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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.