Glimpses of the Peasants
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Another seemingly peripheral element of the story is the historical situation of the Russian peasantry. In 1859, a movement was growing that would eventually lead Tsar Alexander II to formally emancipate the serfs in 1861. Nikolai Petrovich is on the front end of the curve; he has already freed his serfs, though he is having a great deal of trouble maintaining order over them now that he has forfeited so much of his power.
There is a lot of talk about the mid-nineteenth century being a time of social upheaval in Russia. The upheaval is not just a matter of social opinions. It's not that the younger generation suddenly decided to renounce the values of the elder – these opinions are tied to concrete changes in economic, social, and political matters.
We emphasized above that Fathers and Sons it not an allegory. Though the novel is not symbolic, its story might be taken to represent part of a larger social change. In other words, there was not one Bazarov in 1859 – there were hundreds, thousands. The clash between old and young taking place under the Kirsanov's roof should be seen as only one of many such disputes taking place throughout Russia as a whole.
This point overlaps with our discussion in "Setting," but we want to emphasize that the images of the peasants we get on the Kirsanov's farm are part of a gesture toward a much larger social change. Let us consider just one such case. After his argument with Bazarov, Pavel Petrovich begins complaining about Foma, "a farm-hand who kept slinking off and was quite unmanageable" (5.74). He notes that the steward told him that, Foma was "a regular Aesop," and that he had "shown himself all round to be a worthless fellow; but he'll live and learn, and shake off his stupid ways" (5.74).
Now what is so important about a little side-note like this is that Foma is just one case of a peasant who began to ignore his responsibilities once he didn't have to fear his master. There were many others. Peasants who spent their entire lives dependent on their masters could hardly be expected to 'act responsibly' once independence had been thrust upon them. As you might imagine, explaining to them that they were part of a slow shift from a feudalistic (serf-based, with only a few landowners) economy to more of a free-market (many small independent landowners) economy wouldn't do much to motivate them from day to day.
Such struggles seem like side-notes because the narrative mainly stays with the younger generation. Neither Bazarov and Arkady know much about managing an estate. Yet, remember that when Pavel becomes furious with Bazarov's arrogance, his anger is partially a result of real-life frustrations managing the peasants at Maryino. The drama of Fathers and Sons is, to a large degree, shaped by its historical realities.