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Rupal Arora

European Realism, 19th century

III year, Vth semester.




Q. discuss how Fathers and Sons engages with the politics of its period

Ivan Turgenev was a novelist, poet and playwright, known for his detailed descriptions of

everyday life in 19th century Russia. Although Turgenev has been overshadowed by his

contemporaries, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, he remains one of the major figures of

19th century Russian literature. Turgenev’s major works include the short-story collection A

Sportsman’s Sketches (1852) and the novels Rudin (1856), Home of the Gentry (1859), On the

Eve (1860), and Fathers and Sons (1862). These works offer realistic, affectionate portrayals of

the Russian peasantry and penetrating studies of the Russian intelligentsia who were attempting

to move the country into a new age. Turgenev poured into his writings not only a deep concern
for the future of his native land but also an integrity of craft that has ensured his place in Russian


Fathers and Sons, if translated more literally Fathers and Children is a Russian novel written in

the 19th century. The fathers and children of the novel refers to the growing divide between the

two generations of Russians, and the character Yevgeny Bazarov, a nihilist who rejects the old

order. Turgenev wrote Fathers and Sons as a response to the growing cultural schism that he saw

between liberals of the 1830s/1840s and the growing nihilist movement. Both the nihilists (the

"sons") and the 1830s liberals (the "fathers") sought Western-based social change in Russia.

Additionally, these two modes of thought were contrasted with the Slavophiles, who believed

that Russia's path lay in its traditional spirituality. Turgenev's novel was responsible for

popularizing the use of the term nihilism, which became widely used after the novel was


From the beginning, Turgenev had conceived a novel which would be about modern Russia – not

just about people from his own patrician milieu living in present day Russia, as in his previous

novels but about the single minded new social types now able to thrive in the new Russia of

Alexander II. Turgenev had the courage to acknowledge that his own generation was essentially

a spent force. In a country whose rulers had invested so much for so long in preserving a barbaric

social system which depended on the connivance of the gentry, sympathizing intellectually with

those members of Russia’s younger generation whose very existence posed a threat to the

survival of his own unfairly privileged class was a noble – and foolhardy – the undertaking.

Turgenev shows the differing ideas between the young generation and the old generation and the

paths they both felt Russia should be taking. The main idea the two generations faced differences

on were whether the proposed emancipation of the serfs a good idea for the economy or not.
Here, the old Russian orthodox church made the largest group of the elder generation that

opposed the idea whereas, the younger generation understood the necessity for change not just

from the side of the economy, but also from the moral philosophy of “owning” another human


The younger generation in the novel, believed for themselves to be Nihilists – people who do not

conform to any authority. The word Nihilism is derived from a Latin Word Nihil meaning

nothing. Nihilists are also known for their over analyzing skills of everything and every

conversation they have. Bazarov is shown to be as more of a nihilist compared to Arkady who

only wants to believe he is a nihilist because he is completely influenced and inspired by

Bazarov. It is mainly Bazarov’s ideas and words that leave Nikolai and Pavel astonished.

Bazarov is throughout shown as a rationalist who believes in nothing but facts and believes that

human feelings are nothing but nonsense which is only so much as a weakness for the human

body. It is later in the story that we see that even Bazarov falls in love and breaks his own ideas

of nihilism.

The generational gab is further elaborated with the idea of Nihilism when Bazarov makes fun of

Nikolai for playing the cello and reading classical literature because he finds the idea of a forty

four year old getting involved in all this pretty ridiculous. The main gap between a nihilist and a

person of the older generation is seen between Bazarov and Pavel. Pavel displeases Bazarov’s

lack of patriotism in paying too much homage to the German scientists and not enough to

Russians. Bazarov has no respect for art or music and finds the two a waste of time. Pavel also

believes that Bazarov is “arrogant, insolent and cynical”. Bazarov continuously tears down

everything Pavel believes in which leads to Pavel wondering if nihilism is all about tearing down

to which Bazarov tells him that a nihilist respects no authority and no tradition, he rejects all talk
of values as being mere platitudes and reveals everything.

The differences are even shown in the younger and the older generation of the serfs as when

Arkady comes back home for the first time from college, the elder serf Prokofitch who belongs

to the old school and kisses the hand of the young master whereas Piotr who is the newly

liberated type of a servant does not kiss the hand of his “master” because he favours the

emancipation of the serfs and a new free life for them.

The American scholar and diplomat Eugene Schuyler who first produced the first translation of

Fathers and Sons in English in 1867 summarized well the general reaction to the novel in his


“A tempest was raised in Russia by its appearance; passionate criticisms, calumnies and virulent

attacks abounded… each generation found the picture of every other very life-like, but their own

very v]badly drawn. The fathers protested, and the sons were enraged to see themselves

personified in the positive Bazarof… of course the more the book was abused, the more it was

read. Its success has been greater than any other Russian book”

(Eugene Schuyler, 7)

Turgenev discusses the social matters and how the Russian society changed those times with

their views in terms of marriage between two sons coming from different social classes. New

ideas and philosophies were being introduced into a society about a newly found freedom of

servants and their relationships with their masters. Turgenev, indeed, for the first time in Russian

literature had provided realistic portraits of peasants about whose life next to nothing was really

known. Turgenev treated the peasants in his fiction as dignified human beings, equal to their
masters. But in the initial stage of the novel, Nikolai is not shown to be very vocal about his

relationship with Fenichka. Fenichka was the daughter of Nikolai’s former domestic

housekeeper, she herself is a Russian peasant and is insecure about her relationship with Nikolai

considering she belonged to the lower class in the society whereas Nikolai belonged to the upper

middle class and was not sure how to accept his relationship (which already existed) and talk

about it with his son, who was being too modern about it and told his father that he cannot be

disturbed by any kind of orthodox because he didn’t consider it as one furthermore, he motivates

his father to marry Fenichka because according to Akardy (a nihilist) social barricade of class

should not exist.

Finally, even though the book faced a lot of criticism through a lot of generation of readers and

writers in the language at the same time, the book also provided as a platform to help create a

better and a more modern idea of existence amongst people of Russia. The novel was discussed

all over the country. The book created a fear of the younger generation turning into nihilists and

the older generation fearing and taking every measure to try to forbid that. The novel left the

whole country in the idea of deep thought and sparked a lot more controversy amongst the

generations and promoted the idea of liberalism.


1. Turgenev, Ivan Fathers and Sons, Penguin classics. 2009

2. Lee, Jessica: Fathers and Sons, spring 2016.

3. Hitchkok, James. Fathers and Sons: The Politics of Youth. The Review of Politics, Vol. 34,

No. 2 (Apr., 1972), pp. 158-173

4. Bloom, Harold. Blooms critical views: Ivan Turgenev. pp. 235-250