“Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev

“Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Richard Freeborn, Oxford World Classics. All quotes in this post are taken from this translation.
[Please note: for anyone who cares about such things, this post contains “spoilers”.]

“What’s important is that twice two is four and all the rest’s nonsense.”
– Bazarov in Chapter 9 of Fathers and Sons, translated by Richard Freeborn

Readers not closely acquainted with the social and political background of mid-19th century Russia may find it surprising that this, of all novels, should have been so controversial, with both the Left and the Right lining up to attack the author. For, from our modern perspective, what strikes one most about Turgenev’s stance is his moderation, his level-headedness – his realisation that social and political change should and must occur, but also his revulsion from radicalism, from fanaticism, and, indeed, from any form of extremism. Many modern readers may even find him too lukewarm – too objective and detached, too lacking in passion. That we may take such a view of him is an indicator of how far we are from the times in which this book was written, and of the effort required of imagination to see in this novel something, at least, of what contemporary readers might have seen.

At the centre of the novel is Bazarov, the self-proclaimed “nihilist” – a man who, as he proudly proclaims, believes in “nothing”. This is not, of course, entirely true: he believes that twice two is four, for a start – the very contention that Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man finds such an intolerable imposition, and a challenge to the essential irrationality of the human mind. But to Bazarov, all else is, indeed, nonsense. Or so he believes. Or so he believes he believes. It is dangerous to state categorically what exactly Bazarov does or does not believe, since his mind is more subtle and more complex than he himself seems aware of. Or maybe, at some level, he is aware: it is hard to tell, since Turgenev tells much of the story through dialogue, and, as in a play, we have to decipher from this dialogue what precisely is going on in the characters’ minds, and to what extent the characters themselves are aware of what is going on.

We learn quite early to mistrust Bazarov’s pronouncements – or, at least, we learn not to take all his pronouncements at face value. He says at one point, for instance, that he does not believe even in medicine, but we can see quite clearly for ourselves that he is knowledgeable in the subject – far more so than the local quacks – and that, in practice, he is a good doctor: a man who doesn’t believe in medicine could hardly be either. So we must ask ourselves why he says something so clearly untrue, and the most obvious reason is that he is trying to wind up his friend Arkady’s father and uncle, landowners and members of the lower echelons of the aristocracy – that is, of a type Bazarov particularly despises. Similarly with his behaviour: at the Kirsanovs’, his behaviour is almost studied in its rudeness and bumptiousness. But this is not because he does not know how to behave in a polite manner, and neither is it because he thinks manners are unimportant and irrelevant: when he is later at Odintsova’s house, he behaves with perfect polish and refinement. His bumptiousness at the Kirsanovs’, like his contention that he didn’t believe in medicine, is, at least in part, a front, intended to create a certain effect. But this is only at least in part: that he feels the need to put up such a front to the very people who are offering him hospitality tells us much about him.

Turgenev’s critics from the Left took Bazarov to be a caricature of themselves, and they were partly right. Turgenev, as one would expect from a man who took art and literature seriously, took grave exception to various ideas that he ascribes to Bazarov, which were then current in radical circles, and which seem, if anything, to be enjoying a revival even now – that only that which is of practical use can be of any value; that anything incapable of being materially perceived is meaningless; that, in short, twice two is four and all the rest’s nonsense. But even here, Turgenev allows the ideas to be expressed without explicitly attacking them: these ideas are important in characterising the person who holds them. And Bazarov, as a person, is an individual: he is not representative of any group of people because Turgenev did not see humanity in terms of pre-defined groups that may be represented by single characters.

If Bazarov is not a representative of a group, neither is he a caricature. No matter how distasteful Turgenev may have found his views, he takes Bazarov sufficiently seriously to transform him, by the end, into a tragic protagonist. Indeed, given the complexity and intricacy of Turgenev’s portrayal, it is hard, at least from our modern perspective, even to imagine how any reader could have seen Bazarov as a caricature.

