An Analysis of Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev's Fathers and Sons

Categories: Literature

“The central topic of the novel is the significance of the old and the young, of liberals and radicals, traditional civilisation and the new, harsh positivism, which has no use in anything except what is needed by a rational man” -Isaiah Berlin Fathers and Sons, published in 1862, is often referred to as Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev’s magnum opus. The book’s themes deal with various issues that shrouded the Russian socio-political scene at the time since the action of book itself is set in the year of 18593, a time which highlights “the state of anticipation Russia found itself in before Alexander II launched the ‘Great reforms’ of the 1860s.

”(Bartlett, p.16) It is the intention of this paper to discuss some of the significant themes of the novel, that are, the generational conflict between the old and the young and the ideological conflict between the liberals and radicals, the traditional civilisation vis a vis the new emerging harsh positivism and finally the notion of the rational man in the novel.

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The paper shall attempt to only engage in an exploration of these issues and not necessarily draw any conclusions regarding them. It is of import to first establish a historical background of the novel that shall facilitate the understanding of other themes further.

Glyn Turton in his essay “The historical context of Fathers and Sons” writes: Fathers and sons was published…just one year after the most momentous event in the history of nineteenth-century Russia, the Emancipation of the Serfs. At a stroke, the imperial decree liberating the peasantry from the gentry, whose lands they were obliged to till, loosened the entire Russian society… It took Russia’s calamitous defeat in the Crimean War and the accession of a more liberal Tsar, Alexander II, in 1856 to drive home the inevitability of reforming a semi-feudal system which had retarded Russia’s economic development and corrupted the nation morally.

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(p.180-181) This reiteration of the Russian situation is important also because Turgenev’s “characters face uncertainties and contradictions within themselves and in their relationships with others that are akin to those the Russian nation as a whole had to confront to establish its own identity and autonomy.” as well.

This is reflective in the characterisation which is modelled on certain social types of the time, for example, Bazarov who is a Nihilist, and also in the plot of the novel which is embedded with broad historical issues as well, for example, the generational conflict between the 40s men and the 60s men The very title of the book suggests the depiction of two generations, that of Fathers and the Sons. The book revolves around the “timeless conflicts between generations over values, beliefs and behaviour.”(Allen, p. 26) This conflict is not just affected by the age difference but also the ideology championed by the generations that were in conflict as well. For the purpose of this paper the relationship between the two generations in the character relations of Bazarov and his friend Arkady’s uncle Pavel along with Arkady and his father Nikolai will be analysed to reflect more light upon this issue. Bazarov is perhaps a character that has been debated upon and spoken of ad nauseam and this paper shall also use him in the discussion of every theme as well.

In the novel, the following conversation between Pavel and Arkady clearly puts things into perspective regarding the generational and ideological conflict between Pavel and Bazarov: Pavel Petrovich twitched his moustache. “Well, and what exactly is Mr. Bazarov?”… “He’s a nihilist… The nihilist is a man who bows down to no authority, who takes no single principle on trust, however much respect be attached to that principle.”… “Really. Well I can see it’s not for us. We, the older generation think that without principles,”(Pavel Petrovich pronounced the word principes, in the soft French way, while Arkady on the contrary pronounced it ‘príntsiple’, stressing the first syllable) “Without príncipes, taken on trust, as you say, we can’t move one step forward or breathe.”(p. 23 24)

Perhaps this conversation signifies the essence of the conflict between the generations. In so far as the ideological conflict is concerned, Joseph Frank ineptly and with brevity makes it clear as he writes: Turgenev’s … Fathers and Children… depicts the conflicts that broke out in Russian culture around 1858 between two generations. One was the generation of the 1840s, which had been formed on Romantic literature and German Idealist philosophy, and was politically liberal or Utopian Socialist in its sympathies. The new generation of the 1860s—the generation of Turgenev’s hero, Bazarov— favoured Realism rather than Romanticism in literature…and it was bitterly hostile to liberal reformism of any stripe. While on the one hand, Pavel Petrovich is an idle man of the 40s, who values art and good manners and being a liberal democrat sympathizes with the reformist voices and considers Britain to be a fine example of preservation of fine aristocratic manners and liberty at the same time, on the other hand, Bazarov, detests aristocracy and is the raznochinaia intelligentsia, the ‘new men’ as they were called in Russia, who were the younger iconoclast members of the intelligentsia calling for more drastic measures against the Tsarist regime.

