“The greatest benefit we owe to the artist,” argued George Eliot, “is the extension of our sympathies. Art is … a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” In War and Peace, Pierre serves as a stand-in tutor for the reader’s own sentimental education. As The New Yorker editor James Wood observes, in the beginning Pierre “has a tendency to see people as hazy groups.” After escaping death at his French enemies’ hands, the hero’s heart rallies for a brotherhood of man. Tolstoy tells us that whereas others’ particularities “used to excite and irritate Pierre,” they now “became a basis of the sympathy he felt for, and the interest he took in, other people.” The unlikelihood of changing others’ convictions, “the possibility of everyone thinking, feeling, and seeing things from his own point of view,” the fundamental fact of difference “between one man and another—all of this “pleased him and evoked from him an amused and gentle smile.”
Every few years a new study or article appears asserting a variation on this theme: reading great literature increases sympathy; it stimulates sympathies that would otherwise remain dormant. Such celebrations of empathy stop short of asking the necessary next question: what good emerges from what Henry James called sympathetic vibrations? Is sympathy always a good in itself? Was Pierre right to simply take pleasure in the existence of diverse points of view, in experiencing feelings through the range of life’s characters—or is sympathy only conditionally good?
Henry James praised Ivan Turgenev because, though the man possessed a pessimistic streak, in his novels he painted tender pictures that bled sympathy for all: “No one has had a closer vision, or a hand at once more ironic and more tender, for the individual figure.” Fathers and Children, though rather light on irony, certainly courts our tenderness.
The first soul who solicits our sympathy is Nikolai Kirsanov, an old-guard liberal, keen to welcome home “My son … a graduate … Arkasha.” But Arkady (Arkasha) arrives with more in his luggage than just a diploma, and the father’s pleasure in his son’s achievement is tempered by the surprise arrival of Arkady’s friend, Bazarov. It is a scene familiar to parents: the college experience has alienated the son from his father. Bazarov takes every opportunity to emanate boredom: he clasps Kirsanov’s extended hand, but only “eventually”; he answers pressing questions with studied nonchalance; he yawns gratuitously and assumes “a lazy but manly voice.” As ever, Turgenev’s characterization is swift and convincing.
Arkady, whose parents never curbed his own freedom, has not fully defected, tolerating Nikolai’s pathetic, romantic disposition and defending his father against Bazarov’s constant condescension. But, smitten with Bazarov’s smug antiauthoritarianism, he cannot bring himself to firmly confront his friend. Arkady’s servility is such that, if sickened by something Bazarov says or does, he reproaches the nihilist for something different, some minor peccadillo, anxious to preserve the status quo.
In the world of Fathers and Children, “nihilist” is not necessarily a slur. When Nikolai and his brother, Pavel Petrovich, ask Arkady to explain the baffling behavior of Bazarov, he answers, “He’s a nihilist.” Nikolai provides a ready definition: “A nihilist … That comes from the Latin nihil, nothing, so far as I can tell. So that must mean a person … who accepts nothing.” Not quite, Arkady tries to clarify: “A nihilist is someone who doesn’t bow to any authority, who doesn’t take a single principle on trust, no matter how much that principle is revered.” As they hash out the disturbing implications of such wholesale negation, Bazarov returns with a bag full of frogs oblivious to their impending dissection. “He doesn’t believe in principles,” says Pavel, reveling in his cleverness, “but he believes in frogs.” But his quip falls flat. The nihilist cannot be ironized away.
The elders really begin to understand Bazarov’s philosophy only when he converts it into monetary calculations: “Raphael isn’t worth a brass farthing,” he exclaims, cocksure; and what is called virtue and tradition, he argues, is merely the vain “conceit of an old lion, just putting on airs.” Given man’s enslavement to so many pretentions (read: colonization by the raw will to domination dressed in the cloak of respectability and convention), “the most useful thing is negation—so we deny … everything.”
