Fathers and Sons (Book Review)

Ivan Turgenev, Oxford World’s Classics (translated by Richard Freeborn).

 I first read this novel in high school English, of all places.  Being sophomores, my friends and I didn’t really get it, but in retrospect I think our teacher was trying to subvert us, in a good way.  I wanted to re-read it to see what Turgenev had to say about nihilists.

Turgenev introduced the literary world to the nihilists, a Russian movement of the 19th Century.  Published in 1862 right after Tsar Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs (is there a “legacy of serfdom” in Russia??), it deals with the two generations in action at the time:  the Fathers and the Sons.  He is not really anti-nihilist (go to Dostoyevsky for that), but is just telling a story of his time.  Turgenev apparently identified with the fathers.  He does not present them in a very good light and sympathizes with some of the charges of the nihilists against his own generation.

The fathers are represented by:

  • Nikolai Kirsanov. A soft-hearted, cowardly, romantic, having difficulty running his estate; he has, like a good liberal, liberated some of his serfs already.
  • Pavel Kirsanov. Nikolai’s brother, an embodiment of aristocracy but lacking any substance at all.  He is a hollow shell haunted by a failed love.

The sons by:

  • Arkady Kirsanov. Nikolai’s son, in a way the story turns around which way he is going to go.
  • Evgeny Bazarov. A friend of Arkady’s from university.  He is the engine of the story.

Arkady and Bazarov start the story by returning to the Kirsanov estate from university.  It transpires that the blunt and rude Bazarov is a nihilist and Arkady is his disciple:

‘What is Bazarov?’  Arkady grinned.  ‘Do you want me, uncle, to tell you precisely what he is?’

‘Please be good enough, nephew.’

‘He is a nihilist.’

‘What?’ asked Nikolai Petrovich, while Pavel Petrovich raised his knife in the air with a piece of butter on the end of the blade and remained motionless.

‘He is a nihilist,’ repeaded Arkady.

‘A nihilist,’ said Nikolai Petrovich.  ‘That’s from the Latin nihil, nothing, so far as I can judge.  Therefore, the denotes a man who … who doesn’t recognize anything?’

‘Say, rather, who doesn’t respect anything,’ added Pavel Petrovich and once more busied himself with the butter.

‘Who approaches everything from a critical point of view,’ remarked Arkady.

‘Isn’t that the same thing?’

‘No, it’s not the same thing.  A nihilist is a man who doesn’t acknowledge any authorities, who doesn’t accept a single principle on faith, no matter how much this principle may be surrounded by respect.’

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

‘It depends on who you are, uncle.  It’s a good thing for one man and a bad thing for another.’

‘Is that so!  Well, I can see it’s not for us…’

Later, Pavel and Bazarov lock horns; it’s quite clear Pavel hates Bazarov (later in the novel there is a duel):

‘I see,’ interrupted Pavel Petrovich, ‘I see.  Meaning you’re convinced of all this and have decided for yourselves not to do anything serious about anything.’

‘And we’ve decided not to do anything about anything,’ Bazarov repeated sombrely.

He had suddenly grown annoyed with himself for having talked so much in front of this lordly gentleman.

‘And just swear at everything?’

‘And swear at everything.’

‘And that’s called nihilism?’

‘And that’s called nihilism,’ Bazarov repeated, this time with particular cockiness.

Pavel Petrovich made a slight face.

‘So that’s it!’ he declared in a strangely calm voice.  ‘Nihilism’s got to come to the aid of all the wrongs in the world and you, you’re our saviours and heroes.  But why in that case do you abuse others, like those so-called social critics?  Don’t you chatter on just as much as the rest?’

‘We’re guilty of most things but not of that,’ Bazaraov spat out through his teeth.

‘Is that so?’  Are you taking action, then?  Are you preparing to act?’

Bazarov did not answer.  Pavel Petrovich literally shook with rage, but at once took control of himself.

‘Hmm!  To take action, to smash things…’ he went on.  ‘But how can you smash something without even knowing why you’re doing it?’

‘We smash things because we’re a force,’ remarked Arkady.

Pavel Petrovich looked at his nephew and smiled faintly.

‘Yes, a force literally doesn’t take account of anything,’ declared Arkady and sat up straight.

‘Oh, you wretch!’ yelled Pavel Petrovich.  He was positively in no condition to restrain himself any longer.  ‘If only you’d give a moment’s thought to what it is in Russia you’re supporting with your banal maxim!  No, this could try the patience of an angel!  Force!  There’s force in the wild Kalmuck and the Mongol–so what’s that to us?  Civilization is what’s dear to us–yes, indeed, my good sir.    Its fruits are dear to us.  And don’t you tell me that its fruits are worth nothing at all.  The meanest dauber, un barbouilleur, a chap playing a piano for five copecks an evening–they’re all more useful than you are, because they are representatives of civilization and not of brute Mongol force!  You imagine you are leaders of society, but all you want to do is live in Kalmuck huts!  Force!  Just you remember finally, you men of force, that there’re only four and a half of you but there are millions of others who won’t allow you to trample underfoot their most sacred convictions, who’ll stamp you out once and for all!’

Arkady and Bazarov eventually leave the estate and visit Anna Odintsova, a not very old widow over whom Bazarov falls in love.  She spurns him–he strikes fear in her heart when she realizes his serious intent.  This is the beginning of the end for Bazarov, for he has fallen from his anti-romantic state and has failed at love.  He sinks into despondency and anger with himself.

Arkady, on the other hand, meets Katya, Anna’s younger sister, and he begins growing fond of her.  Eventually they marry.  This sets him on a path directly away from Bazarov.  The trajectory of the two sons is interesting:  Arkady eventually rejects nihilism and embraces the ways of his father and has a happy end.  Barzarov returns home, and in helping his retired doctor father, is infected with typhus and dies.

As Arkady and Bazarov part ways, Bazarov tells him,

‘You’ve behaved sensibly.  You’re not made for the bitter, sour-tasting, rootless life of people like me.  You haven’t got the daring, you haven’t got the anger, all you’ve got is youthful courage and youthful fervour–and that’s not enough for what I’ve got to do.  Aristos [aristocrats] like you’ll never go beyond noble humility or noble indignation and that’s all nonsense.  You, for example, won’t fight–and yet you think you’re fine chaps–but people like us, we want to fight.  And we will!  The dust we kick up’ll eat out your eyes, our mud’ll get all over you, but you–you’re not as grown up as we are, you can’t help admiring yourselves, you think it’s pleasant to give yourselves a hard time.  But to us that’s all a yawn.  Give us other people! I say.  We’ve got others to destroy!’

And so they did!  But don’t think it was only Russia which suffered at the hands of the nihilists.  Look around you, we live among the ruins.


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