Nihilism In Turgenov's Fathers and Sons


Turgenov's "Fathers and Sons" has several characters who
hold strong views of the world. Pavel believes that Russia
needs structure from such things as institution, religion,
and class hierarchy. Madame Odintsov views the world as
simple so long as she keeps it systematic and free from
interference. This essay will focus on perhaps the most
interesting and complex character in "Fathers and Sons":
Bazarov. Vladimir Nabakov writes that "Turgenov takes his
creature [B] out of a self-imposed pattern and places him
in the the normal world of chance." By examining Bazarov
this essay will make this statement more clear to the
reader. Using nihilism as a starting point we shall look at
Bazarov's views and interpretations of science, government
and institution. Next we will turn to the issue
relationships. Finally we examine Bazarov's death and the
stunning truths it reveals. These issues combined with the
theme of nihilism will prove that chance, or fate is a
strong force which cannot easily be negated.
Nihilism as a concept is used throughout "Fathers and
Sons". To gain a better understanding of the ideas behind
this term let's look at what Bazarov says on the subject.
"We base our conduct on what we recognize as useful... the
most useful thing we can do is to repudiate - and so we
repudiate" (123). The base concept of nihilism is to deny
or negate, and as we learn later in the same paragraph, to
negate everything. With this 'destruction' of everything
from science to art there is no building for nihilists, as
Bazarov says "That is not our affair" (126). Nihilists view
the current structure of society as concerned with such
trivialities as 'art' and 'parliamentism' while ignoring
real life issues such as food, freedom, and equally.
Nihilists are aware of these social woes and hence mentally
deny to recognize any of the present authority or
institutions which only serve to perpetuate a myth. Bazarov
agrees with the statement that nihilism "confine[s]
[oneself] to abuse" (126).
"... I don't believe in anything: and what is
science-science in the abstract? There are sciences as
there are trades and professions, but abstract science just
doesn't exist" (98). For Bazarov anything that is not
tangible and concrete doesn't exist. Psychology, quantum
mechanics, neurochemistry would be scoffed at by Bazarov.
It seems peculiar that Bazarov would say, "... nowadays we
laugh at medicine in general, and worship no one," (197)
while at the same time he pursues a career as a doctor. The
medicine that Bazarov uses deals in the 'pure sciences',
that is his ideas comes from practice not theory. By
looking closer at Bazarov we discover that his work
confirms his nihilistic ideas. To explain, one only need
look at Bazarov's main focus; the dissection of frogs. Each
time he pokes around the anatomy of a frog he notices they
all have similar structures (heart, liver, intestine's
etc.). Humans also share a common internal anatomy.
Abstract concepts like authority, religion or science to
not naturally exist within people and are only made 'real'
by others. Bazarov knows this and his studies confirm his
rebellious attitude. Bazarov says, "All men are similar, in
soul as well as in body ... and the so-called moral
qualities are the same in all of us" (160).
As with general science Bazarov feels nothing towards art.
"... You assume that I have no feeling for art - and it is
true, I haven't" (159). Art is trivial to Bazarov and
accomplishes nothing, therefore he doesn't recognize it. It
is the same with nature, "Bazarov was rather indifferent to
the beauties of nature" (169). There is a saying, "Beauty
is in the eye of the beholder." What if the beholder has no
eye for beauty? Such is the case with Bazarov. The point
for Bazarov is that aesthetics in art and nature only serve
to divert attention from pressing issues such as corruption
in society and structural change. These are what concerns a
nihilists, not the latest prose from Pushkin or painting
from Alexander.
Institutions such as education, government and established
authority are scorned by Bazarov. "Everyone ought to
educate himself" (105). Since indoctrination of the
established society begins with education, a nihilist
should view education from behind the barrel of a shotgun.
Logic is of no use Bazarov, "You don't need logic, I
suppose, to put a piece of bread in your mouth" (123). The
nihilist agenda, that is, the need for tearing down of
structure is beyond logic and is as necessary as eating or
breathing. In addition Bazarov believes that what is
preached by politicians and so-called leaders is itself
without logic. "Aristocraticism, liberalism, progress,
principles - think of it, what a lot of foreign words ...
and useless words!" (123). It is easy for Bazarov to give
no credence and thus negate the things which government
deems important in society. He sees irrelevance in much of
what is said and done by leaders and Bazarov believes that
real issues are being avoided. "We saw that our clever men,
our so-called progressives and reformers never accomplished
anything, that we were concerning ourselves with a lot of
nonsense, discussing art, unconscious creative work,
parliamentarianism, the bar, and the devil knows what,
while all the time the real question was getting daily
bread to eat ... when our industrial enterprises come to
grief solely for want of honest man at the top" (126).
