Themes in Fathers and Sons

Nihilism: Nihilism is a mode of philosophical thought which developed over the course of the 19th century before emerging as a movement in Russia in the 1860s. In fact, Fathers and Sons introduced the idea of nihilism to a broad Russian and continental European audience. One of the essential intellectual tendencies of nihilism is to deny traditional structures of meaning. Religion, family, art, the natural world are all deemed useless by nihilism. As Paul Kirsanov points out in the novel, nihilism is an extension and deployment of Hegelianism, the work of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The core of Hegel’s thought is the hypothesis that the rational alone is real. To Hegel, reality can and must be rationalized and categorized. To this notion, the nihilists add the moral dictum that the practical alone is worthy. Thus, nihilists like Bazarov are untethered to any spiritual or emotional grounding. Deeply human acts such as cherishing a walk in the woods, falling in love, and appreciating the beauty of a poem, are all sources of stress to the nihilist. Bazarov cannot place his passion for Anna Sergievna Odintsova in a rational category, nor can he ascribe to it a practical purpose. Turgenev’s implicit claim is that nihilism fails in the human world, a conclusion that eventually dawns on Bazarov.

Liberalism and Russian Tradition: If nihilism represents one of the main attempts to reform 19th-century Russia, liberalism represents the other. Liberalism represents an ethos that seeks to create a new social order while maintaining the fundament of Russian society and culture. Liberalism is, in many ways, conservative. While liberalism is technically agnostic, it implicitly seeks to hold onto the Christian ethical tradition upon which Russian society is built. Short of an orthodox belief in a Christian god, liberalism finds many values worth keeping—love and marriage, family, art and aesthetics, ancient ways of life, nature. Liberals understand two important things about culture: it tells us how to live ethically and meaningfully; it takes many generations to develop. Liberals also understand the limits of intellectualization. While the romantic passion between Bazarov and Anna Sergievna is mutual, it fails because of the intellectual bounds the two characters enforce on their respective worlds. By contrast, Arkady and Katya succeed in their romance because they relax their intellectual standards. As a quintessential nihilist, Bazarov is life-denying, which means that his ideas deny the healthy expression of humanity. Turgenev was a liberal, which becomes clear as the conflict between liberalism and nihilism finds its resolution in Fathers and Sons. Because of the dangerous political climate in which he wrote, Turgenev found fiction to be the best stage for his ideas.

Class, Serfdom, and Liberation: Russian serfdom was a class system which dominated central and southern Russia for much of the 2nd-millennium CE. Serfdom is a version of feudalism, a system of governance and land ownership common throughout medieval Europe. From the 11th to 17th centuries, there was a combination of peasants—known as “serfs”—and slaves. While slaves were outright property, serfs served as indentured servants. While serfs were technically free, laws limited their income, behavior, choices, capacity to own property, and social mobility to the point of near slavery. After hundreds of years of debate and conflict over the institution of serfdom, the 19th century brought about monumental changes. Tsar Alexander I extended land ownership rights to serfs. In 1861 his son, Alexander II, abolished serfdom across Russia. Though peasants suddenly found themselves with full rights as civilians, Russia’s underlying class structure and wealth distribution continued to tip greatly in the direction of landowners. In Fathers and Sons, written shortly after the liberation of the serfs, we see some of the aftermath of this social shift. On Nikolai Kirsanov’s estate, some peasants remain happily humble and subservient to the middle and upper classes. Thenichka, a servant, forms a romantic partnership with Nikolai, effectively moving up the class hierarchy. However, Peter, another servant, carries himself with a more prideful bearing and wishes to transcend his relatively low social status through upward mobility.

Love: In Turgenev’s novel, romantic relationships serve as a crucible in which the deeper ideas of the story are explored and tested. The romance between Nikolai and Thenichka explores the tensions between the aristocratic and servile classes in the wake of liberation. Their infant son represents the possibility of future union and peace between the two groups. The doomed romantic spark between Bazarov and Anna Sergievna exemplifies the problems of nihilism and intellectualism in daily life. Their mutual attraction leads nowhere because it triggers an ideological crisis in Bazarov. Love proves that Bazarov’s nihilism denies his own nature in an untenable fashion. Finally, the successful love between Arkady and Katya is a direct result of Arkady’s shift away from nihilism towards a liberal outlook. Turgenev’s development of these parallel but opposingly fated romantic relationships constitutes his most devastating critique of nihilism.

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.