Nineteenth Century European Realism

Fathers and Sons: Ivan Turgenev

Discuss the representation of the women characters in Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons”.

In Russian literature, it is the pre-dominantly male authored Russian realist novel which has produced some of the most remarkable and complex female characters in the whole of the novel genre in the absence of Russian counterparts of female realist novelists such as Jane Austen, the Brontes or George Elliot. Turgenev’s women are frequently seen as prototypes of this tradition and Russian readers are as familiar with their names and personalities as real life acquaintances.

While analyzing Turgenev’s representation of various women characters in Fathers and Sons, one important underlying question would be how ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ this representation would be. To Pam Morris, “feminist critical reading of canonical texts reveals a pervasive misinterpretation of women within the literary tradition. In particular, feminist critics have altered us to the way in which women are often constructed as ‘other’ to a male norm.” Instead of being perceived as identities in their own right, women characters tend to function as locations for male desires, fears and anxieties about the female. Most often in a broad sense, the representation of women in literature is comprised largely of variations upon the stereotypical images of the virgin and whore, wicked witch and child-like innocent, Eve and Magdalene, wife, mother and mistress.

In the representation of feminine experience and personality in Fathers and Sons, what strikes most readers is the fullness and maturity of his approach.  How do we estimate Turgenev’s women, what are the positive achievements of his imaginative construction? Turgenev’s representation of a powerful female character like Odintsova with her intellectual concern with the latest thinking in science, politics and arts is indeed remarkable especially when contrasted with the English realist novels of the period where such a character was unimaginable. It is noteworthy that even Katya, who in many ways represents values opposing to that of her sister, is quite capable of discussing the merits of Heine’s writings with Arkady. This portrayal of women engaged in the intellectual debate of their time is one of the positive achievements of Turgenev’s representation. What is more, in contrast to Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov, Odintsova is shown to be highly efficient in managing a large estate and in ordering the daily life of the household so that it seems to ‘glide along rails’ in a manner that so irritates Bazarov even though he enjoys the ease provided. Another striking aspect of Turgenev’s representation is his relative freedom in writing about sexual relationships of his characters, and about their sexual feelings, attitudes and experiences. It is refreshing to find a woman who is sexually mature, has already been married, and who is not innocently youthful, is considered interesting enough to be the heroine of the work unlike in many novels where marriage marks the end of the heroine’s story and where any evidence of active sexuality in a female character unsanctioned by a firm attachment to the man she is destined to marry carries ominous moral implications. Here, Odintsova is permitted even to go on to a second marriage, which promises her the possibility of happiness and even love in spite of the freedom and sexual assertiveness with which she conducts herself in her relationship with Bazarov. Turgenev seems to be concerned to represent his main female character as an interesting identity in her own right, although whether he finally manages to do that or not is debatable. Fenichka’s marriage with Nikolai in the end and the efficiency with which she takes up the responsibility of the house is another positive towards the acknowledgement of the reality of inter-class marriage and relations.

However, in this respect of independent representation of female characters, Russian realism appears to depict far more authentic woman, but Turgenev has not escaped criticism in terms of stereotypical representation. Heldt in “Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature” argues that women in Turgenev’s novels invariably fall into one of the three recurrent types, of which one of the most important aspect and indicator is their physical beauty or lack of it. The first two polarized types are beautiful in very different ways: there is the pure young heroine just emerging from youthful awkwardness into shy sexual awareness and the old femme fatale who seems to attract men by her mature sexuality but is not herself passionate, indeed is often coldly incapable of love. The third type is the unattractive or ugly woman who is presented as ridiculous especially if she tries to attract men. It is not very difficult to recognize these women in Fathers and Sons. Clearly, many of the aspects of the characterization of Odintsova conforms to the femme fatale type. Her asking Arkady to bring Bazarov to visit her gives the impression that she deliberately sets out to attract him. During the time Bazarov stays at her place, we find her constantly trying to provoke his interest and actively encouraging him to reveal his emotions and feelings. However, throughout their interactions, we get a sense of her being without strong feelings herself. This sense of her lack of passion is reinforced by the image of her in bed thinking in an intrigued way about Bazarov, yet quickly falling asleep over a “silly French novel…..all clean and cool in a clean and fragrant bed linen.” The implication is that she seeks Bazarov from motives of curiosity and ennui rather than desire, as he recognizes when he tell her that she is probably incapable of love. Although the actual cause of his death is a typhus infection almost self-inflicted, the text implies that it is Odintsova who had fatally destroyed the force of life in Bazarov. He leaves her house ‘having not slept or eaten’ for several days, his lean profile almost like dead man’s head and he tells Arkady ‘the machinery’s come unstuck.’ Read in this light, we might begin to sense something repressively sterile in the rigid routine Odintsova imposes on her household, excluding all traces of spontaneity and vitality. The little speech with which she greets Arkady and Bazarov on their arrival in her house is delivered in a “particularly precise way as if she has learnt it by heart.”