Bazarov's nihilistic nature is a product of the corruption
he sees in is nation. Bazarov could choose to live his life
and pretend not to be aware of the evils around him.
Instead he chooses to be a destroyer of structure, a
nihilist in every sense and every thought. He finds himself
in a world which he despises and discovers he must deny
everything which results from this world. However,
Bazarov's self-imposed nihilism, which gives him the power
to negate, is challenged by something we are all subjects
When Bazarov meets Madame Odintsov we notice distress
within our hero. Up to this point Bazarov has maintained
his somewhat icy composure and easily passed the tests of
his nihilist convictions. But now, chance deals Bazarov a
new hand. By befriending Anna Odintsov Bazarov comes up
against feelings which he tries desperately to defeat. In
the early stages he feels inspired and this feeling
"tortured and maddened him" (169). Later, sometimes
unaware, Bazarov has fantasies wherein his lust for Anna O
is quite clear. Bazarov finds that despite his strength in
other matters her is overwhelmed and consumed by these
'shameful' thoughts. Bazarov would "stamp his feet or grind
his teeth and shake his fist at himself" (170). Even after
all his teeth grinding and fist shaking, Bazarov cannot
seem to cast off his growing passion. "He was breathing
heavily; his whole body trembled" (182). It is interesting
to watch this fight between Bazarov's deeply held views of
nihilism versus (what Bazarov would call) a trivial and
ambiguous entity - passionate love. This situation between
Bazarov and Anna would have been scoffed at by Bazarov
himself, had another been in his place. Eventually the
"passion struggling in him, violent and painful" (182) is
too much for Bazarov to take and he gives into this
'passionate fury'. This proves that even a nihilist, who
heeds no authority, institution, or social conventions and
follows no rules, cannot negate the power of love.
Life is itself without rules. It is the random, somewhat
chaotic nature of life which makes convention attractive.
Bazarov sees life for what it is and would rather take his
chances with the 'chaotic', undefined world than live by
rules, norms and standards imposed by others. Bazarov calls
conventional methods of living 'gliding along the rails'.
Bazarov lives at the edge of an abyss and he uses no
railing for support. For this reason, Bazarov is a stronger
man than most, as he has only himself to turn to. He sees
corruption and scandal in many of the structures and fights
to tear these down. It is hard for Bazarov to do this alone
for nihilism is a "bitter, harsh, lonely existence" (271).
What is needed is more strong men like Bazarov to help tear
down the institutions. Chance, however finds Bazarov in a
time which cannot appreciate his ideas. It is too early and
the people have yet to uncover their eyes, and cannot see
what is systematically removing their souls.
Bazarov's gradual demise is foreshadowed by the peasants
when "Bazarov the self-confident did not for a moment,
suspect that in their eyes he was nothing but a buffoon"
(276). Bazarov's nihilistic ideas do not seem to reside
anywhere but in himself. He seems to realize that Russia is
not ready to accept his ideas and meets fate with unusual
acceptance. When Bazarov becomes infected with typhus he
doesn't stamp his feet or grind his teeth, he merely says,
"It's a fortuitous circumstance, and, to tell you the
truth, a very unpleasant one" (281). It's of little use for
Bazarov to deceive himself into thinking he can negate
fate. "Yes, just try and set death aside. It sets you
aside, and that's the end of it!" (283). Bazarov, the great
nihilist of Russia encounters the strongest negation of all
- death.
Nihilism as an idea has the potential to create a lot of
change. By relinquishing all forms of authority,
institution and convention of value so that subordination,
normality, rules and laws no longer exist, would cause a
radically different perception of social conduct and
responsibility. Bazarov, by being a nihilist, brings this
into existence. Negation, however does have its limits. As
Bazarov discovers, there are some things which defy
negation. If by chance one falls in love, the sword of
negation meets heavy armor. The strength of a nihilist
resides in his or her mind. The action potential is in the
strength of conviction to these principles. But the overall
power of ones ability to destroy is in no way a match for
the supremacy of fate - negation in the form of death.


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