First of all, a direct translation of the Russian would actually leave us with the English title Fathers and Children. There seems to be truth in the altered translation. In the patriarchal (male-dominated) Russian society depicted in the novel, the relationships that dominate the book are those between the fathers, Nikolai Petrovich and Vassily Ivanych, and their sons, Arkady Nikolaevich and Yevgeny Vassilyich. The title instantly focuses us in on these relationships, which lie at the heart of the novel.
To some extent, the father-son relationships are couched in a very particular historical moment. It is Russia, and the year is 1859. A strong humanitarian feeling is rising on behalf of the serfs, who are living in miserable conditions far inferior to those common amongst the peasants of Western Europe. Nikolai Petrovich has already freed many of his serfs, who are now taking advantage of him, and his action is a part of the formal emancipation of the serfs by Tsar Alexander II in 1861. The West is being held up as the location of progress and sophistication, and Russians are considered educated only insofar as they are familiar with the advances of Western Europe.
Both Nikolai Petrovich and Vassily Ivanych make an effort to stay up with the times, to be liberal thinkers and keep pace with their sons' education. Yet when Arkady and Bazarov (Yevgeny Vassilyich) return from school in Petersburg, they have been taken in by a dark new way of thinking. Bazarov is the leader, but Arkady follows his every move. They consider themselves "nihilists," and they do "not take any principle for granted, however much that principle may be revered" (5.57). They believe only in what is useful, and hence admire science at the same time that they detest poetry and romance. Their fathers attempt to understand them, but are also appalled at the radicalism of their beliefs.
When Turgenev's novel was published in 1862, it caused a scandal in Russia because it depicted such an immense gap between one generation and the next, between fathers and their sons. The nature of this gap might best be summed up in the words of Nikolai Petrovich. Attempting to understand the distance between Arkady and himself, he remembers what he once said to his own mother: "Of course, you cannot understand me: we belong to two different generations" (11.121). Not only does the novel depict the lack of understanding between generations, it is willing to consider the frightening possibility raised by Nikolai's statement: that no understanding is possible.
Turgenev's novel is focused, above all, on personal human struggles. For this reason, it transcends its historical moment and becomes a universal tale of the tempestuous (stormy) relationships between parents and their children. The efforts of Nikolai Petrovich and Vassily Ivanych to understand their sons' nihilism can easily be twinned with the universal struggle of fathers to reconcile themselves to their sons' new ways of thinking. Similarly, Arkady and Bazarov's nihilist call to renounce everything captures a universal psychological need: the need for children to define themselves separately from their parents.