Equally clearly, Katya is represented as fresh young and virginal relating to the other stereotype mentioned by Heldt. She is given to blushing and tears as indicative of her spontaneous emotional responsiveness. She is apparently demure and quiet, but reveals intuitive wisdom and insight: Katya understand Bazarov’s nature from the beginning. In opposition to her sister, Katya functions in the text as an image of new life, freshness and innocence. She adores nature and is given to arranging flowers. Turgenev’s association of this type of woman with life is even more obvious in his representation of Fenichka with her baby. The two women are described in very similar terms and it is natural that Fenichka comes to love Katya next to her husband and child. However, there are certain apparent connections between all these there women. What is the implication of Fenichka’s relation with Bazarov? After Arkady’s declaration of love to Katya, we are told, “He was already beginning to submit to her and Katya sensed this and was not surprised.” Earlier she had admitted to herself that she will have him kneeling at her feet. Pam Morris observes that such a representation by Turgenev  implies to the stereotypical notion of the negative and dangerous influence of the feminine, even women as apparently guileless as Katya and Fenichka ineveitably seek to overpower men, that female is sinister and deadly to the male.

Although it seems undeniable that there are some such traces of negative or fearful perception of women in the text as unequivocally expressed by Bazarov, “free-thinking women are monstrosities” , Turgenev’s representation is however both more interesting and more complex than this view expressed by certain critics. While analyzing Turgenev’s women in Fathers and Sons, to quote Walder, “we are undoubtedly struck by the beauty, mystery and strength of the women and the weakness and failure of the men.” To demonstrate the complexity of the representation of his women characters, we need to situate the novel in terms of its historical context in terms of the contemporary passionate debate upon the “women question”. The long reign of Catherine the Great (176-96) marked the beginning of a slow process of improving of improving the social position of women in Russia by removing some of the traditional discrimination against them in education, law and family. Although the late 18th century was characterized by a traditional male prejudice against the dangerous influence of female guile by intrigue and rivalries fermented in Catherine’s court, nevertheless, women’s position continued to improve unto the 19th century. During the 1830s and 1840s, Russian male intellectual began actively supporting male intellectuals began actively supporting women’s claims to equality. Much of the impetus for this was due to the impact in Russia of French political ideas particularly in articulating the ‘freedom of the heart’ and general emancipation of the human soul. The cult female figure during this phase of romantic political thinking in early nineteenth century Russia was the French female novelist George Sand – who had separated from her husband to lead an independent- somewhat notorious life – life of her own in Paris. It is to this generation that the older Kirsanovs belonged. The next generation of the 1850s and 1860s was characterized by a radical political atmosphere especially after the failure and defeat of Russia in the Crimean War. These were the ‘sons’ determined to overthrow the worn out values and traditions of their fathers. It was this generation that began actively formulating the ‘woman question’ in association with the issue of emancipation of serfs. The rights of women are linked to the emancipation of serfs in a more material sense than that of a common political ideal. The impoverishment or feared impoverishment of large number of gentry by the return of land to the peasants created a very real need among many women to find a means of economic support. After 1860, Russian women began to appear at university lectures and to demand equal rights in education, and as they were not permitted to enroll in the universities at home, Russian women started going abroad to study at foreign universities. In fact, few political movements or parties can surpass Russian radicalism during this period with respect to female participation. Also unlike in other European countries where the women’s movement was essentially an auxiliary wing of the party, Russian women literally fought tsarist autocracy shoulder to shoulder with men in the 1870s and there was very little separate female radicalism, although it is not to say that the position of women was not without its problems. The most effective medium of propaganda of female liberation in the mid century was the novel. And it is characteristic of the eminent place of the female liberation question in the mind of the Russian intelligentsia that the two most eminent of mid-century radicalism, Herzen (Who is Guilty) and Chernyshevsky (What is to be done?), their only novels to this issue.

The representation of women in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons can only be fully understood if it is seen as vigorously involved in these passionate issues. To analyze the attitudes towards the women question and the most useful starting point would be to look at the representation of the liberated woman, Yevdoxia Kukshina, which can be contrasted with the representation of Bazarov’s mother or Nikolai Kirsanov’s wife, the women ideals of the older generation. Kukshina is clearly meant to the representative of the radicalism of the 1850s to1860s, “the progressive, advanced or educated woman : nigilistka or nihilist woman” (Richard Stites). She has ‘vowed to defend the rights of women to the last drop of my blood’ and is scornful of Sand ‘an out of date woman’. She has separated from her husband and plans to go abroad to study in Paris and Heildelberg. She thus, personifies the emergence of new objectives and tactics among the Russian emancipees of the early 1860s. However, it is also quite obvious that while much has been written about Turgenev’s attitude towards his nihilist hero, there is no doubt that the female nihilist Kukshina is an unflattering caricature and as Walter Smyrniw quotes “Turgenev has deliberately portrayed Kukshina as a ludicrous and repulsive emancipee.” Walter goes on to argue that in his portrayal of Kukshina, Turgenev lampooned only certain undesirable tendencies generated by Russian emancipees. The worst among them was a lack of genuine involvement, an inadequate commitment to the movement itself. Some merely assumed the roles of the emancipated women and hence their behaviour was both contrived and unnatural. Although many critics have argued along the same lines of Turgenev’s portrayal of Kukshina as a device for irony “the progressive louse which Turgenev combed out of Russian reality” (Dostoevsky) and that he has assumed the same sentiment in respect to Russian men who merely assumed the pose of materialists and nihilists (eg. Sitnikov), it is hard to escape that in the description of her person and household we find some of the stereotyping of radical women found in most conservative writing. He did not hesitate in expressing value judgments when ridiculing the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of Russian women who merely played the role of emancipees. She is dirty and slovenly in her habits and person, her room is scattered and dusty, her hair disheveled and her dress crumpled. Moreover, her conversation and behaviour is meant to ‘show’ us that her radicalism is shallow and unaffected. The narrator ‘tells’ us that she greets her guests with a string of questions without waiting for answers. It is important to notice here the narrator’s generalization here, which would seem to impute lack of serious concern (feminine casualness) to all women as part of their feminine nature and not to Kukshina as an individual. The narrator draws repeated attention to Kukshina’s unattractive physical appearance almost as if that were partly her fault. Kukshina is unfortunate enough to show her gums above her top teeth when she laughs and her piano playing revels her flat-cut fingernails. However, what is most significant in terms of the dominant patriarchal ideology of the mid-nineteenth century Russia is her declaration, “I’m free, I have no children.” From a conservative perspective, this would count as near sacrilegious statement.

