Fathers and Children: Ivan Turgenev (1862)

Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Children, perhaps better known as Fathers and Sons, is a look at the tangled state of Russian society through two young men, Arkady Kirsanov and Bazarov. They met at university in Petersburg and appear on the surface to share a great deal of common values, but when they arrive at the Kirsanov estate, known as Marino, the friendship unravels.

Arkady is welcomed home by his widowed father, Nikolai, and Nikolai’s brother, former army officer, Pavel. The estate is in disarray–in 1861, serfs were freed under Tsar Alexander II. The former owners then received taxes from those same freed serfs as compensation, but in the novel, which opens in May 1859, serf emancipation has yet to take place; Nikolai, however, has freed his serfs already and has a useless manager for his estate. Just taking a look around the estate, it’s clear that the new system isn’t working. It probably wasn’t working under the old system either.

Nikolai who owns 5,000 acres and, at one point, “200 souls” has taken a young serving girl, Fenichka as his mistress. While Fenichka is portrayed as innocent and almost fey, the novel steers away from the uglier aspects of exploitation and places Fenichka in a state of awe for Nikolai rather than plodding obligation.

Fenichka has given birth to a son, so Arkady has a new half brother. While this fact might startle other only sons, Arkady takes it in stride. Fenichka is secreted away in part of the house when Arkady returns, but Basarov and also Pavel make a point of seeking her out. Pavel, who was once slated to have a meteoric military career, made the fatal error of falling in love with an unstable married Russian woman. Pavel’s obsession for this woman led him to abandon his career, but the affair came to naught and Pavel, a dispirited man, has retreated to Arkady’s estate. Every aspect of the estate needs attention: but Pavel is a dilettante. He has long nails, wears backless red Chinese slippers and sports a fez.

Not long after Arkady and Bazarov arrive, these two young men explain to Nikolai and Pavel that they are nihilists. Both Nikolai and Pavel struggle with that announcement–especially since Bazarov, who is ‘lower’ socially than the Kirsanov family, treats Pavel with disdain. Bararov is a medical student who is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the older generation. To Bazarov, while he has marginal tolerance for Arkady’s father, he considers Pavel to be useless.

He’s an odd fish, that uncle of yours,” said Bazarov, sitting in his dressing gown by Arkady’s bedside and puffing at a short pipe “What a dandy, in the depths of the countryside! Those fingernails, those fingernails–he should get them framed!”

“Of course, you don’t know,” answered Arkady, “but he was quite a lion in his day. I’ll tell you his story sometime.. He used to be very handsome, women went crazy over him.”

“Well there you are! It’s all for old time’s sake, then. Sadly, there’s nobody out here for him to fascinate. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He has such amazing collars, they look as if they’re made of marble, and then that perfectly shaved chin! Honestly, Arkady Nikolayich, it’s a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so. But he’s an excellent man all the same.”

“A museum piece! But your father’s a fine chap. Wastes his time reading poetry and hasn’t a clue about managing his estate, but he’s a good sort.”

Arkady and Bararov are seen as sons through their relationships with their respective fathers. Both fathers place more significance into the relationship than their sons, and Arkady and Bazarov minimize their fathers under the ‘label’ of Duty rather than become embroiled in the their emotional lives.

At one point in the novel, Arkady and Bazarov launch out into society when they visit a relative. Bazarov may have revolutionary thoughts but when it comes to women, he discovers that he’s just the same as other men. Characters with revolutionary beliefs are portrayed as superficial posers. Bazarov is perhaps the most serious of the lot, but as a nihilist, his outlook on life is bleak. Avdotya Kukshina, who calls herself Eudoxia holds salons for revolutionary dialogue, but she’s as pedestrian and pretentious as they come. The young widow, Odintsova becomes a sort of femme fatale who hastens Bazarov’s doom. When considering the ending (which I won’t detail), we see the simultaneous erosion of friendship and nihilism, both countermanded by love and desire.

Review copy

Translated by Nicholas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater

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2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, posts, Turgenev

2 responses to “Fathers and Children: Ivan Turgenev (1862)

  1. *chuckle* I came here thinking that Turgenev had a new novel I hadn’t read, but it’s just the NYRB translation of the title, previously known as Fathers and Sons.
    Turgenev is brilliant at representing the ‘types’ in Russian society in this era when the need for reform was pressing and agrarian Russia was being left behind by the industrial revolution elsewhere. You can sense his frustration about the prospects for change by the way he tackles his characters. As I say in my review, Bazarov represents the young radical intelligentsia that would overthrow prevailing values and lead the revolution. He is brash and unkind, with a utilitarian attitude towards people, while Arcady is a dilettante, attracted to Bazarov because his ideas are new and different, but deep down he’s offended by his friend’s offhand behaviour. Anna Odintsova is the nearest a woman can be to being an intellectual when she like all women is denied the kind of education that was clearly wasted on Arkady and Bazarov, and she has liberal ideas but fears change. She reminds me of a dear old left-leaning friend who was very wealthy who once said to me, ‘I’m all in favour of redistributing income… unless it’s mine.’
    PS I have re-subscribed to your blog. I can’t rely on Twitter’s algorithms to let me know when there is a new review.

  2. Thanks Lisa: I thought the same thing too. Apparently Fathers and Children is the literal translation, but IMO Fathers and Sons “works” better. This was a reread. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much the second time around. Liked it but not as much.
    I loved the way Bazarov can only be bothered with good looking women. Not very revolutionary of him, and of course his opinion of women is narrow.
    Bazarov is quite rude considering he is a guest at Arkady’s home. Had to laugh at your friend. Typical.

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