Fathers and Sons

Criticisms and Interpretations



Ivan Sergyevitch (Turgenev) has given us a most complete picture of Russian society. The same general types are always brought forward; and, as later writers have presented exactly similar ones, with but few modifications, we are forced to believe them true to life. First, the peasant: meek, resigned, dull, pathetic in suffering, like a child who does not know why he suffers; naturally sharp and tricky when not stupefied by liquor; occasionally roused to violent passion. Then, the intelligent middle class: the small landed proprietors of two generations. The old proprietor is ignorant and good-natured, of respectable family, but with coarse habits; hard, from long experience of serfdom, servile himself, but admirable in all other relations of life.

The young man of this class is of quite a different type. His intellectual growth having been too rapid, he sometimes plunges into Nihilism. He is often well educated, melancholy, rich in ideas but poor in executive ability; always preparing and expecting to accomplish something of importance, filled with vague and generous projects for the public good. This is the chosen type of hero in all Russian novels. Gogol introduced it, and Tolstoy prefers it above all others.

The favorite hero of young girls and romantic women is neither the brilliant officer, the artist, nor rich lord, but almost universally this provincial Hamlet, conscientious, cultivated, intelligent, but of feeble will, who, returning from his studies in foreign lands, is full of scientific theories about the improvement of mankind and the good of the lower classes, and eager to apply these theories on his own estate. It is quite necessary that he should have an estate of his own. He will have the hearty sympathy of the reader in his efforts to improve the condition of his dependents.

The Russians well understand the conditions of the future prosperity of their country; but, as they themselves acknowledge, they know not how to go to work to accomplish it.

In regard to the women of this class, Turgenev, strange to say, has little to say of the mothers. This probably reveals the existence of some old wound, some bitter experience of his own. Without a single exception, all the mothers in his novels are either wicked or grotesque. He reserves the treasures of his poetic fancy for the young girls of his creation. To him the young girl of the country province is the corner-stone of the fabric of society. Reared in the freedom of country life, placed in the most healthy social conditions, she is conscientious, frank, affectionate, without being romantic; less intelligent than man, but more resolute. In each of his romances an irresolute man is invariably guided by a woman of strong will.

Such are, generally speaking, the characters the author describes, which bear so unmistakably the stamp of nature that one cannot refrain from saying as he closes the book, "These must be portraits from life!" which criticism is always the highest praise, the best sanction of works of the imagination.—From "Turgenev", in "The Russian Novelists," translated by J. L. Edmands (1887).



Turgenev was of that great race which has more than any other fully and freely uttered human nature, without either false pride or false shame in its nakedness. His themes were oftenest those of the French novelist, but how far he was from handling them in the French manner and with the French spirit! In his hands sin suffered no dramatic punishment; it did not always show itself as unhappiness, in the personal sense, but it was always unrest, and without the hope of peace. If the end did not appear, the fact that it must be miserable always appeared. Life showed itself to me in different colors after I had once read Turgenev; it became more serious, more awful, and with mystical responsibilities I had not known before. My gay American horizons were bathed in the vast melancholy of the Slav, patient, agnostic, trustful. At the same time nature revealed herself to me through him with an intimacy she had not hitherto shown me. There are passages in this wonderful writer alive with a truth that seems drawn from the reader's own knowledge: who else but Turgenev and one's own most secret self ever felt all the rich, sad meaning of the night air drawing in at the open window, of the fires burning in the darkness on the distant fields? I try in vain to give some notion of the subtle sympathy with nature which scarcely put itself into words with him. As for the people of his fiction, though they were of orders and civilizations so remote from my experience, they were of the eternal human types whose origin and potentialities every one may find in his own heart, and I felt their verity in every touch.

I cannot describe the satisfaction his work gave me; I can only impart some sense of it, perhaps, by saying that it was like a happiness I had been waiting for all my life, and now that it had come, I was richly content forever. I do not mean to say that the art of Turgenev surpasses the art of Björnson; I think Björnson is quite as fine and true. But the Norwegian deals with simple and primitive circumstances for the most part, and always with a small world; and the Russian has to do with human nature inside of its conventional shells, and his scene is often as large as Europe. Even when it is as remote as Norway, it is still related to the great capitals by the history if not the actuality of the characters. Most of Turgenev's books I have read many times over, all of them I have read more than twice. For a number of years I read them again and again without much caring for other fiction. It was only the other day that I read "Smoke" through once more, with no diminished sense of its truth, but with somewhat less than my first satisfaction in its art. Perhaps this was because I had reached the point through my acquaintance with Tolstoy where I was impatient even of the artifice that hid itself. In "Smoke" I was now aware of an artifice that kept out of sight, but was still always present somewhere, invisibly operating the story.—From "My Literary Passions" (1895).



