grown up in Birmingham, Alabama, at the height of the American civil rights movement. My father was a segregationist. I was not. In college, I protested against the Vietnam War. My father supported the war, even after I had been drafted into the army. And I thought, when I opened the pages of Fathers and Sons, that the book would somehow support my side of the arguments we’d endured.
Turgenev’s characters did provide the possible answers to a series of heated questions about art, nature, politics, psychology, and spirituality.
But with his depiction of Arkady’s father and Bazarov’s parents, he answered the most important question: Is love real?
Fathers and Sons was the means by which Turgenev said yes.
Dennis Covington is the author of six books, including Salvation on Sand Mountain, a finalist for the National Book Award. His most recent book is Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World.
Average Overall Rating: 5
Total Votes: 114
1. In what way is Bazarov a hero in the novel?
According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, a hero is defined as a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities and one that shows great courage. Bazarov, the principal male character in the novel, is definitely not viewed as a hero by many because of his snobby ways, his extreme self-confidence to the point that he is arrogant and verbally abusive to many, particularly Arkady, but through his first experience with love, he begins to break down that stone wall he has built around himself. Then with the duel, he shows the first sign of integrity when he doctors Pavel’s wound. On his own deathbed, he shows great courage in the way he tolerates the enormous pain he must be experiencing; even more profound than the physical pain is the pain of knowing the people he has hurt, the love that he lost or never knew. These things he deals with in an extraordinarily courageous way. Ironically, it is his self-confidence that gives him a strong work ethic. Wherever he is, on Nikolay’s farm or his own father’s farm, he is constantly working. He is educated, going to school to be a doctor; this alone is a great achievement. His confessions to Arkady when he leaves Anna’s after being rejected by her help serve to exonerate Bazarov from his acts of injustice toward others and are a noble act of honesty: “. . . there’s some space left in my trunk, and I pack hay in there. So it is in our trunk of life: whatever we pack it with, don’t leave any empty space” (179). Bazarov realizes the empty spaces in his own life, and he is determined to make amends for them, another act of courage.
2. How are the characters Bazarov and Pavel alike?
Not so much alike in their physical appearances, Bazarov and Pavel are identical in their personalities: they are both hard and unfeeling, are unsuccessful at love or intimacy, and are very cynical. They are both educated, both possess extreme self-confidence, are very prideful, and are angry at the world. The first thing Pavel does is make fun of Bazarov’s long hair when he asks Nikolay if “that hairy creature” is going to stay with them (17). Bazarov too talks about Pavel’s appearance to Arkady: “His astonishing collar, like a piece of sculpture” (18). He continues to bash Pavel: “Your uncle’s a strange creature, . . . . Such exquisite clothes out here in the sticks, imagine! And his nails—you could send them to an expedition” (18). He comments so rudely to Arkady: “‘An archaic phenomenon,” “‘antique romantics’” (18). Pavel’s opinion of Bazarov is that Bazarov respects nothing (23). One afternoon Bazarov collects some frogs for his experiments, and Pavel remarks to him directly: “‘He doesn’t believe in principle but he does believe in frogs’” (25). This badgering continues between the two fellows that leads to a lengthy heated argument during which their animosity for one another heightens. Their anger at the world is projected at one another during this argument. Pavel is asking Bazarov why he doesn’t believe in any authorities, to which Bazarov replies, “‘Why should I recognize them? And what should I believe in? If people talk sense to me, I agree with them, that’s all there is to it’” (26). This snobbish remark fuels the same hostility in Pavel. In the next scene, Arkady relates Pavel’s story to Bazarov in an attempt to get Bazarov to like Pavel or at least have some sympathy for him, but Bazarov is incapable of this. Pavel had, according to Arkady, “self-confidence, and a slightly mocking and sardonic wit” (28), the same qualities that Bazarov has but fails to recognize in himself. Bazarov does not begin to recognize these qualities in himself until after the duel. Pavel takes the blame for the duel, and he and Bazarov now respect one another because they see that they are the same. They even end up laughing and joking (156). But Bazarov hardens his heart again and becomes angry. His pride keeps him away. Pavel’s wanting to take credit for being the “magnanimous” one causes him to be jealous. Both Pavel and Bazarov end up alone and fail at love. Bazarov dies alone, not ever experiencing a relationship with a woman, and Pavel goes off to live in Dresden, never marrying.