On the other hand, Arina Vlassyevna, Bazarov’s mother and ‘a real Russian noblewoman of former times’ is constructed as Kukshina’s opposite in almost every detail. She is represented as superstitiously religious and spontaneously emotional. She has never read a book and although married against her will, has devoted her life to her husband’s well-being allowing him the complete management of her estate. Beyond this, she worships her son finding her entire identity and fulfillment in this maternal role. The rhetorical form of the narrator’s comment, “Such ladies are already few and far between. God knows whether one should be glad of that fact” implies an open-mindedness. However, to quote Denis Walder “the representation contrasting the new and the old schools of thought leaves little doubt as to where the text places its value.”

Just as Turgenev uses polarized characters to confirm the underlying values of his representation, we also find him constructing parallels between women characters as a way of unobtrusively guiding the reader’s sympathies and judgments in line with the text’s value system. The introduction of Odintsova in the text is carefully positioned immediately after the description of Kukshina. Despite the apparent contrast between the two women in terms of beauty, dignity and intelligence, there are significant common features. Both women despised their husbands and are childless. Odintsova was educated at St. Petersburg at the centre of new thinking, her ‘reprobate’ father treating her as a friend and equal. Like Kukshina, she engages in intellectual debates with men and her conversations with Bazarov show that she like him too regards nature from a scientific and materialistic perspective and more significantly, adheres to the beliefs of the nigilistka. The narrator tells us that “she has no prejudices, not even having any strong beliefs…..her mind was keenly enquiring and indifferent at one and the same time.” However, her sense of unsatisfied desire at the centre of her life also links her to Princess R, who destroys the life of Pavel Petrovich Kirsanov. The princess is also childless encumbered with a husband she despises, apparently a frivolous coquette, yet ‘she finds no peace in anything’. The most sustained irony in the novel lies in the similarity of the fates of Pavel and Bazarov. This helps to highlight another criticism of Turgenev’s artistic treatment of female characters. His women characters tend to function merely as episodes in the plot structure, which in intent upon tracing the development of the young male hero. Even in his potrayal of the women characters in Fathers and Sons, we get a sense that women do not develop as people and the complex processes of their feelings and intellectual growth is not represented. Even though Odintsova’s marriage in the end might suggest that her representation is not to simply function as a part of the unfolding of the story of Bazarov but that she does have a story in her won right, it is surely too perfunctory to count as a story.

Also, Turgenev, in his representation of female characters especially Odintsova, clearly manifests an imbalance in the novelistic devices of focalization and alternation of ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ with respect to male characters. For instance, when Odintsova is introduced in the novel, her general character is summarized for us; the narrator’s authoritative tone and form of words seem to be offering us a comprehensive understanding of her vague mixture of desires. This authoritative knowledge even seems to encompass woman as a whole, as if the fact that they are women makes such generalized truths about them possible: “Like all women who had not succeeded in falling in love, she sought for something without knowing precisely what.” Bazarov, on the other hand, is not offered to us, to understand in terms of male psychology. We are not ‘told’ a summarized knowledge of his personality, but ‘shown’ his feelings at a particular time. The effect of this kind of representation of the women characters is somewhat paradoxical. Despite, the narrator’s implied claim to full knowledge of Odintsova, her impulses and character remain to the reader like those of the Princess R to Pavel, something of an enigma

Thus in conclusion it can be said that that undoubtedly Turgenev’s representation of his women characters exerts, to quote Pam Morris, “an immensely powerful effect on the reader’s imagination, often far more than that of the male characters” but however, in the words of Walter Smyrniw’s “Turgenev’s creative vision…..continued to regard emancipated women as both a fascinating and an enigmatic phenomenon.”


  • 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
  • Representation of Women in Fathers and Sons: Pam Morris
  • Women in the Russian Radical Movement: Robert H. Mc Neal
  • Nihilism and Women: Richard Stites


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