When Fathers and Sons was first released in 1862, members of the younger generation were outraged because they thought that Turgenev was parodying them through the character of Bazarov. From time to time, we hit upon a line where we understand what they were worried about. For example, when Bazarov dismisses love between a man and a woman, he says, "That's all romantic rot, mouldy aesthetics. We had much better go and inspect that beetle" (7.19). Reading that line, it's hard to imagine an intelligent young man who wouldn't be self-aware enough to realize how ridiculous he sounds. One imagines that the narrator (or the author himself) is having fun with Bazarov.
Yet, as the novel goes on, it becomes clear that the narrator writes about each of his characters with supreme sympathy. His main goal is to depict the situation carefully and truthfully, not to pass judgment on his characters or to mock them. As for the notion that Bazarov is nothing but a parody, Turgenev claimed that he wept as he wrote Bazarov's final death scene – that is how attached he had become to his character (Isaiah Berlin, "1970 Romanes Lecture"). When we read Bazarov's last words, it's hard to imagine a parodic figure that could give voice to such a beautiful line, "Breathe on the dying flame and let it go out..." (27.151). It's almost as if Bazarov has taken on his own vitality and he is speaking not only to Anna Sergeyevna, but also to the narrator, telling him that it is OK to let him die (note that this is just a metaphor, so don't take the idea too literally).
Now, since Turgenev's watchword was realism, the narrator often seems to keep the story at arm's length from himself. It's as if he doesn't want it to become too imbued with his own personality. Yet, at times he cannot help himself. It is clear that even if the narrator is trying to render his story truthfully, he cannot maintain a scientific detachment from his material (not so different from how Bazarov cannot remain detached from his own life). At one point the narrator erupts, "Is there anything in the world more captivating than a beautiful young mother with a healthy child in her arms?" (8.24). Such lines make it clear that the narrator is invested in the story that he tells. Perhaps he does his best to keep himself out of it, but at times his enthusiasm breaks the narrative bounds and he inserts himself into the story (see "What's Up with the Ending?" for the most obvious example of this self-insertion).
After Pavel Petrovich and Bazarov finish their most explosive argument, Nikolai thinks back on a time when he and his mother had a dispute. He said to her, "Of course you cannot understand me; we belong to two different generations" (10.120). In many ways, this line captures the conflict that lies at the heart of the novel: the thwarted attempts of parents and children to understand one another.
Over the course of the novel, we get to peek into a number of different family circles. First, we see the home of the Kirsanovs at Maryino. Later, we get a glimpse into the patchwork family of the Odintsovs. Finally, we see where the conceited young Bazarov grew up, and we are introduced to his proud parents. The title of the novel moves our focus to these family situations, with a specific emphasis on the relations between fathers and their children.
In the character of Bazarov, we find a young man who, above all, wants to be original. When Madame Kukshin asks him if he agrees with the French anarchic thinker Proudhon, he says, "I share no one's ideas: I have my own" (13.50). As the novel goes on, it becomes clear that part of Bazarov's nihilistic philosophy is borne of his own insecurities. He imagines himself destined for greatness and thus does everything he can to define himself separately from his parents and all those who went before him. Ironically, then, the more the old generation tries to understand him, the more he seeks to make himself incomprehensible.
By contrast, Arkady has a great deal of sympathy for his father. The idea of settling down to a farming life at Maryino is attractive to him, and, though he is temporarily under the influence of Bazarov, he will eventually swing back and return to his family circle. Bazarov seems to regard this behavior as a sort of failure; to him it's equivalent to forfeiting in a fight, to giving up one's place in some general revolutionary struggle. Yet everyone else is happy to find middle ground, a place of recognition.
At the end of the novel, it's worth noting that the stories of most characters end happily. Arkady marries Katya; Nikolai marries Fenichka; Anna Sergeyevna finds a husband who might bring her something like love. Yet Bazarov, the central character of the story, spirals downward for the second half of the book. For awhile it seems that he is on top of the world. Yet, the end result of all his renouncing is that he is extremely isolated. Even before he gets typhus, we get the sense that he won't escape from his despair. As in most tragedies, the hero has a fatal flaw that eventually leads to his downfall. In Bazarov's case, the flaw is quite clear: his obscene pride.
