Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

“Well, Piotr, not insight yet?” was the question asked on May the 20th, 1859, by a gentleman of a little over forty, in a dusty coat and checked trousers, who came out without his hat on to the low steps of the posting station at S—–.”

What sort of relationship do you have with your father?  Is it one of respect, deference, and honour, or do you think his ways too traditional, his thought process too archaic, and to keep a tentative understanding between you, do you have to employ a somewhat forced amiability, while underneath feeling an impatient scorn?

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev examines the ideas of the new and old, progress and stagnation, and generational differences.  Yet while Turgenev portrays these conflicts within families and people, the themes echos the struggles that were occurring in Russia itself, between the common liberals and a nihilism movement that was growing and expanding at an alarming rate. Immediately the reader is tossed into the battle and while you expect to be buffeted to-and-fro between the two forces, one is surprised to find a more gently tossing, a disturbing reminder of how subtly, yet how pervasively this new philosophy could spread into the ideas and actions of the people.

Arkady Nikolaitch returns home from university with his good friend, Bazarov, a self-confessed nihilist, who issues a dripping contempt for most people around him.  Arkady maintains a good relationship with his father Nikolai Petrovitch and his uncle Pavel Petrovitch, yet through Bazarov’s influence he begins to question what he values about their antiquated thought and primitive ways.

With Bazarov’s nihilistic charm and new trendy ideas, his challenging of the status quo makes him a hero of the younger generation, while the older regard him either as dangerous, or rather like an unusual specimen that they can’t quite figure out.  Yet, in spite of renouncing life and its perceived useless order, we find that Bazarov is unable to escape it.  While visiting the house of a widowed woman, Anna Sergyevna Odintsov, he becomes enamoured of her, his emotion overriding his philosophy and eroding some of its immutable strength.

Ivan Turgenev hunting (1879)
Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky
source Wikipedia

Turgenev does a masterful job of having nature interplay with the characters, their ideas and emotional struggles.  For example, Bazarov is blind to the beauty around him  He merely uses nature, as he engages in his hobby of dissecting frogs,  pulling Nature itself apart to examine its inner workings.  He can only appreciate the slaughtered bits, but is unable to interact with the whole, Nature as life and beauty.

I don’t believe that Bazarov’s nihilism was a true nihilism.  He obviously wanted to reject the status quo and, in fact, had a quarrel with it, which is apparent in his simmering anger when he speaks about it.  He doesn’t just want to contradict it, he longs to disparage it.  His philosophy is a quasi-nihilism that supports his self-importance and that he uses more as a crutch. He is passionate about it but appears to use it merely as a play for power.  He has developed a philosophy, which is truly an anti-philosophy that prevents him from interacting with life itself.

While with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky you often feel buffeted by the high emotion or deep philosophy, Turgenev’s approach is more gentle, lulling his ideas into the reader’s head with his pastoral description, and lyric pace.  Yet for being gentle, it is no less powerful.  Turgenev has conducted a true masterpiece!

Translated by Constance Garnett


“In these days the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate – and so we repudiate …”

(Note:  Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote a response to Fathers and Sons with his What is To Be Done? and Dostoyevsky wrote a response to What Is To Be Done?in his Notes From the Underground.  Further explanation of this triple conversation is contained in the reviews below.)



10 thoughts on “Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

  1. This one's on my classics list and I'm really looking forward to read it, although many readers told me they were disappointed in Turgenev – especially compared to Dostoyevsky.

  2. I really loved this novel, but it is not a study in psychology as a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky novel can be. Turgenev explores ideas in a more gentle way, which personally I find refreshing. I hope that you're able to get to it soon. I'd love to hear your comments on it after you finish, Sandra!

  3. Russian literature is still on my 'to-do' list. Enoyed your review and notice as you progress on you quest to be 'well- read in the classics' you are able to compare books/writers to discover new insights. This helps me, be sure about that! I hope you are able to 'take a little vacation' as you mentioned. Reading is exhilerating….but after a few weeks of respite…it is even more fun to get back to the books! My 'autumn' vacation was wonderful and a way to re-charge' my battery !

  4. When you first start reading Russian lit, I think you have to be a little patient with some of the authors, but the rewards you receive are certainly worth it!

    I'm going to try to get away for a few days, but with the courses I'm taking, I'll still have to read. I think I'll have read The Inferno three times by the end of November. We'll see how rewarding I think the multiple readings are. The course is pushing contemplative reading and while I see the proposed benefits, I'm not sure reading a book three times in a month and a half is going to help me reap them. But we'll see …… 🙂

  5. Firstly, my admiration for doing reading courses together with your own challenges. Bravo! Question: are the courses digital so you can plan your reading with available time? Contemplative reading: I had to look up what that is precisely. Reading the text to gain knowledge about of the information presented and going even deeper into the text. I 'm still thinking which book/books on my 2014 list I would be prepared to read 3x . Scarlet letter, Lord Jim and Vasily's Armenian Sketchbook,

  6. It's been a while since I read this, but I remember thinking, like you, that Bazarov wasn't quite a true nihilist. I loved the subtleties in this book, the "gentle" commentary that nonetheless makes you think. It's very true to life, as even the most ardent philosophers have their gray areas.

  7. I'm doing two MOOCs courses on edX, one on Shakespeare and one on Dante's Inferno. They are all online. You can do them at your own pace but they do have a schedule for releasing the videos and there is a discussion forum. You can finish them whenever you want, but it may affect your certificate and, of course, the discussion forums won't be as active (that could be a good thing because they are CRAZY right now). I tend to go back and forth as to whether they are valuable compared with the time you commit to them. Right now I'm learning quite a bit in the Shakespeare course, but the Dante course is a little odd at the moment. However that could change. Here's the link if you want to take a look: https://www.edx.org I've heard that the UK Future Learn courses are better: https://www.futurelearn.com They are quite new but well run, so I hear.

  8. Yes, that's a great overview. Tolstoy and Dostevsky go for extremes, setting out their plots in bold relief; Turgenev is quieter but you have to think a little harder to pick up on those subtleties. I'm not sure which of his works I'll read next but he's certainly on my A-list now.

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!