Nihilism in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons has several characters that hold strong views of the world. For example, Pavel believes that Russia needs structure from such things as institution, religion, and class hierarchy. On the other hand, Madame Odintzov views the world as simple so long as she keeps it systematic and free from interference.
This commentary will focus on perhaps the most interesting and complex character in Fathers and Sons: Bazarov.
Vladimir Nabakov writes that "Turgenev takes his creature [B] out of a self-imposed pattern and places him in the normal world of chance." By examining Bazarov I will attempt to make sense of this statement. Using nihilism as a starting point I am going look at Bazarov’s views and interpretations of science, government and institution. Next I will turn to the issue relationships and finally I will examine Bazarov’s death and the stunning truths it reveals. These issues combined with the theme of nihilism will prove that chance, or fate is a strong force which cannot easily be negated.
Nihilism as a concept is used throughout Fathers and Sons. To gain a better understanding of the ideas behind this term let’s look at what Bazarov says on the subject.
"We base our conduct on what we recognize as useful... the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate – and so we repudiate" (123).
The base concept of nihilism is to deny or negate, and as we learn later in the same paragraph, to negate everything. With this ‘destruction’ of everything from science to art there is no building for nihilists, as Bazarov says
"That is not our affair" (126).
Nihilists view the current structure of society as concerned with such trivialities as ‘art’ and ‘parliament’ while ignoring real life issues such as food, freedom, and equality. Nihilists are aware of these social woes and hence mentally deny recognizing any of the present authority or institutions which only serve to perpetuate a myth.
"... I don’t believe in anything: and what is science—science in the abstract? There are sciences as there are trades and professions, but abstract science just doesn’t exist" (98).
For Bazarov anything that is not tangible and concrete doesn’t exist. Psychology, quantum mechanics, neurochemistry would be scoffed at by Bazarov. It seems peculiar that Bazarov would say,
"... nowadays we laugh at medicine in general, and worship no one," (197)
While at the same time he pursues a career as a doctor. The medicine that Bazarov uses deals in the ‘pure sciences’ that is his ideas come from practice not theory. By looking closer at Bazarov we discover that his work confirms his nihilistic ideas. To elaborate on that, one only need look at Bazarov’s main focus; the dissection of frogs. Each time he pokes around the anatomy of a frog he notices they all have similar structures (heart, liver, intestine’s etc). Humans also share a common internal anatomy. Abstract concepts like authority, religion or science do not naturally exist within people and are only made ‘real’ by others. Bazarov knows this and his studies confirm his rebellious attitude. Bazarov says,
"All men are similar, in soul as well as in body ... and the so-called moral qualities are the same in all of us" (160).
As with general science Bazarov feels nothing towards art.
"... You assume that I have no feeling for art – and it is true, I haven’t" (159).
Art is trivial to Bazarov and accomplishes nothing, therefore he doesn’t recognize it. It is the same with nature,
"Bazarov was rather indifferent to the beauties of nature" (169).
There is a saying, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." What if the beholder has no eye for beauty? Such is the case with Bazarov. The point for Bazarov is that aesthetics in art and nature only serve to divert attention from pressing issues such as corruption in society and structural change. These are what concern nihilists, not the latest prose from Pushkin or...
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