Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 6, 2012

Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev. (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) was a major Russian novelist, and when I saw Fathers and Sons as an audio book at the library, I grabbed it for my ‘Year of Russian Reading’.  It was first published in 1862 and immediately provoked controversy by offending almost all classes of Russian society.

There is not a great deal of action in this most interesting book: it is mainly dialogue, mostly between two young friends dissecting what’s wrong with 19th century Russian society (not long before the Revolution).   While studying at the University of Petersburg young Arkady Kirsanov meets Evgeny Bazarov (who is studying to be a doctor), and is so attracted by his intellect that he invites him home to Marino, the family estate in the provinces.  What follows is a classic tale of a generation gap: Bazarov is a nihilist who acknowledges no authority, no ideals and no purpose to life.  He likes arguing for the sake of it, and he doesn’t care who he offends – he doesn’t agree with old-fashioned ideas about being polite to one’s hosts!  His radical attacks on convention appal Arkady’s father Nikolai and uncle Pavel, and while Nikolai  seems to nurse his disquiet privately and is willing to overlook Bazarov’s views because he is so pleased to have Arkady at home, his brother Pavel is most indignant about Bazarov’s rudeness.  This hostility culminates in the most dramatic scene in the book, which I’ll leave readers to discover for themselves.


To show the extent of Bazarov’s casual attitude to the feelings of others, Turgenev’s plot then takes them to visit the home of Anna Odintsova in a neighboring province.  She is the nearest a woman can be to being an intellectual in a society that denies women education.   The men’s friendship is tested on and off during the novel when they think they are in competition for the same woman but ultimately Arkady defers to his domineering friend and takes an interest in Anna’s sister Katya instead.

Anna enjoys sparring with Bazarov who lectures her loud and long about how nothing (including love) has any value.  But Anna’s interest in Bazarov is intellectual not emotional.  At 29, and a rich widow, she has liberal opinions but is very set in her ways and she fears the change that an emotional attachment would bring.  Ironically it is Bazarov who eventually abandons his pride and admits his feelings for her.  But, doomed to unhappiness because of his philosophy, Bazarov fails to arouse her affections and his temerity gets a frosty reception.  The young men leave with emotions running high but nothing resolved.

Next the young men visit Bazarov’s family, where his own mother Irina can’t understand his blasé attitude to family life.  She weeps copious tears because of his neglect of her and although she is proud of his achievements, when he leaves she grieves like a ‘mushroom in the soil that can’t fly after him’.  By now Arkady is missing Katya and his relationship with Bazarov is a bit hormonal testy – they almost have a punch-up.  Things go from bad to worse when they return to Marino, and eventually Arkady sets off to woo Katya while Bazarov stays behind to foster further enmity from Uncle Pavel.  Things do not end well for Bazarov…

Each character represents a type in Russian society.  The younger generation symbolise reformers.  Bazarov represents the young radical intelligentsia that would overthrow prevailing values and lead the revolution.  He is brash and unkind, with a utilitarian attitude towards people, and one can only feel that Odintsova is better off without him, (especially since he ends up flirting with Nikolai’s concubine).  Arcady is a dilettante, attracted to Bazarov because his ideas are new and different, but deep down he’s offended by his friend’s offhand behaviour.   Arkady is an unreliable follower.

The older generation symbolise conservatism, resistance to change and barriers to change.  Pavel represents the intransigent aristocracy, unwilling to listen to any ideas about reform,and easily provoked to violence when their interests are threatened.  Nikolai, on the other hand is a bit more adaptable, but isn’t interested in any change that would compromise his own personal comfort.  He represents those who just want a quiet life and will stand by and do nothing while progress passes them by. There are also sceptical peasants and servants who we (with the hindsight of history) know will soon have the upper hand over these aristocrats who have nothing better to do than talk…

The story is read with great flair by Anthony Heald.

Author: Ivan Turgenev
Title: Fathers and Sons
Narrated by Anthony Heald
Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks, 2011, first published 1862
ISBN:  9781441791641
Source: Glen Eira Library.