At the novel’s beginning, both the old-school liberals and the nihilists imagine themselves above the tiresome trappings of conventional morality; indeed, the elders have unwittingly passed on to the youth their underlying belief that every ‘decent’ practice is merely a construct. Nikolai’s relationship with Arkady is akin to that between Stepan and Peter Verkhovensky in Dostoevsky’s Demons. Stepan styles himself a “freethinker” and swoons over the reforms stirring in St. Petersburg. Sentimentally and good-humoredly, he hums an old verse written by a landowner: “The peasants are coming, carrying axes/ A dreadful thing is about to occur.”
Turgenev’s fathers too feed on these illusions of polite overturnings, and, like Dostoevsky’s Verkhovensky, they are shocked that their children’s palates take pleasure only in vicious and revolutionary destruction. Yet, while their sons may have been ‘radicalized’ at university, the roots of their anti-conventional ideas can be found at home, in their parents’ politer subversions. Take, for instance, Fenichka, the twenty three year old lover whom Nikolai has installed in his house. As Jane Costlow contends, “Nikolai’s relationship with Fenichka is in some ways the most radical one of the novel.” Arkady “passes the moral test” when, discovering Fenichka is the mother of his brother, he asks his father, “How could I possibly want to interfere in your life or how you want to live it?”
If Pavel is peeved with Bazarov’s insolent indifference but confident in his defense of a dandified existence, Nikolai is devastated by the generational trench, wounded by the moral Molotov cocktails Bazarov tosses from the other side. How could a father who gave his child so much liberty, he wonders, be treated as so outdated? Immersed in his confusion, we feel keenly the man’s misery as he “flung himself down on the divan, clasped his hands behind his head, and lay there without moving, staring at the ceiling with an expression close to despair.” Turgenev causes the stomach to clench as we watch him rise to shut the drapes—a useless gesture because no one can see him—before slinking, broken-hearted, back to the divan.
Later, when Bazarov insists that there is not a single institution “which doesn’t call for total, merciless destruction,” Nikolai’s last optimistic gasps for reconciliation leave him with a stitch. After all the hours wasted poring over the new generation’s ideas, eager to “put in a word during their heated discussions,” he gives himself over “to the melancholy comfort of his lonely thoughts.” Night falls but he doesn’t notice. Try as he might to return indoors, he can only walk dazed circles around the garden, raising his eyes to the stars’ brilliance but unable “to part from the darkness.” Only a hardhearted reader could withstand the father’s feeling of shock and failure, even if, a few pages later, Bazarov’s jokes at Nikolai’s expense do not seem altogether unjustified.
One of Turgenev’s supreme gifts, said Henry James, is “a deeply sympathetic sense of the wonderful complexity of our souls,” which he paints, nonetheless, in a few simple strokes that scintillate with the depths. We find ourselves ‘inside’ a given character within a few lines. Take the aristocratic Anna, who, though older than him, flirts with Bazarov. She “wanted something without knowing what it was,” Turgenev writes. Pierced by “rainbow colors” and sorrowful, melancholic musings, she would notice the wind “blowing through a half-closed window” and, at once, all noble ardor would dissipate; all that mattered “was for the horrid draft to go away.”
Because Bazarov does not get what he wants from Anna, he begins to “experience a degree of restless agitation that was quite new in him.” Turgenev asks us to pity the nihilist who, until now, has regarded love, and all chivalrous feelings, as “something akin to a deformity or a sickness.” Openly scornful of romantic notions and “cursing her under his breath,” as he snaps branches and twigs in his path, he is finally forced to “indignantly acknowledge … the romantic in himself.”
Although Turgenev’s style is economical and restrained, he admits a lyrical swell as Anna and Bazarov, set against “a smoky light in the middle of the dark, fragrant, lonely room,” make stilted sense of just how it is that they have come together. Following the exchange, in which Bazarov spills his insecurities and asks Anna to confide a secret source of despair, Turgenev splits the narrative, separately tracking both characters, asking our sympathies to extend in two directions at once. “I wish I had her on my dissecting table,” Bazarov had boasted to Arkady beforehand. Now it is his own soul that is dissected. As he departs the premises to recover from his romantic rout, Anna finds herself “afraid of this man.”
