History: Fathers and Sons is a realistic novel. It was completed in 1861 and first published in 1862 in the Russian Herald, a magazine. The literal translation of the title is Fathers and Children. The primary purpose of the book is to present an objective view of the generation gap that divides fathers and sons because of the ideas that the older and younger generations espouse. One of the ideas that divide the generations is nihilism.
Nihilism was a dividing force in mid-19th Century Russia. Nihilism (a term derived from the Latin word nihil, meaning nothing) is a philosophy that calls for the destruction of existing traditions, customs, beliefs, and institutions and requires its adherents to reject all values, including religious and aesthetic principles, in favor of belief in nothing. The term was coined in the Middle Ages to describe religious heretics. It was resurrected in mid-19th Century Russia to describe radicals and revolutionaries. Supporters of this philosophy saw it as a stage in the struggle against tyranny and injustice. Turgenev made nihilism a household world in Russia with the publication of Fathers and Sons in 1861. Its main character–the nihilist Bazarov–became the most famous nihilist in the world, even though he was fictional.
Plot: Fathers and Sons starts with Nikolai Kirsanov eagerly waiting at a posting station — a depot for horse carriages — for his son Arkady, who has just graduated from school. When Arkady arrives, however, his father is surprised to see that he has brought a friend, Bazarov, to stay with him at their farm. Bazarov is an older medical student who serves as Arkady's mentor. He is calm, cool, and dispassionate.
They reach the farm where Arkady's uncle, Pavel Kirsanov, is happy to see him. Pavel does not care for Bazarov, however, and makes no effort to hide his distaste. Nikolai tries to bring up the subject of his mistress, Fenitchka, delicately, but Arkady charges off to see her, finding out in the process that he has a new baby brother. It does not take long before the two generations start clashing, mainly due to Bazarov's nihilistic ideas, a type of scientific materialism that advocates believing in nothing. These ideas, which Arkady mimics in their conversations, distress the older Kirsanovs, who realize that there is a large generation gap between them and the young men. Nikolai is sad, feeling his son slipping away from him, while Pavel is angry and gets into heated debates with Bazarov. After Nikolai and Pavel decline an invitation to go see their cousin in another provincial town, Bazarov and Arkady accept in their place.
In the town they meet Matvy Ilyich Kolyazin, Nikolai's cousin, who is an important official. Like Pavel, Kolyazin does not like Bazarov, although he invites both young men to the Governor's Ball. On the road they run into Victor Sitnikov, another one of Bazarov's disciples, who convinces them to pay a visit to Evdoksya Kukshin. Bazarov finds her boring, but still drinks her champagne. Kukshin tells them they should meet Anna Odintsov, a rich young widow, at the Governor's Ball. At the ball Arkady meets Anna and instantly falls in love with her, but she treats him like a friend and asks about Bazarov. After the dance, Arkady lets Bazarov know that Anna is interested in meeting with him and they visit at her hotel. Bazarov is uncharacteristically nervous in her presence. Anna suggests they come see her at Nikolskoe, her country estate, which they do a few days later.
At Nikolskoe, Anna introduces the two young men to her sister Katya. Bazarov and Arkady stay at the estate for a fortnight, during which time Arkady slowly builds up a friendship with Katya, which starts to blossom into love and override his nihilism. In the meantime Bazarov is in the throes of a passionate love for Anna, which he finally confesses to her at the end of his stay. However, even though she has been flirting with him, he is dismayed when she spurns his advance. Relations are awkward with all of them until Bazarov and Arkady leave shortly thereafter for Bazarov's parents' house.
Bazarov's parents have not seen him for three years and are expecting a long stay. However, they smother him with affection, which makes him uncomfortable, and he and Arkady stay only three days, much to their dismay. They get on the road to go back to Maryino and pick up Bazarov's scientific instruments but on a whim, Arkady decides to have them go back to Nikolskoe. Anna is not expecting them, and does not seem pleased to see them. They quickly make an excuse, saying that they were not intending on staying and that they have just stopped in on their way to Maryino. Bazarov and Arkady surprise everyone at Maryino, who also were not expecting them back so soon. However, they are glad to see the two young men. Arkady is not long at home, however, before he finds out from his father that he has letters from Katya's mother, who used to write to Arkady's mother. He decides to use the letters as an excuse to visit Nikolskoe again, but this time, he is received warmly by Katya.
