Fathers and Sons (1862)

by Ivan Turgenev
Russia in the 1860s was undergoing political and social reform, notably the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. Tension was growing between the 1830s liberals and the younger “nihilists,” who both sought Western-style change but had different philosophies. Into that backdrop emerged what some critics call Russian literature’s first modern novel, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. In the younger generation is Bazarov, a nihilist who wants to tear down the old order but doesn’t offer a vision of what would follow. He contrasts with the father and the uncle of his friend Arkady, who believe themselves open-minded but are disconcerted by Bazarov’s rejection of romantic love, the arts, and nature. 

So even-handed was Turgenev to his characters that a controversy raged after Fathers and Sons was published: how was Bazarov to be taken? Critics on the right thought Turgenev portrayed Bararov too sympathetically; those on the left thought Bazarov was too extreme to help their cause.

In his own life Turgenev, who was born into a wealthy family, was in favor of social reform but not political radicalism. In Fathers and Sons Turgenev has Bazarov being distressed about falling in love, which violates his nihilist principles. Arkady gradually moves away from nihilism and synthesizes the two alternatives of reason and tradition, political reform and preservation of his predecessors' values. 


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