Study Guide

Fathers and Sons Wisdom and Knowledge

By Ivan Turgenev

Wisdom and Knowledge

"Without principles taken as you say on trust one cannot move an inch or draw a single breath." (5.60)

Is Pavel's refutation of nihilism valid? If Arkady and Bazarov were good nihilists, how would they find reason to act? Is nihilism really the paralyzing philosophy that Pavel makes it out to be?

"Yes. It used to be Hegelians, and now there are nihilists. We shall see how you manage to exist in a void, in an airless vacuum; and now please ring the bell, brother Nikolai, it is time for me to drink my cocoa." (5.62)

How does Pavel's experience allow him to so quickly see the faults of nihilism? Why is Arkady blind to them? Should Pavel be more aggressive in refuting his grandson? Why do you think he is so relaxed about the pernicious (potentially harmful) philosophy?

That indefinite twilight period of regrets that are akin to hopes, and hopes which are akin to regrets, when youth is over and old age has not yet come. (7.7)

What is it about the ambiguity of this period – the interplay of hopes and regrets – that might give way to wisdom? Is Pavel's wisdom a result of his suffering? Is wisdom always a result of suffering? Is youth incompatible with wisdom?

Is there anything in the world more captivating than a beautiful young mother with a healthy child in her arms? (8.24)

Who is saying this? Is this a unique moment when the narrator suddenly appears to offer us a little kernel of wisdom? Is it disrupting to have him do so? What does his relation to the story seem to be?

"Only immoral or silly people can live in our age without principles." (10.48)

Is Pavel simplifying things here? What is the kernel of wisdom that he is attempting to impart to Bazarov? Are their points of view inherently opposed to each other or is there some place for a mutual understanding? Is Bazarov really attempting to go forward without principles?

"At last I said to her, 'Of course, you cannot understand me: we belong to two different generations,' I said. She was dreadfully offended but I thought to myself, 'It can't be helped. It is a bitter pill but she must swallow it.' You see, now our turn has come, and our successors say to us, "You are not of our generation: swallow your pill.'" (10.121)

Is Nikolai being too fatalistic? What happens if he simply accepts that two generations cannot understand one another? Where is the wisdom in his idea and where is the shortcoming? Does Nikolai ever seem to share his father's viewpoint on the gap between generations?

Time (as we all know) sometimes flies like a bird and sometimes crawls like a snail; but man is happiest when he does not even notice whether time is passing quickly or slowly. (17.1)

The narrator here gives us an "aphorism" – a general truism. He is describing something specific – Bazarov and Arkady's stay at the Odintsovs' – but he decides to expand it into a general principle. How do you feel about this technique? How is this type of wisdom intimately bound up with the point of view that the narrator assumes in the novel? If he took a more limited point of view, would he still be able to leave us with this wisdom?

"You see what I'm doing: there happened to be an empty space in my trunk, and I'm stuffing it with hay; it's the same with the trunk which is our life: we fill it with anything that comes to hand rather than leave a void." (26.150)

After Arkady asks Bazarov why he congratulates him on marriage when Bazarov detests marriage, it becomes clear that Bazarov is aware of a "void" in his own life. It also becomes clear that he knows his attempts to plug this void are fairly trivial; he is willing to "fill it with anything that comes to hand." What do you think is the void in Bazarov's life? Do you think the fact that he is aware of his attempts to fill it make him better off? Does this strike you as a bit of wisdom or just more cleverness?

"Live long, that's best of all, and make the most of it while there's time. Take a good look at this hideous spectacle; a worm, half crushed but writing still. And yet there was a time when I, too, thought of all the things I would do, and never die, why should I? There were problems to solve, I said to myself, and I'm a giant. And now the only problem for this giant is how to die decently, though that makes no difference to anyone." (27.145)

Has Bazarov attained something like wisdom or is he simply in a state of despair? Is it possible to have wisdom without humility? How might someone like Anna Sergeyevna take the advice "die decently" when she is not dying? What do dying decently and living decently have in common? What has Bazarov learned from his own tragedy?

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)

The narrator here gives himself the last word over Bazarov's pessimistic viewpoint. Does he seem to be dismissing Bazarov? If this is the "message" to be transmitted by the story then why tell the story? Why do you think these are the last lines of the novel? Could they exist anywhere else in the novel?