Study Guide

Fathers and Sons Themes

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    One of Turgenev's main goals in Fathers and Sons is to accurately portray a massive cultural struggle in mid-nineteenth century Russia. As the novel moves on, it is clear that he is not aiming at accuracy for the sake of accuracy. The goal is that such an accurate portrayal will also allow the reader to distill some wisdom from the narrative. As the characters age and grow humble through experience, they often speak wisely. But just as often the narrator breaks the bounds of "straight story-telling" so that he can pass on a kernel of wisdom to the reader.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. Where is the wisdom in Pavel's dismissals of the "nihilism" of the younger generation? Where are the shortcomings?
    2. Are youth and wisdom portrayed as being incompatible in the story? How would you characterize the intelligence of the younger generation if not as "wisdom"?
    3. What is the relationship between tradition and wisdom? To what extent is wisdom a sense of respect for what has come before? To what extent is it a break from what has come before?
    4. What is the effect of the narrator occasionally interrupting the story in order to give the reader his own bits of wisdom? What seems to be the main message the narrator wants the reader to take away from the story?

    Chew on This

    As Bazarov becomes melancholy and then sick, he learns that wisdom is inseparable from suffering and a sense of one's own insignificance.

    Pavel Petrovich's sense of wisdom as basic self-respect and respect for civilization at large is inherently bound up with a conservative viewpoint; there is no room for progress if one is weighed down by a sense of duty to what has come before.

  • Society and Class

    Turgenev's Fathers and Sons is set during a time of social unrest in Russia as a whole. The tsar is currently in the process of emancipating the serfs, which causes huge changes in Russia on the most personal of levels: how masters relate to their servants. At first, it seems as if these minor anecdotes about peasants of the "old" and "modern" outlook are simply ornamental, part of the historical setting of the story. Yet, as Fathers and Sons moves on, it becomes clear that issues of society and class lie at the heart of the novel: Bazarov's nihilism does not make sense unless it is placed in a social and historical context.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What seem to have been Nikolai's motivations for freeing his peasants at Maryino? What aspects of the historical context are relevant for understanding this part of the story?
    2. How is Nikolai and Fenichka's relationship shaped by their different societal positions?
    3. To what extent is Anna Sergeyevna's viewpoint shaped by her social position? In the novel at large, do characters' viewpoints seem more influenced by their values or by their class?
    4. Where do Bazarov's sympathies lie, societally speaking? Why does he make fun of the peasants at the same time that he tries to relate to them?

    Chew on This

    Though Bazarov claims that he sympathizes with the peasants, his behavior suggests that his real sympathies lie with the more sophisticated members of the gentry.

    Anna Sergeyevna's sense of independence and her sense of wandering toward an uncertain goal are both direct results of her social class. If she had not inherited Odintsov's wealth, then love and ambition would not have appeared to her as choices; they would have appeared to her as necessities.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints

    The main character of Fathers and Sons, Bazarov, does not want to occupy a philosophical position. Yet nihilism, whether he likes it or not, is a philosophy, a philosophy of destruction and renunciation. Bazarov is such an intellectual character that throughout the novel we see him struggle to understand each new situation in which he is put. Yet, from his intellectual point of view, he renounces romance and many other human values that make life worth living. Part of the drama of the novel is watching how Bazarov can go on living with his philosophy.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints

    1. What do you think of nihilism as a philosophical viewpoint? Does it make sense? Is it consistent?
    2. What does nihilism borrow from and have in common with the scientific method? What happens when you only approach life "scientifically"?
    3. What is the relationship between philosophy and human happiness? What is the good of a particular philosophy if it does not promote human happiness?
    4. Is Vassily Ivanych's romanticism a type of philosophy or is it inherently opposed to philosophy?

    Chew on This

    Bazarov's philosophy is inconsistent because, though it renounces everything, it does not have the capacity to call itself into question.

    Though Bazarov perceives romanticism as the opposite of philosophy, what we learn by the end of the novel is that romanticism – a sense of human value – is exactly what is missing from Bazarov's own nihilistic philosophy.

