Themes in Fathers and Sons

Conflict Between Generations as Inevitable: Like the title suggestions, some of the major sources of conflict are between fathers and sons. Though Nikolai loves his son greatly, he laments that, despite his best efforts to keep up with current philosophy and politics, he still can’t quite understand his son’s convictions—and thinks that there is an unbridgeable gap between them. Likewise, Bazarov’s father realizes he is unable to keep up with the extreme views of his son, though Bazarov holds his father in much greater contempt than Arkady does his. Of note is also a remembered conversation between Nikolai and his father, where he proclaimed that his father could never understand him because of the age gap between them. Though some of generational conflict is unresolved, hope of mending is not lost, as proven by Arkady and his father’s relationship. Brought together by their dual marriages, they begin to restore their closeness, while Bazarov dies without reconciling with his father.

Traditional Values vs. Nihilism’s Rejection of Authority: One of the clearest debates in the novel is the question of how much credence to give to authority and tradition. Bazarov endorses the younger generation’s tendency toward cynicism, postulating that nothing truly matters and that authoritative constructs, such as morality, are all meaningless. Meanwhile, Paul is a staunch opponent of this set of beliefs, preferring the traditional spiritual values of Russia. Though Bazarov is generally an unpleasant person to speak with, he is nonetheless charismatic and appealing enough that Arkady follows him for a span of several months. Despite the inherent conflict between the two ways of viewing the world, Arkady and his father’s reconconciliation suggests that the two can learn to understand one another. On the other hand, Bazarov’s death is tragic, perhaps suggesting that his nihilism leads to a life of unhappy unfulfillment.

The Value of Romantic Love vs. the Value of Scientific Curiosity: Bazarov and Arkady follow different paths to happiness; while Bazarov spends his free time dissecting frogs and peering into microscopes, Arkady seeks a greater human connection, eventually finding love with the kind and perceptive Katya. Bazarov, who openly disdains the concept of love, nevertheless finds himself attracted to the alluring Anna Sergievna (though his first thought at seeing her attractive body is oddly scientific, as he wonders what she would look like on the dissecting table). His confession of love to her comes out sounding like something painful he has had to force out of his mouth since it is so alien to the materialist rationality he talks about day in and day out; he is crushed when rejected. His pursuit of scientific knowledge eventually kills him, and he dies unloved—but not uncared for—by Anna, suggesting that perhaps his life could have been happier had allowed himself emotional depth earlier.

Themes Examples in Fathers and Sons:

Chapter I 2

"but spent the greater part of his time in endeavouring to fraternise with his son's youthful acquaintances..."   (Chapter I)

We see here at Nikolai Petrovich not only stayed in St. Petersburg to educate himself but also spent the majority of his time in the company of his son and his son’s friends. This shows the closeness between father and son, and it also sets up the tension between them since his son is returning from his last year in the capital—which he didn’t spend with his father. They haven’t seen each other in quite some time and much may have changed.

"May, 1859..."   (Chapter I)

Turgenev published Fathers and Sons in 1862, a year after Tsar Alexander II instituted the emancipation reform which liberated the Russian serfs. By situating his story several years prior, Turgenev explores the attitudes related to class and social position in the wake of the various reforms that led to the eventual emancipation. This tension between the classes further plays into the social differences the older and younger generations are experiencing.

"Yet, even as the thought passed through his mind, Spring seemed once more to regain possession of her kingdom, and everything around him grew golden-green..."   (Chapter III)

This passage illustrates the central tension of Arkady’s inner life. Part of Arkady wishes to appeal to Bazarov’s rational, utilitarian understanding of the world. It is from this angle that Arkady coldly looks upon the landscape of his childhood, preaching about educational reform. Then his romantic side takes over and “Spring seemed once more to regain possession of her kingdom.” The following paragraph is a rhapsodic vision of the landscape, bursting with soulfulness and vivacity. Arkady cannot deny for long his delight in beauty and nature, values he shares with his father. Throughout the novel, Arkady continues this inner struggle between romanticism and nihilism.