Fishpond: Fathers and Sons (audio book) Fathers and Sons (print)


  1. Fathers and Sons was one of the first Russian books I read from this period and I still have an affection for it. As you say, each of these characters is a Russian “type,” but at the same time Turgenev makes you understand their conflicts, as well as the conditions of their lives.


  2. Following up on SilverSeason’s comment, or maybe putting it a different way… while the characters are representative, they still feel like real people instead of caricatures (not that you implied they were). This seems to be the type of book one would read differently depending on their age when they read it.


    • Correct, Dwight. I don’t think the post implies stock figures or caricatures, but I was impressed by how Turgenev could do both things: give us representative types who were also real people. When I reread this book as a parent/grandparent I felt considerably more sympathy for the older generation.


      • I feel that sympathy too! Strangely, since I read quite a few of the other Russians, I didn’t read this one back in the period when my generation was changing the world – but if I had, even though we were all idealists rather than nihilists, I think I would have identified with Bazarov whereas now I feel a kind of amused tolerance for him.
        Dwight, you’re right, in my haste to admire the way Turgenev has used each character as representative, I didn’t discuss characterisation in general – and really, it’s what makes this book a masterpiece. The way he’s used dialogue to develop each one’s personality is brilliant, but Bazarov is the star: I couldn’t help investing most of my interest in him and that scene where he struggles to quell his feelings for Anna and fails, is very moving.


  3. As a professional Russianist, I’m thrilled every time Lisa does some reading for her trip, and enjoy seeing a fresh view. But someone else reading Fathers and Sons for a bookgroup commented how helpful are Isaiah Berlin’s Romaines Lectures on Turgenev,given at Oxford and included in the Penguin edition of F & S. Lisa, you would not have had the benefit of this introduction as you were listening to an audiobook. They give a wonderful background, setting the novel in a historical context which is utterly different from anything in England or Europe. Have a look if you get the chance.


    • Hi Judith, of course I thought of you as I wrote every word of this – and I am hoping that one day there will be helpful posts on your blog about all these Russian writers!
      But something clicked in my brain when I read this about the Romaines Lectures … and when I checked out my Classics shelves in the Library Chez T&L, lo! guess what I found! A 1986 Penguin edition, complete with these very lectures.
      You’ll have to visit here one day to see my library, and then you’ll understand why I made this foolish mistake: I have so many books now that many of them are double shelved, that is, there’s a row of books in alphabetical order and then in front of them on the same shelf there’s another row also in alpha order. Turgenev was hiding behind Eliot LOL
      So, I can – and will – read the lectures you recommend!


      • Update (an hour later)
        I’ve read it – and I can see why you recommend it: what a complex man was Turgenev, forever caught between the left and the right, both of which seem to reject him in equal measure. I was especially interested to read about how literature was inescapably the only kind of political discourse in that period, and that Turgenev for all his travails never abandoned what he felt was his responsibility to engage in the debate.
        I am also reading a Traveller’s History of Russia which would help to put this further into context but am only up to the Mongols so I have a long way to go before I get to the C19th!
        Thanks for alerting me to this source, Judith:)


        • Lisa, your enthusiasm and energy are astounding. But I’m very glad you had ready access to Isaiah – such a wonderful historian of ideas, particularly in the Russian context.


          • And now I’d better abandon the books and go do some long-neglected housework!


  4. This is one I’m due to reread at some point. I have a lovely old Penguin version with a translation and notes by Rosemary Edmonds :)


    • It is so interesting to compare the preoccupations of the great C19th writers…with Australian writers of the period, eh?


  5. A great review, as usual with insightful analogies of the characterisations. Thank you for sharing this Russian history.


  6. I ve this sat on my shelves Lisa a nice folio edition I must read it to compare notes ,all the best stu


  7. Thanks for dropping by, Celestine and Stu:)


  8. Thanks for the link. Interesting take on the book and interesting discussion.


  9. […] I was very taken by the characterisation of the young idealist Bazarov and in the comments below my review you can see where I admired the way Turgenev uses dialogue to differentiate his characters.  There […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: