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The Romantic Nihilist In Turgenev’s Fathers And Sons - With A Free Essay Review
The strain between a nihilistic worldview and a romantic worldview is very strong. While most people in the world fall somewhere in-between these opposite ends of the spectrum, Turgenev has portrayed in his novel Fathers and Sons a seemingly firm and unbreakable nihilist, with which whom everyone is enthralled and even somewhat annoyed. This is Bazarov. His friend from school, Arkady, is spellbound by Bazarov and seems to agree with most everything he has to say, yet traditionalism has a large hold on his heart and mind as well. As the story unfolds, the reader sees the stark differences between these two and the strain between nihilism and romanticism becomes almost unbearable. The reader will even get to see a weakness within Bazarov. Turgenev was criticized by both radicals and traditionalists in his day; the radicals accused him of portraying Bazarov unsympathetically while the traditionalists accused him of portraying Bazarov in a sympathetic way, being sympathetic to the nihilistic worldview. There are evidences of both of these things in the novel; however, it appears that the side with the better argument against Turgenev is the traditionalist accusation.
Bazarov is portrayed first as cold and critical. He rejects the foundation of Russian social hierarchy and its reform, including all of its social and economical ramifications. He also rejects Russian political leadership, calling it a spoiled hegemony rather than an enlightened leadership. Emotions are also something Bazarov rejects. He seems to reject everything in some sort of way. In his conversation with Arkady’s father, “In these days, negation is the most useful thing of all – and so we deny… everything,” (57). However, there is a certain appeal Bazarov has to almost every other character he meets, aside from Pavel. He is a born leader and has supreme confidence in himself. Bazarov would appear immovable in his position of nihilism.
In the same conversation quoted above between Arkady’s father Nikolai and Bazarov, the reader hears more about Bazarov’s rejection of Russian social hierarchy, and traditionalism in general. “‘Aristocracy, liberalism, progress, principles,’ Bazarov said in the meantime, ‘just think what a lot of foreign – and useless – words! Russians have not the least need of them.’,” (57). He is clearly rejecting modernism, implying that they are of no benefit to anyone, and later on he says that whether one is a peasant or an aristocrat, neither one matters to him. Social order means nothing.
A large part of Bazarov’s nihilism is his rejection of emotions, particularly women and the idea of love. When he attends the ball where he sees Madame Odintsova for the first time, he comments about her, “we shall soon find out to what category of mammals this personage belong,” (89). Over and over again, he refers to people and women as nothing more than animals, using scientific terms and staying clear of any emotions. Again he comments about Madame Odintsova, “A really opulent body! Just ripe for the dissecting table,” (93). Bazarov will absolutely not give in to the fact that he is attracted to this woman! Instead he applies his medical and scientific language to her features.
Arkady and Bazarov have several conversations in the novel where Arkady will disagree with and challenge Bazarov’s thinking, while in public he will simply nod his head in agreement with Bazarov. In a private conversation, they engage the subject of love. “Your idea of love is no different from that of all the other young men if the new generation,” (152). Bazarov goes on saying how men call for women to come to them but as soon as they do they become scared and run away. He then sees an ant carrying another dead insect on its back that it will later eat. Bazarov compares the ant to how men should act and the insect to women. He is implying that men should be fearless and conquer women easily, while implying that women are non-intelligent beings simply on earth for man’s pleasure. This is yet another instance where he refers to humans in animal terms.
As Bazarov is dying on his death bed, he makes a request that Madame Odintsova come to see him one last time. As she comes to visit he says to her, “how beautiful you look standing there, so lovely…” (236). He cannot even bring himself to tell her that he loves her so he comments instead on how lovely she is. He turns the subject of love into an objective quality (loveliness).
In contrast to these things, Bazarov’s weakness is shown in this novel as well. The reader is told in a few instances that Fenichta, Nikolai’s housekeeper and mistress, is a very beautiful woman. To Bazarov, she becomes more beautiful every time he sees her. On one of these instances, Fenichta and Bazarov are having a private conversation while sitting together outside. “Fenichta likes Bazarov and Bazarov liked her. Even the expression of his face seemed to change when he talked to her: it grew brighter, almost assuming a look of good nature…” (174). He seems to be softened by her and is giving in to that softening by letting it show on her face. Perhaps he is simply amusing his attraction because he knows nothing will come out of it, but this is romantic behavior for a nihilist. As they are speaking with each other, Bazarov asks her to read some of his medical book he has brought. She says that she will not understand any words in it but he says he just wants to hear her read it. “When you read, the tip of your nose twitches most endearingly… I like you also when you laugh… I like you when you talk. It reminds me of a babbling brook,” (178). This is a far cry from what he has spoken to Arkady about when he refers to women. He calls her endearing, which is an emotional word. He is complimenting her so many times, which is a romantic thing to do.