Conversely, Turgenev’s critics from the Right objected to his presentation of the Kirsanovs as caricatures of Russian aristocracy. And once again, this is hard to square with what Turgenev presents. Sure, the two Kirsanov brothers can appear absurd at times, and, indeed, are absurd at times: there’s Nikolay Petrovich, a widower, muddle-headed, and rather endearingly embarrassed about the peasant girl with whom he lives in sin, and for whom he genuinely cares; and there’s his brother, Pavel Petrovich, himself in love with the peasant girl his brother has taken up with, but sufficiently respectful both of his brother and of this girl not to act upon his desires; and who, living though he does in the middle of nowhere, still dresses and grooms himself as if he were in fashionable Paris or Dresden. These indeed are absurd figures. But at no point did I detect Turgenev looking down upon them. There is something about them that we would nowadays think of as Chekhovian: they would have been perfectly at home in The Cherry Orchard. These are people who are feckless and ineffectual, lacking in energy or in purpose, and not particularly gifted or remarkable in any way; but they are also decent, charming, well-meaning types, capable of genuine and sincere feelings, and, indeed, of that old-fashioned concept of honour. They are certainly not deserving of the contempt and the disdain that Bazarov displays so openly.

It is at the Kirsanovs’ estate that we first meet Bazarov. The Kirsanovs have been eagerly awaiting the arrival from university of Nikolai’s son, Arkady, an impressionable youth who appears with his friend Bazarov. Arkady is clearly enthralled by and somewhat in awe of his charismatic friend, who, though a guest, behaves rudely: indeed, that the Kirsanovs don’t turn him out says much for their manners and for their sense of hospitality. But they don’t understand him. What is he? Why does he behave in this manner? It is left to Arkady to explain to his astonished father and uncle that his friend is, indeed, a “nihilist”:

“A nihilist is a man who doesn’t acknowledge any authorities, who doesn’t accept a single principle on faith, no matter how much that principle may be surrounded by respect.”

“And that’s a good thing, is it?” interjected Pavel Petrovich.

After the initial sojourn at the Kirsanovs’ estate, the scene changes: we go into the town, and the town appears to be the same one in which Gogol’s Government Inspector and Dead Souls had been set – that dull, dirty, soulless pit in which all human aspirations and nobility appear to have been crushed by an unyielding and monotonous greyness. There’s a touch of Gogol as well in the two people they meet there – the foolish and conceited Sitnikov, and the equally foolish Kukshina, who likes to imagine herself an “emancipated woman”. Bazarov has little time for either, and is even more openly rude to them than he had been to the Kirsanovs, but they are too unintelligent even to notice. Gogol, one suspects, could have taken these characters to further grotesque extremes, but this would have been well outside Turgenev’s horizons: after introducing us to Sitnikov and to Kukshina, he steers the narrative towards the area he knows better – to affairs of the heart, and the unending intricacies and subtleties of human love. For Bazarov and Arkady also meet in this town Odintsova, a young widow of independent means, both attractive and intelligent. Till now, Bazarov had been putting up fronts, but now, all the fronts collapse: that man who had proclaimed so proudly that twice two was four and all else is nonsense now has to face the irrationality within his own self. He has, indeed, to discover what that self is, and it is not an easy discovery to make. Bazarov had understood his own identity purely in terms of the ideas he had held; but when those ideas collapse, when the fact of twice two equalling four is no longer sufficient, his concept of his own self also collapses. He has to find out anew what he really is, and this he cannot do.

The scenes between Bazarov and Odintsova are, for me, at the heart of the novel: it is in these scenes that Bazarov’s sense of his own identity is threatened, and soon reaches a crisis. Odintsova, for her own part, finds Bazarov fascinating, and is quite happy to flirt with him; but when the flirting takes a serious turn, she backs off, and Bazarov, who had presented himself, and, indeed, had thought of himself, as superior to all around him, can no longer tell with any certainty what precisely he now is.

