the generational politics of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons

Novels of multiple generations provide excellent vehicles for exploring changes in politics and culture. That is certainly true of Turgenev’s Fathers & Sons (more literally, “Fathers & Children”), published in 1862. Two friends return from college to the rural province where they were children and move together from one household to the other. That creates a set of about 10 relationships between the young friends and the older people in their two families. Nearby is a third country house that belongs to two lovely and available young women. A marriage plot–or even a dual marriage–seems likely, but I will not spoil the conclusion by revealing whether the novel turns into the comedy that the beginning promises.

Turgenev actually belonged to the parents’ generation in the novel. In his youth, the only opponents of the Czarist regime and critics of serfdom had been liberal aristocrats. The middle class had been too small and weak, and the peasants too oppressed, to resist. The liberal aristocrats of Turgenev’s generation were brutally suppressed and achieved little politically. But by the sixties, the regime was loosening and real reforms seemed attainable. Serfdom was actually abolished in 1861. Meanwhile, a new political class arose: commoner sons of priests and lawyers who could obtain university educations. They were angrier, more alienated, more drawn to radicalism, and more ambitious than members of Turgenev’s generation has been.

In Fathers & Sons, Yevgeny Vasil’evich Bazarov represents the new cohort. He is a self-described “nihilist,” having no elaborate positive vision but much resentment, irony, and anger. He is a scientist who believes–if he believes in anything–in facts. He comes from humble origins and likes to think he can relate to the peasants, although they laugh at him behind his back. He is attracted both to an heiress and to a servant girl. His admiring young friend Arkady Nikolaevich Kirsanov comes from the gentry and has no political views of his own. One question is whether he will follow Bazarov or return to the life that is expected of him: marrying a respectable lady and presiding over a country estate.

Fathers & Sons is unusual in depicting the passionate love of parents for their grown children. In romantic fiction, a suspenseful question is whether the protagonist’s love will be requited. In this novel, the same question arises for the fathers and the surviving mother. Will their sons give them attention and affection and choose to live in their homes, or will these young men disdain their old-fashioned beliefs and ride away? Perhaps Turgenev is asking the same question about the whole generation that follows his.

Turgenev was strongly criticized by both the moderates of his generation and the radicals of the next. Neither faction liked the way it was exemplified in Fathers & Sons. That is because all the characters escape simple stereotypes, positive or negative. Bazarov, for example, could be cursorily described as an angry young sophisticate who returns from college to mock the bourgeois old folks in his home town. Except that he really loves his parents and has as much contempt for himself as for them.

I see Fathers & Sons as “liberal” in the sense promoted by Lionel Trilling, Vladimir Nabokov, Isaiah Berlin, Richard Rorty, and others in their tradition. Depicting subtle and unpredictable characters is a political statement, because this is Turgenev’s view of a good society: one in which all people (including the peasants) are able to develop their individuality and in which each person appreciates the others for who they are. On one hand, that stance made Turgenev a bitter critic of Czarism and serfdom; he suffered imprisonment and exile for his politics. On the other hand, it prevented him from satirizing or stereotyping anyone in order to make a political point. The novel is suffused with the empathy and kindness that its author wants for his country.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.