Thursday, December 12, 2013

Now I'm going to return to my dogs - Bazarov's mysterious death

Turgenev may not have known what to do with the hero of Fathers and Sons once he created him, fleshed him out, and showed him from all sides.  So he killed him off, by disease.  Discerning critics have found this end unsatisfying in that it is arbitrary, too easy.  In a sense, yes.  But the next to last chapter, Bazarov’s death is so good that I do not care.

Vladimir Nabokov, judging by his notes in Lectures of Russian Literature, apparently taught this chapter simply by reading large parts of it aloud to his class.

The funny thing is that there is hardly a sentence in it that I would pull out as particularly good.  The quality is a question of urgency, of small movement, of the right amount of attention given to a scene before a quick cut to the next.  And of course the stakes are high.

I can pull out the beginning:

Bazarov’s old parents were all the more delighted with their son’s sudden arrival since it was so unexpected.  Arina Vlasevna [his mother] was so flustered and scurried around the house so much that Vasily Ivanovich [the father] compared her to a “partridge”: the cropped tail of her short jacket actually did make her look a bit like a bird.  Meanwhile he himself mumbled and chewed the amber mouthpiece of his pipe; clutching his neck with his fingers, he twisted his head as if checking to see that it was attached properly and suddenly opened his broad mouth and laughed without ever emitting a sound.  (Ch. 27)

Bazarov can be rude, cold, and arrogant, but his parents, his poor mother, love him with all the energy they have – that silent laugh! – so then the pathos of the son’s death is hard to bear.

Bazarov himself is more stoic.

“I never expected to dies so soon; to tell you the truth, it’s a most unpleasant circumstance.  You and Mother must now make the most of your strong faith; here’s a chance to put it to the test.”  He drank down a little more water.  “I want to ask you one thing… while my head’s still working.  You know tomorrow or the day after my brain will tender tits resignation.  Even now I’m not too sure I’m expressing myself clearly.  When I was lying there before, I seemed to see red dogs running all around me and you pointing at me as if I were a woodcock.  Just like I was drunk.  Can you understand me well?”  (ellipses in original)

The rationalist has become a visionary.  It is those surprising dogs that convince the father that his son is really dying.

“Now I’m going to return to my dogs.  It’s odd!  I want to focus on death, but nothing comes of it.  I see some sort of spot…  and nothing else.”  (ellipses in original)

The parents are given the last paragraph of the novel, where we see them approaching Bazarov’s grave: “they  exchange a few words, move a branch of the pine tree, and pray once again; they can’t forsake this place where they seem to feel closer to their son, to their memories of him” (Ch. 28).  The earlier part of that last chapter wrapped up the stories of all of the other characters – marriage, travel abroad, ordinary life,  with the great nihilist Bazarov only a memory to everyone but his parents, for whom he is a grief that will end only with their own deaths.

And this is the great politically controversial novel of its time.


  1. Agreed - one of the great death scenes. And I am never quite sure whether or not Bazarov had deliberately infected himself with the disease. A rationalist overcome by his own emotions possibly has little reason to go on living.

  2. Bazarov's stoicism is actually a kind of mystery, isn't it? What is he protecting himself from, what is he escaping?