Fathers and Sons: Theme
Love is a prominent theme in Turgenev’s novels. In this particular story, love is measured as successes or failures in all the relationships: between father and son, between sisters, between brothers, between mother and son, and between friends. Nikolay and Fenechka and Arkady and Katya truly succeed at finding their love for one another. At the end of the novel, they have a double ceremony for the couples; what an ending for father and son to both be married at the same time. Nikolay not only succeeds in his love with Fenechka; he succeeds in bringing his son home again, embracing the farm and his father once again. Arkady too succeeds in his love for Katya. He grows up, severs the suffocating bond he has with Bazarov, and marries.
Failures at love are Pavel, Bazarov, and Anna. Pavel failed because he chose to love the wrong woman, a woman who was already married. Something in his character prevents him from moving on, so he follows her around for years, only to his disappointment. He never marries, living this part of his life vicariously through his brother and nephew. Bazarov of course is too selfish to love anyone, even his own parents. He fails at all relationships within his grasp, and the only time he does try to grab on to the woman he actually loved is on his deathbed, a little late. He treats his parents very badly, downright disrespectfully, but his parents are forgiving and love him all the more, even to his dying day. Anna, the woman whom Bazarov loves, is too much like Bazarov, so she too is incapable of love. Intelligent and kind, she lives her life by a schedule, and she seems to miss out on the one thing that might bring her happiness. But she’s so busy, she doesn’t allow any spare time to embrace love at all, so she fails at love.
Pride in the novel is characterized by those who are most overwhelmed by love or emotions they can’t explain, so they try to control feelings in themselves and in others. Nikolay and Fenechka both hang on to one another: he because his pride won’t allow him to admit that he misses his wife so much that perhaps Fenechka just serves to satiate his loneliness; she because he is her financial security.
Bazarov is so full of pride that he refuses to admit his own weaknesses until he is challenged to a duel, and even then, he is still a bit prideful. This pride prevents him from allowing himself to become vulnerable, so he is therefore incapable of loving anyone around him. He does not love himself, and this is the underlying problem. He tries to control everyone around him and only succeeds in pushing them further away, except of course, his parents. That love is unconditional, and Bazarov does not ever discover this kind of love, not even on his deathbed.
Nature and Man
This is the central theme of this story. Whenever man tries to go against nature, something goes faulty. Denying one’s true feelings seems to be a part of nature here. The physical part of nature too has a definite effect on the characters. One cannot escape environmental determinism. Nikolay has problems with his farm, leading to loss of land and money. He depends on nature for his livelihood, and this further affects his health and his relationships.
Vasily, Bazarov’s father, also has an appreciation for land and nature and is tied to it for his livelihood. Although he is a country doctor, he plants medicinal herbs for his practice. His house is tiny, six rooms, and there is a garden where he can watch the sun set.
Even Bazarov is affected by nature, that environmental determinism even he cannot resist. In this scene, he totally succumbs to nature’s sweet effects:
It was midday. The sun was hot, and there was just a thin veil over the sky of whitish clouds.
Everything was quiet, only the village cocks gaily crowed to one another, inspiring in everyone who heard them a strange feeling of sleepiness and languor; and from somewhere high in the crown of the trees came the plaintive call of a young hawk, on and on. Arkady and Bazarov were lying in the shade of a small haystack, having spread out beneath them a couple of armfuls of crackling-dry but still green and fragrant hay. ‘That aspen,’ said Bazarov, ‘reminds me of my childhood. It grows on the edge of a pit, all that remains from a brick shed, and I was convinced then that the pit and the aspen possessed a special magic talisman. I was never bored when I was by them.’ (123)
Nature prompts a memory in Bazarov and brings him comfort. However this comfort for him is only momentary. In the next few minutes, Bazarov denies these good feelings, the simple clean life that his parents have, and he becomes angry again. Why? Because he cannot control his feelings, and he wants to be able to control everything.
Society and Class
The characters in the novel are defined by their class that society devises for them. Turgenev knew too well the effects of class on people’s lives; he was against serfdom and the upper class, and he brings this forth in his characters. For example, Bazarov defined himself as part of the upper class, the new generation of young people who were going to change society and its traditional ways. However, he seems to like and get along with all members of all classes, although there were some that he detested, namely the peasants. But why does he tease the servants and try to befriend them as well? Where do Bazarov’s true sympathies lie: with the peasants or with the aristrocrats? He doesn’t know himself, and he doesn’t get to resolve this because of his untimely death at a young age. He obviously thinks he is better than everyone else. Yet, he reveals much about his philosophy in a discussion with Pavel. He seems to have a conscience here and to sympathize with the lower classes. Could this be Turgenev’s voice coming through, echoing his own thoughts on Russian society and government?
‘But then we realized that to witter away about the sores on the face of society just isn’t worth doing, it only leads to trivial and doctrinaire thinking. We came to see that our so-called progressives and denouncers are good for nothing, that we’re spending our time on nonsense, talking about some kind of art, unconscious creativity, parliamentarianism, the bar and God knows what else, when what’s at stake is people’s daily bread, when we’re suffocating under the crudest superstition. . .’ (51)
Love and independence are also affected by class and society. Comparing Anna and Fenechka can demonstrate that one has a choice, and the other doesn’t because of her society and class. If Anna had not inherited a fortune from her dead husband, love and independence might not be a choice for her; rather, it would be a necessity. She would not be so sure of herself and secure in the fact that she is able to support herself without having a husband. On the other hand, because of Fenechka’s social class, a daughter of a landlady and civil servant, she is not able to make that choice for herself. She must take whatever comes along and accept it out of her necessity for security. Therefore, she did not really have a choice after her mother died to not accept Nikolay’s support and love.