While Arkady is at Nikolskoe, Bazarov busies himself with his scientific experiments at Maryino. He also starts to spend more time with Fenitchka, Nikolai's mistress, under the pretense of offering doctor's remedies to their child. One day, when he is alone with Fenitchka in the garden, he kisses her, and Pavel sees. Shortly thereafter, Pavel challenges him to a secret duel and Bazarov accepts. Bazarov is unharmed, but shoots Pavel in the leg, then bandages the wound for him and stays with him until another doctor comes to relieve him. Bazarov leaves.
Meanwhile Arkady is starting to express his feelings for Katya, but cannot quite tell her he loves her. Bazarov arrives and stays for a few days. Arkady again tries to express his love for Katya in the garden but is interrupted when they hear Bazarov and Anna walking by, talking about their own failed relationship. They leave and Arkady finally tells Katya he loves her. She returns the sentiment and shortly thereafter, Arkady asks Anna for her sister's hand in marriage. Bazarov leaves.
Bazarov's parents are overjoyed to see him, especially when he tells them that he will be there for six weeks. He is noticeably changed from his experiences. Although he tries to busy himself with his experiments, he finds himself getting more social, talking to peasants, and begins to help his father, another doctor, with his patients. After a patient dies of typhus, Bazarov performs an autopsy, cutting himself in the process. The typhus infection quickly overcomes him, and he dies shortly thereafter. On his deathbed, he sends for Anna, who is with him when he collapses into his final unconscious state before death. Six months pass, and in January, both Arkady and his father marry their respective loves. Pavel leaves on the day of the wedding to seek his fortunes abroad. Turgenev addresses the reader, saying that he will give a short synopsis of how everybody is doing in the present. Anna gets married, but not out of love; instead, it is out of the same practical good sense that she has always followed. Arkady, his father, and their respective families live at Maryino, where Arkady is running the now-prosperous farm, while Nikolai helps to institute the upcoming emancipation reforms that will revolutionize Russian society. Pavel spends his time first in Moscow before settling in Dresden, Germany. Finally, Bazarov's parents weep at his grave often, mourning their lost son. Turgenev offers one final thought, saying that love is not hopeless, and that in the end, even Bazarov will have eternal reconciliation and life without end.
Review: In this novel, the protagonist is clearly Bazarov. The entire novel revolves around him. There is a clear-cut development of his character in the novel. He has been structured as an intellectual, superior being, who firmly believes in the basics of Nihilism.
Arcady too is an important character in the novel, but his personality is neither as strong nor as effective as Bazarov’s. Arcady is a more dependant character. Bazarov’s influence on Arcady, as well as the other people around him is impressive. He manages to convey his hypnotic personality over the reader, without much ado.
Although there is no evil character in the novel, who would create problems or crisis for the plot, it can be said that Paul Kirsanov is an antagonist to Bazarov. He dislikes him tremendously and doesn’t lose a chance to snub him or rail at him.
Patel Kirsanov is depicted as a semi-pathetic character, wallowing in his past love and disinterested in any change in his suave lifestyle. Bazarov’s presence therefore is the proverbial fly in the ointment, for him. Bazarov and Patel have a continual verbal duel going on between them, which in fact, even continues to become a physical duel.
The climax of the novel is reached when Bazarov, who always considered himself above all menial feelings like love, falls passionately in love with Anna and is consequently rebuffed by her. Bazarov is unable to reach to this change in his own persona, which he thought he knew so well and is a defeated man.
The degradation of Bazarov’s character has been well depicted. Bazarov’s interest in love and life gradually wanes and he is happy to lead a sedentary, passive life, without thought or action, in his hometown.
What happens thereafter is ordained. Bazarov, a crushed man, returns to his parent’s house and tries to lead a solitary life, devoted to medicine. He has no more interest left in love or life now. A final attempt at renewing his relationship with Anna turns out to be in vain and he returns home. His parents are obviously delighted to have him back in their fold. But he falls prey to his own doctrines and dies a patient of typhus.
Opening Line: “Well, Peter, do you see nothing yet?” asked, on the 20th of May 1859, a man of forty odd years, dressed in a rusty overcoat and plaid pantaloons, who stood bare- headed on the threshold of an inn, on the high road of X, in Russia.”
Closing Line: “However passionate, however rebellious the heart that rests in a tomb, the flowers that have sprung up over it look peacefully at us with their innocent eyes; they speak to us not only with eternal repose, of that perfect repose of “indifferent” nature; they speak to us also of eternal reconciliation, and of a life which cannot end.”
Quotes: “The boldness to believe in nothing.”