Yet the novel is not pessimistic, and, despite its tragic end, the narrator insists on striking a positive chord in the last sentence. No matter how much the force of Bazarov's personality has drawn us in; the narrator feels compelled to offer a commentary on the story he has told and to refute Bazarov's nihilism. He says, "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).
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.
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.
The story begins on May 20th in the year 1859. It's not an insignificant date in Russian history. After Russia's disastrous defeat in the Crimean War (1853 – 1856), Russians had become particularly attuned to their country's backwardness. There was a desire to move from a feudalistic economy, where the majority of the population was composed of serfs that were entirely dependent on a select class of land-owners, to a free-market economy, one where former serfs could become independent land-owners. Combined with a growing abolitionist feeling, these practical factors were pushing Tsar Alexander II toward the Emancipation Reform of 1861, which freed serfs working on private estates.
Nikolai Petrovich is a liberal and a progressive, and he is at the front end of this reformist curve. Having recently freed his serfs and sold off much of his land, he is having a tough time managing his shrinking estate. Throughout the novel, we notice serfs showing little respect to their master; others shirk their duties and waste their time in the pubs. As Nikolai exclaims at one point, "Without the fear of punishment you can do nothing with them!" (22.16). It's clear that his good reformist intentions have not played out too well practically. What is also clear is that the historical background is not actually in the 'background' of the story. It has an enormous effect on the way the characters think and behave.
The most well-known theme of Fathers and Sons – the disconnect between one generation and the next – is in large part a result of this historical setting. As the country became attuned to its own situation, the young increasingly looked to Western Europe for guidance and had very little faith in the tradition of their parents. We see this nowhere as clearly as in the character of Bazarov, who is the embodiment of a widespread cultural phenomenon in the Russian youth of 1859. His philosophy of "nihilism" was a reality; a number of young people were attracted to its revolutionary flavor even if they didn't entirely understand it.
The setting of Fathers and Sons is not just Russia – it is the Russian countryside in particular. Perhaps the most important juxtaposition of setting in Fathers and Sons is the difference between the major Russian cities and the countryside. At the start of the novel, Bazarov and Arkady have just returned from St. Petersburg. After being exposed to the fast-paced culture of the city, the country now strikes them as backward and slow-moving. At one point, Bazarov laughs at the absurdity of the old country bumpkin Nikolai playing his cello on the farm: it seems that Bazarov imagines the countryside as a place of limited culture.
Of course, Bazarov's stereotypes are completely uneven. In his mind, Nikolai and Pavel Petrovich are upper-class gentry, despite the fact that their farm has fallen into disrepair and their estate is rapidly shrinking. Similarly, Anna Sergeyevna, who has inherited a large sum from her dead husband, is a member of the elite upper class, which Bazarov resents. By contrast, Bazarov's family is not very well-off, but they are not exactly impoverished either. They have servants, though not very much land. Though Bazarov often thinks of himself as the simple son of a village doctor, he cannot simultaneously mock the uneducated country-folk and consider himself a man of the people. Bazarov claims to base many of his opinions on class distinctions, but as the novel moves on it is clear that his own vanity lies above all such distinctions.
A last point: the natural world plays a very important role in the story. As Nikolai waits for Arkady in the first chapter, we read,
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 [...] A fat blue-grey pigeon flew down on to the road, hurrying to drink from a puddle beside the wall. (1.9)
The story unfolds in a natural setting, and the narrator often seems to emphasize the way in which the human drama is not separate from the rest of nature. The setting even comes to play an aspect in characterization and individual psychology. Bazarov is partly defined by his lack of interest in nature, whereas Vassily Ivanych has a deep romantic feeling for the world around him. Often, the happiness of characters seems to be linked to the degree in which they are in harmony with their setting.
Virginia Woolf probably put it best when she explained the role of nature in Fathers and Sons. She said,
In Turgenev's novels the individual never dominates, many other things seem to be going on at the same time. We hear the hum of life in the fields, a horse champs a bit; a butterfly circles and settles. And as we notice, without seeming to notice, life going on, we feel more intensely for the men and women themselves because they are not the whole of life, but only a part of the whole. (quoted in Edmonds, Rosemary. "Introduction." Fathers and Sons.)
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.
Before we get rolling, let's just note that Fathers and Sons is a realistic novel, through and through. Turgenev's goal is to capture the drama of a few families during a time of social upheaval in Russian history. What this means, practically, is that the story is, to say the least, symbol-light. There is no vast hidden allegory to Fathers and Sons. In other words, the majority of things in this story do not "mean" much beyond what they are.
