Shane's Reviews > Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
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I attempted this classic as I wanted to try out another 19th century Russian author. It takes a lot of energy to dive into these books that don’t translate well in English, where the style is archaic and even amateurish by today’s standards, and, being in the Realist style, where nothing much happens other than for a lot of talk that highlights the pre-occupations of the age.

Arkady is a recent university graduate returning to his widowed father Nikolai’s farm home with his friend and mentor, Bazarov, a doctor and a nihilist. Arkady ascribes to nihilism too, as in the complete annihilation of czarist society, but is more of a blind follower of Bazarov rather than an activist with the strength of conviction. Arkady represents weakness, while Bazarov represents strength and is a precursor of the Bolshevik revolution to come. It is a time of reform when landowners are forced to “share the land” with their serfs in exchange for rent. The serfs however have not risen to the equality bestowed upon them and are content to fritter their money away on booze. As Bazarov observes, “I have looked at all your father’s establishment. The cattle are inferior, the horses are broken down; the buildings aren’t up to much, and the workmen look confirmed loafers; while the superintendent is either a fool, or a knave, I haven’t quite found out which yet.” Nikolai has taken in a destitute young woman, Fenitchka, as a ward, but has given her child in the process. Completing the dysfunctional farm is Uncle Pavel, a solitary bachelor, who “is entering upon that indefinite twilight period of regrets that are akin to hopes, and hopes that are akin to regrets, when youth is over, while old age has not yet come.” Pavel fell in love with a princess once who broke his heart and ditched him; he has retired to Nicolai’s farm, adopted English manners and clothing and stands up for the peasants, while supporting his brother financially. Brother Pavel has the hots for Fenitchka too!

The two nihilists carry the story by travelling between their parents’ farms and the manor home of a wealthy widow, Madame Odintsov and her unmarried younger sister Katya. Turgenev thereby opens us up to the lifestyles of the Russian landed gentry who seem to spend their time visiting each other unannounced and spending long periods during those visits, taking long walks, having long intellectual and political discussions, and reading books in quiet niches of their vast properties. They also feel inferior to their counterparts in England and France, for they adopt many English and French affectations. Through the peregrinations of our nihilist duo, we see a pairing off between Arkady and Katya, and Bazarov and Madame Odintsov. The younger couple give into love and Arkady’s unformed nihilist tendencies fly out the door. Bazarov falls passionately for Madame Odintsov and expresses it as strongly he does his nihilist views, yet the widow is a rather shallow person—in her own words: “I am unhappy because... I have no desires, no passion for life. I love what you call comfort, and at the same time I have little desire to live,” and she is unable to reciprocate his passion.

Bazarov is a restless soul, wanting to change the world, wanting to love—he even makes a pass at Fenitchka that lands him in a duel with Pavel who represents the established order and who despises all that Bazarov stands for. When love is not reciprocated, Bazarov returns like the proverbial prodigal son to his family farm (better managed than Arkady’s), where he is greeted with warmth and affection by his parents. There he practices as a district doctor until he contracts typhus. The climax of the novel comes when Madam Odinsov visits the sick Bazarov, and both come to realize the depth (or shallowness) of their emotions and the limitations of their idealism.

Turgenev sums up for us in the last chapter and tells us where each of the characters will land up over time, and this telling, apart from other “old fashioned” novelistic devices—intrusive omniscient narrator, commentary by author to the reader, granular and catalogued descriptions of characters that fill entire paragraphs—make for laboured reading. In addition, this edition also has several typos and clearly lacked a proof reader.

The moral of the story seems to be that idealism ultimately succumbs to love, and although we may want to change the world, the world may not want to change. As for the Fathers and Sons as mentioned in the title, the fathers come across as loving and vulnerable, beaten down by time and circumstance; the sons are idealistic and cold until love whacks them on the head, for better or worse.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
November 17, 2019 – Shelved
November 17, 2019 – Finished Reading

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