Fathers and Sons
by Ivan Turgenev
Yevgeny Vassilyich Bazarov
The Mover and the Shaker
It's easy to bash Bazarov. He thinks he's better than everyone else. He's rude. He doesn't believe in any of the things that make life worth living (love, for example). Above all, he's so stubborn that he's absolutely incapable of admitting when he's in the wrong. And yet...
Bazarov is inspiring. We first see him through the adoring eyes of Arkady, and we later learn that Arkady is only one of his disciples. As the two of them grow apart, however, we begin to see Bazarov in a more objective light; he truly is a born leader. He has a commanding personality and a sense of greatness that he carries around with him. When he tells Pavel Petrovich, "In these days the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate – and so we repudiate," the reader can't help but be drawn to his strength (10.58).
Turgenev himself was aware of Bazarov's powerful, almost magnetic personality. Turgenev once said that when he came to the end of the novel and had to write Bazarov's death scene, he himself wept as he wrote (quoted in Isaiah Berlin's 1970 Romanes Lecture). Whether you ultimately love Bazarov or hate him, there's a certain appeal to him that is undeniable.
But what is it? The nice, safe answer is that Bazarov has supreme confidence in himself. It's easy to write off his confidence as Pavel does as "an almost Satanic pride," but for young university boys who are scrambling about for a sense of self, Bazarov is attractive (10.108). The young man who doesn't believe in anything believes in himself, and it's this self-confidence that fuels his intense work ethic. At Maryino, he is always busy doing experiments while Arkady is just lounging about the house.
There is a second and slightly more dangerous answer as to what lies at the root of Bazarov's appeal. After Arkady finishes promoting Bazarov to Anna Sergeyevna at Kolyazin's ball, she asks him to bring Bazarov to her hotel. She says, "I am very curious to meet a man who has the courage not to believe in anything" (14.25). Coupled with his confidence, it's Bazarov's absurd resolution to believe in nothing that draws people to him. It's the rebellious flare of it, the "courage" as Anna Sergeyevna puts it. In a world where people tend to get by in society by believing in whatever is crammed down their throats, this young man is willing to live without beliefs – to face the void, one might say.
Of course, Bazarov would not be complete without the humility he begins to acquire on his deathbed. It's here that we are reminded of what we always knew. Bazarov isn't just another arrogant young upstart. He really does have talent and he wants to do something great with his life. Looking back on the time before his illness, Bazarov thinks, "And yet there was a time when I, too, thought of all the things I would do, and never die, why should I" (27.145). Bazarov does have a center of gravity. Though he shows little fear in the face of death, it actually makes him feel his own insignificance instead of just talking about it. Yet, ultimately, it's the fact that Bazarov is unrepentant that makes him such a compelling character. He is the brashness of youth, the embodiment of that youthful illusion that we will never die. After all, why should we?
Does He Deserve The Benefit of the Doubt?
When Fathers and Sons was released in 1862, the younger generation criticized Turgenev severely because they thought they were being parodied through the character of Bazarov. This was clearly not Turgenev's intention, but there are moments at which Bazarov seems to burst into a parody of himself. It's easy to take Pavel's quip with a grain of salt when he says that Bazarov "has no faith in principles, only in frogs" (5.73). Yet Bazarov himself seems to echo Pavel's line when he dismisses love between men and women as "romantic rot, mouldy aesthetics. We had much better go and inspect that beetle" (7.19). It's hard to imagine a young man who is more interested in beetles than in women, but that's how Bazarov is presented. His blind spots are striking.
At times, his vanity can be overwhelming. He doesn't simply disagree with Nikolai and Pavel. He disparages them. When Arkady tries to get him to be sympathetic, he snaps, "Why should I depend on them? Much better they should depend on me" (7.19). It's one thing to disagree with the elder generation and to attempt to break with them. It's another to treat them as completely irrelevant, as nothing but old trash.
