“Oh Arkady Nikolaich, my friend!” cried Bazarov. “One thing I ask of you: no fine talk.” (Ch. 21)
The ideas in Fathers and Sons that got Russia so worked up are embodied in and expressed by a single character, Bazarov, and a single word, “nihilism.”
“We act on the basis of what we recognize as useful,” Bazarov replied. “Nowadays the most useful thing of all is rejection – we reject.”
“What? Not only art and poetry… but even… it’s two awful to say…”
“Everything,” Bazarov repeated with indescribable composure.” (Ch. 10, ellipses in original)
Bazarov is young, charismatic, intelligent, and has really impressive side-whiskers. Although radical in opinion (“’First, the ground must be cleared’”) he has withdrawn from action, apparently choosing the career of country doctor as a way of rejecting ambition or perhaps for some other reason. I believe Chekhov returns to this idea in Uncle Vanya (1897), although I fear I have overlaid Chekhov’s doctor (who is actually a failed idealist) on Bazarov.
Turgenev had spent a decade, in works like Rudin (1856) and Home of the Gentry (1859) and “The Diary of a Superfluous Man” (1850), working on the idea of the Superfluous Man, educated beyond any available use, a common type in developing countries, in the 19th century Russian case usually found puttering around his estate where he introduces mismanaged and useless agricultural reforms while his serfs rob him blind. Fathers and Sons features two kinds of Superfluous Men, the father and uncle of Bazarov’s disciple and friend Arkady. Turgenev has shifted the generations a notch, now, so the new generation is no longer superfluous but something else – nihilists, whatever that means.
Thus the debate. Is this really what young people believe? A few or many? Are they active or passive? Bazarov is a lifelike, well-made character, but much of the controversy needed little more than the kinds of conversation recorded above. What is “everything,” for example? No need for “fine talk” to hash this out. Coarse talk will do.
Whatever argument Turgenev was trying to make is ambiguous. As Isaiah Berlin writes in Russian Thinkers, “[i]n a country in which readers, and especially the young, to this day look to writers for moral direction, he refused to preach” (272). Bazarov fails in some important ways, but he seems to be at odds not with society but with Nemesis, as if he is in a Sophocles play. He rejects romantic love and is surprised to find himself in love with a worthy but distant woman. He rejects medicine and is killed by an infection. His weak-willed disciple finds real love with a less interesting woman, makes peace with his family, and lives happily on his estate where he makes modest but real improvements.
The arbitrariness of the endings defeats any attempt to prove a thesis. Turgenev had a stronger sense of the limits of fiction than many of his peers and readers. Both Napoleon and evil landladies are safe from Turgenev characters, even strong, active, thoughtful ones like Bazarov.
This is all from the Michael R. Katz translation, in the Norton Critical Edition.