  • Pride

    Nihilism is a philosophy of the proud. It isn't possible to renounce everything that has come before without a certain amount of confidence in one's own position. In Fathers and Sons, it quickly becomes apparent that the reason Bazarov is such a good proponent of nihilism is because he is incredibly vain. As much as the ideas of the younger generation, what will catch Pavel Petrovich's attention (Pavel is a proud man himself) is Bazarov's conceit. Indeed, it is – in large part – pride that makes the conflicts of the story escalate; they can't make themselves back down and seek reconciliation.

    Questions About Pride

    1. In what ways is nihilism bound up with individual pride?
    2. How are Bazarov and Pavel bound together by their personal vanity? How are they driven apart by it?
    3. Is pride, as Nikolai says, necessary in order to succeed? Has a lack of pride kept Nikolai from succeeding more than he does?
    4. As the novel goes on, Bazarov begins to develop a keen awareness of his own insignificance. Does this strike you as a true revelation or simply as pride in a different guise?

    Chew on This

    The reason that Pavel and Bazarov butt heads from the very beginning has less to do with their differing philosophies than with the fact that they are both immensely proud. Without vanity, they could quickly have come to a sense of mutual understanding.

    When discussing his own insignificance, the key point Bazarov makes is that he is more aware of his insignificance than other people are of theirs. His newfound humility is, then, just another way for him to explain why he is superior to the people around him.

  • Love

    Bazarov, the main character of Fathers and Sons, does not believe in love. At the beginning, he makes fun of Arkady's uncle, Pavel Petrovich, for giving up after a failed love affair. Yet, as the novel goes on, Bazarov falls head over heels for a woman that does not love him back. It becomes clear that the happiness of the characters will be determined less by their ambition and more by their ability to succeed in love. As the narrator explicitly states at the end of novel, it is love that is the ultimate refutation of nihilism.

    Questions About Love

    1. To what extent do failed love affairs shape the destinies of different characters in the story? What characterizes those who fail in love (Pavel, Bazarov, Anna Sergeyevna) and those who succeed (Nikolai, Arkady, Katya)?
    2. What are some of the constraints on the love between parents and children that are explored in the story? Why do you think the children need distance from their parents even if they adore them?
    3. What is the relationship between love and practicality in the novel? Thinking specifically of Nikolai and Fenichka, does their relationship seem guided by economic necessity or true love?
    4. Why do you think Bazarov renounces romance and love? What is it about love that keeps him from believing in it?

    Chew on This

    The proudest characters in the novel are those who are most overwhelmed by love for the specific reason that they try to control feelings that are uncontrollable.

    Fenichka and Nikolai's relationship is characterized more by necessity than by love. Nikolai needs Fenichka to temper his loneliness, and Fenichka needs Nikolai for economic security.

  • Man and the Natural World

    When Virginia Woolf discussed Fathers and Sons, she noted how the human characters do not exist in isolation from the natural world. As she put it, their struggles take on all the more significance because they are not the whole of the scene, but only a "part of the whole." The novel is full of beautiful descriptions of the Russian countryside, and characters are often distinguished by their attitudes toward nature. Being able to appreciate nature becomes linked with a feeling of wonder and awe for existence in general.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What is the relationship between inner psychology and the natural world in the novel? How do natural descriptions tell us something about what is going on in the characters' heads?
    2. How do the lengthy descriptions in the novel situate the characters in relation to the setting? How prominent do humans seem after a discussion of the movements of various animals?
    3. What is the relationship in the novel between romanticism and an appreciation for the natural world?
    4. Which characters view nature as something to be exploited? Which view it as something to be appreciated? How does this sum up their relations to the lands on which they live?

    Chew on This

    Nikolai Petrovich and Vassily Ivanych seem to have an appreciation for the land, in part because their livelihoods depend on it; with time, this sense of dependence blooms into full-scale romanticism.

    The lengthy natural descriptions in the novel remind the reader of how insignificant human drama is when viewed from the perspective of nature.

