Family relationships lie at the heart of Fathers and Sons. In the very first chapter, we get several pages of Nikolai Petrovich's back-story, almost all of which has to do with how he related to his father, his brother Pavel, and then his wife. As the story moves on, we find that a key distinction between Arkady and Bazarov is the way that they show respect and affection to their parents. Arkady is constantly searching for ways to sympathize with Nikolai and Pavel, whereas Bazarov, though he claims to love his father and mother, becomes bored with them after a few days and takes his leave.
Of the main characters, it is only Anna Sergeyevna who is not defined primarily by how she relates to other members of her family. Yet her independence and disconnectedness are presumably a result of the fact that she was orphaned at an early age. As in life, it is almost impossible to underestimate the importance of the family in shaping one's character. We can only imagine how much greater the role was in mid-nineteenth century Russia, when family units were that much tighter and more well-defined.
At the beginning of the novel, Arkady and Bazarov have just returned from university at St. Petersburg. Nikolai does his best to keep up with the education of his children, but he lacks resources and has a farm to tend to; he often finds himself woefully far behind. When Bazarov begins to make fun of Arkady's family for being provincial, Arkady tries to stick up for them and notes that they were educated in a different time and under different circumstances. Bazarov, rather pompously, pronounces, "Everyone ought to educate himself – as I've done" (8.19). The young man clearly is blind to the ways in which his family has bent over backwards to provide him the education that now makes him feel so superior to them. In his youthful ignorance, he imagines that he has accomplished everything by sheer force of will.
Education is particularly important when this story is set – in 1859. Russians are increasingly looking to the West as the place of progress, and it is thus important to have familiarity with Western culture and values. On another level, however, science has been elevated far above literature and art in terms of value. Bazarov only recommends German materialist philosophers (those who believe nothing in the world exists except matter) for reading, and generally seems to think that the world came into being five years ago. His focus on science essentially allows him to be ignorant of an entire body of knowledge that most people associate with the most essential human values. Thus, in many cases, feigned education is as much a part of one's character as legitimate educational background.
After Arkady proposes to Katya, Bazarov announces to Anna Sergeyevna (for the second time) that he must be going. He says, "Talking to you is like walking on the edge of a precipice. At first one is frightened, then one picks up courage" (26.141). Throughout the story, it is clear that a large part of what attracts people to Bazarov is his wit and cleverness. His intelligence is linked not so much with a body of knowledge as with a certain subtlety of mind, an ability to think on the fly and to out-argue almost anyone with whom he comes into contact.
A clear example comes when Pavel and Bazarov have their most explosive argument. Pavel's side is much more coherent, and, when you think about it, his argument holds much more water. Yet, Bazarov constantly ducks him and kids him, offering up trite little sayings like, "A penny candle, you know, set Moscow on fire," instead of getting involved in a scientific argument (9.107). Another example comes when Sitnikov introduces Bazarov to Madame Kukshin. She constantly name-drops and clearly is quite educated, but it's clear that what interests Bazarov is someone's way of speaking and not necessarily the substance of it.
When Pavel Petrovich first enters the scene at Maryino, we get the following description:
Drawing from his trouser pocket an exquisite hand having long tapering pink nails – a hand whose beauty was further enhanced by the snowy whiteness of his cuff buttoned with a single large opal – Pavel Petrovich held it out to his nephew. (4.12)
It is one of many instances in which Pavel is characterized by his somewhat absurd aristocratic manner of self-presentation, of dressing and speaking. Bazarov is instantly turned off by the appearance of Arkady's uncle, perhaps because he can see Pavel's pride through his very clothes (a pride paralleled only by Bazarov's own self-conceit).
The way characters dress in the novel is often linked with their social class, but, more generally, it is linked with how much they care (or make a show of caring) what other people think. Later, when Arkady goes to Matvei Ilyich Kolyazin's ball, it is noted that Kolyazin was polite to Bazarov, Sitnikov, and Madame Kukshin despite the fact that Bazarov appeared in "a shabby dress-coat" and the other two were not dressed well (14.1). In the novel and during the time, dressing well was a sign of respect to the people around you. Unsurprisingly, Bazarov has little interest in this form of respect.