He also recovers by mocking his pandering disciple Sitnikov. As Bazarov and Arkady prepare to part (each setting out for his respective home), Bazarov grows bold: “We need these Sitnikovs,” he says. “I need fatheads like him. It’s not for gods to waste their time baking pots.” Arkady’s sympathy for the devilish nihilist wanes, as does ours. His hurt only makes bald his grandiose conceit, and we can’t help but wonder whether the philosophical underpinnings driving this child of his age aren’t a convenient cover-up for that father of all deadly sins.
If Turgenev first lengthens our affiliations in every direction—giving the heart reasons to pity contrary and conflicting characters—such a reversal, revealing Bazarov in a way he does not recognize, chastens and reorders our alliances. Still, the rest of the novel swings our fellow-feeling back to him, even amidst his asinine antics.
Returning home, Bazarov remains unfeeling, dismissing his father Vasily whose “pipe was positively dancing up and down in his fingers.” In spite of this, the slavish Vasily defends this apparent “pride or callousness” as the fitting outfit of a great man. We cannot help cringing at the father’s worship of his son, even as we feel bad for him. Restoring sons to their fathers, Turgenev asks us to form alliances with the elders—to feel discomfort at the pain their children cause. When Vasily celebrates his son’s medical studies by praising the great scientists and doctors of history, Bazarov grants that the yields of “medicine” are useful but insists “We don’t revere anyone at all.” When Vasily vaunts antiquity, noting that the trees he has planted are those loved by Roman poet Horace, Bazarov merely yawns. Bazarov is not entirely wrong when he calls his father a “comical old man,” but Turgenev takes pains to make the virtues of both old man and mother palpable, directing us to revere what the son cannot even see.
In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis synopsizes the familiar and widespread theory of moral sentiments that reduces our claims about the real to emotional whims. We often “appear to be saying something very important about something,” says Lewis, when “actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.” Lewis does not reject the importance of feelings in our discovery of the truth, but he clarifies that “a good education should build some sentiments while destroying others.” To those of the modern mindset, Lewis suggests, it is the emotional whim that triumphs over all. Hence, despite his cynicism, Bazarov elevates feeling: “Why do I like chemistry? Why do you like apples? Because of our feelings. It’s all the same thing. People will never go deeper than that.” Even his nihilism is fated by emotions that precede free choice of the will: “I enjoy being negative,” he proclaims, “that’s how my brain’s structured.” Bazarov is a product of the sentimental education he received. The contrarian may mock his elders’ delicate sentiments, but his brashness is rooted in the same faulty foundation.
What, then, of the “sentimental education” Turgenev gives us through Fathers and Children? Art that trains us simply to delight in fellow-feeling for others, regardless of that feeling’s veracity or moral soundness, may well be create the conditions for a generation of Bazarovs. As Flannery O’Connor contended, “When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror.” If the heart of being human is not to be abolished, every emotional reaction must be judged as either ‘congruous’ or ‘incongruous’ to the things in question.
“Children!” asks Anna: “Tell me, is love an artificial emotion?” The end of the novel contains plenty to feel good about, offering a series of reversals that promote marriage and familial bonds against the temporary thrill of revolutionary destruction. But it gives us no real confidence in a world governed, in O’Connor’s words, “by tenderness … cut off from the person of Christ.” We are cut off from the soul of humanity not by guillotine, but by the delicate dinner knife of a morality that reduces the good to feelings. In the face of the atheistic Bazarov’s mortal peril, the narrator celebrates not only “eternal peace, that great peace of ‘unfeeling’ nature,” but “eternal reconciliation and life everlasting.” Turgenev leaves us longing for the conciliation of estranged generations; he bids us consider what concord might look like in an age wherein the regime of relativism is replaced by ideological dogmatism. And yet, if Fathers and Children makes a noble appeal to the better angels of our nature, the sympathy he cultivates is not always congruous with the fullness of truth: the happiness he asserts is more felt than earned, and the necessary metaphysical groundwork left undone.