The extent of Bazarov's conceit dawns on Arkady when Bazarov says, speaking of the value of Sitnikov, "It is not for the gods to have to bake bricks" (19.36). Bazarov really does consider himself something of a god. The fact that his parents have fawned over him since he was little has tricked him into believing that everyone he meets is supposed to worship him. As often as not, this inflated sense of self is ill-founded. After all, young as he is, Bazarov hasn't actually done anything. His confidence is precocious. It's founded on what he will accomplish.
Perhaps Bazarov's most negative quality, however, is the way that he treats his parents. Though he tells Arkady that he loves them, he is hardly a good son. He visits them for only three days after three years, and while there he makes no effort to entertain either his father or his mother. Bazarov seems to resent his dependence on them. As he tells Arkady when he is in particularly bad mood, "One needs people, even if it's only to have someone to swear at" (21.69). It's as if Bazarov wants to be completely independent, the sun of his own solar system.
Bazarov is a complex character. It's impossible to make a simple argument against him, but he is a deeply flawed individual. We'll just suggest that it may be his flaws and his willingness to be flawed (even more than his strengths) that makes him such an interesting and compelling figure.
Two Things That Do Not Mix: A Romantic Nihilist
Bazarov is proof that it is possible to fall in love without believing in it. At the start of the novel, he thinks of himself as a cad. He views women as sexual conquests and makes it apparent to Madame Kukshin that he has little respect for women's rights. As he tells Arkady when Arkady compliments Bazarov's mother, "If a woman can keep up a conversation for a half an hour, it's already a good sign" (21.167). It's clear that Bazarov's idea of greatness is a male one. Women are subordinate. They exist only to serve and entertain him.
When Bazarov first meets Madame Odintsov, he thinks of her in the same way. He has no respect for her intellect, but exclaims, "What a magnificent body! Shouldn't I like to see it on the dissecting-table!" (15.13,18). Strange as the quote is, it actually reveals quite a bit about how Bazarov relates to women. He thinks of them almost scientifically, as objects of curiosity, specimens; there's no room in his view for intimacy or romantic love. At first, Madame Odintsov is not even a woman to him. She is a "body."
In spite of himself, however, Bazarov begins to fall in love with Anna Sergeyevna. It's hard to know exactly why. Perhaps it's the fact that she won't let herself be won over too easily. Perhaps it's the fact that she seems to like Bazarov without outright worshipping him. Perhaps it's simply spending hours alone with a beautiful woman. Eventually, however, she pushes Bazarov past his breaking point; he can take her coyness no longer.
When Bazarov confesses his love, he says, "Let me tell you then that I love you idiotically, madly... There, you have forced that out of me" (18.45). It's an almost laughable confession, and it's hard to imagine a woman feeling flattered by it. He labels his love "idiotic," and he blames her for tricking him into falling in love with her, for forcing the confession out of him. A moment later, as if in an attempt to erase his moment of vulnerability, Bazarov tries to physically overtake Madame Odintsov with rabid intensity. She is terrified.
Bazarov would be furious if we pointed it out, but his failed love affair perfectly retraces the steps of Pavel Petrovich. After Odintsov rejects him, we can see the wind go out of his sails. He returns to his parents' home and, though he still works, he is melancholy. One gets the sense that his razor-sharp sense of purpose has been dulled.
Aside from the practical fact that Madame Odintsov does not accept Bazarov, the problem is that there is no room for happiness in Bazarov's scientific and nihilistic worldview. When she comes to see him on his deathbed, he can't bring himself to tell her that he loves her because he thinks that it doesn't make sense. Instead, he says, "How lovely you are" (27.141). It's a fascinating turn of phrase because Bazarov can't accept the merely subjective idea of love. Love simply does not exist in his view of the world. Instead he tries to turn love into an objective quality; loveliness is a property of Anna Sergeyevna.
And yet it may be this passionate reach for the objective, this nonsensical desire to find loveliness out in the world, that is the truest and most honest declaration of Bazarov's love. His last wish is for the kiss that he never received when he was courting her. He whispers to Anna Sergeyevna, "Breathe on the dying flame and let it go out..." (27.151).