It is not impossible to recognise that this conflict of old and young is overlapped by the conflict of the liberal and the radical. It is also of import to recognise that Bazarov’s radicalism is essentially interchangeable with nihilism, though both of them do not necessarily mean the same but many scholars like the historian Ronald Hingley simply define the Nihilists in a historical-political manner as the “Russian radicals and revolutionaries in the reign of Alexander II” (p. 121) Thus, the novel certainly signifies the cultural schism between liberals and radicals. Furthering from the last point, while there are very deep rooted ideological differences between Bazarov and Pavel, amusingly one can also gauge similarities. Here two important critical observations can be posited. Firstly, in chapter 24 of the novel, Pavel challenges Bazarov to a duel and Bazarov agrees to it.

Here it is of import to realise that in the romantic tradition “the main function of the duel was to provide a means of settling disputes between equals”! (Jahn, p.86). Thus, in extending the challenge and accepting the challenge, both Pavel and Bazarov, respectively, recognise each other as equals. Secondly, Elizabeth Allen while writing about Bazarov and Pavello states that: …they are… motivated by long-held moral principles and yet morally flawed; they… struggle fiercely to preserve their sense of identity, and all pay a supremely high price for doing so…end up tragically frozen in isolation forever…Pavel Petrovich in self-imposed exile…and Bazarov in his grave permanently removed from the human affections that their forceful yet fragile personalities would not dare to trust.(p.27)

Similarly, the relationship of Arkady with his father Nikolai is also another example of the generational conflict. Gary Jahn writes: As the novel opens, the relationship between Nikolay Petrovich and Arkady contains elements of strain and uneasiness…. the cause of the uneasiness is evidently the result of their consciousness of their membership in different generations interfering with an underlying sense of closeness and affection. The ambiguity is finally resolved when Arkady visits Nikolskoe by himself and, under the influence of his growing affection for Katya, it is implied that he has abandoned his desire to view himself as a replica of Bazarov…. Later, the rift between the two young men is openly acknowledged by both …This renunciation of the priority of solidarity among the younger generation clears the way for the ultimate portrait of Nikolay and Arkady as having given way to the sense of affection which unites them.

Thus, while the novel is primarily imbued with the problem of generational conflict, it can also be seen that it is rather problematic when this conflict is posed between two extremes ideologically, as in the case of Bazarov and Pavel, and a resolution of ideological differences can result in unity and continuity as in the case of Arkady and Nikolai. One can say that “the novel begins with the assumption that generations are essentially in conflict and ends with the conclusion that generations are essentially the same.”(Jahn, p.88) The paper would now like to move on to the themes of traditional civilisation vis a vis the new emerging, harsh positivism in the novel. The traditional civilisation was championed by the “Slavophiles, who believed that Russia’s path lay in its traditional spirituality”. One example of this traditionalism can be seen in the mir or the primitive Russian peasant commune, organised on the basis of collective responsibilities, thought by some to contain the essence of agrarian socialisml? Bazarov coldly comments on “the subject of the commune” to Pavel Petrovich saying “you’d better have a chat to your brother. I think he’s now come to know from experience what the commune is like”(F&S, p.54).

Perhaps, Bazarov’s critique of the traditionalism comes from his position as an emblem of the new positivism. In the novel, the scene of Nikolay’s farm estate — which is more directly called the Poor Man’s Farm (F&S, p.15) — is shown as: … all the peasants they passed were dressed in rags and riding wretched little horses. The willows by the road stood like tattered beggars, with torn bark and broken branches. Emaciated, rough skinned cows, all bone, hungrily munched the grass in the ditches. (F&S, p.13-14) The critics Vernon A. Chamberlain and Jack Weiner rightly note: …the allusions to the beggar-like landscape are a prelude to their description of the land’s impoverished inhabitants… The horrible conditions in the countryside seem to point up the great need for the progressive ideas and know-how of the young university graduates, both of whom are passionately convinced that science can overcome the damage done by superstition and inadequate education. This immense emphasis on the need of science is precisely what Bazarov and positivism imply as well. Bazarov is a nihilist and the nihilist is a positivist, i.e. a great believer in science who strictly retains that ‘real’, authentic knowledge is based on actual sense experience.” (Dubnov, p.4).

