Book Reviews/Fathers and Children
Fathers and Children is a realist novel written by the Russian author Ivan Turgenev. His most famous novel, many consider it to be one of the greatest works of fiction of the 19th century. Considering its universal themes, like the young versus the old or nihilism, it still is relevant and is an enjoyable read in present times.
Recommended Translation: Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Children, translated by Michael Katz. Norton critical edition (2nd ed., 2008).
Portrait of Ivan Turgenev
by Vasily Perov, 1872
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Introduction to Fathers and ChildrenEdit
Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Children secures its place in the Russian cannon by addressing an issue that never loses cultural relevance: the tension between successive generations. This work's original Russian title is Отцы и дети (Otcy i Deti), which literally translates "Fathers and Children." The novel's title, however, is often translated in English to "Fathers and Sons."
Yevgeny Vasil'evich Bazarov – A nihilist and medical student. As a nihilist he is a mentor to Arkady, and a challenger to the liberal ideas of the Kirsanov brothers and the traditional Russian Orthodox feelings of his own parents. Arkady Nikolaevich Kirsanov – A recent graduate of St. Petersburg University and friend of Bazarov. He is also a nihilist, although his nihilism has a lot to do with Bazarov's influence. Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov – A landlord, a liberal democrat, Arkady’s father. Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov – Nikolai’s brother and a bourgeois with aristocratic pretensions, who prides himself on his refinement but, like his brother, is reform-minded. Although he is reluctantly tolerant of the nihilism, he cannot help hating Bazarov. Vasily Ivanovich Bazarov – Bazarov’s father, a retired army surgeon, and a small countryside land/serf holder. Educated and enlightened, he nonetheless feels, like many of the characters, that rural isolation has left him out of touch with modern ideas. He thus retains a loyalty to traditionalist ways, manifested particularly in devotion to God and to his son Yevgeny. Arina Vlas'evna Bazarova – Bazarov’s mother. A very traditional woman of the 15th-century Moscovy style aristocracy: a pious follower of Orthodox Christianity, woven with folk tales and falsehoods. She loves her son deeply, but is also terrified of him and his rejection of all beliefs. Anna Sergeevna Odintsova – A wealthy widow who entertains the nihilist friends at her estate. Katerina (Katya) Sergeevna Lokteva – The younger sister of Anna. She lives comfortably with her sister but lacks confidence, finding it hard to escape Anna Sergeevna's shadow. This shyness makes her and Arkady’s love slow to realize itself. Feodosya (Fenichka) Nikolayevna – The daughter of Nikolai’s housekeeper, with whom he has fallen in love and fathered a child out of wedlock. The implied obstacles to their marriage are difference in class, and perhaps Nikolai's previous marriage – the burden of 'traditionalist' values. Viktor Sitnikov – A pompous and foolhardy friend of Bazarov who joins populist ideals and groups. Like Arkady, he is heavily influenced by Bazarov in his ideals. Avdotya (Evdoksia) Nikitishna Kukshina – An emancipated woman who lives in the town of X. Kukshina is independent but rather eccentric and incapable as a proto-feminist, despite her potential.
- Generational Divides: The generational divide established in the novel's title emerges as its main theme. Fathers and Children attempts to adress whether the new generation will always eclipse the old.
- Science vs. Poetry; Realism vs. Romanticism; Belief vs. Nihilism: Turgenev presents generational tension through the conflicting theories of nihilism and romanticism. Bazarov's nihilism spurns art, literature, and music, rejecting emotions in favor for that which has been scientifically proven.
Ultimately Bazarov's nihilism disintegrates when it comes into conflict with his emotions and his love for Odintsova. Nihilism is not even sustainable for Bazarov, its greatest champion. It cannot help him understand the pain he feels when faced with unrequited love, ultimately leading to a level of dispair with which he is unable to cope.
- Serfdom and a Changing Class Structure
- The West in Russia (Westernization)
On August 6.1860, the idea that would eventually become Fathers and Children came to him. By the end of September, he had outlined the entire novel and wrote the first half during the winter of 1860-61. In typical Turgenev fashion, however, he procrastinated, and did not start writing the second half until May of 1861. He finished work in July of 1861 and sent the manuscript to publishers. While working on the novel, Turgenev kept a diary for Bazarov, reacting events in Russia the way he imagined Bazarov would.
By the time of Fathers and Children release, Turgenev was already a well-established writer. Works such as A Sportman's Skechtes, Rudin, Home of the Gentry, and The Diary of a Superfluous Man all brought him fame and recognition. In The Diary of a Superfluous Man, Turgenev coined the superfluous man, an up to this point unnamed by existing literary hero stereotype. A superfluous man is someone who does not fit into society, plagued by boredom, and simply allows events to to simply happen to him. As some have said that Turgenev himself was not a man of passion and thought that he would never be able to achieve happiness, it is possible that Turgenev saw himself as a superfluous man. The superfluous man can be viewed as a nihilist, and thus be seen as a precursor to Turgenev's nihilist character, Bazarov.
Also, at the time of writing the novel, Russia was undergoing a nihilist movement. Both members of the movement and liberals wanted to westernize Russia, a view that contrasted greatly with Slavophiles, who were conservatives that believed staying true to tradition would bring about a better Russia. Elements of both movements can be seen in the novel, as represented by various characters.
Fathers and Children was first published in Russia in 1862. An English translation by Eugene Schuyler first appeared in 1867, published by Leypoldt and Holt Press in New York City. Some translations change the title of the novel to Fathers and Sons in order to create a more aesthetically pleasing name. Both titles are acceptable to English-speakers when speaking of the book.
When Fathers and Children was first published, it was received with mixed reception. Many from both the left and the right criticized it for its themes and what certain characters stand for. The radical youth took it as blasphemous slander, while conservatives thought its treatment of nihilism was not harsh or condemning enough. People also disliked it because the book did not offer any problems to the questions it raised, whereas other contemporary authors, like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, did just that. Others, however, could not get enough of it for this very reason. They were puzzled by the character Bazarov: just what was he? Who was he? What was the meaning behind his character? Many readers puzzled over the eccentric fellow, trying to unravel his mystery, along with the moral ambiguities of the novel. Turgenev favors neither the fathers or the children, those who favor the traditional and those who favor the intellectual, and thus it is unclear exactly what Turgenev meant with the work.
In addition, the novel introduced both the idea of nihilism and the growing movement to a wider audience than it had previously. It popularized the ideas behind nihilism, helping the movement gain steam until it reached widespread usage. Philosophers such as Nietzsche examined the term and utilized it in their own philosophies, leaving a lasting imprint on both philosophy and history itself.
- If we establish generational conflict to be at the heart of this novel, does Turgenev seem to sympathize with the fathers or the sons? Does he support either generation?
- Fathers and Children was first published in 1862, a year after the emancipation of the Russian serfs, but takes place in 1859 while serfdom is still enforced. Why do you think Turgenev chose to set his novel during this period? Do you think it gains thematically by incorporating indentured serfs, or does it date itself by incorporating a system that ceased to (officially) exist?
- What is the function of the female characters in the novel? Do they represent a continuation of previous portrayals of Russian femininity or do they provide a something new?
- What narrative strategies does Turgenev employ? Does Fathers and Children represent an advance in narrative techniques over earlier Russian novels?
- What role does love play in the novel? How does success or failure in romance shape the characters' destinies?
- By the end of the novel, do you think Turgenev comes out favoring romanticism, nihilism, or some third alternative?
- How, as readers, do we understand Bazarov's death?
- How does Arkady change throughout the novel?
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