Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Fathers and Children discussion: Chapters 20 – 28

This final section covers from Arkady’s and Bazarov’s trip to visit Bazarov’s parents to the end of the book. The translation I’m reading is by Michael R. Katz so all quotes will come from his version, while the translation by Richard Hare can be found at Mootnotes.com.

Characters introduced in this section:

Vasily Ivanych Bazarov—Bazarov’s father. A former army doctor, he has retired to his manor. Educated but self-effacing when confronted with his newer methods and advances in medicine. Along with his wife they show a mixture of fear and devotion to their son.

Arina Vlasevna Bazarova—Bazarov’s mother. Turgenev describes her as a throwback to earlier times, “a genuine Russian noblewoman” that is “devout and emotional” as well as superstitious. “She loved and feared her son incredibly”. “Such women are no becoming much harder to find. God know whether that’s a good or a bad thing!” It’s interesting to compare her to Anna Odintsova, a ‘newer’ Russian woman.

Generational struggle
I’ve only highlighted a little of the generational struggle that Bazarov and Arkady declared, and the previous post showed Bazarov beginning to question his own beliefs after his rejection by Odintsova. ‘Struggle’ may be a misnomer since the resistance and rejection lies solely with the “children” part of the title. The fathers (and mother) portrayed all dote on their children to the point of idolatry. The thanks the parents get? “When you look from the side or from a distance at the empty life our “fathers” led, you think: what could be better?” Bazarov romanticizes the older generations “empty life” while living an empty life of his own. Bazarov is very dismissive of everything that has gone before, but one comparison stands out. His dad survived an outbreak of the plague. Bazarov can’t survive a single exposure to typhus.

The inward contradictions of Bazarov’s outlook pop up everywhere. He decries romanticism, yet participates in duel with Pavel. He could have caustically bowed out, yet he didn’t want to give Pavel that satisfaction (a very ‘romantic’ notion). Bazarov denies anything and everything that has come before him, yet he follows scientific methods developed over the centuries by others. Is it easier to deny the contributions of others if you fail to contribute anything yourself? Bazarov’s renunciations end up being more pinpoint complaints rather than the blanket denial he intends.

Like every generation before him that rejects wholesale all that has come before, wishing to remake the world in their own image, many of the things he is fighting for are destined for failure. Fortunately Arkady, when falling in love with Katya, sees beyond himself and tells her “I’m no longer searching for ideals where I did previously…”. On the other hand, Bazarov’s language continues to be incendiary, sounding eerily like revolutionary rhetoric that would come later:
“You aristocrats can never get any further than noble submission or noble indignation, and all that’s nonsense. You, for instance, you won’t fight—yet you think you’re a fine fellow—but we want to fight. What of it? The dust we raise will blind your eyes, our mud will splatter you, but you haven’t reached our level; you admire yourself unconsciously, take pleasure in abusing yourself; but we find all this boring—give us someone else! We’ve got to smash someone else!”

The more I saw Bazarov I became more impressed with the depth and complexity that Turgenev created. The author could have made the character as one-dimensional as critics during his time claimed, but there is a richness within Bazarov despite himself.

He obviously loves his parents, talking very positively about them to Arkady despite continually poking fun at them. “Bazarov tells Arkady that his parents “are occupied, and don’t worry in the least about their own insignificance; they don’t give a damn about it…While I…I feel only boredom and anger.” The boredom and anger can exist because of his own insignificance. His life up to this point has been only promise and potential. The anger also results from Odintsova’s rejection but there does seem to be some wistfulness (on his part) at his parents’ acceptance of their roles, something he is unable to do until he is on his deathbed.

Flirting with Fenechka is not an act to undermine Nikolai or show any disrespect, but rather Bazarov carrying on with his view of women in general: “If you like a woman,” he used to say, “try to gain your end…”. After having his heart toyed with and crushed so recently, resuming his flirtatious ways so quickly confirms his lack of sympathy for others. As with his parents, Bazarov seems to view others as existing to serve him despite his grandiose statements of serving mankind.

After Odintsova rejects him, Bazarov declares “That’s the only thing I’m proud of. I haven’t destroyed myself, and no woman’s going to destroy me.” Yet he allows that to happen in the end. He becomes a laughingstock to the peasants around him, losing one contrast he made with Pavel on who was better suited to talk with the common people. His death follows a meaningless act—a botched autopsy of a peasant that died from typhus. It does make for the wonderful Chapter 27, however. The look of horror in his eyes upon receiving extreme unction from the priest could be his reaction to the sacrament, as well as facing up to the emptiness of his beliefs.

