Orthodox America


  “Fathers and Sons” - by Ivan Turgenev


 Matushka Nancy Mirolovich

Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev 1818 - 1883

 Turgenev came from a wealthy landowning family of central Russia. While in Berlin furthering his education, he developed a lifelong admiration for Western ideas. An early collection of his stories, Sportsman Sketches, was taken to be an expose of peasant life, and he became the darling of Russian liberals. They did not, however, approve of his masterpiece, Fathers and Sons (1862), and, stung by their criticism, Turgenev returned to France, where he had already spent most of his productive years as an intimate of Flaubert and de Maupassant. There he died,

      Turgenev was the first of the great Russian novelists to win fame abroad. One of his great admirers was Henry James, who wrote an introduction to the first American edition of Turgenev's works, published in 1903 in a translation by Isabella Hapgood.

 What Turgenev depicts in Fathers and Sons in the the character of Bazarov, Eugene Rose (Father Seraphim) explicitly describes in his work Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age. Bazarov, a medical school graduate and natural scientist, belongs to that subclass of nihilist which Fr. Seraphim calls the realist. Arkady, Bazarov's fawning friend and recent university graduate, defines the nihilist for his aristocratic father and uncle as "... a person who does not bow to any authorities; who doesn't accept any principle on faith...' Fr. Seraphim further defines him as one who resorts to "the reduction of everything men have considered 'higher,' the things of the mind and spirit, to the lower or 'basic': matter, sensation, the physical."

      At the outset of Fathers and Sons, the reader meets the two young men as Arkady's father, NikoIai Petrovich, welcomes them home from Arkady's final year at the university. The complex interplay and changing roles of the characters throughout the novel suggest a number of models and avenues for the forming of the soul.

      Pavel Petrovich, the brother of Nikolai, has perhaps the most difficult personality to understand. A true aristocrat and emulator of western manners, he spent his youth hopelessly in love with a princess. Some brief affairs with her resulted in nothing but a painful lifetime of unfulfillment. In middle age, living as a bachelor on his widowed brother's estate, he sees his former lover in the countenance of the young housekeeper, the mother of his brother's infant son. He is tormented by Bazarov's penchant for her and challenges the young man to a duel in defense of her dignity. The irony of Pavel Petrovich is in his insistence on adhering to all the old conventions of his class while seemingly disregarding the precepts of the Faith. In the end, however, he surprises Nikolai by advising him to marry the young woman, Fenechka, in spite of her peasant status.

      Nikolai Petrovich is a kindly gentleman who would please everyone. He desires the best for his peasants, for his estate, for his son, for his brother. Love is at the root of his deference to his son. He cannot beat to harm anyone and strives to spare the feelings of all. Out of respect for his brother's feelings of aristocratic superiority, he gives no thought to rnarrying Fenechka until Pavel recommends it to him. The persistent flaw of his character is his apparent lack of conviction. He seems to struggle within himself to make wise decisions, all the while considering their impact on others. His tragedy is that his weakness of will prevents him from acting as his conscience dictates.

     'Arkady is the real hero of the story, and the only character that undergoes a real metamorphosis. He went away to the university young and naive, easily influenced by modern philosophical thought. While studying and appreciating the classical subjects of the time---languages, the arts, literature, he nevertheless suffers from the same compulsion as his father in his need to be accepted by the avantgarde. Despite his inclination toward poetry and the arts and his appreciation of beauty, he chants obsequiously the dicta of the nihilists. Even in his emerging romantic feelings, he first is attracted to Anna Sergeyevna Odintsova, an older woman who enjoys the "revolutionary" conversation of the nihilists, the scientists, everyone who questions the established order. Only when he begins, because he is neglected by Bazarov and Odintsova, to spend his days with Odintsova's younger sister, Katya, does Arkady reevaluate what his heart has always known to be important in life. Katya appreciates literature, music, beauty, creation. Only with her, at first, is Arkady capable of admitting the joy and uplifting he finds in poetry and beauty. Eventually he realizes his convictions are not with the modernists, the nihilists. He knows that lasting values are in the classical disciplines and in honest relationships among men and women.

