Charismatic Bazarov is a staunch advocate for his nihilistic principles, which he goes to great lengths to practice. Because nihilism denies the value, or purpose, of customs, traditions, art, and other basic elements of life as lived by most humans, Bazarov comes across as rude, selfish, and judgmental. His disregard for commonplace values, including polite behavior, cause him to be disliked, except by those who want to be "in vogue" or learn more about his ideas. Thus while many people, particularly those in the upper classes, avoid Bazarov, others like Madame Odintsov feel drawn to his forceful personality and intellect. When Bazarov realizes he has fallen in love with Madame Odintsov, his inner turmoil sickens him. Madame Odintsov devastates Bazarov by rejecting his affections and requesting their relationship remain platonic. Bazarov's emotions are too much for him to handle, having denied them up to now as a nihilist. He sets out on a dangerous course after his thwarted love, his death coming as no surprise. As he lies dying, he asks for a kiss from Madame Odintsov, thereby confirming his ultimate abandonment of nihilism.
Arkady's character represents the struggle for individualism. At the opening of the novel Arkady has abandoned the pleasures he shared with his father: love of literature, nature, and music above all. Under Bazarov's influence, Arkady tries to suppress his true character and follows Bazarov's beliefs: that literature, nature, and music have no value in themselves. Although he struggles, Arkady manages to some extent to suppress emotions and ignore his love of nature and art. He even tries, unsuccessfully, to convert his father to his new way of thinking. More honest with himself, however, Arkady is unsuccessful at abandoning emotion, as he is infatuated with Madame Odintsov and admits his feelings. As love and nature draw the friends apart, Arkady begins to emerge from the stifling closeness with Bazarov and returns to his previous loves, abandoning nihilistic ideas and returning to romantic ones. Close once more with his father, Arkady finds fulfillment in marriage to a loving young woman and in running his father's estate.
The daughter of an impoverished aristocratic family and having no luxuries in life, well-educated Anna Sergyevna marries the elderly aristocrat Odintsov. When he dies six years later, childless Madame Odintsov takes over the estate, supporting her younger sister Katya and elderly aunt. After traveling abroad she has settled back home in Russia. She has progressive ideas and lives independently, thus causing neighbors and other aristocrats to treat her scornfully, as she represents threatening ideas. Although she values peace and order, she finds her structured, scheduled life of amusement—from walking in the garden, to enjoying leisurely meals, to playing cards—happy but passionless and sometimes boring. When she does venture into social engagements in the city, her beauty and grace are envied by other women as is the attention she receives from men. She does not have deep emotions and openly flirts with Bazarov because he offers her a refreshing take on life, not because she has romantic interest in him. When he declares his love for her, Madame Odintsov refuses him. Her second marriage will be, like her first, a marriage of convenience with a pleasant partner but unlike her first marriage to a rich older man, her second is to a younger man with political ambitions.
As a conservative gentleman, Pavel's character presents a perfect foil for Bazarov's. The two are equally rooted to their beliefs but represent completely different groups of Russian society. Like Bazarov's, Pavel's life changes when the rich woman with whom he is obsessed fails to return his affection. Like Bazarov, he adheres strictly to his beliefs: he values the aristocracy and traditional expectations for social behavior. He takes great pride in his appearance and "appropriate" behavior. When he sees Bazarov kiss Fenitchka, for example, he challenges Bazarov to a duel. Changed by this near-death experience Pavel reflects on how short life is, and how happiness shouldn't be restrained by social custom. He forgives Bazarov, encourages Nikolai and Fenitchka to marry, then moves to Moscow and eventually to Germany.