The scene now changes again: we now accompany Arkady and Bazarov to Bazarov’s home, and meet his parents. His father is a retired army doctor and a small-time landowner; his mother is a deeply pious woman; both are devoted to their clever son, but seem in awe of him: they feel constrained even in displaying their love for him for fear of earning his disapproval. Bazarov, after his experience with Odintsova, is restless, and ill at ease: he feels alienated even in his own home, and, much to his parents’ dismay, he does not stay long. Before leaving, Arkady, now no longer in awe of Bazarov as he had previously been, takes exception to Bazarov’s referring to his uncle as an “idiot”, and is surprised by Bazarov’s reaction:

“In any case, it wasn’t family feeling, but a simple sense of justice,” Arkady retorted. “But because you don’t understand that sense, because you haven’t got that feeling, you can’t pass judgement on it.”

“In other words, Arkady Kirsanov is too elevated for my understanding, so I bow down before you and hold my tongue.”

“That’s enough, please, Evgeny. We’ll end up quarrelling.”

“Ah, Arkady, do me a favour! Let’s quarrel once and for all – to the death, to the bitter end!”

“But if we do we’ll surely end by … “

“By having a fight?” butted in Bazarov. “So what? Here, in the hay, in such idyllic surroundings, far from the world and human eyes, it won’t mean a thing! But you’d never get the better of me. I’d get you by the throat straight off…”

Bazarov extended his long, hard fingers, while Arkady turned and prepared to defend himself, if only in fun. But so full of hatred was his friend’s face, so very unfunny the threat he perceived in his twisted grin and burning eyes, that Arkady felt a momentary timidity regardless…

Bazarov’s self-hatred is by this stage so intense that it has overflowed into hatred of the young man who had hero-worshipped him.

But Arkady is changing also: he has matured and developed, is less in thrall to Bazarov than he had been, and, far from being in awe of his friend, is now capable of standing up for his beloved uncle in the face of his friend’s insult. As Bazarov seems increasingly unable to trust his own perspective, Arkady is growing in self-confidence. After this climactic scene, we rarely see the two together.

In the rest of the novel, there is a recapitulation of the places and characters we had previously encountered – Odintsova on her estate (she receives Bazarov coldly); the Gogolian town and its Gogolian inhabitants; and, again, the Kirsanov’s estate, where we are even treated to a duel. But where, in Eugene Onegin and in A Hero of Our Times, the duels had been dramatic and with far-reaching consequences, here, it is pure farce, and utterly inconsequential. This duel seems almost a parody of the duels in Pushkin and in Lermontov: tragedy here has turned into pure meaninglessness, and futility. And finally, after this tragedy-turned-to-farce, we return, for the final act of the drama, to Bazarov’s parents’ house. And this time, the tragedy is for real.

From my earlier readings I had been certain that Bazarov kills himself at the end, and I was frankly a bit surprised to find that there is not a single mention of suicide in the narrative. But it is easy, I think, to see how I got that impression. Here, after all, is a man whose entire sense of his self, of his own identity, has collapsed, and he cannot find a new one. He infects himself accidentally, we are told; neither Bazarov, nor anyone around him, nor Turgenev himself, says or hints at anything to the contrary. Yet, for me, the doubt remains. There is, after all, much in the inner workings of Bazarov’s mind that we cannot be sure of. This is not because Turgenev had failed to give us a complete picture, but because the picture is necessarily incomplete: Bazarov, like Hamlet, is a mystery even to himself. The man who, at the start of the novel, thought he knew himself perfectly, thought he understood the nature of the world in which he lived – in which twice two is four and all the rest nonsense – comes to understand that he never has understood anything, least of all himself. And he does not have the strength to build himself anew. Possibly, he does not even know himself whether his infection was accidental or deliberately self-inflicted: human motivations, as he has come to discover, are endlessly obscure – even one’s own. He asks to see Odinstsova before he dies, and she comes: but at no point does he express any grief, any rage, or even any regret, at his parting from the world. A world in which even twice two equalling four cannot be taken for granted cannot be, after all, a world worth living in. Parting from it seems a consummation devoutly to be wished. About this, if nothing else, Bazarov can be devout.

