Classic of the Month: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Last month’s classic was Father and Son (Edmund Gosse); this month is Fathers and Sons, the 1861 novel by Ivan Turgenev (1818–83). I couldn’t resist pairing up the similar titles, and it turns out that even though one is nonfiction and the other fiction, they are thematically similar, dwelling on the clash of generations and contrasting romanticism and rationalism.

Nikolai Kirsanov’s son Arkady, newly graduated from university, has just returned to his father’s estate with his haughty fellow student Yevgeny Bazarov in tow. Bazarov intends to take a medical degree and follow in his father’s footsteps as a country doctor, so spends the time at his friend’s house dutifully poring over chemistry texts and dissecting frogs. Arkady, by contrast, seems earnest but aimless, happy to simply while away the days. The major change at home is that his father, a widower, has taken the servant girl Fenichka as his mistress and they have a baby, Mitya. (Gasp!) Yet the real shock in the world of the novel seems to be that Nikolai is consorting with someone of the lower classes. “In any case, it’s not for a son to sit in judgment on his father – least of all for me, and least of all with a father like you, who has never restricted my freedom in any way,” Arkady graciously concedes.

Together Nikolai and his rakish brother Pavel (“Women lost their heads over him, and men dubbed him a fop but were secretly envious”) represent an outmoded idealism that values art, nature, poetry, and true love. On the other side is Bazarov, who means to tear down those dated notions and recruit Arkady to the side of realism, even nihilism. “Nature is not a temple, but a workshop, and man’s the workman in it,” he explains to Arkady. But the pals’ notions get uncomfortably muddled when they meet the regal widow Anna Odintsov at the governor’s ball. On extended visits to her country house, Bazarov and Arkady become fixated on her and her younger sister, Katya, but differ in their willingness to give in to love.

Romantic love may be a madness best avoided in some of the characters’ view, but family love is a constant. Even Bazarov, though he makes a show of being embarrassed by their fussing when he goes home briefly after three years away, values his parents’ approval. His father proudly takes him along on his medical rounds, while his superstitious mother buttresses him with her prayers. She reminds her husband that Yevgeny is fundamentally different from them: “A son is an independent person. He’s like a falcon that comes when he wills and flies off when he lists; but you and I are like the funguses growing in a hollow tree.”

Turgenev in an 1874 portrait by Ilya Repin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable and accessible Turgenev’s writing is. My experience with the Russian masters is shamefully limited; Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich might literally be the only thing I’ve read previously. I was worried that all the patronymics, place names, and historical and cultural references would trip me up, but it’s no trouble to adjust to them here. You might think of Fathers and Sons as a friendly way of easing in to works like War and Peace: although elements of the story reminded me of Tolstoy’s epic (as I know it purely from the recent BBC miniseries) – the range of characters, from rich to poor, and their interactions; the long visits to acquaintances; the peaceful countryside; even a duel – it is on a much smaller scale, and has a correspondingly lower page count of about 220.

Something in nearly every character’s psyche rang true for me: Arkady’s relief at being home; Nikolai’s sense of being left behind; Bazarov’s feeling of smallness in an uncaring universe; his mother’s benevolent contentment with the status quo; Madame Odintsov’s well-ordered but purposeless life; and so on. Turgenev’s asides about Russia and about human nature give the narration a playful, knowing quality reminiscent of George Eliot. The idea of fathers and children being on different tracks extends to other forms of paternalism: religion (though this is a minor theme compared to in Father and Son) as well as masters versus serfs. “We all know there’s the master’s will; on account of you bein’ like our fathers. An’ the more strict the master rules, the better it be for us peasants,” as one rustic opines to Bazarov.

This is a thought-provoking but markedly readable classic that I can heartily recommend. Turgenev only wrote five other novels; if they’re all as strong (and roughly as short) as this one, I’d be happy to read them all – and will likely return to Fathers and Sons in the future.

My rating:


(With thanks to Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for putting Turgenev on my radar.)

I read a Penguin Classics edition of Rosemary Edmonds’s 1965 translation. Her brief introduction gives helpful background and is a lovely piece of writing in its own right. Beware: only read a literary introduction after finishing the text, because critics assume you know the basic story line and so spoil who falls in love with whom, who dies in the end, etc. My edition is preceded by a lengthy lecture Isaiah Berlin gave on Turgenev in 1970.

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11 thoughts on “Classic of the Month: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

  1. I confess to having struggled to find the Turgenev interesting. It was on a syllabus I followed for the Open University so I read it (twice) but it never grabbed me in the way other russian fiction has

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  2. I was interested in what you said about the shock of Nicolai consorting with the lower classes. I would have thought that this happened fairly regularly. Is it to do with the fact that he has made her his mistress and presumably recognised the child as his? Does mistress equate to a certain acknowledged status?

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    1. He’s wary of telling his son about Fenichka and their child, so he clearly expects moral outrage — but instead seems to just get surprise that he’d be connected with such a low-class girl. By the end of the novel (I hope this is not a spoiler) he’s willing to marry her.

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    1. Turgenev spent a lot of his life abroad, including in Germany, France and England, so I wonder if that had some influence on his style. The translator quoted a reference to him as “the un-Russian Russian” (not sure who originally said that), but I’m hoping he’s not the odd one out and I’m doomed to find the rest of Russian literature inaccessible! I didn’t like the one Tolstoy I tried, but have always meant to read Dostoevsky.

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  3. This is one that I found surprisingly readable when I was embarking on a classics list at some point, but I have lost much of the story since so I quite enjoyed your recap. And I love your advice to read the preface/introduction afterwards given that they often assume readers are already familiar with the text. I learned that the hard way, and it still makes no sense to me…then, why not put it after? especially in cheap paperbacks? for who’s going to buy that edition of a classic when they have already read it and loved it? woulnd’t it be better to assume they are gateway editions and save the spoilers? Gah. *grins*

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    1. I would agree with your “surprisingly readable” designation. I was expecting more of a challenge from a Russian master. That’ll have to wait until my first Dostoevsky!

      My husband has the worst example of that: he bought a cheap paperback of Great Expectations from a charity shop and it set out the whole plot in the blurb on the back cover! He’d somehow made it to age 20 or whatever without knowing what G.E. was about and was very peeved indeed.

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      1. Heheh Fortunately my copy of GE was an Everyman’s without the dust jacket, and from the days before substantial introductions. However, I can’t blame introductions entirely. I once had a friend look at my Penguin Classic, which I hadn’t even begun yet and say “Well, you know they all die at the end”, before I had even started. Needless to say, the intro didn’t hurt one bit after that. (Notice how I don’t say WHICH classic. And it has nothing to do with the idea that you’ve got a Russian thing going here!) And now you know why I am spoiler-phobic!

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