A Healthy Russian Soul: Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons

HomeArticlesA Healthy Russian Soul: Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons

Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons concerns above all the challenge of handing down ways from fathers to sons in a confused, seemingly progressive society. Two fathers, a downscale gentleman and a peasant, have sent their sons to the university, and the book begins as the graduates return home. Arkady is reunited with his father, Nikolai Petrovich, on their rural estate, just as measures are being taken to emancipate the serfs.  Arkady has brought with him Bazarov, a self-proclaimed nihilist and a friend from school, who is planning on visiting before he returns home to his family and especially his decent peasant father, Vassily Ivanych.

Bazarov and his nihilism steal the show at the book’s onset.  He radically opposes the established order (esp. marriage, the Church, and the beautiful) and openly defends the proposition that he believes in nothing. There are good reasons to think that Bazarov as a nihilist is less a hero than a foil. He dies at the end of the novel, under conditions that suggest a willfulness indifference to his own life if not suicide and he betrays nihilism as he understands it during the course of the novel.  Bazarov’s antagonist, Pavel Petrovich, Arkady’s uncle, with whom Bazarov fights a duel, also ends the novel unmarried, childless, and “for all intents and purposes” dead (253).   Neither of these men, it would seem, for Turgenev, serve as models for human happiness nor for a prosperous Russian future.

Two marriages form at the novel’s denouement.  Both marriages involve Petroviches, though some from that apparently progressive family had foresworn belief in that old-fashioned institution.  Nikolai Petrovich, a widower, makes on honest woman out of his maid, Fenichka, with whom he has had a child as the novel begins.  Arkady marries Katya.  In fact, as Arkady falls with Katya, Bazarov and Katya’s older sister, Anna Sergeyevna, approach an affair of the heart, but things fall apart—and this contributes to Bazarov’s despair and death.

Let us take a broad view.  The novel begins with Bazarov’s nihilism as it emerges in their visit to Arkady’s family (Chapters 1-11), but after Arkady and Bazarov visit the ladies (Chapters 12-19), the arc of these affairs exposes the limits of nihilism in Bazarov.  After Anna rejects Bazarov, he and Arkady make a brief visit to Bazarov’s family (Chapters 20-21), return the Arkady’s house for a stint before Arkady’s successes in love and Bazarov’s failures force a split (Chapters 22-26).  Arkady leaves his family to visit Katya, while Bazarov stays with Arkady’s family and fights an inconclusive duel with Arkady’s uncle.  Arkady’s love solidifies as Bazarov’s hopes for love are dashed, so Bazarov returns to his parents where he dies a few weeks later (Chapter 27).   The novel’s arc distinguishes healthy Russian souls from unhealthy ones.

Bazarov’s Nihilism and Bazarov’s Despair

How did Bazarov become a nihilist?  Bazarov’s “conversion” to nihilism appears against the backdrop of his family life.  His mother, Arina Vlassyevna, is a “true Russian gentlewoman of the old school,” who believed saints lingered near the ceiling and God’s angels hovered among His people to offer help in times of need. She dotes on her only son, and cooks prodigious, delicious meals for Bazarov.  His father, also devout, is a loquacious former medic from the Napoleonic War, also dotes on their only son. When he asks Arkady to opine about his son, Arkady gushes that Bazarov is “one of the most remarkable men” who will have “a great future” that brings “honor to” the family (204-5).  The father weeps. The marriage of Bazarov’s parents had long ago been arranged against Arina’s will; the couple lived together happily, blissfully unaware, so Bazarov wonders, of “their own insignificance” (209).  The family priest comes over for dinner and cards the day after Bazarov arrives.  Bazarov, playing rashly and likening himself to Napoleon at cards, is trumped by the priest, who reminds him, that Napoleon ended up at St. Helena, after all.  This episode precipitates Bazarov’s rude departure from home.

