Perhaps the most frequently occurring image in the novel is nature and how it symbolizes the intergenerational differences between the young and the old. On the carriage ride to the farm with his father, Arkady is shocked to find the land and animals in such a state.
Here and there they could see small woods and winding gullies, covered with sparse, low-growing bushes, which looked just the way they are shown on old maps from the time of Catherine the Great. They passed streams with crumbling banks and tiny ponds with broken dams. There were little villages of low huts beneath dark roofs, with thatch often half gone, and crooked threshing barns with walls of woven wattle and gaping doors, next to empty threshing floors. There were churches, brick ones with plaster peeling here and there, wooden ones with crosses askew and ruined cemeteries.
. . .
. . . All the peasants they passed were dressed in rags and riding wretched little horses. The willows by the road stood like tattered beggars, with torn bark and broken branches. Emaciated, rough-skinned cows, all bone, hungrily munched the grass in the ditches; they looked as if they’d just been torn from the murderous claws of some awesome beast. (13-14)
The figurative language in this passage can be used to describe the older generation: words like “crumbling,” “broken,” “crooked,” “gaping,” “askew,” “ruined,” “wretched,” “tattered,” “emaciated,” “rough-skinned.” The way the land and its animals are described here clearly symbolizes the decay, the passing of an old generation giving way to a younger, upcoming generation of young people with new ideas.
Nature in the novel also represents the sustaining beauty of a traditional generation of landowners, peace and the old way of life, the arts, and refinement. Arkady is “looking pensively into the distance at the many colours of the fields in the mellow and beautiful light of the sun” (43).
Nikolay observes this unending beauty again in a pensive moment, thinking about how far apart he and his son had grown. Here nature for Nikolay represents something bittersweet, the older stagnant generation trying to understand the younger:
The sun had gone behind a small aspen wood which lay a quarter of a mile from his garden and cast its seemingly unending shadow over the motionless fields. A peasant was trotting on his white horse down a narrow, dark track which ran by the wood; although he was riding in shade, his whole figure was clearly visible down to a patch on his shoulder; his horse’s legs moved with a brisk regularity that was pleasing to the eye. (55-56)
In the following simile, the word serpent, or the image of a serpent, is used rather appropriately to represent the inner turmoil between two people trying to love one another, but they don’t know how. Anna has just been accosted by Bazarov. He suddenly grabs her hand so tightly, as if he’s fighting back something. He leaves her room. She blows on her fingers because they hurt. A maid comes in, Anna tells her to leave. “Her hair became unloosened and fell on her shoulders like a dark serpent” (97).
Pavel’s elegant study is representative of the city life, the new younger generation. The study’s “walls, papered in a handsome dark grey, displaying weapons hung on a multicoloured Persian rug, with its walnut furniture upholstered in dark-green velveteen, a ‘Renaissance’ bookcase of old black oak and bronze statuettes on a magnificent writing table, with its fireplace. . .” symbolize the fresh ideas of the fresh new breed in Russia (40). A fireplace in this day was considered a modern feature. Pavel, although he lives in the country, is more comfortable with more sophisticated surroundings.