      Bazarov's pious parents also play into the story. Like Nikolai Petrovich, old Vassily Ivanovich defers, publicly, to his son's contemporary views; but privately he maintains his devotion to the life in the Church. Apologetically, he tells his son of the molleben his wife asked the priest to serve (not admitting his own part in it) and acts sorry that the priest will be dining with the family. During Bazaroy's stay at home, Arina Vlassevna heeds her husband's advice not to annoy their son. She sits near him without speaking, only gazing at him with eyes that "did not express devotion and tenderness alone; they showed sorrow mixed with curiosity and fear."

      As little importance as Bazarov puts on the way of life of his parents, he nevertheless comes to recognize something comforting in it. In spite of his alleged confidence in his own views, he realizes that something is amiss in his scheme of reality. During a lengthy argument with Arkady, he admits to his minuteness in the vastness of eternity. He acknowledges that the routine lives of his parents and their peers are pleasant, but he is unable to reconcile that they can be oblivious to "their own insignificance." For Arkady, who openly accuses Bazarov of having no principles, this conversation is the turning point from blind acceptance of Bazarov's ideas to independent thinking. Bazarov, however, persistently rejects Arkady's optimism about life and continues to posit that truth cannot be known.

      In another pointed conversation, their final farewell, Bazarov once again distances himself from Arkady. Although Arkady is still capable of loving his friend, whose beliefs he no longer shares, Bazarov is unable to reciprocate. He tells Arkady, You weren't made for our bitter, harsh, lonely life. You have neither boldness nor hatred...,Your kind, you gentlemen, can't go beyond noble resignation or noble indignation. For one thing, you're not fighters, although you picture yourselves as heroes--while we want to fight....Our dust will scratch out your eyes, our filth will soil you, and you haven't come near reaching our stature; you admire yourselves unconsciously you enjoy criticizing yourselves, but we're fed up with that--give us other people! We need others to crush! You're a good fellow, but you're a soft little liberal aristocrat...

      No sooner does he make this statement about the enormity of the gap which separates the nihilists from the aristocrats, than Bazarov is once again at the home of his parents. At first he avoids them, as before, and they respect his desire to be alone. Gradually, however, he becomes bored and sullen and has some desire to spend time with his parents. Yet, he is unable to communicate effectively with them.

      Bazarov's untimely death, unaccompanied by sincere repentance, but only by a feeble recognition that the faith of his parents might be of value, is the ultimate tragedy in his misguided life. Confronted by the specter of death,, which reveals the utter failure of his nihilist philosophy, he is too proud to admit his error. When Odintseva comes to visit, he tells her, “Live long, that’s that best thing, and make use of the time while it lasts. You see what an outrageous spectacle it is: the worm half-squashed but still wiggling." What hell could be more bitter.

Here are lessons for both Orthodox youth and their parents.

      The seeds of discontent, sown by the nihilists in pre-revolutionary Russia, have sprouted thickly on American campuses, which for years now have been swarming with Bazarovs, in the form of professors as well as of students, preaching a disdain for established values and a denial of absolutes. Most students embark on their higher education without an upbringing which prepares them to defend their values from the onslaught of these modern nihilists. That is, if they come to the university with values at all. Others, like Bazarov, may have been raised in a pious family, but do not hold dear the Faith and the morals which have been imparted to them. Succumbing to peer pressure and to what is fashionable, they all too easily reject the 'old' in favor of something new, without testing it against Truth. (It used to be that the purpose of education was to lead One to an apprehension of this Truth; the message of modem education is that there is no truth.)

      Arkady is our hero. Like Bazarov, he became enamored with the nihilists, but, with Katya's help, he takes an honest look into his heart and recovers his integrity together with the courage of his convictions, He looks at the philosophy of the nihilists in the light of Truth, which Bazarov refuses to recognize, and rejects it. This is his triumph, and his example is the challenge of the Orthodox college student today.

      We find no such positive examples for parents in the 'fathers' of Turgenev's novel. Vassily Ivanovich, for all his piety, is intimidated by his son and his "progressive" views and is apologetic about his faith. Nikolai Petrovich, a very sympathetic character, prides himself on being "enlightened" and indulges his son out of purely human love, which does not provide him with any firm foundation beyond a sense of natural goodness. Parents today must make a concerted effort not only to teach their children about the Faith, but to set an example and to confront those ideas inimical to Orthodox Christianity, which their children, consciously or unconsciously, assimilate.

     Turgenev himself was not a man of strong religious convictions, and he does not have the spiritual depth of a writer like Dostoevsky. Nevertheless, from his finely drawn characters we can find many lessons useful in forming the soul. 


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