The novel opens with Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov sitting on the steps at Maryino waiting for his son to return home from university. From the start, we are put in the position of the elder Nikolai, and we are made to anticipate the arrival of the main character the same way that Nikolai does. The twist comes when we learn (the same time Nikolai does) that Arkady is not alone, that he has brought with him a brilliant friend from school named Bazarov. Our expectations are slightly confused, but our focus now moves from Arkady to his enigmatic friend, the character who will lie at the heart of the novel.
Pavel does not like Bazarov from the moment he sees him, and we quickly find that either his instinct was right or he has no desire to alter his first impression. The seed of the conflict is planted when Arkady tells Nikolai and Pavel that Bazarov is a nihilist, a man who takes no principle for granted. Though Nikolai is meek and open to attempting to understand this idea that has gripped the new generation, Pavel thinks that nihilism is ridiculous and offensive. At the first opportunity, he draws Bazarov into an argument. Since neither of them is prepared to yield, the conflict between the old generation and the young can do nothing but escalate.
At Maryino, Bazarov seems like a supremely confident young man. His goal is to become a medical doctor, and in the meantime he has no trouble telling his elders how ignorant they are. When Bazarov first hears of 'Madame Odintsov,' he thinks of her as a conquest. Yet things become complicated when he and Arkady go with her to her home at Nikolskoye. In spite of himself, Bazarov begins to fall in love with her. Up until this point, he has renounced any sort of romanticism, and now one of his most basic principles is challenged (yes, Bazarov does have principles – whether he admits it or not). Things only become more complicated when she rejects his advances and he can do nothing but spiral into melancholy and depression.
The novel reaches a new height of tension after Pavel sees Bazarov kiss Fenichka, the mother of Nikolai's new son. The next morning, Pavel challenges him to a duel. Bazarov thinks the idea is ridiculous, but his pride is too great to refuse. As it turns out, the climax is decidedly anti-climactic. After Bazarov shoots Pavel, he rushes to his aid. The whole situation takes on a pseudo-comic air. Yet, it is clear that the tension between the old and young generation has reached its height. Though no one died in the duel, Bazarov can never return to Maryino again. He is suddenly thrown into the position of cast-about, and returns home with little sense of direction or enthusiasm.
After the climax, the reader is concerned for Bazarov in the same way that his father, Vassily Ivanych, is. Though it may be mildly satisfying to see the arrogant young man get humbled, we now wonder what on earth he will do with himself. There is a sense of despair even before Bazarov contracts the deadly disease. His sense of indifference to his own life is captured best by his calm reaction after he cuts himself. His father and mother are overwhelmed by grief, but Bazarov quickly sets about the business of resigning himself to death. Though, at this point, we know what will happen, our feelings for the main character keep us intimately involved in the story.
As Bazarov dies, with Anna Sergeyevna by his bedside, it is clear that the story is winding up. Bazarov is the most vital character in the novel, the one that causes almost all of the conflict, and without him, one suspects that the other characters will settle back down to their quiet domestic lives. At some point during his illness, the sense of suspense abates and is replaced by a sense of dread. This sadness carries us through to the tragic end of the story.
The last chapter reads a bit like an epilogue (the conclusion to a story after the conclusion). We're suddenly reminded that the tragedy was confined to Bazarov and his family. The other characters are allowed a happy ending; Nikolai settles down with Fenichka and Arkady marries Katya. The narrator surveys the lives of all the characters that we have encountered throughout the story, and settles, at last, on the grave of Bazarov. He gives himself the last word, and concludes by telling us that no matter how ardent (passionate) a nihilist Bazarov was, it is not possible that his parents weep in vain.