The Home of the Gentry, Ivan Turgenev’s second novel, is an important work that explores the idea of the “superfluous man.” Written in 1858, its main theme is the maladjustment of the upper classes to their native Russian culture. The “superfluous man” is typically a member of the nobility who’s either been educated abroad or educated to worship all things European, and this leads to a complete emotional detachment and alienation from Russian culture. This adoration of Western culture created a longtime debate and split within Russian society’s intelligentsia, and on the other side of the debate was Slavophilism with its disdain for Western culture. Home of the Gentry (sometimes translated as Nest of the Gentry) examines the fallout of the distancing of the upper classes from their own country through its main character, Lavretsky.
The novel opens in the provincial town of O in the home of the Kalitins with affluent widow, Marya Kalitin who shares the house with her elderly aunt Marfa. The widow has two daughters and a son and leads a quiet, pleasant life spent with friends, acquaintances and neighbours. Marya Kalitin anticipates a match between her eldest daughter, the serious-minded Elizaveta (Liza) and a vain, visiting fop named Panshin. Panshin is a petty, penniless government official–the sort of man who excels at nothing, but thrives in mediocrity and can prattle on for hours without saying anything substantial. Of course, it will be a disastrous match of incompatible natures, but Marya Kalitin, a shallow, superficial woman approves of Panshin–mainly because he’s the sort of man she likes.
Panshin, the son of a “notorious gambler” inherits “paltry and chaotic material means.” But he finds his way quickly in life by means of his glib social manner and through the skill of innate craftiness:
“He was not at all bad-looking, gay, entertaining, always in good health and ready for anything; respectful when necessary, scathing whenever possible, and an excellent comrade, un charmant garcon. The promised land of high society spread out before him. Panshin soon learned the secret of such a life; he learned how to imbue himself with real respect for its rules, how to talk nonsense with quasi-facetious importance and give the impression of considering everything important to be nonsense, how to dance to perfection and dress in the English style….But basically he was cold and devious and even during the wildest of debauches his clever brown eyes were ever watchful and on guard.”
While Panshin’s conquest of Liza seems assured, all plans are upset when a neighbour returns to the area. This neighbour is Lavretsky, a burly middle-aged man who has returned home to his Russian estates after suffering the humiliation of discovering that he was a cuckold.
Lavretsky admires Liza from afar and attracted by her religious sentiments, he silently bemoans the knowledge that she will soon be lost to Panshin. Although Lavretsky married for love and recently suffered through horrible disillusions about his wife, he sees in Liza an opportunity for a renewed belief in love and purity. But as a married man, he’s not free to speak to Liza, and his continued presence at the Kalitin home is seen by Liza’s mother as a nuisance. Panshin had a clear field for Liza until Lavretsky’s return, and his hours alone with the young girl are challenged by Lavretsky’s ‘intrusion.’ Realizing that his secret love for Liza is pointless, Lavretsky then reads of his wife’s death in a Parisian newspaper, and suddenly beginning again with a new love seems possible….
While Home of the Gentry is on one level the simple story of a middle-aged married man who falls in love with a young innocent girl, the book is far more complex in its portrayal of Russian society. A fair amount of the novel is spent explaining Lavretsky’s background. He’s the result of a spite marriage between a serf and a member of the nobility, and while Lavretsky’s father made some sort of moral point by marrying his serf mistress, he spent years abroad, avoiding his responsibilities and dallying in England’s high society. When Lavretsky’s father, now a firm “anglomaniac” does return, his main interest is to take over his son’s education intending to make him a “Spartan.” This boils down to “dressing his son in a Scottish outfit” while the boy receives a useless hodge-podge of knowledge, including learning how to shoot a cross-bow and being “made to run around a high pole, on a string.”
As an adult, Lavretsky makes attempts to attend university but is harpooned by Vavrara, the first avaricious woman who comes along, and then he is dragged off to Paris. While Vavrara becomes the toast of Parisian salons, Lavretsky is seen as a buffoon. When he discovers his wife’s affair, he returns to his sadly neglected Russian estates with some notion of ‘ploughing the land.’ In his long absence, his estate has begun to decay. His neglected house is in a state of disrepair with rooms covered with dust and dead flies:
” [The] estate had not yet gone wild, but it seemed already to have sunk into that quiet repose which possesses everything on earth wherever there is no restless human infection to affect it.”
The novel explores Russian society’s worship of all things European through its characters who lace their drawing room chatter with French words and phrases, and imagine that their lives are “just as in the best Paris salon.” Varvara’s “thoughts and feelings revolved about Paris,” and to her fellow Russians she seems to be a “foreign lioness.” On the opposite side of these so-called ‘freethinkers’ who fail to appreciate Russia and all it has to offer is Lavretsky’s long-dead aunt Glafira, a solid if somewhat sour influence on events, and Aunt Marfa, an elderly woman who manages to lead an almost entirely separate life in her own quarters within the Kalitin household where visitors are plied with Russian food.
Turgenev’s marvellous novel is at its best when relating Lavretsky’s history and the affectations of the gentry. Also particularly effective are the descriptions of Lavretsky’s neglected properties. After all, if Lavretsky’s estates are his ‘nests,’ not many creatures–human or otherwise–foul their own nests, and so when Lavretsky returns to the decay and filth of his country estate, the neglect is a manifestation and a reflection of the upper-classes and their unheathly attitude towards Russia. The love story in the novel is its weakest point. The rapidly growing (almost instant) love between Lavretsky and the largely undeveloped character, Liza, happens so quickly with Lavretsky seeing Liza as an ideal–rather than as an individual. Lavretsky interprets Liza’s religious bent for sincerity and seriousness (she is–after all an antidote to his wife). But since he selects unsuitable women, she’s just his next choice.
Turgenev is sometimes derided as the epitome of the Westernized-Russian, but Home of the Gentry shows that this label is a simplification of Turgenev’s belief system, for it’s clear in the novel that Turgenev loves Russia and the Russian countryside but sees a dangerous polarization between feudalism and modernization. The upper class Russian worship of western society is seen in the novel as a patchy, pretentious, bastardized translation of foreign ideas and which results in a system of education for the nobility that ultimately encourages an emotional divorcement from Russia. Lavretsky is the result of this system. Half serf and half nobility, he fits into neither. He’s taught that everything worthwhile in life has its genesis in Europe, so he goes there and doesn’t fit in. Returning home to his neglected property, he’s still useless and as such he’s the epitome of the superfluous man. Turgenev’s novel appeared about 60 years before Russian society’s violent explosion of ideas, values, and class differences, and in many ways it’s a presage for the revolution.
My Penguin edition is translated by Richard Freeborn.