  • Suffering

    Characters suffer quietly in Fathers and Sons, and their desire to hide their suffering often makes it that much more poignant. Pavel Petrovich feels incredibly alone after his failed love affair; Nikolai Petrovich fears that he and his son are growing apart; Bazarov feels isolated because he believes himself incapable of love; Vassily Ivanych feels compelled to hide his love for his son and hence comes to grief. The story is full of anguish, and yet there is a buoyant spirit that ultimately keeps the novel from being a completely black tragedy.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What seems to be at the root of Bazarov's suffering? Are there other characters in the novel that suffer in the same way? Do you think he has a way out of his suffering?
    2. How do characters ease others' suffering? How do they increase it?
    3. Why do you think Pavel Petrovich chooses to suffer alone? Does his role in Nikolai and Fenichka's relationship seem to make him feel better or worse?
    4. Does Anna Sergeyevna suffer in the novel? What is the relationship between the ability to suffer and the ability to love?

    Chew on This

    Pavel Petrovich is too proud to admit how much he suffers from the loss of Princess R.; the only way he tries to make himself feel better is by acting magnanimous and helping Nikolai and Fenichka.

    What is at the root of Bazarov's suffering is his feeling of superiority; he isolates himself because he treats other people as if they are inferior.

  • Traditions and Customs

    Fathers and Sons takes place at a time when a number of traditions were being called into question, if not overthrown outright. As the older generation struggles to come to terms with the new reforms, the younger generation gets carried away and is willing to renounce everything that has come before. All the characters are hemmed in by their customs, and the novel radically calls into question the individual's relation to everything that has come before.

    Questions About Traditions and Customs

    1. How is Nikolai and Fenichka's relationship defined by Russian tradition? How is it a break with ordinary customs?
    2. How would you characterize the disconnect between generations that lies at the heart of the novel? Does a sense of tradition seem useful or not?
    3. What is the relationship between a feeling of duty and an appreciation for tradition? Focusing on the characters of Nikolai and Pavel, is it possible to have one without the other?
    4. What is the serf-owning mentality that is being overthrown in the novel? What is the mentality that is meant to replace it?

    Chew on This

    Pavel Petrovich's sense of duty prevents him from calling into question the traditions and customs by which he was raised.

    The spirit of general reform set off by the emancipation of the serfs has pushed the younger generation to extreme views as they attempt to define themselves separately from their parents.

  • Admiration

    The first incident to set off the drama of Fathers and Sons comes when Arkady introduces his new friend Bazarov, whom he admires greatly. Bazarov exerts a magnetic influence over other characters in the story (and perhaps over the reader, as well), and part of the mystery of the story is what makes this stubborn young man so compelling. As the novel goes on, there is another layer of complexity as characters attempt to sort out the difference between feelings of love and of admiration.

    Questions About Admiration

    1. What makes Bazarov so compelling? What specific features seem to make Arkady worship him as he does?
    2. How do characters distinguish between love and admiration in the novel? What seems to be the difference between the two?
    3. Do the sons admire their parents and show them proper respect? Is it possible to admire your parents and at the same time to feel superior to them?
    4. To what extent do you think Vassily Ivanych's worship of Bazarov has shaped him into such an egotistical young man?

    Chew on This

    The characters that are most admired in the story are those who also incite fear and unease in the ones who look up to them; the gentler a character is in Fathers and Sons, the less respect they get.

    Bazarov's pride is a direct result of his parents' over-estimation of him.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    Whereas half of the characters in Fathers and Sons are overwhelmingly sincere (Nikolai and Arkady), others are defined, above all, by their wit (Bazarov, Madame Odintsov). At times, cleverness seems to be a sign of superior intelligence, and at times it seems nothing but an effort to disguise how little a character knows. As the novel goes on, it becomes clear that the characters who most like to play with words eventually are left at the mercy of them; their words seem to play with them as they get tricked into believing their own clever quips.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. Is Bazarov's magnetic personality a result of his cleverness and wit?
    2. To what extent are Bazarov and other characters trapped by their own cunning? In what sense might these characters' actions become confined by the way that they use words?
    3. Does cleverness seem a sign of intelligence in the novel or it simply an attempt to hide one's ignorance?
    4. What is the relationship between cleverness and fear? Cleverness and pride?

    Chew on This

    Bazarov uses witty retorts in an attempt to hide his own ignorance and inability to argue logically.

    Bazarov often seems more interested in how a sentence sounds than in what it means; he becomes trapped by his cleverness because he actually believes his own quips.