Fathers and Sons
What’s Up With the Ending?
The book ends with its most vital character dead. Bazarov, for all his faults, is the energetic force that keeps the book alive. It is his nihilistic thought that first creates a rift between Nikolai Petrovich and his son. It is his impudence so infuriates Pavel Petrovich that he challenges him to a duel. It is his magnetic presence that gains him and Arkady access to the world of the Odintsovs. Without Bazarov, Arkady might just return to Maryino and settle happily on his family farm. In other words, without Bazarov, there is no story worth telling.
It makes sense, then, that when Bazarov dies the story ends. Yet it is important to note that the book does not simply run out of steam when he disappears. Bazarov, the young man who would renounce everything that is not useful, is wrong about a great many things. He begins to realize this on his deathbed when he tells Anna Sergeyevna, "Russia needs me... No, clearly she doesn't. And who is needed? The cobbler's needed, the tailor's need, the butcher" (27.147). In short, what Bazarov realizes is that nihilists are not useful, that Russia does not need him. It is on this melancholy note that he ends his life. Since he never believed in romance, he never made any effort to kiss Anna Sergeyevna. Now he asks her for a kiss before he dies: "Breathe on the dying flame and let it go out" (27.151). The fragile kiss (she doesn't want to get typhus) is the touch of everything that Bazarov denied himself, of everything that he missed during his short life.
After surveying the futures of the other characters, the author settles again at the grave of Bazarov. His parents come to pray and weep for their son, who died too young and who believed that his death was in vain. Yet the author refuses to accept Bazarov's fatalism. His sympathy is with the parents who, by loving their son, keep his memory alive. In effect, the author refutes Bazarov to keep his legacy alive. Speaking of the parents, he says,
But are those prayers of theirs, those tears, all fruitless? Is their love, their hallowed selfless love, not omnipotent? Oh yes! However passionate, sinful and rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers growing over it peep at us serenely with their innocent eyes; they speak to us not only of eternal peace, of the vast repose of 'indifferent' nature: they tell us, too, of everlasting reconciliation and of life which has no end. (28.12)
A novel that so carefully depicts the rise of nihilism refuses to end on a nihilistic note. Instead it ends with a line of affirmation, an affirmation of human values that will survive every ideological revolution, every revolt of sons against their fathers.