Bazarov’s nihilism appears as a rejection of his family, his religion, Russia’s past and its core.  He seeks to be exactly unlike his parents, to repudiate and tear down the old ways of knowing and being.  Curious about Arkady’s friend, his family asks him what Bazarov is.  “A nihilist,” Arkady answers, by which he means someone who “looks at everything critically” and takes no principle for granted (94).  Bazarov collects frogs to dissect them and to “see what goes on” inside of them, since people “are much the same as frogs” except for how they walk (90). Bazarov embraces materialism; denies the importance of art, music, and poetry to human happiness; and rejects society’s conventions (97).   Bazarov’s nihilism extends to ideas of beauty and love between man and a woman, which, in his view, are “all romantic rot, mouldy aesthetics.”  It is more productive to “go and inspect that beetle” than to dawdle on love, he says (105). Arkady articulates Bazarov’s nihilism while the youngsters debate with Nikolai and Pavel, claiming that nihilism wins out because nihilists “are a force. . .not accountable to anyone” (127).  Nihilism is a rejection, a tearing down, a willingness to make the world as it is into nothing.

While these were Bazarov’s views in debate, he abandons them to some extent in practice.  His nihilism seems qualified by a desire to serve and relate to the peasants and, ultimately, by his capacity for love. Bazarov aspires to be a doctor—to heal people, or so it seems. No great repudiator is a doctor. He shows great interest in Fenichka’s beauty and in Mitya, her child, even initially in the novel.  Love interest qualifies is nihilism the most.  When he and Arkady leave to visit Arkady’s relative, the province’s new governor, they meet two women.  First, Madame Kukshin, an emancipated woman, who, separated from her husband, is independent, childless, humorless, and a scoffer at religious belief and marriage, just as Bazarov was.  She has kept up on the trends in social change throughout Europe.  She rolls cigarettes.  Utterly annoying despite her intellectual compatibility to Bazarov, the men leave the lunch with Madame Kukshin without regret. Thinking about Madame Kukshin, Bazarov likens all “free-thinking women” to “monstrosities” (151).

Then they meet Anna Sergeyevna Odinstov, a gracious, beautiful woman of nearly 30 years old.  After receiving a university education, she married for money, and then, upon her husband’s death, moved to his great estate, Nikolskoye.  She had an “independent and a pretty determined character” (154).  When the young men meet her at her hotel, she discussed natural science with Bazarov.  Bazarov seems to try to charm her, all the while keeping up his nihilistic stance (“What a magnificent body!” he says, “Shouldn’t I like to see it on the dissecting table!”) (155).

Anna is a “rather strange person.”  She combines an absence of prejudices with an “absence of strong convictions” and has “no goal in life” (164; 176). She is a misandrist, thinking all as execrable as her dead husband.  She also, like Bazarov, is completely indifferent to the beauty of nature.  She thinks beyond conventional morality, while her day consists of a schedule, which she adheres to as a means of keeping ennui at bay.  Perhaps she too grasps Bazarov’s nihilism, but papers it over with the decent drapery of life.  Without purpose, she settles for routine.  Without God, she keeps the estate and social life functioning.

Bazarov becomes enamored of Anna Odinstov.  Bazarov began to recognize a strain of romanticism in his soul and would lose himself “in reverie” at the thought of her (170).  It did seem like Anna was changing, perhaps growing to love him (170).  This is put to the test when the bailiff from Bazarov’s parents runs into him and tells him that his parents await his return from school.  Perhaps, Bazarov tells Anna, he should return home.  She complains.  Anna seems open to the idea of falling in love, as she pours her heart out to Bazarov:  “I want everything or nothing.  A life for a life. If you take mine, give me yours.  And no regrets or turning back” (177).  This seemingly Christian idea of marriage as sacrificial love, as two become one, could unite her world to Bazarov’s.  Anna asks him if he is capable of “surrendering. . . unreservedly,” and he does not deny it (177).  Perhaps her ennui and his nihilism will dissolve in one act of marriage and love—and this can be the basis for a Russia that overcomes such modern temptation. Each has stepped in that direction.