3. Explain the clash between the young and the old. How it might be relevant for the 21st century?
Young people embody the whole idea of freshness and immortality and rebelliousness. They desire change in their restlessness and are bored with tradition. The young think they are invincible. So we see the young in Turgenev’s novel struggling with trying to change their world—out with the old and in with the new. Arkady is perhaps still young and innocent enough to hold on to a bit of that older generation because it makes him happy. Even Bazarov is forced to remember the happy days of his own childhood when reclining in the shade of an aspen tree on his father’s farm. But there is something in our nature that either pulls one home or pushes one farther away. The immense social changes of 1850s Russia played a huge role in the clash between the older generation and the younger. Serfdom was coming to a close, and the older ones must figure out how they were going to treat their servants. The younger ones more or less didn’t look at them at all; they just ordered what they needed for the moment and let the rest take care of themselves. There is a scene where Bazarov is talking rather crudely to some of Vasily’s servants, and the narrator takes us inside the servants’ minds for a moment, and we get an obvious picture of how they view Bazarov: the “self-confident Bazarov didn’t even suspect that in their eyes he remained some kind of buffoon . . .” (183). The 21st century is dealing with the same issues of change in society: governments concerned more about paper work and wars and keeping the lower classes in their place in order to pay for the hierarchical structure that keeps the government’s control over the people, when as Turgenev so profoundly states in the novel, what’s really at stake is our daily bread (51). And that is how the clash between the young and the old, from two different generations, even beliefs perhaps that have developed out in the world away from the farm, have caused enough anger between them to keep them segregated from one another, rather than united in peace.
4. In the novel, Bazarov claims to detest marriage and love; he states it is all “rubbish.” Yet he falls in love with Anna Odintsov. What is the cause for this radical change in Bazarov’s behavior?
Age, wisdom, humility, vulnerability, and loss of pride are virtues required for falling in love. Falling means that we literally fall. Bazarov’s view in the beginning of the novel left no doubt that these “antique romantics,” as he put it, were nothing but stupid fools (18). The more one resists, the harder he falls, and Bazarov falls. The only other person in the novel who comes close to resembling Bazarov is Pavel. But then he meets Anna Odintsova, a female version of himself. The first meeting, Bazarov is stumbling all over himself for words, so unlike his confident self, while Anna “remained quite calm” (74). Slowly and surely, Bazarov feels he is losing his grip on life, on those who subject themselves to his domineering personality. Arkady questions his motives. He had met his match in Pavel, and now a woman? This is humbling for Bazarov’s character. Anna is intelligent, a “free spirit and quite strong-minded” (76). She could hold her own in conversations about medicine with Bazarov, much to his surprise. Still, he later makes rude comments about her physical beauty to Arkady. This description of Anna purely describes Bazarov as well: “Like all women who haven’t managed to know love she wanted something without herself knowing exactly what. In fact she didn’t really want anything although she thought she wanted everything” (86).
Bazarov too does not really know what he wants. Anna could barely tolerate her late husband, and as a result she “experienced a secret revulsion for all men” (86). But their secret attraction for each other grew obvious to those around them, particularly to Arkady. What was the cause for this radical change in Bazarov? He had become a romantic (90). When he thought of her, his “blood was on fire” (90). Here was a confident, apathetic man, who was growing up, becoming a man who must face his own vulnerability and must choose to love or not to love. For Bazarov, it took a duel, his own death, and his loss of pride to make him realize that he truly did love Anna.
5. How does Turgenev use nature in his novel to depict the older generation and their traditional way of life?
First of all, the novel’s central plot takes place in rural Russia. Therefore, it is the setting and the in-depth descriptive language Turgenev uses to describe nature--the people, the land, and the animals—that show this depiction of an older generation that will not die; they go on living in nature itself. The older generation is a group of landowners; therefore, they are associated with the country, the “sticks,” as Bazarov likes to call it. They live off the land, they breath the country air, and this is all they know.
The story opens with a description of Nikolay: “the speaker was a gentleman a little over forty years old, wearing a dusty coat and checked trousers, who had gone out without his hat on to the low porch of an inn. . .” (5). Turgenev deftly portrays the land with words that could be used to describe this older generation. Nikolay and his wife lived simply: “she planted flowers and looked after the poultry yard, he occasionally went shooting and looked after the estate. . . (7). The language here symbolizes the peaceful, traditional way of life this family experiences, all in natural surroundings. Turgenev jumps to the present with Nikolay, still not that old but older, still living on the farm, but the porch now has “dilapidated steps” and a hen “sedately” walks up and down the steps.
Turgenev goes on to describe the land that has grown older and has been used up by its inhabitants, just like the inhabitants themselves who have grown older and more tired from working to maintain it:
The country through which they were driving could hardly be called picturesque. Fields, nothing but fields, rolled gently up and down, stretching to the horizon. . . winding gullies, covered with sparse, low-growing bushes . . . streams with crumbling banks . . . tiny ponds with broken dams . . . low huts with dark roofs . . . churches, brick ones with plaster peeling here and there . . . (13)
In a final scene, Vasily is worried about his dying son. Once again, the setting and the language Turgenev uses precisely depicts Vasily’s age and state of mind: “. . . the old man sat still in his chair, just cracking his knuckles from time to time. He went into the garden for a few minutes and stood there like a statue, as if he’d been struck by some inexplicable shock. . . Then he returned to his [dying] son” (187). Nature, therefore, never dies, it always comes back, and even the old who do die return to it.