From the first moment that we see Pavel Petrovich, we learn that he is a proud man. His very dress reflects it. When he appears, the narrator notes that he wears long tapering nails, that though he has aged he is still an attractive man, and that, generally, he carries himself with "aristocratic elegance" (4.11). Just as the narrator picks out these noticeable details, Bazarov immediately recognizes Pavel Petrovich as a man who thinks quite a bit of himself. Yet in Bazarov's mind, Pavel's pride is unjustified and absurd.
When we learn a bit about Pavel's background, we learn why he acts the way that he does. He was the favorite son of General Kirsanov and, unlike his brother Nikolai, he was always a man of action. By the age of twenty-seven, he was already a captain in the Russian military. He knew how to carry himself in high society, and he was known as a favorite among women. In other words, Pavel Petrovich has grown accustomed to being both respected and admired.
The rude young Bazarov is destined to clash with Pavel from the start. The two are twinned by their extreme vanity, and aside from the fact that their opinions are exactly opposed to one another, each sees a threat in the image of the other. To Bazarov, Pavel is the proud old man that he might one day become. To Pavel, Bazarov is the arrogant young upstart who has not yet earned the right to be as self-assured as he is. Before Pavel knows anything about Bazarov, he can tell that he doesn't like him based on his shabby manner of dress and the fact that he wears his hair long.
After Arkady reveals that Bazarov is a nihilist, however, Pavel has something into which he can dig his long tapering fingernails. Whereas Arkady tries to argue that a nihilist is one who looks at everything critically, Pavel dismisses the philosophy as a new fad for young people who respect nothing. He links it with previous failed movements like those who pushed for Hegelian logic, and, with a knowing air, he tells Arkady, "We shall see how you exist in a void, in an airless vacuum" (5.62). Pavel appeals to experience and wisdom, and speaks as if he already knows that nihilism will prove a deeply flawed philosophy for the young who adhere to it (hint: he has good reasons for claiming this).
When Pavel engages Bazarov in debate, he appeals to the English set of values. His main point is that "without a sense of proper pride, without a sense of self-respect – and these feelings are highly developed in the aristocrat – there can be no firm foundation for the social... bien public... the social fabric" (10.45). The sly move that Pavel makes is linking a sense of self-respect with aristocratic values. On the one hand he rails against the absurdity of living without principles, but on the other he brings a very fixed and upper class set of principles to the table. Though he may deny it, to Pavel it's not just a question of having or not having values. It's a question of having or not having aristocratic values.
As the story goes on, both the flaws and the strengths of Pavel's character come to light. His military pride leads him to challenge Bazarov to a duel, which turns out to be a complete fiasco. Not only is Pavel the one who gets shot, but he ends up being tremendously embarrassed when he has to explain to everyone that the entire thing was his fault. Yet Pavel's claim that one cannot live without values and a certain sense of self-respect proves to be overwhelmingly justified. We learn this mainly through Bazarov's isolation and confusion as he considers how to make his way in the world; Arkady, who is not as strong-willed but also not as averse to traditional values, manages to get on quite happily. Almost in spite of himself, Bazarov retraces Pavel's footsteps and becomes entangled in his own failed love affair.
When Bazarov first begins making fun of Pavel, Arkady decides to tell him Pavel's story in the hope that Bazarov will sympathize with him. We learn that Pavel's life was largely defined by a failed love affair. He went head over heels for a mysterious woman named Princess R. He wooed her easily, but, after winning her over, his obsession with her only grew.
When Princess R. fled both Pavel and her family, Pavel resigned his military post to follow her. He was ashamed of his behavior, but "her image – that baffling, almost vacant but fascinating image – had bitten too deeply into his soul" (7.6). It's unclear exactly what it was about Princess R. that fascinated Pavel. Perhaps it was the fact that she was so mysterious, the fact that he could never completely figure her out or win her over. Pavel caught up with her briefly in Baden, but after a few months she fled again. When she did, he returned to Russian society and did his best to play his role, though he did so without enthusiasm. When he heard that she died in Paris in a state bordering on insanity, he essentially gave up; he undertook nothing new.
Bazarov dismisses Pavel's story. He thinks that it is unmanly to give up after one failed love affair, and imagines that Pavel spends all his time giving young people advice since he has messed up his own life. We don't know about you, but we have much more sympathy for Pavel than Bazarov does. There's even a sense of justice when Bazarov becomes increasingly obsessed with Anna Sergeyevna; he doesn't know what to do with himself after she rejects him.
When we meet Pavel, the narrator describes him as, "the lonely bachelor, just entering on that indefinite twilight period of regrets that are akin to hopes, and hopes which are akin to regrets, when youth is over and old age has not yet come" (7.7). It is this vague sense of despair that explains so many of Pavel's actions. It also explains why he clings so fiercely to his pride and his family: there isn't much else to which he can cling.
As the story winds down, we see a softer side of Pavel Petrovich. The real reason for his duel with Bazarov is that he wants to defend his brother's honor, and we learn that his final wish is for Nikolai to marry Fenichka and to be happy. Though Pavel seems incapable of pursuing his own happiness, he tries to look out for those around him. It's easy to dismiss this as Pavel living vicariously through his brother, but one must fully appreciate how sour the world must taste in Pavel's mouth after being abandoned by Princess R. It's not that he chooses not to be happy; he can't.
One of the most powerful lines in the book comes right after Pavel implores Fenichka to love his brother with all her heart. As he squeezes her hand, the narrator tells us, "At that moment the whole of his wasted life stirred within him" (24.165). Clearly, the word that makes this sentence so poignant is "wasted." By the time we meet Pavel it is too late for him to find love or happiness. His life has been much less than he might have hoped, and part of the reason he seems so set on preaching to the young generation is that he doesn't want them to follow in his footsteps.
Pavel may be slightly absurd, as Bazarov claims, but he is also an entirely sincere and kind-hearted man. When Bazarov is on his own deathbed, we find that he also feels that his life has been a waste. Yet, unlike Pavel, he is still incapable of reaching out to the people around him – of finding meaning in something bigger than himself.