Let me step away from Bazarov for a bit. Fathers and Sons is an unusually well-written book. Unusual even for Turgenev. I think – this is hardly an unusual opinion – that it is his best writing, alongside the best stories from A Sportsman’s Notebooks (1852). This is what I mean, from just a couple pages into the first chapter, where a father awaits the return of his son who has been absent at university for several years:
The servant, out of a sense of propriety, or perhaps because he didn’t want to remain under his master’s eye, had gone to the gate and lit his pipe. Nikolai Petrovich [the master] bent his head and began staring at the decrepit porch steps; nearby, a large mottled young chicken strutted with a stately gait, treading firmly with its yellow legs; a scruffy cat, curled up in a most affected manner against the railing, observed the chicken with hostility. The sun was scorching; a smell of warm rye bread wafted from the dark passage of the carriage inn. (Ch. 1)
Turgenev is introducing the first of the three estates that will be the main settings of the novel. The passage gives a lot of information about the estate and its master – it is worn down, the servants and chickens do their own thing in the face of the incompetent masters and lazy cats. But it is homey and pleasant, smelling of fresh bread, even if the Superfluous Man who owns it cannot even manage a farm properly.
Now, this is the introduction to the third, much poorer, estate, Bazarov’s home:
But then, on the slope of a gently rising hill at long last there appeared a small village where Bazarov’s parents lived. next to it, in a grove of young birch trees, they could see a small manor house with a thatched roof. Two peasants wearing caps stood in front of the first hut and traded insults. “You’re a big pig,” one said to the other, “worse than a piglet.” “And your wife’s a witch,” the other retorted. (Ch. 19)
Those peasants could be borrowed from a Nikolai Gogol story. Turgenev signals: this setting is different. He even includes a pipe to link the two scenes, but this time it is smoked not by the servant, but by the father (“the pipe was bobbing up and down in his fingers,” Ch. 20) who unlike the previous father is too poor to have servants to smoke his pipe for him.
The other estate, encountered in between these two – I am just finishing the thought – is well-kept and orderly, even sterile, so it is introduced by its architecture before any people show up, and when they do they are “tall footmen in livery” and a portly butler in “a black frockcoat. “[E]verything was clean and sweet-smelling, just like in a minister’s reception room” (Ch. 16) – no pipe-smoking allowed here.
I was honestly planning to just point out some of the most pleasing sentences and images of Fathers and Sons, of which there are plenty, but I seem to have moved into structural matters as well. The two work together, the prose and the construction. Like I said, it is an unusually well-written book.