The time during which the novel Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev takes place is one during which there is a great deal of class struggle. The serfs are almost going to be set free and while some of the more progressive landowners such as Arcady’s father are letting them go and renting them land, there are more general class tensions throughout Russia. One of the reasons why the differences between generations and their philosophies is at the core of this book is because it is taking place at such an important time of great change in Russian history.
The class system had been the same for countless generations and how people would deal with that change is at center of this novel. On the one hand, the class system change could be ignored and feared by people like Paul (Pavel) or just barely accepted (as in the case with Nikolai who is trying to make the best of it) or it could be shown to be a great thing like it is by the character Bazarov who believes in a new system of greater equality.
From the beginning of the novel it is clear that the structure of the class sis changing that there are some tensions that are coming along with such changes–a theme that can be found in other famous works of Russian literature. The reader almost expects to have servants behaving in their rightful manner when beginning the novel and knowing little about the significant class changes. It becomes clear right away though the class structure is changing with a generation. The second paragraph introduces a somewhat insolent “serf" who is described as being helpful but not as being completely obedient. The book describes this valet saying that everything about the valet from “his single turquoise earring, his pomaded hair of various shades and his studied gestures—proclaimed him of a different age" (1). This new age is one where the class structure is less meaningful and the old distinctions that warranted an entirely different, more formal and ritualized code of behavior, no longer apply. This servant steps away to smoke his pipe and does not behave with the same discretion that social codes that are as ancient as the country dictated. There is a new class system developing in this book but it is not as bold as one might think from observing the valet. There are more serfs who are making much more cautious steps into the other world of the higher class. Class mobility is a new thing for these people and that is why Fenichka is so hesitant, even when she already has Nikola’s baby and lives in the house.
The changing class system is present when looking at the ways the former serfs don’t act with ultimate deference to their old masters but many times too, the serfs who are more mobile in their class do so gently. They know that they are treading new ground. As mentioned, one of the best examples in Fathers and Sons that highlights the class tensions but also shows how the class structure is changing is in the case of Nikolai, who is Arcady’s father, and Fenichka. This is a relationship that would not have been acceptable to the generation before Nikolai and is only barely acceptable when the book takes place. Because of this Fenichka often hides out of sight like a servant would. She is very self-conscious about her status as someone who is invading a class that she does not belong to, even when people are very welcoming to her.
Fenichka gets a warm reception from Arcady, but it almost seems as though this is because Arcady is trying to be more in tune with the ideas of his friend as opposed to actually believing that the relationship between his father and a woman of such low birth is okay. Even though there are people who feel that the former serfs are people and deserve human and just treatment, the move to free all of the serfs is not one that everyone feels good about. Paul is a character who is committed to the old way of life and does not think that the serfs are always good or trustworthy people and has reservations about the class system being toppled. Many of the tensions between the old Russian way or life and the newer more revolutionary way of living that Bazarov the nihilist speaks of are clear by the way opposing sides think about class. When they are having an argument, Bazarov tells Pavel that he is not in touch with reality because he is hiding from the class conflict. He says “ask any of your peasants in which of—in you or in me—he would sooner recognize a compatriot. You don’t even know how to talk to them" (59). The classes are changing but people like Pavel who are very absorbed in the old way of doing things are less easy to usher in change.
The nobility in this novel seem to disdain anything Russian and this population is represented by Pavel. The more middle class gentry population represented by Nikolai (and later, we come to see also by his son Arcady) is open to the idea of serf emancipation but they still enjoy the comforts of middle class life. The peasants are openly taking freedoms offered by the government and land owners but are in an awkward situation because either they must rebel entirely, rebel quite a bit like the valet, or be like Fenichka and accept the situation and try to make the most of it. It is not a stable class situation and a lot of the novel and the ideas it discusses offer different ways of handling the new social system in Russia.