They each sleep on the events of the night before, and awake to confront this new reality of their budding love.  Anna asks Bazarov big questions about his life:  “What is the goal you are aiming for? Where are you going?. . .In short, who are you?” (180). The implication, it seems, is that his ways will become her ways.  When Bazarov answers that he is a simple country doctor in training, she is incredulous since such small ambitions suit Arkady more than Bazarov. He feels a gulf between them, but she cannot sense it or blames it on his “constraint” or “reserve.”  Bazarov then overcomes his reserve and confesses his mad, violent, painful love for Anna (182).

Readers can be forgiven for expecting Anna to reciprocate. She claims that he had misunderstood her and she had misunderstood him (and, in the secret recesses of her heart, she knows she misunderstood herself) and they part.  Her reasons for avoiding commitment are opaque.  Two ellipses appear where thoughts could go.  Perhaps she prefers the quiet life. Perhaps she longed for novelty.  Perhaps she had looked out into her empty life alone and saw a void, “chaos without shape” that had encouraged her to toy with Bazarov’s feelings as an expression of power (183). She fears being alone with Bazarov the next day, and he departs for his parents’ place.

He is really in no frame of mind to visit, because he realizes that his nihilism has been exposed as a pose.  His relationship with Arkady further deteriorates over whether nihilism leads to Bazarov’s current despair and rancor and whether there is anything beyond the material; Bazarov reflects socialism—a view that all elements of character and morality are produced through the external world—while Arkady defends, in the manner of his uncle, that one must begin from common life before one adopts a critical attitude. They come to blows. The brouhaha playing cards, adverted to above, leads to their departure after only two days.

As they leave, Arkady and Bazarov literally face a fork in the road, right to Arkady’s family and left to the Odinstov estate.  They turn left to their regret, since Anna is cold and unapproachable.  They leave Nikolskoye for Arkady’s in a matter of hours.   Bazarov puts himself to studying frogs and avoiding human contact.  As we shall see, Arkady goes to the Odinstov’s again shortly, but Bazarov stays and works in complete solitude, talking only to Fenichka.  In fact, Bazarov genuinely seeks to seduce the maiden.  He isolates her in the arboretum and vigorously kisses her:  it is not absolutely clear she objects, until Pavel Petrovich shows himself and then Fenichka issues words of genuine reproach to Bazarov.  If she is attracted to Bazarov, it is to his peasant origins and kindness, not his nihilism.  When Fenichka rejects him, the same feelings come over Bazarov that had come over him when Anna had rejected him (234).  He has twice failed at love, once with a sophisticated woman and once with a peasant mistress of his friend’s father.  He is a loser in love twice, but the love interests are most inconsistent with his professed nihilism.

Pavel challenges Bazarov to a duel over the attempted seduction; Bazarov, no lover of honor or aristocratic ways, nevertheless accepts since his life seems meaningless anyway.  Bazarov wounds Pavel, helps him to convalesce, and then leaves for the Odinstov’s once again.  The third meeting with Anna is no more successful than the others.  Bazarov parts, goes home, and within a matter of weeks dies.  His death resembles a suicide.  A peasant with cholera comes to his father for treatment, but it is too late.  Bazarov goes to the peasant’s house upon the death and is intrigued with the idea of dissecting the diseased corpse.  As he digs in, he cuts himself and the polluted blood of the corpse leaks into the cut.  Bazarov does little to blanch the cut for hours, allowing it to fester and pollute his own blood.  His indifference to life proceeds not from his nihilism but from his losing at love with Fenichka and Anna (and the unhappy prospect of Arkady succeeding in love with Anna’s sister, Katya).  He stopped loving Anna on the day he died, though Anna comes to see him one last time.  Anna, we learn in the last chapter, would marry a man of great ambition, not out of love, but out of conviction, probably someone central to emancipating the serfs and bringing liberal reform from Russia.

