Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev
It’s the middle of the 1800’s and in Russia, the dawning of a new age, heralded by a youthful, nihilstic generation. Arkady has returned from school to the home of of his father and his father’s new wife and child, where his uncle also lives, and he’s brought Bazarov, a friend whom he looks up to dearly. Arkady’s father Nicholas has tried to keep up with changing times, by freeing his serfs and raising his new family. But while his is more progressive than his genteel brother, he is not as progressive as his son Arkady. And if Arkady is progressive, than Bazarov is radical. Herein lies the primary source of conflict in Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev.
Bazarov is quite outspoken about his unwillingness to accept the the values and principles of the previous generation on faith alone, as well as for his disdain of art and the romantic. He feels no shame in offending his hosts, particularly Pavel, Arkady’s aristocratic uncle, who comes to loathe Bazarov. These early philosophical debates are my favorite part of the book, especially when, after Bazarov defends his nihilistic position by saying that “We act on the strength of what we recognize to be useful…at present the most useful thing of all is renunciation–we renounce”, Arkady’s father Nicholas responds by asking (and I’m paraphrasing now), that once all is renounced, what will then be built?
The question goes unanswered, save for the cop-out statement “That’s not our concern. First we have to clear the ground” (p. 47).
Once a bit of revolutionary havoc has stirred the psyches of their two elder hosts, they travel to a nearby town where they both meet, and fall for, one Anna Sergeyevna Odintsova. Well, Arkady kind of just has a crush, which is later transferred to Anna Sergeyevna’s sister before growing into something more, but Bazarov falls in love. This love thing simply does not jive with his convictions and worldview (which includes a hearty disrespect for women generally, I will add) and leaves Bazarov frustrated, confused, disillusioned, and may or may not have contributed to the events that led up to (SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT)…his death.
So Bazarov is not infallible, as no revolutionary is. Fathers and Sons, though written over a hundred years ago, tackles an ancient theme in a way that feels fresh. It’s about the struggle of each generation to usurp the power of the preceding one, of the new forging ahead while the old is left to the dust. But it is not just about abstract ideals, it is about people, and it raises the questions: how do we wrest power from preceding generations while maintaining compassion and respect for the individuals of that generation? What kind of treatment does the preceding generation deserve?
The answers may be conditional, but the questions are universal.