Nineteenth Century European Realism

Fathers and Sons: Ivan Turgenev

Discuss the representation of Bazarov in Tugenev’s “Fathers and Sons” in the light of contemporary radical debates in Russia.

Fathers and Sons, now generally regarded as one of the greatest nineteenth century Russian novels, was in its own time highly controversial. It could hardly have been otherwise since the arguments and conflicts enacted in the book stem from the profound political crisis that characterized nineteenth century Russian society.

Glyn Turton in his essay “Turgenev as a Realist writer’ states that “The depiction of fictional character in Russian literature at this time almost always made an ideological statement about the whole society”. If we look at English literature of the same period, the “condition of England” was being equally passionately debated by writers like Charles Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell and Thomas Carlyle. However, English literary debate about the state of nation was articulated in terms of social improvement and reform, whilst the nature of Russian political system was so reactionary that any imaginative critique of Russian society was potentially revolutionary. In light of contemporary debates in the Russian society in the early nineteenth century, the character of Bazarov as an iconoclastic country doctor committed to denial and destruction as pre-requisites of progress in life became a focus of heated ideological debate.

The critic A.D. Nuttal argues that with respect to texts as historically specific as Fathers and Sons, we should look at realist texts as not directly transcribing reality but as offering “hypothetical cases” or versions of reality that seem probable by comparison with reality. The representation of Bazarov is also a construction of hypothetical case, a “type” which may be subject to the test of comparison with contemporary reality. In the 1880 collected edition of his works, Turgenev declared that his primary purpose as writer is to be, “to consciously and impartially to depict and embody in suitable types both what Shakespeare calls ‘the body and pressure of time’ and the rapidly changing physiognomy of Russians of the cultured stratum, which has been predominately the object of my observations.” Turgenev realist conception of fictional art, thus, included the objective vision of embodying the spirit of the age in “types”. He always sought the pursuit of truth through his writings, and as Pisarev quotes, “We see what shines through and not just what the author wants to show us or prove.”

When we analyze the representation of Bazarov in the context of contemporary political situation in Russia, we should bear in mind, as Dennis Walder mentions in his essay, that Fathers and Sons was published in 1862, one year after one of the most momentous events in history of nineteenth century Russia, the emancipation of the serfs. At a stroke, the imperial decree liberating the peasantry from the gentry, whose lands they were obliged to till, loosened the whole structure of the Russian society. The system of serfdom which had developed gradually since the 17th century rested on a strict pyramidic principle. The serfs laboured for the landed gentry and the gentry in turn served the impotent Tsar as bureaucrats, soldiers and most important of all, as agents of social control. It took Russia’s calamitous defeat at the Crimean War and the accession of a more liberal Tsar Alexander II in 1856 to drive home the inevitability of reforming a semi-feudal system which had retarded Russia’s economic development. The events of Turgenev’s novel take place just before the emancipation, at a point when landowners like Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov were being encouraged by the government to conduct experiments in economic partnership with serfs to prepare the ground for wholesale reform. However, this economic and social change did not carry with it any equivalent political reform; emancipation did not mean enfranchisement, or anything remotely close to the European notion of civil liberties. And it is here with respect to radical thought for social change that the representation of characters like Bazarov comes into being.

The central problem around which the thinking of Russian society revolved at the time Turgenev wrote his novel was the issue of abolition of serfdom. This is the issue on which liberalism and democracy first parted ways in Russia. The democrats wanted a radical change in the feudal agrarian structure of Russia, both in the economic and social sphere. On the other hand, the liberals while desiring progressive change were constantly seeking to avoid conflicts with the feudal landlords, the bureaucracy and the autocracy. Literary criticism was now directed not just towards the despotism of autocracy and feudal reaction regarded as the chief enemy by Bielinski, but also towards the liberal bourgeoisie and their ideological representations. George Lukas observes that influential contemporary Russian “revolutionary democratic enlightenment” thinkers like Chernyshevski and Dobrolyubov no longer based themselves on Hegel’s philosophy but on the radical militant materialism of Ludwig Feuerbach. This also stemmed from the conflict from Bielinkski and Herzen’s time between the Slavophiles who believed in the superiority of Orthodoxy and pre-Petrine Russia and the Westernizers who became increasingly critical of religion and became more and more sympathetic towards socialist ideals that aimed at creating a more humane, resolute and just society. For them, any democratic change meant in the first place the political and social liberation of the lower plebeian section of society which involved a complete radical change in the social power structures and ladders of hierarchy. They conceived a social cataclysm, a revolution in the Universalist sense, as a radical change in all human relations and all manifestations of life, from massive economic foundations to the highest form of ideology. Seen from this angle, literature can of course no longer be an end in itself than philosophy or even politics.  The representation of Bazarov is thus a product of this genuine, fearless and uncompromising revolutionary wave, fully integrated with the social and political processes. The Bazarovian type of a young radical student is also reminiscent of the student movement in the 1830s when in salons and academic circles students of Moscow University gathered to find meaning for their own lives and their country, which included prominent frgures like Stankevich, Belinsky, Bakunin, Herzen etc who were also politically oriented and were consequently imprisoned by the government. Also in the later years of 1861-62, the momentous emancipation of serfs was also again accompanied by serious student unrest this time in St. Petersburg, the first signs of nationalist revolt against Russian rule in Poland and the circulation of revolutionary pamphlets in the capital. These events mark the beginning of the process of political disintegration that was to lead to the revolution of 1917. Bazarov’s complete rejection of any existing ideals and principles, his repudiation of autocracy and existing social hierarchies and his refusal to acknowledge any idea or conviction on faith, his scientific and empiricist approach to life; his materialistic nihilism and denunciation of romanticism are all reflective of the need for radical change that characterized those times. Bazarov, is hence, often referred to as the “first Bolshevik”. As Dimitry Pisarev quotes, “If Bazarovism is a disease, then it is a disease of our time…..Treat Bazarovism however you please but you wont be able to put an end to it.”