Turgenev allows for the thought that no human being can live within the strictures of nihilism, that genuine feelings of love and humanity would expose nihilism as a mere stance. If so, then one can sympathize with Dostoyevsky who seems to improve upon the art of nihilism throughout his corpus.  Perhaps, that is, Turgenev understates the problem of nihilism in politics because he underestimates the ability of human beings to “will nothingness” and hence to be agents of destruction.

Arkady’s Sentimental Education

Arkady’s family was much different.  His father, Nikolai, was the university-educated son of a military man from the provinces.  Nikolai was following his father into the service when an accident upset his ability to serve, so he went into the civil service.  Pavel, Nikolai’s bachelor brother, also served in the army, but left it to chase a woman around Europe.  Nikolai married for love—a more modern marriage—and was “blissfully happy” living in the country with his dear intellectual wife (75).  They had a son. She died suddenly when Arkady was ten (in 1847), and Nikolai moved to the country where he set about running an estate and raising his child.  Nikolai sent Arkady to the university in 1855, but he practically lived with Arkady for parts of his first three years at a university in Petersburg.  Nikolai could not be there for Arkady’s last year.  The result was a friendship with Bazarov.  Just how deep did the friendship go?

Nikolai’s ardent wish is for Arkady to come home to help improve the farm and remain close to his father.  He asks Arkady if he is interested in farming, if he has sentimental attachment to his birthplace, and worries, vaguely, about how his lover and mother of his second child may ruin his relations with Arkady.  Arkady is at first non-committal.  When his father asks about farming, Arkady changes the topic with a politician’s aplomb: “It’s a pity we haven’t any shade” (80) and “what a marvelous day it is!” (84).  He appears to have no sentimental attachment to his birthplace, imagining the human world as rootless:  “What difference does it make where a person was born?” (80).  Arkady greets his father’s shame and grief about having a mistress with an “emancipated outlook” that seems to point (82).  Then, to make matters worse, Arkady smokes with Bazarov in the carriage ride to the estate. Nikolai realizes there is a great “distance separating him from his son” (130, also 119).

From the outset of this visit, Arkady’s feelings somewhat betray his new enlightenment and his estrangement from his father.  This provides a basis for him ultimately following in his father’s footsteps.  He loves his uncle and father’s heart of gold.  He warms up to his old bedroom and blanket.  He seems to pray for his dead nurse, though not for himself. Arkady has early doubts about Bazarov, who ridicules his father for playing the cello for the family (116), just as Bazarov secretly worries that Arkady is more “romantic” and interested in transforming society than nihilists should be (83, 124).  No matter how advanced and enlightened Arkady’s views, he still criticizes his father, to Bazarov of all people, for not marrying Fenichka (115). Though he sometimes says otherwise, it is not nihilistic repudiation, but improvements and reform for Russia that Arkady imagines.

The real break between Arkady and Bazarov comes at Nikolskoye, during the novel’s second phase.  While Bazarov and Anna are conversing, Arkady spends time with Katya, Anna’s younger sister.  Anna has directed Katya’s education and run the country estate where they live, while Katya lingers in the background: Katya does not even attend the ball where readers, along with Bazarov and Arkady, come to be fascinated with Anna.  Katya first appears in a drawing room, with her cat, after picking a bouquet of flowers. She has a “charming smile,” looks “innocently fresh,” and is “constantly blushing” (158-9). She serves tea to all.  She is a woman unlike her independent sister or the detestable Madame Kukshin.  As Bazarov argues that one must have only one human being to understand the whole lot, Anna argues but Katya, again, blushes as she happens to hear it.  All people are the same only if each is reduced to body parts. Anna never blushes, though she resists and ridicules the Bazarov’s position.  Arkady immediately weighs in on Bazarov’s side (161).

