The nihilist philosophy as expressed most succinctly by Bazarov, is defined, understood, and received differently by nearly all of the central characters in Fathers and Sons (click here for a full analysis of the book) by Turgenev. Ultimately, by presenting the different ranges of how this philosophy is received, it becomes apparent, although not until viewed by the sum of many parts, that nihilism is actually being presenting more favorably.
The reader receives certain cues throughout the novel that those philosophies behind literature that reflects the scope of Russian history of the “old regime” of romanticism and clear-cut class distinctions are empty. Several scenes depict the two philosophies and tend to show the old generation’s philosophy as leading to disorder, dreaming (versus action) and a lack of purpose whereas the scenes that present the rejection of these ideas as more meaningful and goal-oriented. Still, Turgenev demonstrates how both philosophies are inherently flawed as they are too extreme for the coming social changes.
Like other examples of Russian literature, simply defining nihilism is a struggle for some of the characters in Turgenev’s novel as it is a concept that is so far removed from the daily realities of Russian life—especially if one is the owner of an estate or of a more privileged class. One revealing scene that speaks to the diverse ways the nihilist philosophy is received is when it is defined by the two characters that most represent the old order in Russia—Nikolai and, to a much greater extent, Pavel. When Arcady tells his father that his friend is a nihilist they are shocked as they try to divine meaning from the root word, which is “nothing.” While Nikolai, who is less provoked already by Bazarov, is gentler when he assumes it must mean a man who will “admit nothing” (24) Pavel is more severe in his definition, stating that it must mean, “better still—a man who will respect nothing” (24). This idea of a lack of “respect” for the old ways is what drives and then deepens the chasm between Pavel and Bazarov which only worsens with time.
With the exception of Bazarov, who is the only one to live according to his nihilist beliefs, none of the central characters in Fathers and Sons seem quite capable of identifying or defining what nihilism is exactly. Even Arcady, who the reader learns quickly is far more of a follower than true, dedicated adherent to the core ideals of nihilism, is not committed to the philosophy. Rather, Arcady is dazzled by the audacious life of his friend, whom he admires but cannot fully imitate due to his ingrained, inescapable true nature. Despite the fact that Arcady goes on to deliver a more balanced definition, stating that a nihilist is “a man who admits no established authorities, who takes no principles for granted, however much they be respected” (25) it seems that his less than self-assured status (when compared to his mentor/friend Bazarov who is an “expert” on this matter) shows through. He is unable to fend off the old guard’s attacks on the seemingly meaningless, disrespectful philosophy without his friend nearby. Eventually, as Arcady begins to recognize the true extent of the differences between his own innate (versus admired) philosophy and sees that he is most comfortable existing within the comfort of the old, accepted order after all, it becomes clear that being a true nihilist is something that only Bazarov can do. Unfortunately, this makes him a rather lonely man.
While the ultimate bent of the novel is toward recognizing some value in the philosophy of nihilism, this is by no means a suggestion that the philosophy is infallible. For that matter, there are some incidents in the book that lead the reader to see that nihilism is too severe to be practicable and that it does not provide a practical framework for living. One of the most noticeable examples of this is in the way that Bazarov is unable to reconcile his worldview with what might innate, inborn romantic tendencies. Even though Bazarov, in his rejection of the ideals of romanticism and the previous generation’s adherence to romantic love in art, action, and literature, scorns Pavel’s life story, he actually falls victims to the same “weaknesses” of reason himself. After hearing Pavel’s story, Bazarov says, “I maintain that a man who has staked his whole life on the card of a woman’s live, and then, when he has lost it, turns sour and lets himself drift—a creature like that is not a man but just a male animal” (38). However, in his relentless criticism of this weak behavior that lacks rationality and reason, he eventually comes to understand it through his relationship with Anna. The narrator states that, “In his conversations with Anna he used to indulge to an even greater extent than usual in his scathing indifference to everything savoring of romanticism; but when left to himself, he became indignantly aware of the romantic strain in his own composition” (109).
Fathers and Sons attempts to define nihilism by allowing several main characters, all of whom represent an important subset of Russian society at the time, to provide their own definition. While nihilism is not attacked as weak and outdated in the same way that the romantic and dreaming generation’s ideas are, it is not touted as a solution either. Even though the non-nihilist, romantic philosophy that is dedicated to the beauty of Pushkin, the value of class systems, and the worldly (versus Russia-centric) culture and language is depicted as being established and practiced by many in the novel, that order is falling apart. More importantly, there are several scenes that depict disarray and chaos as the life of the romantic dreamer does little to assist with the new situation of freed peasants and a new class system. This philosophy is shown to be outdated given the challenges for Russia that lie ahead but interestingly, the philosophy of nihilism is now shown to be a panacea for the problems at hand. Even though nihilism embraces the peasantry more than the aristocratic-minded older generation, this is still ineffective as a philosophical system.
Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons. Edited by Jane Costlow. New York: Signet Classics, 1997.