Fathers and Sons takes place at a time when a number of traditions were being called into question, if not overthrown outright. As the older generation struggles to come to terms with the new reforms, the younger generation gets carried away and is willing to renounce everything that has come before. All the characters are hemmed in by their customs, and the novel radically calls into question the individual's relation to everything that has come before.
Pavel Petrovich's sense of duty prevents him from calling into question the traditions and customs by which he was raised.
The spirit of general reform set off by the emancipation of the serfs has pushed the younger generation to extreme views as they attempt to define themselves separately from their parents.