That said, there are a couple seemingly peripheral aspects of the story that are actually much more central than the average reader might realize. The first is the role of nature. The story takes place in the Russian countryside (which we get into in "Setting"), and we often get lengthy descriptions of plants and animals in the vicinity of the characters. We'll offer just one of many examples here:
Thus Arkady. But even as he reflected spring regained its sway. All around lay a sea of golden green—everything, trees, bushes, grass, gently shone and stirred in sweeping waves under the soft warm breath of the wind; on every side larks poured out their never-ceasing trills. Plovers called as they glided above the low-lying meadows or ran noiselessly over the tufts of grass; the rooks strutted about, black and beautiful against the tender green of the low spring corn: they disappeared in the already whitening rye, and their heads only now and again peeped out from among its smoke-like waves. Arkadygazed and gazed, until his thoughts grew dim and faded away... (3.60)
What's important to notice about this passage (and other similar passages) is that nature is not just in the background. It's almost as if the natural images fold themselves into Arkady's very thought processes. What gets juxtaposed is Arkady's melancholy and the hopeful nature of the spring scene. His own brooding is essentially swept away by the "larks" and the "plovers" and the "rooks." Nature seems to both contain and direct his thoughts. Put as simply as possible: it's hard to be sad on a sunny day.
When Virginia Woolf commented on the role of nature in Turgenev's work, she pointed out that it made the human drama that much more powerful because humans were revealed to be only a "part of the whole" (quoted in Edmonds, Rosemary. "Introduction." Fathers and Sons). It is a keen observation, and to expand it, we might note that nature provides us an image of something that is more stable and lasting than the human lives at the center of his story. On a very superficial level, the debate at the center of Fathers and Sons might seem to be one between old conservatives and young liberals. Yet, when we take nature into account, we see a more powerful debate: the vanity of the young compared to those who recognize all the forces that shape one's life but lie beyond his or her control.
This is nowhere more clearly invoked than in the last lines of the novel. The narrator essentially steps into the frame of the story so as to contradict Bazarov, and his contradiction lies not only in his words, but in the images of the flowers growing on Bazarov's grave, flowers which have outlasted the young man who refused to believe in anything. The narrator says,
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)
Another seemingly peripheral element of the story is the historical situation of the Russian peasantry. In 1859, a movement was growing that would eventually lead Tsar Alexander II to formally emancipate the serfs in 1861. Nikolai Petrovich is on the front end of the curve; he has already freed his serfs, though he is having a great deal of trouble maintaining order over them now that he has forfeited so much of his power.
There is a lot of talk about the mid-nineteenth century being a time of social upheaval in Russia. The upheaval is not just a matter of social opinions. It's not that the younger generation suddenly decided to renounce the values of the elder – these opinions are tied to concrete changes in economic, social, and political matters.
We emphasized above that Fathers and Sons it not an allegory. Though the novel is not symbolic, its story might be taken to represent part of a larger social change. In other words, there was not one Bazarov in 1859 – there were hundreds, thousands. The clash between old and young taking place under the Kirsanov's roof should be seen as only one of many such disputes taking place throughout Russia as a whole.
This point overlaps with our discussion in "Setting," but we want to emphasize that the images of the peasants we get on the Kirsanov's farm are part of a gesture toward a much larger social change. Let us consider just one such case. After his argument with Bazarov, Pavel Petrovich begins complaining about Foma, "a farm-hand who kept slinking off and was quite unmanageable" (5.74). He notes that the steward told him that, Foma was "a regular Aesop," and that he had "shown himself all round to be a worthless fellow; but he'll live and learn, and shake off his stupid ways" (5.74).
Now what is so important about a little side-note like this is that Foma is just one case of a peasant who began to ignore his responsibilities once he didn't have to fear his master. There were many others. Peasants who spent their entire lives dependent on their masters could hardly be expected to 'act responsibly' once independence had been thrust upon them. As you might imagine, explaining to them that they were part of a slow shift from a feudalistic (serf-based, with only a few landowners) economy to more of a free-market (many small independent landowners) economy wouldn't do much to motivate them from day to day.
