Turgenev's grave.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Fathers and Sons

The picture above is a shot of Turgenev’s grave. The picture comes from a site at the University of Maryland.

Fathers and Sons is a portrait of the generation that came of age in Russia in the 1860s, or a little before. The novel is set in 1859, shortly before the emancipation of the serfs. The hero, Bazarov, is supposed to be a nihilist. So I suppose the immediate thing that comes to mind is Dostoyevsky’s characters, such as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or the younger Verkhovensky and Stavrogin in The Possessed (Besy). So how does Bazarov compare to these characters?

The most notable thing I suppose about Bazarov is that unlike Dostoyevsky’s characters he never really puts his philosophy into action. The consequence, if I recall correctly, of Stavrogin’s philosophy is the murder of Shatov. The consequence of Raskolnikov’s meditations on the great man is the murder of the pawnbroker and her sister. The closest Bazarov comes is that he has a duel with Arkady’s uncle. Even this is not over his philosophy, but over his apparent involvement with Fenichka. So Bazarov seems to be relegated to the realm of cocktail, or in his case, champagne, chatterers who never really implement their philosophy.

I had thought that Bazarov’s experiments might signal a somewhat sadistic personality. There being no reason for somewhat at the start of medical studies to dissect frogs, my expectation was that it was reflective of a character flaw. Surprisingly, it wasn’t.

Bazarov’s redemption apparently comes through his unsuccessful involvement with Odintsova, which shows him that there is something worth affirming. Bazarov’s death by typhus might be seen as a final working out of an affirmative stance towards existence.

The comparison with Dostoyevsky is perhaps unfortunate. Dostoyevsky had rather different fish to fry than Turgenev, and what Turgenev gives is a portrait of a character that is just as valid as anything in Dostoyevsky.