The biggest instance in Fathers and Sons where Bazarov goes against his own nature is when he reveals his feelings for Madame Odintsova. They have already spent quite a bit of time with each other before he confesses his love. She invites him at tea to her study where she wants to inquire of him something he mentioned in a previous conversation. While they are talking, Bazarov realizes he is in the presence of a very beautiful woman and is overcome with emotion. She asks him about himself and he avoids the question, saying he is a man of science and she should know that. Finally the tension becomes too much for Bazarov. “‘I must tell you that I love you stupidly, madly… You have forced me. Now you know.’ He was gasping; his whole body was visibly quivering… it was a wave of passion surging through him, a violent and urgent passion,” (122-123). This shows a picture all too well of a man completely overcome with both carnal and emotional feelings of love for a woman. How strange that he should show this to her and how strange that a nihilist would give in and admit these feelings anyway.
In the novel, she does reject him and after this failed love, Bazarov becomes melancholy throughout the rest of the story. There is no room for happiness in his scientific and nihilistic worldview. He has a glimpse at it briefly but even then he admitted to himself and Madame Odintsova that it was stupid and founded on madness. This rejection and humiliation bring Bazarov back down to his usual ways, however it is clear that even a nihilist will give in to emotions.
The critics who say that Turgenev portrayed Bazarov the nihilist sympathetically seem to have more evidence of this than the critics who say Bazarov was portrayed unsympathetically. Love is the most powerful emotion, it creates the most passionate feelings within a person – and to a nihilist it would be the silliest and most worthless emotion of them all. For Turgenev to show Bazarov as giving in to this kind of passion shows that there is another side to him altogether. By showing this side, it appears that Turgenev is sympathetic to the nihilist, which makes the traditionalists upset because they disagree with nihilism. In a way, both sides of criticism do have their points and evidences in the books but because Bazarov gives in to the silliest and pointless yet most powerful emotion of them all, the sense of sympathy towards him is overwhelming. In conclusion, it appears that the side with the better argument against Turgenev is the traditionalist accusation.
This is the third Fathers and Sons essay today, and three is usually at least one too many, but I'll try to think of something useful to say about your essay, which I think is generally very good and reminded me of some interesting features of a novel I read many years ago.
You begin and conclude with a claim about the so-called traditionalist critique of Fathers and Sons, according to which Bazarov is portrayed in a sympathetic way. Your explanation of why traditionalists might dislike this aspect of the novel is that they disapproved of the sympathetic treatment of a nihilist. Now the several paragraphs that separate the introduction from the conclusion don't refer to this claim, your essay's overarching argument, and I think that is a weakness because it ends up being a little difficult for your reader (well, for this reader!) to figure out how exactly individual claims presented in the body paragraphs relate to that overarching argument. Your essay as a whole will be more compelling and more coherent if you do relate those individual claims to your overall argument.
Some of those claims are interesting in their own right of course, such as your insight into the way Bazarov "refers to humans in animal terms." But I don't think it would be too difficult to add a few sentences that remind the reader of the function of this claim in the development of your essay's argument. The claim seems to serve the useful function of showing that there is some merit to the claim that Turgenev deliberately creates an unsympathetic portrait of a nihilist. That of course is part of your overall argument; in your conclusion you suggest that "in a way, both sides of criticism do have their points." Standing on its own, that suggestion is hopelessly vague, however, whereas a claim earlier in the essay to the effect that Bazarov has obviously unappealing traits, such as that tendency to think of humans as mere animals, would make your argument much more concrete. And it would allow you to replace the conclusion’s vague suggestion (to which I just referred) with something like, "As we have seen, Bazarov is not always portrayed sympathetically, but ultimately, because of other things we've seen in this essay, it’s clear that he is a sympathetic character. "
So far I have only talked about what I think is the most compelling way to present your argument (i.e., in a way that is as clear as possible, the clarity being achieved by making explicit statements about how individual claims relate to the overall argument). So let me conclude with a question about the argument itself. You argue that the sympathy that the reader has for Bazarov is grounded in his inability to adhere rigorously to the principles of nihilism (he falls prey to passion). Isn't that ultimately a critique of nihilism insofar as it suggests that nihilist philosophy is ultimately an impossible philosophy for even its most strident supporters? Why wouldn't a traditionalist have been happy with that?