Such struggles seem like side-notes because the narrative mainly stays with the younger generation. Neither Bazarov and Arkady know much about managing an estate. Yet, remember that when Pavel becomes furious with Bazarov's arrogance, his anger is partially a result of real-life frustrations managing the peasants at Maryino. The drama of Fathers and Sons is, to a large degree, shaped by its historical realities.
The narrator of the story is typical of nineteenth-century fiction; he has no direct bearing on the action of the story, and yet he is capable of weaving in and out of the thoughts of whichever character he pleases. To an extent, it seems that the language of the story can go anywhere and do anything. Yet, it's worth noting that the narrator is keenly aware of his relationship to the reader. No principle seems as important to him as dramatic efficiency. From the start, we also find that the narrator takes on a conversational tone with the reader. After introducing Nikolai Petrovich, he says, "and so we meet him, quite grey now, stoutish and a trifle bent" (1.8). The narrator, though unidentified, quickly draws us intimately into the frame of his story. Even if he occupies an impossible point of view (knowing what's going on in everyone's head), he is a narrator who recognizes that his goal is to tell a story, and to tell it well.
When Arkady first introduces Bazarov at Maryino, he is a young man with a keen sense of his importance. He is convinced that one day he will be great, even if he isn't sure how or why. Though he wins his arguments with Pavel through cleverness, it seems clear that Pavel's position is more stable than his. One doubts that Bazarov understands just how unlivable his philosophy is. Even in his confidence, it is clear that he does not have one fixed goal – that is, until he meets Anna Sergeyevna.
Bazarov initially conceives of Anna Sergeyevna as an easy conquest. First at the hotel and then later at Nikolskoye, Bazarov quickly wins her favor. She enjoys arguing with him and invites him to take her out on walks. Yet, to Bazarov's dismay, she isn't exactly throwing herself at him. Instead, against his will, Bazarov begins to fall in love with Anna Sergeyevna. The young man who denounces romance has suddenly developed a sense of purpose that he never could have imagined. Though Bazarov is at odds with himself, up until he makes his declaration, it is clear that he is utterly infatuated with Anna Sergeyevna and that she has the ability to make him quite happy.
Bazarov has no intention of declaring his love to Anna Sergeyevna. As he thinks of it, she more or less pulls the declaration out of him by acting coy. Even as he confesses to his obsession with her, he is extremely frustrated with himself. He moves toward her right after he does, as if driven by this furious passion, and she is terrified. At this moment, things begin to slip away from Bazarov. Not only has he failed. He has failed at something in which he never thought he cared about success. His failure makes him call all of his previous priorities into question.
Love lost is one thing, but things begin to become mortally serious when Bazarov returns to Maryino. He seems to take Fenichka up as a replacement for Anna Sergeyevna, and he does his best to woo her. By doing so, however, he crosses an important family boundary, and Pavel thinks of it as pretext enough for a duel. Though Bazarov considers dueling ridiculous, he is driven by his pride and his passions (which he also considers ridiculous) to accept. At this point, it is clear that Bazarov has completely lost control of his own situation. It's almost as if his despair has crystallized into a death wish.
When Bazarov returns to his parents' home, his father quickly notices that something important has changed. His son is more docile, but Vassily Ivanych worries that the reason is because his spirit has been broken. Bazarov appears listless, more at a loss for a sense of purpose than ever. When he accidentally contracts typhus by helping some local doctors to open up a body in town, he seems almost indifferent to his own fate. Whereas Vassily Ivanych is overwhelmed by grief, Bazarov quietly sets about preparing himself for death.
The novel opens with Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov sitting on the steps at Maryino waiting for his son to return home from university. From the start, we are put in the position of the elder Nikolai, and we are made to anticipate the arrival of the main character the same way that Nikolai does. The twist comes when we learn (the same time Nikolai does) that Arkady is not alone, that he has brought with him a brilliant friend from school named Bazarov. Our expectations are slightly confused, but our focus now moves from Arkady to his enigmatic friend, the character who will lie at the heart of the novel.
Pavel does not like Bazarov from the moment he sees him, and we quickly find that either his instinct was right or he has no desire to alter his first impression. The seed of the conflict is planted when Arkady tells Nikolai and Pavel that Bazarov is a nihilist, a man who takes no principle for granted. Though Nikolai is meek and open to attempting to understand this idea that has gripped the new generation, Pavel thinks that nihilism is ridiculous and offensive. At the first opportunity, he draws Bazarov into an argument. Since neither of them is prepared to yield, the conflict between the old generation and the young can do nothing but escalate.
