Fathers and Sons
by Ivan Turgenev
Analysis: Writing Style
Descriptive, Precise, Simple Word Choice
Though we're all reading Turgenev in translation, he was an absolute master of the Russian language. He believed that the only way an artist could teach his readers was by "giving the world images of beauty." Precision was his focus as he worked and re-worked his sentences, and, whenever he was doubtful about the future of his country, he found that "the great, powerful, free Russian tongue" could be a comfort to him (source: Edmonds, Rosemary. "Introduction." Fathers and Sons.). Though the book ends with the narrator explicitly contradicting Bazarov's nihilism, it is perhaps in the style itself, the "images of beauty," that we find Turgenev's most compelling refutation of the nihilist's argument.
In some of the most moving scenes in the book, the reader finds that it is often the way in which Turgenev says something that makes the scene so moving. Take, for example, the scene in which Pavel Petrovich begs Fenichka to love his brother. He begins to break down after he does so, and cries convulsively so that Fenichka is worried he is having a fit. Yet the full force of the scene does not hit the reader until the final line, "At that moment the whole of his wasted life stirred within him" (24.165). It is a simple and pointed line, but it is also one that goes beyond mere description.
The sentence draws its force from two words – "wasted" and "stirred" – that are so perfectly chosen they might as well be put in italics. With the first word, we get Pavel Petrovich's judgment of his entire life. With the second, we get the swell of emotion that he has been unable to feel thus far in the novel. It is the crisp nature of the line that makes it so affecting. It doesn't feel like the author is reaching after the right description; the description itself is so good that it's hard to imagine any other way of saying the line.
The other place that we see the precision of Turgenev's prose is in his nature descriptions. Consider this passage from the opening of the book:
Nikolai Petrovich let his head droop as he contemplated the crumbling steps of the porch, where a large speckled hen strutted gravely about, firmly tapping her way on her sturdy legs. A grimy cat sprawled affectedly on the railing, observing the hen with an unfriendly eye. The sun blazed down. A smell of warm rye bread was wafted out of the dark passage of the inn. Our Nikolai Petrovich is lost in reverie. (1.9)
In this passage (only part of which we've displayed here), Turgenev moves from one carefully chosen image to the next. The hen was "speckled," and it did not walk, it "strutted." The cat was "grimy," and it did not lay on the railing, it "sprawled affectedly." The smell of rye bread "wafted" out of the inn. With each unique image, Turgenev quickly builds up an entire scene without our even realizing it. With descriptions as rich as that, he can be economical because we just assume that the entire world of the novel could be as richly described as the things upon which he settles.