Russian Studies

October 2013



Essay Assignment on Turgenevís Fathers and Children


Next Wednesday (by 3:30 pm) you will turn in an essay in which you unpack Turgenevís point in his novel Fathers and Children.


How did he respond to the central political question about Russiaís future: ďWhat is to be done?Ē


Political Context:


Remember the specific political context in which the novel was written:

  • After the defeat of the Tsarís armies in the Crimean War (1856), a new generation of activists arose who dismissed the liberal aristocrats of Turgenevís age as bourgeois, corrupt and weak. These new revolutionaries no longer believed in compromise with the Tsar. They had no faith in a policy of gradual, incremental social change. Instead, they were bent upon a radical solution. Even the emancipation of the serfs, which finally took place in 1861, did not satisfy these revolutionaries. They thought that the serfs had merely been fitted with a new set of chains: economic instead of legal. The new activists declared that the whole rotten system had to go, terrorist organizations were formed, and a sharper key informed the political rhetoric of the opposition.


Fathers and Children (1862) was Turgenevís complicated response to these unsettling developments. On the one hand, the brutality and contempt expressed by the younger generationís assault on their liberal forbears stunned him. At the same time he recognized that a new energy had seized the intelligentsia.


This youthful movement was confident, clear-eyed, and committed to action. Their ideology was grounded in the firm belief that only the rational methods of natural science could create a more just society (and that is a Western idea.) The nihilists believed that all abstraction, all dualism, all that could not be established by observation and experiment was useless romantic rubbish: literature, philosophy, art, nature, tradition, authority, religion, intuition, all of it was abstract nonsense. What mattered was reason alone-- and having the strength, will power, and intellectual courage to live a life based solely on useful knowledge. Bazarov, Turgenevís hero in Fathers and Sons is a nihilist, and this character inspired Russia in the second half of the nineteenth century.


Bazarov, the nihilist revolutionary


1.      hard determinist: The environment in which we exist thoroughly determines our thoughts and our behavior. The natural world can be explained by purely scientific principles if only we have the discipline to see the world rationally. Dissect frogs! Tend your garden!  Learn the laws of nature, and you can perfect society.

2.      nihilist: If we simply eliminate all social institutions, all authority (Tsar, church and aristocracy), human nature will return to its original state- which is good! If we can be intellectually hard headed and eliminate all sentimental notions of beauty, all superstitious, precious, obscure and idealistic modes of thought, we will finally be able to describe the world with the true language of nature: science. Nature is a complex mechanism but finally comprehensible. Its sequences of causation are rational and therefore open to human control.

3.      activist: Bazarov believes that those who have rigorously purged themselves of decadent notions of beauty, those who have embraced science and reconciled themselves to the ruthless means that will be necessary to reform society, those heroes will lead the coming revolution.




What is Turgenevís implied point of view?


1.      Bazarov fails at love.








2.      Bazarov disintegrates into a mere character in some banal Romantic novel: stealing kisses in the garden, dueling, playing Russian roulette.









3.      Bazarov dies from inadequate precautions taken while performing an autopsy on a typhus patient and is mourned touchingly by his parents.










4.      The novel concludes with the double marriage of Nikolai with Fenechka and Arkady with Katya. Pavel Petrovich retires to an insignificant life at a comfortable spa in Germany, and Odintsova winds up in a trivial marriage with another wealthy aristocrat. The novelís final moment presents a poignant image of Bazarovís parents tending their sonís grave in a humble village cemetery.


Are you satisfied with Turgenevís happy ending?