"But no significance can attach to the place of a man's birth, Papa...."   (Chapter III)

Nikolai has just agreed with Arkady’s observation of the surrounding area, suggesting that Arkady’s having been born in such a place means that he has a connection to the land. Having just fallen into silence after noticing the beauty of the area, Arkady reacts against his father’s suggestion by saying that such a romantic notion has no bearing on the circumstances of one’s birth. Nikolai’s confusion and the stilted conversation that follows shows how the two have grown apart since their last meeting.

""No; I have appointed a fresh one, for I came to the conclusion that I could not have any freed serfs about the place...."   (Chapter III)

In 1861, Tsar Alexander II freed all serfs—a kind of indentured servant—in Russia. Turgenev wrote Fathers and Sons in the immediate aftermath of this decree. Turgenev includes the tension between the ruling classes and the newly freed workings classes in the story—in this case, the tension which arises from Nikolai’s decision not to “have any freed serfs about the place.”

"threw a glance of apprehension in the direction of the tarantass..."   (Chapter III)

Notice that prior to this line, Arkady rejoiced in the atmosphere around the villa, pointing out the beauty of the sky and the smell of the air. That he abruptly stops and looks towards the tarantass, in which Bazarov is seated, suggests that Arkady’s behavior in this moment would not be acceptable to his friend. This tension between Arkady’s love for traditional country life and Bazarov’s views persists throughout the story.

"but also let us see how you will contrive to exist in an absolute void, an airless vacuum. Pray ring the bell, brother Nikolai, for it is time for me to take my cocoa...."   (Chapter V)

Again, Paul calls for the young men to experience life beyond the rational categories promoted by Hegelians—also known as Hegelists—and nihilists. In a telling detail, Paul orders a cup of cocoa to punctuate his remark. The pleasures of food and drink evade rational understanding, and yet are crucial to a fully-lived life. Paul does not state this explicitly; he implies it through action.

"(formerly we had Hegelists, and now they have become Nihilists)..."   (Chapter V)

Hegelists are those who subscribe to the ideas of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a German philosopher writing at the turn of the 19th century. Hegel was a seminal philosopher who worked on a number of intellectual areas, including metaphysics, logic, and phenomenology. As a university student, Turgenev studied Hegel’s work extensively. The apparent similarity between Hegelian and Nihilistic philosophy lies in the question of meaning. One of Hegel’s central ideas is that life is inherently meaningless, a fact which is in itself also meaninglessness. In this way, Nihilism evokes shades of Hegel for Paul.

"Mais vous avez changé tout cela...."   (Chapter V)

Mais vous avez changé tout cela = [French] “But you have changed all of this.” Speaking in French, Paul discusses the way in which the young generation has caused a shift away from a principle-based life. Paul raises a genuine philosophical problem when he goes on to wonder “how you will contrive to exist in an absolute void, an airless vacuum.” It is by no means a simple philosophical question to answer. It is, in a sense, one of the central questions of the book: in an age that is increasingly secular and non-traditional, where does one locate values?

"it is not for a son to summon his father to judgment..."   (Chapter V)

This remark by Arkady reveals a significant philosophical divide between him and Bazarov. While Arkady carries a fundamental respect for his elders, particularly his father and uncle, Bazarov believes in no cause for such respect. Archetypically speaking, Bazarov thinks it is the son’s role to “summon his father to judgment.” This tension between generations is one of the novel’s central themes, as suggested by the title.

""You see, I like to open them, and then to observe what their insides are doing. You and I are frogs too, except that we walk upon our hind legs. Thus the operation helps me to understand what is taking place in ourselves."..."   (Chapter V)

This passage introduces us to Bazarov’s materialist understanding of the world at large and of humankind. To Bazarov, humans are like frogs, organisms to be dissected, diagrammed, and understood. This materialist philosophy holds that reality can be divided into rational categories and that nothing escapes rationality. Poetry, aesthetic appreciation, love, and affection are human experiences which evade rational categorization; Bazarov dismisses all of them.

""A good chemist is worth a score of your poets," remarked Bazarov...."   (Chapter VI)

Bazarov places no value in beauty, humanistic thought, or religious experience. As a result the work of poets—even geniuses such as Goethe—holds no interest for Bazarov. Bazarov cares only for rational approaches to the world, which he conceptualizes as a frog to dissect more and more.