Bazarov’s rejection of aristocracy is well manifested in his complete disdain for the “aristocratic elegance” of Pavel Petrovich and the mockery that he subjects all his aristocratic acquaintances to — “Do you think I’m going to pander to these provincial aristocrats! Why it’s all personal vanity with them, the habit of being top dog and showing off….” Earlier, when describing one of the local landowning aristocrats, Bazarov remarks to Pavel, “He’s trash, a lousy little aristocrat” a description which Bazarov later allows to be known applies, as far as he is concerned, to all members of the aristocracy.

Bazarov clearly wishes to sweep away the assumptions and non-scientifically proven “truths” of social, political, emotional, and spiritual life in Russia. He also rejects the so called liberal ways of the “reformed” aristocracy. Nikolai Petrovich, Arkady’s father and Bazarov’s host throughout the first third of the novel, has developed an enlightened theory of serfdom: he calls his estate of five thousand acres with two hundred serfs a “farm”, has “in effect” freed the serfs who were once house servants and provided them with duties that carry no responsibilities, and has even hired laborers to work the land and a townsman as a steward, paying the steward two hundred fifty rubles each year and maintaining that the former steward, Peter, is free. With these “reformed” attitudes, Nikolai and his brother Pavel still adhere to the traditional distinctions between aristocracy and working class, treating the “servants” and laborers with the respect due a member of a much lower class-the class lines remain along with the corresponding social and political attitudes. Thus Pavel and Nikolai still see themselves as aristocrats among peasants, describing the hired steward derogatorily as “a tall, thin man with a sugary, consumptive voice and deceitful eyes” who “tried to depict peasants as drunkards and slaves.” Pavel leaves the conversation with the steward early, seemingly unable to remain in the same room with one of such low birth; Nikolai continues the conversation but seems to understand that the new system of labor is doomed to failure without massive injections of money-an aristocratic assumption. Neither Pavel nor Nikolai conversed with any servant on any other topic except the running of the estate. Bazarov later confronts Pavel and Nikolai about their attitudes toward the peasants, which leads to the following confrontational argument with Pavel: “Ask any of your [Pavel and Nikolai’s] peasants which of us-you or me-he recognizes as his fellow countryman. You don’t even know how to talk to them.” Later, when he and Arkady discuss the peasants, Arkady typifies the sentiments of contemporary reformers by saying, “Russia will attain perfection when the poorest peasant has a house like that [‘one that’s so fine and white’] and each one of us should help bring that about.” Bazarov negates Arkady’s sentiments, the social order of Russia’s serf-based society, and the efforts of reform by responding, “I’ve conceived a hatred for the poorest peasant-Philip or Sidor-those for whom I’m supposed to jump out of my skin and who won’t even thank me for it . . . Besides, what the hell do I need his thanks for? So, he’ll be living in a fine white hut while I’m pushing up Burdock; well, then what?” Bazarov’s attitude toward Russia’s serf-based society and his disregard for the social order is a outright negation both the society’s foundation upon serfdom and attempts at its reform. It reflects the ideology of the contemporary radical democrats who were demanding a complete restructuring of the Russian agrarian society for actual change and liberation of the lower strata and not mere patronizing attempts at so called reform.