***

There is much in this novel that is unlikely to appeal to modern taste. Turgenev still has the habit of giving us giving us a full history of his characters immediately after introducing them, rather than allowing us to infer what we need to know from the way they act; he likes also to drive his narrative through dialogue, as in a play, and, while some of the dialogue is indeed very fine (most notably in the scenes between Bazarov and Odintsova), not all of it frankly is: the lad-and-lass love scenes between Arkady and Katya, for instance, are likely to strike the modern reader as a trifle insipid. However, most of the time, it works beautifully: it is, quite often, in the discrepancy between what Bazarov says and what he does that we come to appreciate his complexities.

Turgenev’s contemporaries appeared to see the novel as a comment on the politics of the time, and – as the title implies – on the gap between generations in ways of perceiving the world. I personally find it difficult to see the novel from such a perspective. To me, it is a fascinating study of the human sense of identity, and of how we cope, or, as in this case, fail to cope, when the idea we have of who we are is no longer consistent with what we perceive. And in Bazarov, we have, I think, one of the finest creations of all fiction – a character of endless complexity and contradictions, who nonetheless possesses a unity despite the diversity, and who is, by the end, one of the most striking and memorable of tragic protagonists.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Your complaints at the end are pretty much mine, too. And they are so minor. but somehow, with the best Chekhov or Tolstoy, I do not feel I need to complain at all.

    I agree about the ending – it’s ambiguous.

    That this novel was such a political sensation is crazy, but I guess that was Russia at the time. The chain of books that follows is something to see.

    Reply

    • Turgenev was certainly a gifted author, but i can’t really say I agree with those who think Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky oversgadow him unfairly, and that he is, in his own way, every bit as great as those two. Maybe I’ll change my mind once I have re-read his shorter works – “First Love”, “Spring Torrents”, and the like. It’s not that I don’t think highly of him – I do – but, as you say, when we read Tolstoy or Chekhov we feel no need to complain at all.

      Reply

  2. Interesting that you should mention Chekhov. When I read the novel earlier this year, I felt to begin with that I could almost be reading a long Chekhov story. Perhaps influenced by that feeling, and having forgotten most of what I’d read about Fathers and Sons, I assumed that the heart of the book would be the relationship between Arkady and his father. I was somewhat surprised when the action left the estate behind, and a little worried when Bazarov started to emerge as the true protagonist; he had made a marvellous foil for Arkady, but I wasn’t too sure that the book would fare well with him at the centre. By the end, I’d had about enough of Arkady and thought that Bazarov was a wonderfully realized character. Nabokov didn’t think all that highly of Turgenev in general, but he did love the chapter describing Bazarov’s illness and death, and, indeed, it is masterly.

    Reply

    • Nabokov really could be a right grump, couln’t he? He hated Dostoyevsky, and said some very rude things about Pasternak – even long before Doctor Zhivago was outselling Lolita. But yes – it’s hard to see how anyone can not be impressed by the closing chapter of Fathers and Sons.

      I haven’t yet read Turgenev’s play A Month in the Country. It would be fascinating to see if – and how – it points forward to Chekhov.

      Reply

  3. I often think that Bazarov’s duel with Pavel Petrovich is the real center of this novel, the anticlimax and pointlessness of their confrontation.

    Reply

    • It really is totally farcical, isn’t it? I must say that the more absurd Pavel Petrovich appears to me, the more I warmed towards him.

      For me, the turning point of the novel was the confrontation between Arkady and Bazarov – where Arkady shows that he is outgrowing Bazarov’s influence, and where Bazarov is less than in full control over himself. But the anti-climax of the duel is wonderful: once again, one is tempted to describe it as “Chekhovian”. For, after all, an anti-climax needs to be built up tp, just as a climax does!

      Reply

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