At Maryino, Bazarov seems like a supremely confident young man. His goal is to become a medical doctor, and in the meantime he has no trouble telling his elders how ignorant they are. When Bazarov first hears of 'Madame Odintsov,' he thinks of her as a conquest. Yet things become complicated when he and Arkady go with her to her home at Nikolskoye. In spite of himself, Bazarov begins to fall in love with her. Up until this point, he has renounced any sort of romanticism, and now one of his most basic principles is challenged (yes, Bazarov does have principles – whether he admits it or not). Things only become more complicated when she rejects his advances and he can do nothing but spiral into melancholy and depression.
The novel reaches a new height of tension after Pavel sees Bazarov kiss Fenichka, the mother of Nikolai's new son. The next morning, Pavel challenges him to a duel. Bazarov thinks the idea is ridiculous, but his pride is too great to refuse. As it turns out, the climax is decidedly anti-climactic. After Bazarov shoots Pavel, he rushes to his aid. The whole situation takes on a pseudo-comic air. Yet, it is clear that the tension between the old and young generation has reached its height. Though no one died in the duel, Bazarov can never return to Maryino again. He is suddenly thrown into the position of cast-about, and returns home with little sense of direction or enthusiasm.
After the climax, the reader is concerned for Bazarov in the same way that his father, Vassily Ivanych, is. Though it may be mildly satisfying to see the arrogant young man get humbled, we now wonder what on earth he will do with himself. There is a sense of despair even before Bazarov contracts the deadly disease. His sense of indifference to his own life is captured best by his calm reaction after he cuts himself. His father and mother are overwhelmed by grief, but Bazarov quickly sets about the business of resigning himself to death. Though, at this point, we know what will happen, our feelings for the main character keep us intimately involved in the story.
As Bazarov dies, with Anna Sergeyevna by his bedside, it is clear that the story is winding up. Bazarov is the most vital character in the novel, the one that causes almost all of the conflict, and without him, one suspects that the other characters will settle back down to their quiet domestic lives. At some point during his illness, the sense of suspense abates and is replaced by a sense of dread. This sadness carries us through to the tragic end of the story.
The last chapter reads a bit like an epilogue (the conclusion to a story after the conclusion). We're suddenly reminded that the tragedy was confined to Bazarov and his family. The other characters are allowed a happy ending; Nikolai settles down with Fenichka and Arkady marries Katya. The narrator surveys the lives of all the characters that we have encountered throughout the story, and settles, at last, on the grave of Bazarov. He gives himself the last word, and concludes by telling us that no matter how ardent (passionate) a nihilist Bazarov was, it is not possible that his parents weep in vain.
It's difficult to know exactly what to call the "point of no return" in the novel. Perhaps it comes early, with the initial debate between Bazarov and Pavel. Maybe as soon as the two proud men begin arguing, one knows that the conflict can only escalate since neither is going to yield ground. Perhaps it doesn't come until later, with the duel between Bazarov and Pavel. By this point, they're no longer flinging words at another. They're shooting to the death. Yet, we think the key moment actually comes when Bazarov professes his love to Anna Sergeyevna. This is the event that turns Bazarov's life upside down. From here on out, he seems to have lost his sense of purpose and direction. It's an open wound that he can't heal.
Perhaps at no point is the possibility of resolution as distant as when Pavel raises his gun and aims directly at Bazarov's head. At the same moment, Arkady is off at Nikolskoye, though he doesn't even know why he went there in the first place. It's clear that something is building in both of the young men – that the climax of the story is near – and yet it's hard to imagine how the situation could possibly resolve itself. The spirit of light-heartedness and youth that is present at the beginning of the novel now seems gone. Both Bazarov and Arkady are making the decisions of men, whether or not they are ready for them.
After the duel and Arkady's proposal to Katya, the rest of the story seems to simply slide down a steep slope. By this point, Arkady and Nikolai's happy endings are secured, while Bazarov seems more lost than ever. The reader senses that Bazarov is headed for disaster, but it does not become clear exactly how until he contracts typhus while opening up a corpse in town. From here on the story is pervaded by a sense of fate, a sense that the ending has somehow already come and that we must simply wait and let things play themselves out.