Thoughts on Fathers and Sons, Chapters I-XI

Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons involves the following characters: Nikolai Petrovich, barin (literally master) of the estate Marino; Paul Petrovich, his bachelor brother, a retired soldier; Arkady, Nikolai’s son, a recent graduate; Bazarov, his friend and fellow graduate; and Thenichka, Nikolai’s young wife (about the same age as the graduates), to whom he’s been married just a couple of years.

So far, the conflict has come from the two generations’ philosophical differences. Bazarov is a Nihilist and has brought Arkady under that same school of thought. Paul dislikes Bazarov because he strongly disagrees with the younger mens’ philosophy. He considers its lack of principles foolish and, worse, useless for improving Russia. Nikolai doesn’t hold with Nihilism either, but he respects the younger generation’s need to fashion their own philosophies, separate from those of their forebears. He loves his brother and his son, and he also like Bazarov, so he is greatly upset by the growing enmity between Paul and their young visitor.

The family is Liberal, and sympathetic to the plight of the serfs. Nikolai, it is said, avoids using bonded serfs, preferring instead to employ hired hands. Paul also considers himself Liberal, but only within the systemic confines of the aristocracy. When Arkady tells Bazarov that his uncle often gives money to random serfs on whom he takes pity, his friend is not impressed. Elsewhere in the novel, it says that Paul has no financial stake in the estate. That implies that Paul gives from whatever allowance he’s afforded by his brother.

Turgenev treats each of these perspectives with respect and sympathy. The youth aren’t automatically right nor are the older men automatically wrong. Bazarov devotes himself to science and eschews art, philosophy and feeling, which he derides as “Romanticism”, inferior to empirical research and Enlightenment values. This a major source of contention for the older men, especially Nikolai, a sensitive man who plays cello and reads poetry. Bazarov and Paul have little regard for each other, while Arkady and Nikolai are softer, each agreeing in principle with their more hardline counterparts while sympathising with their opposites.

I’m really impressed with this so far and I’m looking forward to reading more. The conversations between the characters on the subject of Nihilist philosophy and its moral values, as well as its ability to effect practical change, sound much like debates we have today. The applicability of various ideological frameworks to pressing social problems will always be relevant, it seems. I also like the light and shade Turgenev employs in his characters. Paul’s ill temper and contempt for Bazarov co-exist with his gentle sensitivity with Thenichka’s eight-month-old son and the stern but sincere affection he expresses to Nikolai and Arkady. Bazarov’s easy manner conflicts with his incredible smugness when outlining his philosophy (albeit usually after being goaded by Paul). Many of the household servants are named and, in front of the aristocrats, freely express sentiments that would lead to scandal and dismissal in a Victorian novel. These first eleven chapters promise an encouraging start to my introduction to the Russian novel.

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