Arkady’s education consists in turning from Anna to Katya and from Bazarov to Katya.  This turning begins when Anna, Arkady, and some guests turn to cards, but Anna suggests that Katya play the piano for Arkady, who, alone, appreciates music.  “What shall I play for you?” are Katya’s first spoken words in the novel (162). Arkady is at first indifferent, as Katya pales before her attractive and voluble sister.  Slowly, surely, and almost silently they grow together as the sun of Anna and Bazarov distracts from their smaller star.[1] In the middle of a long paragraph on a walk that Bazarov and Anna take, Turgenev writes this:  “Arkady stayed indoors and spent about an hour with Katya.”  She played the piano once again for him.  They develop a “cordial” and “affectionate” relationship (168), spending quiet time together, alone, conversing.

This is where we see that Arkady is really Nikolai’s son, since in his love relation with Katya he rejects every plank of Bazarov’s nihilism and “comes home” to his father and his ways.  Katya opens up about the effects of music and literature on her soul, and this transfixes Arkady. Both Katya and Arkady love nature, though Arkady was afraid to admit it around Bazarov.   When Bazarov briefly go to Nikolskoye after leaving Bazarov’s parents, Katya is ill, probably at Arkady’s abrupt departure only two days ago. When he returns again after leaving Bazarov with his family, Arkady seems ready to propose to Katya.  Katya wants out from under the thumb of her sister and aspires to a “happiness” where she can “respect and obey” (257).  Arkady claims to be transformed and to “owe this transformation” to Katya.  “Up till now,” Arkady enthuses, “I did not understand myself, I set myself tasks beyond my capacity. . . .My eyes have been recently opened, thanks to a certain emotion.  When he proposes, she says “Yes” and weeps guilelessly (266).

The romance between Nikolai and Fenichka antedates the beginning of the novel, though readers are told the very young Fenichka, the daughter of his main servant, made quite an impression on the widower.  When her mother died suddenly, Fenichka, alone, young and beautiful, Nikolai extended every kindness and “there is no need to describe what followed” (112).  Nikolai at first abjures from marrying Fenichka because of his belief that his brother would disapprove, but after Pavel is shot in the duel with Bazarov and after he confronts Fenichka about her feelings, Pavel stirs and insists that the marriage take place (250-251).  Thus Nikolai lives a new married life just as he is setting out to reform his farm toward greater independent ownership for his former serfs and greater mechanical efficiencies.

The church weddings proceed in six months.  Contrary to his father’s earlier fears, Arkady becomes “passionately engrossed in the management of the estate” (292).  Nikolai becomes the model “new” aristocrat, arbitrating land disputes and bringing culture to the gentry without begrudging emancipation to the serfs. Their wives, we are left to think, love and are beloved by all concerned.  Children arrive, and happiness abounds.  Even Pavel, living abroad in Dresden, begins frequenting a Russian orthodox church and, last we see him, seems imperceptibly crossing himself as he enters.

Thus Turgenev points the way to Russian reform through the actions of his fathers and sons.  Bazarov and Pavel, in different ways, point to dead ends—the dead end of nihilism does not comprehend the genuine uniqueness of the human thirst for knowledge nor the depths of human distinctiveness.  Pavel, excessively English and aristocratic, is alienated from his country’s ways and means, just as the ardent reformers Turgenev depicts as vain and power-hungry.  Nikolai and Arkady each overcome the temptations to which Pavel and Bazarov succumbed.  They embrace the gradualism of accomplishment and reform; they embrace the hope, marriage, and progress; they return to the Church.  Fathers and Sons concerns more the overcoming of nihilism in Arkady than its radicalism in Bazarov.  Bazarov lies in a grave as the novel ends, while the other men end up in the nursery.

This father and son pair, with their subsequent children, point toward an authentically Russian path, where the best traditions and patriarchal ways integrate (for now) with the reformist spirit.  The ideas bubble up from below, just as the marriages happen quietly, almost despite the intentions of the couples.  The closer to home the concerns of these reformers, the happier their marriages.




[1] Only on pp. 172, 178, 188 do we get short statements about Arkady and Katya during the long quasi-courtship of Anna and Bazarov.

Scott Yenor

Written by

Scott Yenor is a Professor of Political Science at Boise State University and author of Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought (Baylor, 2011) and David Hume’s Humanity (Palgrave, 2016).