Keiji Nishitani also signifies this relationship between Nihilism, Positivism and Science when he writes about the Nihilists, saying that “Coupled with their atheism was a stalwart belief in a Germanic science, one that was decidedly post-theological and post-philosophical. This science supported positivism and materialism, and emphasized above all else realism 16 (p. 133). This is reflective in Bazarov’s statement “A decent chemist is worth twenty times any poet” (F&S, p.26) Finally, the paper shall now conclude its discussion with an exploration of rationality in the novel. To begin this discussion the paper shall only look at Bazarov’s figure as that of a rational man and would try to link the earlier mentioned positivism as being useless and only a need of a rational man, as Isaiah Berlin stated. Arie Dubnov, while talking about the Nihilist states that, “the science he adores is a rational epistemic system that he considers to be total, for everything, he believes, should be established on its rational methods… He is an extreme believer in utilitarian ethics of rational egoism.”(p.5)

A glimpse of this is seen in Bazarov’s comments as well when he speaks of love: And what of those mysterious relations between man and woman? We physiologists know all about those relations. Just go and study the anatomy of the eye: where does the enigmatic gaze you’re talking about come from? It’s all romanticism, nonsense, decay, artist’s trickery. Better come and look at a beetle. (F&S, p.33) Tragically, Bazarov, despite this intense rationalisation through harsh positivism, falls in love with Odintsova and the novel charts his decline from thereon, ultimately leading to his death. Here perhaps it can be noted that positivism is rendered useless and surfaces as a mere attribute of a rational man. It becomes of import here to thus question this need for rationalisation in the first place and Elizabeth Allen posits an answer to this question when she writes about Turgenev:

Central to his works is the illustration of people protecting themselves from their vulnerabilities by developing strategies of psychic survival…the mental machinations of self-protection—denial, projection, sublimation, and, above all, rationalisation-employed by individuals to minimise the pains of human existence… yet while sympathising with the needs and desires that inspire such behaviour, he exposes it as regularly yielding more harm than good, rooted as it so often is in self-deception.(p.16-17)

As stated earlier, the paper intended to present a discussion on the themes and not provide any certain conclusions since the novel can be subjected to multiple interpretations that are more often than not are contradictory in nature. The paper would thus like to conclude instead by quoting James Woodward”), who also emphasises this ambivalence of the text: In the novel’s conclusion his (Bazarov’s) defiance and death are contrasted with Nikolai’s and Arkadii’s unquestioning affirmation of life…It is to them, to the ability of their hearts to find a meaning in life that is inaccessible to the hero’s reason, that Turgenev grants the victory. Yet its is a victory overshadowed by the hero’s tragedy, which Turgenev invests with all the power that derived from his own despair, from his own futile search for a rational means in life. For the conflict between head and heart was Turgenev’s own conflict, and it is this conflict that the novel ultimately dramatises, acquiring as a result its disturbing ambivalence that continues to stimulate the critical debate.


  1. Allen, Elizabeth Cheresh. “Introduction:Turgenev Today” in The Essential Turgenev ed. Elizabeth Cheresh Alen. Illinois: Northwestern University Press. 1994. Berlin, Isaiah.
  2. Fathers and Children: Turgenev and the Liberal Predicament. London: Penguin Books. 1994.
  3. Chamberlin, Vernon A., and Jack Weiner. “Galdós’ Doña Perfecta and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons: Two Interpretations of the Conflict between Generations.” PMLA, vol. 86, no. 1, 1971, pp. 19–24. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  4. Dubnov, Arie. “Nihilism and the Dilemma of the Liberal Intellectual: From Turgenev to Berlin and back,” in The Concept of Nihilism: The Limits of Political Critique, Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, June 2009
  5. Francis, Arthur Morius. Nihilism: Philosophy of Nothingness. 2015.
  6. Frank, Joseph. “Sons against Fathers” in Through the Russian Prism: Essays on Literature and Culture. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, Oxford. 1990.
  7. Hingley, Ronald. Nihilists: Russian Radicals and Revolutionaries in the Reign of Alexander II (1955-81). London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967.
  8. Jahn, Gary R. “Character and Theme in Fathers and Sons.” College Literature, vol. 4, no. 1, 1977, pp. 80–91. JSTOR, JSTOR,
  9. Nishitani, Keiji. “Nihilism in Russia.” In The Selfovercoming of Nihilism. Albany: State University of New York, 1990. p. 127-139
  10. Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons. Translated by Peter Carson. New Delhi: Penguin Books. 2015.
  11. Turton, Glyn. “The historical context of Fathers and Sons” in The Realist Novel ed. Dennis Walder. New York: Routledge. 1995.
  12. Woodward, James. “Fathers and Sons” in Reference Guide to Russian Literature ed. Neil Cornwell, Nicole Chritian. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. 1998.

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An Analysis of Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. (2021, Oct 11). Retrieved from

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