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Fathers and Sons | Themes

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The themes in Fathers and Sons are connected in that all involve generation gaps, either literally or figuratively, as individual families and the whole of Russia accept or reject new ideas.

Love

As the central theme in Fathers and Sons love is explored and expressed through a variety of relationships: romantic, familial, and platonic. As the title suggests, the most important relationship explored is between fathers and sons. These relationships reflect the generation gap—both personal within families and socio-political throughout the nation—between older and younger generations in a changing Russia. Before Arkady went to university, he and his father enjoyed a close relationship, bonding over heir mutual enjoyment of poetry, art, and nature. Once Arkady meets Bazarov, however, he takes on nihilistic beliefs that require distancing himself from emotion and romantic ideas. When the newly nihilistic Arkady returns home, Nikolai no longer feels close to him and has no idea how to close the gap. He loves his son deeply and tries to give him space to explore the new ideology without judgment or pressure.

The same paternal love can be seen in the relationship between Bazarov and his father. The distance between them is even greater than between Arkady and Nikolai. Bazarov, far more rebellious, treats his father disrespectfully. He rarely visits, and when he does he avoids engaging in conversation and acts as if everything his parents do is an annoyance. Despite knowing how he breaks his father's—and mother's—heart, Bazarov remains aloof and selfish. Even when he thinks he might die in the duel with Pavel, for example, he doesn't take the time to contact his parents. After beginning a letter to his father, he tears it up, thinking, "If I die ... they will find it out; but I'm not going to die." At the end of the novel Arkady and Nikolai's relationship has mended, but Bazarov dies without having returned his father's love.

Bazarov's nihilistic views of love's superficiality affect other relationships as well. He offends nearly everyone he encounters: Nikolai, Pavel, Uncle Matvy, even Madame Odintsov at their first meeting. When Bazarov does fall in love, the emotion causes him such internal conflict he nearly explodes. Because he has made such a fuss about the triviality of love, he cannot confide his feelings with anyone. His conflict turns to anger, and he nearly comes to blows with Arkady. He forcefully grabs Madame Odintsov's hand, kissing her without consent because he cannot control his emotions. When Madame Odintsov fails to return his affection, Bazarov sinks into despair and negligently contracts typhus, which leads to his death. Pavel, another idealistic man who fails at love, nearly meets the same sad fate. When Princess R—dismisses Pavel's affection, he, like Bazarov, cannot move forward in his life. However, his near-death experience at the duel shakes him out of his stupor and allows him to take up the life he left behind.

Only Nikolai and Arkady succeed at love in happy marriages to Fenitchka and Katya. Unlike other characters in the novel these two men learn not to deny emotions and to balance themselves in the changing landscape, thus leading to their ultimate happiness.

Change

Social changes resulting from the liberation of the serfs provide part of the backdrop for Fathers and Sons.

During a time of great political upheaval, Nikolai experiences familial change as his son, Arkady, distances himself in his search for independence. Once close they seem to have little in common as Arkady chooses to align himself with Bazarov's radical political ideologies, leaving behind the love of poetry, art, and nature he shared with his father. Bazarov's rejection of tradition creates tension with characters like Pavel, whose very identity appears wrapped in social hierarchies and customs and the refusal to accept change.

The generational gap between Arkady and Nikolai, as well as Bazarov and Vassily, reflects the political changes occurring at the time. Progressive landowners like Nikolai turned their serfs into rent-paying land workers, a move that created great social upheaval after centuries of agricultural feudalism. While intentions were good, the results of liberation were less positive for the newly freed serfs who now had to pay rent and work for wages. Landowners like Nikolai and Bazarov do not receive their rents, and some of the newly freed serfs have become openly hostile toward their former masters, who now are their employers.

Just as characters undergo changing relationships, so does society. For the first time in Russian history, class mobility seems possible not only for the liberated serfs but for the middle classes as well. This change can be seen in Madame Kukshin's presence, and eagerness, at the governor's ball. Essentially a social climber with little sense, she hopes to rub elbows with gentry despite showing up in "dirty gloves [and] no crinoline." Likewise, the upper class, who would rather speak French at the ball than their native Russian, allows Bazarov's presence in a "rather old evening coat" although they don't exactly welcome him. Sitnikov, too, an inept but rich social climber is tolerated condescendingly, but his presence and pretensions indicate the beginnings of upward mobility in social hierarchies.

Class

The class conflicts in Fathers and Sons reflect a changing Russia. Although serfs have not yet been freed officially, progressive landowners like Nikolai have transitioned from feudal serfdom to the more progressive practice of liberating them into rent-paying laborers. Nikolai, however, struggles in his relationship with his workers throughout the novel as they disrespect his property, do minimal work in the fields, and often refuse to pay their rent. Because they are no longer tied to the estate and thus not "owned," Nikolai cannot treat them as he might have done previously through force. Nor can he evict them from the land because he would then have no one to do the work.

In the new Russia servants are no longer required to adhere to traditional social etiquette, as exemplified in the description of Nikolai's servant Piotr with "his pomaded hair of various shades and his studied gestures—proclaimed him of a different age." Now a "perfectly modern servant," Piotr bows but does not perform the old-fashioned custom of kissing the master's hand. Nor does a group of servants gather to welcome him. The older generation, fathers Nikolai and Vassily, fret over their perceived social obligations to guests, although neither Arkady nor Bazarov bothers about these formalities. Rather than criticize—or even indicate displeasure with—his father's new relationship with a former servant, Arkady welcomes Fenitchka and Mitya into his family. In the old Russia a master would not treat a servant as an equal and certainly would not marry her despite their intimacy. Fenitchka, on the other hand, is uncomfortable with her elevated social status and spends most of her time hiding in the bedroom, coming out to serve tea.

Middle-class Bazarov, in his nihilistic rejection of social hierarchy, attempts to befriend members of lower social classes, who in fact respond positively to the overtures of friendship, whereas real peasants in the "real world" mock the intellectual Bazarov behind his back. Yet for all his pomp about rejecting classism, Bazarov feels crippled by Madame Odintsov's rejection and wonders if she cannot love him because he isn't rich enough. He admits to thinking himself "better" than common men like Sitnikov, telling Arkady, "I need dolts like him. It's not for the gods to bake bricks." Bazarov may be an intellectual, middle-class snob, but Sitnikov compounds intellectual snobbery with social climbing. As the son of a rich liquor merchant, Sitnikov has no aristocratic pedigree of any sort and with no winning ways has trouble gaining acceptance into higher circles. Upward mobility may be available in theory, but in practice, despite education, it remains difficult.

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