The second novel of the series, "Fathers and Children," stirred up a storm the suddenness and violence of which it is not easy, nowadays, to understand. The figure of Bazarov, the first "Nihilist"—thus baptized by an inversion of epithet which was to win extraordinary success—is merely intended to reveal a mental condition which, though the fact had been insufficiently recognized, had already existed for some years. The epithet itself had been in constant use since 1829, when Nadiéjdine applied it to Pushkin, Polevoï, and some other subverters of the classic tradition. Turgenev only extended its meaning by a new interpretation, destined to be perpetuated by the tremendous success of "Fathers and Children." There is nothing, or hardly anything, in Bazarov, of the terrible revolutionary whom we have since learnt to look for under this title. Turgenev was not the man to call up such a figure. He was far too dreamy, too gentle, too good-natured a being. Already, in the character of Roudine, he had failed, in the strangest way, to catch the likeness of Bakounine, that fiery organiser of insurrection, whom all Europe knew, and whom he had selected as his model. Conceive Corot or Millet trying to paint some figure out of the Last Judgment after Michael Angelo! Bazarov is the Nihilist in his first phase, "in course of becoming," as the Germans would say, and he is a pupil of the German universities. When Turgenev shaped the character, he certainly drew on his own memories of his stay at Berlin, at a time when Bruno Bauer was laying it down as a dogma that no educated man ought to have opinions on any subject, and when Max Stirner was convincing the young Hegelians that ideas were mere smoke and dust, seeing that the only reality in existence was the individual Ego. These teachings, eagerly received by the Russian youth, were destined to produce a state of moral decomposition, the earliest symptoms of which were admirably analysed by Turgenev.

Bazarov is a very clever man, but clever in thought, and especially in word, only. He scorns art, women, and family life. He does not know what the point of honour means. He is a cynic in his love affairs, and indifferent in his friendships. He has no respect even for paternal tenderness, but he is full of contradictions, even to the extent of fighting a duel about nothing at all, and sacrificing his life for the first peasant he meets. And in this the resemblance is true, much more general, indeed, than the model selected would lead one to imagine; so general, in fact, that, apart from the question of art, Turgenev—he has admitted it himself—felt as if he were drawing his own portrait; and therefore it is, no doubt, that he has made his hero so sympathetic.—From "A History of Russian Literature" (1900).



But for the best expression of the bewilderment of life we have to turn to the portrait of a man, to the famous Bazarov of "Fathers and Children." Turgenev raises through him the eternal problem—Has personality any hold, has life any meaning at all? The reality of this figure, his contempt for nature, his egoism, his strength, his mothlike weakness are so convincing that before his philosophy all other philosophies seem to pale. He is the one who sees the life-illusion, and yet, knowing that it is the mask of night, grasps at it, loathing himself. You can hate Bazarov, you cannot have contempt for him. He is a man of genius, rid of sentiment and hope, believing in nothing but himself, to whom come, as from the darkness, all the violent questions of life and death. "Fathers and Children" is simply an exposure of our power to mould our own lives. Bazarov is a man of astonishing intellect—he is the pawn of an emotion he despises; he is a man of gigantic will—he can do nothing but destroy his own beliefs; he is a man of intense life—he cannot avoid the first, brainless touch of death. It is the hopeless fight of mind against instinct, of determination against fate, of personality against impersonality. Bazarov disdaining everyone, sick of all smallness, is roused to fury by the obvious irritations of Pavel Petrovitch. Savagely announcing the creed of nihilism and the end of romance, he has only to feel the calm, aristocratic smile of Madame Odintsov fixed on him and he suffers all the agony of first love. Determining to live and create, he has only to play with death for a moment, and he is caught. But though he is the most positive of all Turgenev's male portraits, there are others linking up the chain of delusion. There is Rudin, typical of the unrest of the idealist; there is Nezhdanov ("Virgin Soil"), typical of the self-torture of the anarchist. There is Shubin ("On the Eve"), hiding his misery in laughter, and Lavretsky ("A House of Gentlefolk"), hiding his misery in silence. It is not necessary to search for further examples. Turgenev put his hand upon the dark things. He perceived character, struggling in the "clutch of circumstances," the tragic moments, the horrible conflicts of personality. His figures have that capability of suffering which (as someone has said) is the true sign of life. They seem like real people, dazed and uncertain. No action of theirs ever surprises you, because in each of them he has made you hear an inward soliloquy.—From "Turgenev and the Life-Illusion," in "The Fortnightly Review" (April, 1910).



