The novel is relatively short, but there is so much to sort through that I’ll probably have three posts to discuss it. Online resources can be found in this post while the text can be found here. I am reading the translation by Michael R. Katz, so all quotes will come from his version.
For those unfamiliar with the story (and for those who get as easily turned around by Russian names as I do), brief sketches of the major characters, as have been developed so far, follow:
Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov—landlord with a privileged background (his father was a general during the war in 1812). Never quite living up to expectations, he married after his parents’ death. About ten years after son Arkady was born, his wife died. Consumed with grief, he seems to live his life through Arkady. Liberal in thought, he has freed his serfs and employs help.
Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov—Nikolai’s older brother. Growing up there was a strong contrast between the two, with Pavel the extraverted, athletic brother as compared to Nikolai’s passive introversion. A promising career in the army was cut short after disappointment in a love affair. Pavel retains aristocratic airs, even after moving into his brother’s estate in the country. Pavel is the more practical of the two brothers.
Arkady Nikolaevich Kirsanov—Nikolai’s son, who has just finished his undergraduate degree. He clearly loves his father even if he doesn’t always show it. Although he follows Bazarov and his ideas, the reader begins to see a struggle within Arkady for where his loyalties lie.
Fenechka—servant in Nikolai’s house. She and Nikolai are the parents of Mitya (about seven months old when the novel opens).
Evgeny Vasilev Bazarov—student who has graduated with Arkady, and will return for post-graduate studies in medicine. Conceited and arrogant when it comes to his beliefs, he also shows a playful side which endears children and servants to him.
Generational struggle and the cost of improvements
Bazarov notes of the previous generation that they are “these aging romantics”, which depending on how it is said can actually be an endearment or an annoyance. Given his comments on Nihilism (see below), he probably wasn’t complimenting them. More on the generational friction in the next posts.
Arkady muses on the drive home that the loss of the forest is not necessarily a good thing, even though it is part of the price of freeing the serfs. While reforms are regarded as essential, the volume and cost of what is needed to improve seems overwhelming. Arkady, mimicking Bazarov, demands that minor changes are not acceptable. Yet he has seen the cost inflicted just from one estate of doing the right thing and the reader can sense his hesitation already.
Influence of women
The role and power of women in the lives of the older male characters is set up to be repeated with the younger generation. Nikolai’s wife died and he was devastated—his hair quickly turned gray and he was inactive at his country estate for quite a while. Nikolai is so embarrassed by his relationship with Fenechka, who held a power over him early in the relationship, that he cannot even bring himself to discuss it with his son Arkady.
As mentioned above, Pavel had a promising career in the military but resigned to chase Princess R. Her rejection drove him crazy as he tried to track her down for ten years. After he learns of her death (or losing his past, as Turgenev puts it), he retires to his brother’s country estate.
Bazarov, on Pavel’s unhappiness: “Still I say that a man who stakes his whole life on a woman’s love and, when that one card gets beaten, turns sour and sinks to the point where he’s incapable of doing anything at all, then that person is no longer a man, not even a male of the species.” And Bazarov further judges him when commenting “(I)t’s all that lack of discipline, shallowness!” While harsh and unforgiving, it is in keeping with Bazarov’s arrogance and (seeming) cold strength. Love is dismissed as “all romanticism, nonsense, rubbish, artifice.”
Much is made of Nihilism and Bazarov being a Nihilist. However the meaning s given by the characters are different than what is usually assumed by the terms today. It is interesting to note that Bazarov never defines it himself, but Arkady’s initial definition comes close to one aspect of Bazarov’s intent: “A nihilist is a person who doesn’t bow down before authorities, doesn’t accept even one principle on faith, no matter how much respect surrounds that principle.” The response this gets from the older gentlemen ranges from bemusement (Nikolai) to skepticism (Pavel). Pavel archly replies, on seeing Bazarov’s bag of frogs for experiments, “He doesn’t believe in principles, but he believes in frogs.”
Bazarov notes that “A decent chemist is twenty times more useful than any poet.” He utterly rejects the possibility of knowing anything…that everything must be razed and relearned. “First we need to study the alphabet and only later learn how to read books; we haven’t even begun with our ABCs.” While he claims not to believe in anything, he certainly has a lot of presumptions about Pavel and that type of “provincial aristocrats”, one hint that he may not be all he claims.
