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Ivan Turgenev | Biography

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Early Life

Born on November 9, 1818, in Oryol, Russia, Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev enjoyed the privileges of growing up in a wealthy, landowning family. His father was a retired military officer and his mother a rich heiress. His parents ensured he had the best education, from private tutors to schools in Moscow, the Universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, and later the University of Berlin. Turgenev's mother, Varvara Petrovna, inherited a massive estate and 5,000 serfs (workers tied for life to an owner's land and forced to work it for no pay) from her uncle and ruled her property as well as her family with an iron fist. Turgenev rebelled against his indomitable, abusive mother by fraternizing with servants. Like most Russian aristocrats, Turgenev's family spoke only French at home, but from the servants, Turgenev learned his native language. Turgenev's relationship with household servants and serfs influenced his sympathetic portrayal of lower classes in his work, and the years he spent in Berlin formed the basis for his European, rather than Russian, preferences.

Writing Career

When he left university, Turgenev took a job at the Ministry of the Interior, much to his mother's delight. However, when he resigned shortly after to pursue a writing and teaching career, his mother cut off his allowance. After her death several years later Turgenev inherited 11 estates totaling about 30,000 acres and thousands of serfs. He tried to manage the estates responsibly and to treat the serfs respectfully, but in the end, he chose to travel the world and write rather than remain at home. He left behind a daughter, Paulinette, whom he fathered with a servant. Turgenev settled in France, where his writing career took off. He first published a short story titled "From a Hunter's Sketches" (1847) that later became a series entitled A Sportsman's Sketches (1852), which was said to have influenced Tsar Alexander's decision to emancipate the serfs. His popularity grew during the midcentury as he published Rudin (1856), Home of the Gentry (1859), and On the Eve (1860). His political novel Fathers and Sons (1862) outraged many critics for its pompous portrayal of the traditionalist Pavel, angering old-school Russians, and the sentimental portrayal of the nihilist Bazarov, angering young radicals. Turgenev lost a majority of his readers as a result.

Pauline Viardot

Arguably the greatest influence on Turgenev's work was his relationship with French opera singer Pauline Viardot, whom he first met in 1843. When they met, Viardot was already married to theater director Louis Viardot, a man 21 years her senior. The relationship, which started with Turgenev being hired as Viardot's Russian tutor, blossomed into a lifelong, obsessive, but possibly unconsummated, relationship. Despite Turgenev's relentless affection, Viardot refrained from accelerating the platonic relationship: "Oh, how many bad things I should have done but for that willpower." The frustration of unreciprocated love fueled many of Turgenev's works, including his story "The Song of Triumphant Love" (1879), which tells of a child conceived through the power of music and love.

However, according to a letter Turgenev wrote to his cousin, many scholars believe Turgenev actually did father a love child with Viardot—her daughter Didi—but historians have been unable to verify the truth of her paternity. The relationship between Viardot and Turgenev was fiery and turbulent, with years of silence passing between them after arguments, but they always returned to each other. Eventually Turgenev entrusted Viardot with raising his own daughter Paulinette, and he and his daughter moved into the Viardot household with Madame, her husband, and their children.

Exile and Death

After Fathers and Sons received harsh, negative reviews—and after quarreling with leading Russian literary figures Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky—Turgenev entered a period of self-imposed exile. He moved in with Viardot and her family at a resort in Baden-Baden, Germany, before traveling to London and Paris, where his literary contributions were appreciated. Turgenev continued to write, but his later works never received the same acclaim in Russia as his earlier works.

Turgenev emerged from exile when his brother died and Turgenev had to fight for his rightful inheritance. He returned to Russia expecting to be ridiculed, but everyone, including his old literary friends, welcomed him. He returned to Paris where his health declined. He died of spinal cancer on September 3, 1883. Despite the controversy over his works while he was alive, after his death Turgenev joined the literary canon alongside contemporaries Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky as one of the most influential Russian writers of the 19th century.

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