Turgenev: Realist or Romantic?
The Great Reforms of the 1860’s generated an era of social and economic turmoil in Russia. These unstable times spawned the growth of a radical intellectual group known as, the intellegencia. These new reformers or radicals were the sons and daughters of the heads of Russia. They wished to sweep away the assumptions of the romantic generation of the 1840’s that “refused to accept the supremacy of reason over emotion” (Kishlanksy, Geary and O’Brien: 755) and any other non-scientifically proven truths of social, political, emotional and spiritual life in Russia. They rejected all common assumptions about serfdom, the foundations of Russian hierarchy, and its reform, including all of its social and economic ramifications. Turgenev’s novel “Fathers and Sons”, successfully identifies these diverse views (Romanticism vs. Realism) on reforming Russia through the depiction of its characters. Turgenev represents a contrast of old generation of liberal/conservative romantics, through the portrayals of Nicholas and Paul Kirsanov and the new radical, nihilist generation through Basarov.
Turgenev demonstrates the tension and difference in beliefs between the two generations early in the novel with the return of Arcady and the introduction of his nihilist mentor Bazarov. Within one of the first encounters between Bazarov and the Kirsanov brothers, Bazarov begins verbally assessing the differences between the generations. “He’s archaic!” (Turgenev: 24) Bazarov exclaims of Paul Petrovich’s pretentious demeanor and dress. “But your father’s fine. A pity he has a weakness for reciting verse; it’s unlikely that he understands much about estate management, but he must be a kindhearted man…. They simply amaze me these old romantics! They excite their nervous system to the point of irritation… well, that upsets their balance.” (Turgenev: 24) This statement repined Bazarov’s opinion of the “men of the forties” and their ideologies. In Bazarovs mind, the former generation immersed themselves in art and philosophy to ease their discontent with Russian authority and backwardness. In the eyes of the intellegensia this was cowardice and proved a lack of intellectual prowess.
These differences between nihilists and romantics appear throughout the novel and are represented by both the disapproval of the Romantic ideology by the nihilists and vice versa. For example, Paul Petrovich describes a nihilist as “a man who respects nothing.” (Turgenev: 29) The older generation believes in the necessities of the rule of law and the conventions of behavior, for them this is an unchallengable fact and the only viable alternative.
Bazarov reinforces Nicholas’ Romantic emphasis on the arts by criticizing him for playing Schubert’s “Expectation,” a piece of classical music. “Good Lord! At forty-four, a pater familias, in the province of X, playing the ‘cello!”’ (Turgenev: 50) While in the same conversation Bazarov, commented that “nature isn’t a temple, but a workshop, and man is the craftsman.” (Turgenev: 49) This statement of nature shows his rejection of Romantic ideals and his tendency toward practical and scientific views.
Basarov also insults the Romantic ideals when he observes Nicholas reading Pushkin.
Basarov suggests that “he is no youth, it is time he gave up such nonsense. Where is the sense of being a romantic nowadays! Give him something more practical to read.” (Turgenev: 51) Again Bazarov criticized romantic ideals, which he finds useless and detrimental to the reformation of Russia’s society. Furthermore, the young nihilists provide Nicholas with a book by Buchner, a German philosopher, and in his attempt to read it asserts “Either I am stupid or it is sheer rubbish. I must be stupid.” (Turgenev: 53) Given the educational background of Nicholas, it is certain that his intelligence is not in question. Later, Nicholas ponders how the new generation could possibly shrug off all literature and the arts.
The “Battle Royal” between the generations began with Paul’s defense of the aristocrat, in essence the defense of social order, respect and dignity. Paul is insistent that self-respect and principle are the basis for progress. Essentially, Paul is reaffirming the necessity of society’s rules of behavior. Bazarov on the other hand, finds logic and principles ineffective in the daily plight of human existence. “I hope that you have no need of logic to find a bite of bread when hungry.” (Turgenev: 55) Bazarov retorted. Again defying the usefulness of philosophy and reinforcing his realistic interpretation of societal function. Turgenev epitomizes the opposition between the nihilist and the Romantic perspectives with Nicholas’ interjection, “you deny everything or, to put it more precisely, you are destroying everything… But it’s essential to construct as well.” Bazarov responded, “That is not our affair… First, we must make a clean sweep.” (Turgenev: 56) Both movements were advocates of change, the differentiation comes in the methods utilized to initiate the results. Early reformers were advocates of a moderate conventional change, nihilists on the other hand believed change was validated by taking radical risks often by unconventional measures.
In conclusion, these characters represent three of the different sectors of Russian society at the time, a time when society as a whole was under going a major upheaval. Their society can no longer fully and confidently support either of the factions, therefore they attempt to define their own existence and are unwilling to compromise their beliefs. Essentially, they are a product of their unstable