Despite the façade and empty rhetoric, Bazarov is capable of magnanimous behavior. He behaves honorably in treating Pavel’s wound and ending the duel. He could have behaved even better by firing into the air. And he could have avoided the duel completely by not flirting with Fenechka. Fortunately something exists deep within that keeps him from being a simple caricature. On a side note, Bazarov appears to be a forerunner of several characters created by Dostoevsky. With his father’s statement that “It’s not appropriate to judge people like him by ordinary standards” it feels like the groundwork is laid for the later writer.

Structure, techniques, devices
Talking about structure, techniques and/or devices used in a work is well outside my comfort zone, but Fathers and Children benefits from Turgenev’s structure. The story builds and progresses as Arkady and Bazarov move across the countryside. Seeing these characters in different settings reveals more about each character, such as when Bazarov visits his parents. Turgenev pauses each time a new character is introduced and gives a brief biographical sketch. Yet some things that are vitally important in understanding a character—Pavel real view of Nikolai’s mistress Fenechka, for example—are withheld until the last moment.

The structure also provides symmetry with events. There are several instances of overhearing things in a garden, which reveals the opinions of the conversationalists of and to the listener. The eavesdropping device also complicates events at the end, whether Pavel seeing Bazarov kissing Fenechka or Bazarov revealing Arkady’s past love for Anna Odintsova. The unrequited loves of Pavel and Bazarov provide a comparison of how they handle, or rather fail to handle, the situation as Turgenev describes their condition as “the persistence of former passion in a man.” The figurative death of Pavel from his affair is followed by Bazarov’s literal death, romanticism meeting nihilism. There are many more symmetries, which makes the short novel feel much fuller.

Turgenev keeps to a minimum the time spent inside a character’s head. He develops the story more through description, conversation, action, and interaction. An example of the latter comes from Fenechka and her son Mitya instantly gravitating toward Bazarov despite his seeming brusque rhetoric. Many things are left ambiguous, such as Bazarov’s death. Was it (effectively) a suicide or simple negligence? Was there a difference in his case? Turgenev takes pains to distance himself from his characters: “Was the truth, the whole truth, contained in their words? They didn’t know, and the author knows even less.”

The final chapter allows Turgenev to tie up any loose ends and follow what happens to the surviving characters. By pairing up almost every character, I felt like I was reading the end of a Shakespeare comedy although the merriment is tempered by the sad spectacle of Bazarov’s parents. Their grief offsets all the festivities while Bazarov is forgotten by everyone else.

Pushkin sightings
One specific mention of Pushkin occurs in this section, which is funny since the poet would be called a romantic by Bazarov in a very dismissive manner:

[Bazarov]“Nature induces the silence of sleep,” Pushkin said.

“He said nothing of the sort,” Arkady replied.

“Well, even if he didn’t, he could’ve and should’ve, as a poet. By the way, he must’ve served in the military.”

“Pushkin was never a soldier.”

“Really? But on every page he writes, ‘To battle, to battle! For the honor of Russia!’”

What sort of nonsense are you fabricating?”

The very end of the novel alludes to one of Pushkin’s poems. The ending:

However passionate, sinful, rebellious the heart buried in this grave, the flowers growing on it look out as us serenely with their innocent eyes: they tell us not only of that eternal peace, that great peace of “indifferent” nature; they tell us also of eternal reconciliation and life everlasting…

Pushkin’s poem, translated by G.R.Ledger:

If I walk the noisy streets,
Or enter a many thronged church,
Or sit among the wild young generation,
I give way to my thoughts.

I say to myself: the years are fleeting,
And however many there seem to be,
We must all go under the eternal vault,
And someone's hour is already at hand.

When I look at a solitary oak
I think: the patriarch of the woods.
It will outlive my forgotten age
As it outlived that of my grandfathers'.

If I caress a young child,
Immediately I think: farewell!
I will yield my place to you,
For I must fade while your flower blooms.

Each day, every hour
I habitually follow in my thoughts,
Trying to guess from their number
The year which brings my death.

And where will fate send death to me?
In battle, in my travels, or on the seas?
Or will the neighbouring valley
Receive my chilled ashes?

And although to the senseless body
It is indifferent wherever it rots,
Yet close to my beloved countryside
I still would prefer to rest.

And let it be, beside the grave's vault
That young life forever will be playing,
And impartial, indifferent nature
Eternally be shining in beauty.

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