Turgenev did for Russian literature what Byron did for English literature; he led the genius of Russia on a pilgrimage throughout all Europe. And in Europe his work reaped a glorious harvest of praise. Flaubert was astounded by him, George Sand looked up to him as to a master, Taine spoke of his work as being the finest artistic production since Sophocles. In Turgenev's work, Europe not only discovered Turgenev, but it discovered Russia, the simplicity and the naturalness of the Russian character; and this came as a revelation. For the first time Europe came across the Russian woman whom Pushkin was the first to paint; for the first time Europe came into contact with the Russian soul; and it was the sharpness of this revelation which accounts for the fact of Turgenev having received in the west an even greater meed of praise than he was perhaps entitled to.

In Russia Turgenev attained almost instant popularity. His "Sportsman's Sketches" and his "Nest of Gentlefolk" made him not only famous but universally popular. In 1862 the publication of his masterpiece "Fathers and Children" dealt his reputation a blow. The revolutionary elements in Russia regarded his hero, Bazarov, as a calumny and a libel; whereas the reactionary elements in Russia looked upon "Fathers and Children" as a glorification of Nihilism. Thus he satisfied nobody. He fell between two stools. This, perhaps, could only happen in Russia to this extent; and for that same reason as that which made Russian criticism didactic. The conflicting elements of Russian society were so terribly in earnest in fighting their cause, that anyone whom they did not regard as definitely for them was at once considered an enemy, and an impartial delineation of any character concerned in the political struggle was bound to displease both parties. If a novelist drew a Nihilist, he must be one or the other, a hero or a scoundrel, if either the revolutionaries or the reactionaries were to be pleased. If in England the militant suffragists suddenly had a huge mass of educated opinion behind them and a still larger mass of educated public opinion against them, and some one were to draw in a novel an impartial picture of a suffragette, the same thing would happen. On a small scale, as far as the suffragettes are concerned, it has happened in the case of Mr. Wells. But if Turgenev's popularity suffered a shock in Russia from which it with difficulty recovered, in western Europe it went on increasing. Especially in England, Turgenev became the idol of all that was eclectic, and admiration for Turgenev a hallmark of good taste....

"Fathers and Children" is as beautifully constructed as a drama of Sophocles; the events move inevitably to a tragic close. There is not a touch of banality from beginning to end, and not an unnecessary word; the portraits of the old father and mother, the young Kirsanov, and all the minor characters are perfect; and amidst the trivial crowd Bazarov stands out like Lucifer, the strongest—the only strong character—that Turgenev created, the first Nihilist—for if Turgenev was not the first to invent the word, he was the first to apply it in this sense.

Bazarov is the incarnation of the Lucifer type that recurs again and again in Russian history and fiction, in sharp contrast to the meek, humble type of Ivan Durak. Lermontov's Pechorin was in some respects an anticipation of Bazarov; so were the many Russian rebels. He is the man who denies, to whom art is a silly toy, who detests abstractions, knowledge, and the love of Nature; he believes in nothing; he bows to nothing; he can break, but he cannot bend; he does break, and that is the tragedy, but, breaking, he retains his invincible pride, and

"not cowardly puts off his helmet,"

and he dies "valiantly vanquished."

In the pages which describe his death Turgenev reaches the high-water mark of his art, his moving quality, his power, his reserve. For manly pathos they rank among the greatest scenes in literature, stronger than the death of Colonel Newcome and the best of Thackeray. Among English novelists it is, perhaps, only Meredith who has struck such strong, piercing chords, nobler than anything in Daudet or Maupassant, more reserved than anything in Victor Hugo, and worthy of the great poets, of the tragic pathos of Goethe and Dante. The character of Bazarov, as has been said, created a sensation and endless controversy. The revolutionaries thought him a caricature and a libel, the reactionaries a scandalous glorification of the Devil; and impartial men such as Dostoevsky, who knew the revolutionaries at first hand, thought the type unreal. It is impossible that Bazarov was not like the Nihilists of the sixties; but in any case as a figure in fiction, whatever the fact may be, he lives and will continue to live....—From "An Outline of Russian Literature" (1914).