Bazarov automatically dismisses the countryside, snidely commenting that it is a pity there is no one to charm in it. Regarding children, he notes, “I have a way with them.” And he truly seems to, in addition to (most of) the help. Reactions to Bazarov vary: Fenechka felt comfortable with him, Pavel comes to despise him while Nikolai is concerned about his influence on Arkady. There are hints early on that Bazarov doesn’t exactly live up to his own standard. One example occurs soon after meeting Fenechka when he asks for her patronymic. If precedents aren’t important, why does this concern him?
In addition to the generational struggle, Bazarov highlights a class struggle as well. When Pavel denounces Bazarov as not being Russian, Bazarov proudly, and probably correctly, notes that he can talk with the peasants easier and freer than the older man can. However that doesn’t mean he holds the peasants in high esteem. Or any other Russian, for that matter. “What difference does that make? [That he, Bazarov, has a low opinion of the Russians] The only good point about a Russian is that he has a very low opinion of himself. What’s important is that two times two makes four; all the rest’s nonsense.”
In talking about First Love I meant to mention that Turgenev used an innovative way to work Pushkin into the story and here he does the same thing early in the book. Nikolai begins quoting Eugene Onegin, only to be interrupted by Bazarov asking for a match. Later, the young men discuss having seen Nikolai reading Pushkin, with Bazarov dismissing the poet’s work as rubbish. There seems to be no place for an old ‘romantic’ writer or reader in their world.
I’m putting this here as a placeholder and reminder for me to focus on the structure in a later post.
And with that, I’ll finish my cobbling together this post and add a couple of quotes. Because of the controversy that Turgenev created with this novel, read the following with an eye toward which side of the argument you think he aligns himself:
Pavel Petrovich wrung his hands. “After that I don’t understand you. You insult the Russian people. I don’t see how it’s possible to reject principles and rules! On what basis can you act?”
“I’ve already told you, Uncle, we don’t accept any authorities,” Arkady intervened.
“We act on the basis of what we recognize as useful,” Bazarov replied. “Nowadays the most useful thing of all is rejection—we reject.”
“What? Not only art and poetry…but even…it’s too awful to say…”
“Everything,” Bazarov repeated with indescribable composure.
[Pavel] “Then what are you doing?”
[Bazarov] “I’ll tell you what we’re doing. Previously, in recent times, we acknowledged that our civil servants take bribes, that we lack roads, commerce, true justice…”
“Well, yes, so, you’re denouncers—that’s what it seems to be called. I agree with many of your denunciations, but…”
“Then we realized that talking, simply talking all the time about our open sores isn’t worth the trouble, that it leads only to being vulgar and doctrinaire; we saw that even our intelligent men, our so-called progressives and denouncers, served no purpose at all, that we were preoccupied with a lot of nonsense, arguing over some form of art, unconscious creativity, parliamentarianism, legal profession, and the devil knows what else, while it was really a question of our daily bread, when we were being oppressed by the most primitive superstitions, when all our joint stock companies were collapsing merely as a result of honest men, while the emancipation, about which the government was so concerned, will hardly do any good because our peasants are happy to steal from themselves, as long as they can get stinking drunk in the tavern.”
“Yes,” Pavel Petrovich said, interrupting him, “I see: you’ve become convinced of all this and now have decided not to do anything serious about it.”
“We’ve decided not to do anything serious about it,” Bazarov repeated grimly. He was suddenly annoyed with himself for having been so expansive with this gentleman.
“And merely curse everything?”
“And curse everything.”
“And this is called nihilism?”
“And this is called nihilism,” Bazarov repeated again, this time with particular rudeness.
Pavel Petrovich wrinkled his face slightly. “So that’s how it is!” he said in a strangely serene voice. “Nihilism is supposed to relieve all our ills, and you, you’re our saviors and heroes. But then why do you abuse others, even those very denouncers? Aren’t you doing a lot of talking, too, just like all the rest?”
“We’re guilty of many sins, but not that one,” Bazarov said through his teeth.
“Well, then? Are you taking action or what? Are you preparing to take action?”
Bazarov made no reply. Pavel Petrovich gave a little shudder, but then gained control of himself. “Hmmm! To act, destroy…,” he continued. “But how can one destroy without even knowing why?”
“We destroy because we’re a force,” Arkady observed.
Pavel Petrovich looked at his nephew and smiled. [Note: in the original version, Pavel Petrovich replies to Arkady, “A fine thing, force—without any content.”]
“Yes, a force—one that doesn’t need to account for itself,” Arkady said and sat up straighter.
“I’ll be prepared to agree with you later,” he [Bazarov] said standing up, “when you present me with a single institution of contemporary life, either in the family or in the social sphere, that doesn’t deserve absolute and merciless rejection.”