Bazarov also rejects the authority of Russian political leadership as “spoiled hegemony,” not “enlightened leadership.” The narrator, swayed for a moment by Bazarov’s thinking, describes a certain distant relative of the brothers Petrovich, Matve Ilich, a governmental arbiter and judge whom Arkady and Bazarov travel to, to meet. Bazarov himself never provides a specific indictment of Russian politics; to do so directly would have been dangerous for Turgenev. In the narrator’s description we receive Bazarov’s criticism-a government official whose every action emanates not from nihilistic-based self-reliance, but out of obedience to political and societal norms. We thus see in the representation in Bazarov a contemporary disdain of the radicals of anything and anyone who perpetuate the political and social status quo, “… me a single institution of contemporary life, private or public, which does not call for absolute and ruthless repudiation.” The growing contemporary disillusionment among radicals which included feminist radicals as well ( a type being caricatured by Turgenev in Kushkina) with existing social institutions in the private sphere like family and marriage is represented in Bazarov’s vehement critical attitude towards them. When Arkady talks of his father marrying Fenichka, he tells him off, “Do you still attach importance to marriage, I did not expect this from you.” He is even critical of emotions of love, passion and attachment between a man and woman. While Bazarov may not be completely able to control his emotions with the duchess he continues to believe in the importance of debunking the concept of romantic love, particularly after Odintsova rejected him once he had declared his love for her. Although there is no direct mention of the religious being made in the novel, the increasingly  critical attitude of the Westernizers towards Orthodoxy and religion is clearly displayed in Bazarov’s attitude towards Father Aleksai, who alone represents the church in the novel, a man about whom Bazarov says only, “I’m prepared to sit down at table with any man”. Bazarov’s regards religion as a means of suppressing the individual’s ability to be completely self-reliant and true to oneself. For Bazarov, there is only the natural: “I look at heaven only when I feel like sneezing”. The rejection of contemporary radicals and many literary activists of romanticism and idealism is expressed in his repudiation of beauty of nature, art or poetry.

Also in the representation of Bazarov, as Gyn Turton states, we are engaged in the contemporary debate of the intimation of what the intellectual might actually bring about in Russian history with a penetrating insight into the difficulties that type of individual might face in the short term. One of the things that distinguishes Bazarov from the gentry is his ability to converse with and win the trust of the common people, “the servants, too, had taken to him, although he made fun of them: they felt he was one of themselves, and not the gentry.” He is proud of the fact that his grandfather ploughed the land, but claims to harbour few illusions of the peasantry. The ability to relate to peasants without idealizing them might seem to suggest that Bazarov’s gifts of leadership could stir “the dark people” as the educated called them into political action. However, the representation of Bazarov in the eyes of the rustics as “a village idiot” in the scene where he attempts political dialogue with the peasants of his father’s village is a piercing scrutiny into the overwhelming difficulty of radicalizing an illiterate, superstitious and deeply patriarchal Russian peasantry. It is also a representation of the contemporary debate between Turgenev and Herzen. Turgenev objected to Herzen’s emphasis on the peasantry not because he thought it smacked of sloppy philosophizing but because it seemed a foolish political strategy. He believed that the peasantry was essentially conservative and self-serving, hence could not be an active force for change. Moreover, the fact that Bazarov is shown also as a scientist, doctor and educator, his case illustrates one of the most important stimuli to the development of nineteenth century realism as a literary movement: the ideal of science as the key to progress and enlightenment. At one point, Bazarov observes to Arkady, “Nature is not a temple, but a work-shop, and man is a worker in it.” The remark expresses an extreme form of positivism, a disdain of beauty in favor of science.

However, the plot reveals that Turgenev does not fully sympathize with his characters, his analysis does not miss one weak or ridiculous point in his characters. He does not conceal his hero’s blunders from the reader: Bazarov’s senseless repudiation of everything, and how in taking arms against idealism and destroying its castles in the air he himself, at times, becomes an idealist. The complexity and contradictions in the representation of Bazarov is further enriched when we read him in the light of certain archetypes as explained by Pam Morris. One such- which is intriguing to find in a novel so manifestly realist in conception – is that of the romantic rebel. From the late 18th century onwards, the isolated individual in revolt against the social and political orthodoxies was a familiar figure in European literature. Typically the rebellion was undertaken in the name of a higher ideal such as imagination, individual liberty or popular will. Bazarov’s nihilism as a form of illusion represents a partial inversion of the established pattern: he is rebel whose belief in the need to annihilate is the cause to end all causes.

The impact at this time of social and political turmoil with Russia poised at the eve of momentous shift, a central character like Bazarov committed to no other principle than of denial and destruction can be imagined. Young radical progressives in general accused Turgenev of travestying their zealotry in his portrayal of the curmudgeonly sensual Bazarov; while conservatives took the view that Turgenev had been too sympathetic to the forces of revolution by making his nihilist hero attractively superior to other characters in the novel. These polarized reactions illustrate how powerful and problematic a realist text can be in the highly charged political conditions of historic change. The ability of realist fiction to engage with contemporary life, came to be seen as one of its most powerful attributes. Writing of the early 1860s, Richard Freedom observed that “the role of the Russian nineteenth century novel as a chronicle and criticism of its time acquired at this time – on the eve of the emancipation of serfs – a revolutionary dimension.”


  • The international significance of Russian democratic literary criticism: Lukas
  • Bazarov: Dimitry I. Pisarev
  • The Realist Novel: Reading Turgenev :Dennis Walder
  • Turgenev as a Realist Writer: Glyn Turton
  • The Radicals of the Sixties and their Leaders: HT Cheshire, The Slavonic Review
  • Fathers and Sons: Strakhov
  • Fathers and Sons and Russian History: Victor Ripp About Google Book SearchBook Search BlogInformation for PublishersProvide FeedbackGoogle Home

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