Book cover for Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev translated by Constance Garnett
Fathers and Sons, trans. by C. Garnett

Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev (Russian classic)

“At the novel’s center stands Evgeny Bazarov, medical student, doctor’s son, and self-proclaimed nihilist. Bazarov rejects all authority, all so-called truths that are based on faith rather than science and experience. His ideas bring him into conflict with his best friend, recent graduate Arkady Kirsanov, with Arkady’s family, with his own parents, and eventually with his emotions, when he falls helplessly in love with the beautiful Madame Odintsova.”

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev writes about a society undergoing profound changes, one much like ours. For that reason, the novel feels very modern and pertinent to me. Like nineteenth-century Russia, we too have members of the older generation declaring that their ways are correct, and we have members of the younger generation trying to destroy the old institutions, and we have those of both generations working to reform the old institutions, and we have members of both generations who, in accepting or rejecting particular ideals, invite the scorn of others. In all of this conflict, much—if not most—of what is published is meant to support one point of view and undermine all others.

One of the most interesting things about Fathers and Sons is that it doesn’t support the older generation and undermine the younger or vice versa. It shows the nobility and the foolishness of both and, more importantly, acknowledges a source of truth and happiness that transcends the prejudices and concerns of all generations of mortals. As Arkady’s father ponders the differences between the generations, he demonstrates that he is more concerned about acting in accordance with the ultimate source of truth than he is about gratifying his pride and being “right”:

Half an hour later Nikolai Petrovitch went into the garden to his favourite arbour. He was overtaken by melancholy thoughts. For the first time he realised clearly the distance between him and his son; he foresaw that every day it would grow wider and wider. In vain, then, had he spent whole days sometimes in the winter at Petersburg over the newest books; in vain had he listened to the talk of the young men; in vain had he rejoiced when he succeeded in putting in his word too in their heated discussions. ‘My brother says we are right,’ he thought, ‘and apart from all vanity, I do think myself that they are further from the truth than we are, though at the same time I feel there is something behind them we have not got, some superiority over us…. Is it youth? No; not only youth. Doesn’t their superiority consist in there being fewer traces of the slaveowner in them than in us?’

Chapter 6

Nikolai Petrovitch goes on to think about his dead wife:

Where had it all vanished? She had been his wife, he had been happy as few on earth are happy…. ‘But,’ he mused, ‘these sweet first moments, why could one not live an eternal, undying life in them?’

He did not try to make his thought clear to himself; but he felt that he longed to keep that blissful time by something stronger than memory; he longed to feel his Marya near him again to have the sense of her warmth and breathing, and already he could fancy that over him….

Chapter 6

Other characters recognize that they have not experienced the profound happiness that Nikolai Petrovitch described in the last passage. Madame Odintsov says this to Bazarov:

‘We were talking of happiness, I believe. I told you about myself. By the way, I mentioned the word “happiness.” Tell me why it is that even when we are enjoying music, for instance, or a fine evening, or a conversation with sympathetic people, it all seems an intimation of some measureless happiness existing apart somewhere rather than actual happiness—such, I mean, as we ourselves are in possession of? Why is it? Or perhaps you have no feeling like that?’

Chapter 18

Bazarov admits to Arkady:

‘I’m thinking life is a happy thing for my parents. My father at sixty is fussing around, talking about “palliative” measures, doctoring people, playing the bountiful master with the peasants—having a festive time, in fact; and my mother’s happy too; her day’s so chockful of duties of all sorts, and sighs and groans that she’s no time even to think of herself; while I …’

‘While you?’

‘I think; here I lie under a haystack…. The tiny space I occupy is so infinitely small in comparison with the rest of space, in which I am not, and which has nothing to do with me; and the period of time in which it is my lot to live is so petty beside the eternity in which I have not been, and shall not be…. And in this atom, this mathematical point, the blood is circulating, the brain is working and wanting something…. Isn’t it loathsome? Isn’t it petty?’

Chapter 21

Inherent in these observations from various characters is the idea that both generations are reaching for truth and happiness and haven’t quite found them. The resolution of the novel comes when several characters are able to reject the follies perpetuated by their own generations and embrace that which is fundamentally good and true, despite the beliefs of their peers. One of the best examples of this comes from Chapter 24, where the brother of Nikolai Petrovitch begs him to marry the woman he has been living with, a woman who is of a lower social class than they are:

‘Brother,’ repeated Pavel Petrovitch, ‘give me your word that you will carry out my one request.’

‘What request? Tell me.’

‘It is very important; the whole happiness of your life, to my idea, depends on it. I have been thinking a great deal all this time over what I want to say to you now…. Brother, do your duty, the duty of an honest and generous man; put an end to the scandal and bad example you are setting—you, the best of men!’

‘What do you mean, Pavel?’

‘Marry Fenitchka…. She loves you; she is the mother of your son.’

Nikolai Petrovitch stepped back a pace, and flung up his hands. ‘Do you say that, Pavel? you whom I have always regarded as the most determined opponent of such marriages! You say that? Don’t you know that it has simply been out of respect for you that I have not done what you so rightly call my duty?’

‘You were wrong to respect me in that case,’ Pavel Petrovitch responded, with a weary smile. ‘I begin to think Bazarov was right in accusing me of snobbishness. No dear brother, don’t let us worry ourselves about appearances and the world’s opinion any more; we are old folks and humble now; it’s time we laid aside vanity of all kinds. Let us, just as you say, do our duty; and mind, we shall get happiness that way into the bargain.’

Chapter 24

In the end, happiness comes to the characters who are able  to set aside intellectual and social fads and embrace institutions and relationships that have meaning. The institution of marriage is shown to endure, along with the family ties that are created when a marriage occurs, as well as the love that blossoms in the hearts of those who honor those ties. Turgenev ends the novel with this beautiful thought as he describes a father and mother mourning at the grave of their son:

Can it be that love, sacred, devoted love, is not all-powerful? Oh, no! However passionate, sinning, and rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers growing over it peep serenely at us with their innocent eyes; they tell us not of eternal peace alone, of that great peace of ‘indifferent’ nature; [they] tell us too of eternal reconciliation and of life without end.

Chapter 28

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