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The first Russian author to achieve widespread international fame, Ivan Turgenev was hailed as his country’s premier novelist by nineteenth-century Westerners and is today linked with Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy as one of the triumvirate of great Russian novelists of that century. As a writer deeply concerned with the politics of his homeland, he vividly described the tumultuous political environment in Russia from the 1840s to the 1870s. Simultaneously, as a literary artist, he created works noted for their psychological truth, descriptive beauty, and haunting pathos.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Daunting Household
Turgenev was born on October 28, 1818, in the city of Orel into a family of wealthy gentry. His father, by all accounts a charming but ineffectual cavalry officer, paid little attention to Turgenev, whose childhood on the family estate of Spasskoye was dominated by his eccentric and impulsive mother, Varvara Petrovna. Her treatment of her favorite son Ivan alternated between excessive affection and mental and physical cruelty; she ruled Spasskoye and its five thousand serfs with the same unpredictability. Biographers have cited his mother’s influence to explain much about the development of Turgenev’s personality—particularly his horror of violence and hatred of injustice—and his fiction, populated as it is by strong women and well-meaning but weak-willed men.
During Turgenev’s early childhood, French was the primary language spoken in his household, as was customary among upper-class Russians. Although his mother later permitted the use of Russian, it is likely that Turgenev’s first lessons in the vernacular came from the Spasskoye serfs. When Turgenev was nine, the family left the country for Moscow, where Ivan attended boarding schools before entering Moscow University in 1833. At the university, he earned the nickname ”the American” for his interest in the United States and his democratic inclinations. in 1834, Turgenev transferred to the University of St. Petersburg. Upon graduation, he decided that the completion of his education required study abroad, so he went to Germany in 1838, enrolling at the University of Berlin. During the next several years, he studied philosophy, but he never finished his degree. Turgenev returned to Russia in 1841, but for the rest of his life he divided his time between his homeland and western Europe.
Although Turgenev had begun writing poetry as a student in St. Petersburg and published his first verses in 1838, biographers generally cite the narrative poem Parasha, published in 1843, as the beginning of his literary career. This work attracted little attention from his contemporaries, however, and the friendships he made in the mid-1840s, including those with Pauline Viardot and Vissarion Belinsky, proved more important for his literary development—indeed, the rest of his life— than the poem. Viardot was a successful opera singer and a married woman when Turgenev met her in 1843. The precise nature of their relationship is uncertain. While Turgenev’s letters to her seem to indicate a grand passion, at least on his side, there is no evidence that the two were ever lovers. At any rate, their relationship endured for the rest of Turgenev’s life; he frequently followed Viardot to wherever her career took her and was on excellent terms with her husband and the rest of her family. Turgenev himself never married.
Turgenev’s friendship with Belinsky, an extremely influential literary critic, also directed the course of his life. A political liberal and an ardent Westernizer, Belinsky sought to bring Russia’s culture and political system nearer to that of Europe. Belinsky was closely associated with the radical periodical Sovremennik (The Contemporary), edited by Nikolay Nekrasov, and it was in this journal that Turgenev published his first prose work, the short story ”Khor i Kalinych.”
A Sportsman’s Sketches
Although Turgenev continued to write poetry and tried his hand at drama, he had found his niche and his audience in narrative prose. ”Khor and Kalinych” was followed by a series of related pieces between the years 1847 and 1852, all first published in the Contemporary and later collected and published in book form in 1852 as Zapiski okhotnika (A Sportsman’s Sketches). In these sketches, which range from brief slices of life to fully realized short stories, Turgenev adopted the persona of a hunter in the country, drawing on his experiences at Spasskoye and expressing his love for the land and people of rural Russia. The sensitive portraits of country peasants and landowners in A Sportsman’s Sketches gently persuaded the reader not only that serfdom was unjust, but also that it damaged the character of the upper classes morally and spiritually. A Sportsman’s Sketches is frequently compared to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s contemporaneous antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, also published in 1852. Unlike the American novel, however, Turgenev’s work is understated, his moral message implied rather than overt.
At their first publication, Turgenev’s stories were enormously popular with almost everyone but government officials. In 1852, when he wrote an admiring obituary of Nikolai Gogol, whose socially conscious writing had inspired many in Turgenev’s generation, Turgenev was arrested, supposedly for excessive approval of a suspect writer but more likely for his own social critique in A Sportsman’s Sketches. After a month in jail, Turgenev was confined to Spasskoye, where he remained under house arrest for nearly two years. When the serfs were finally freed in 1861, there were many who credited A Sportsman’s Sketches with having helped to effect their emancipation.
Russia in the nineteenth century was a divided and politically troubled country, unsure of its future political course. Tension existed not only between conservatives and liberals but also between the radical liberals, who called for immediate change and economic communism—the sharing of all resources and wealth equally among citizens—and the moderate liberals, who
favored slow, peaceful reform and free enterprise. Turgenev managed to draw the hostility of nearly every Russian school of thought, from reactionary to revolutionary, with his next and most famous novel, Fathers and Sons. Bazarov, the protagonist of the book, is considered Turgenev’s most successful and most ambiguous character—Turgenev himself confessed that he did not know whether he loved or hated his hero. Bazarov also provides an intriguing portrayal of a political type just then coming into existence in Russia: the nihilist, a person who rejects all conventional values. While Turgenev did not invent the term “nihilist” his depiction of Bazarov in Fathers and Sons brought it into general usage. Bazarov rejects every aspect of Russian political, social, and cultural life, believing in nothing but empirical science. Fathers and Sons was denounced on every side: blasted by conservatives as a favorable portrayal of a dangerous radical; attacked by liberals as a damning caricature of radicalism.
Depleting Russia from Abroad
Distressed by the unfavorable reaction to Fathers and Sons, Turgenev spent more and more time abroad, residing in Baden, Germany, and Paris near his friend Pauline Viardot. He frequented social circles that included some of the most illustrious authors of his era. With the appearance of his next novel, Smoke (1867), critics charged that he was out of touch with his native land. This bitter work criticizes conservatives and radicals alike, portraying arrogance and ideological disdain for practicality in both camps.
During the next decade, Turgenev produced a relatively small body of novellas and short stories that are among his greatest works, including ”First Love” (1870), ”A King Lear of the Steppe” (1870), and ”Torrents of Spring” (1872). These shorter pieces explore esoteric aspects of Russian life. After accusations of being a traitor who had rejected Russia, Turgenev created a gallery of striking Russian portraits such as ”The Brigadier” (1868) and ”An Unfortunate Woman” (1869).
By 1872, Turgenev had become interested in the narodnik movement that expressed the selfless desire of young Russians to repay the debt they felt they owed to the emancipated serfs. To describe this phenomenon to his countrymen, Turgenev returned to Spasskoye in 1876 and composed his last novel, Virgin Soil (1877). His hero and heroine, Aleksei Nezhdanov and Marianna Sinetskaia, attempt to put their radical principles into practice among the common people. Nezhdanov is another of Turgenev’s ineffectual male protagonists, and his efforts fail tragically, leaving Marianna to join forces with the more practical-minded, Westernist factory owner, Vasilii Solomin. The accusations that Turgenev was out of touch with Russian reality vanished when the first mass narodnik trial was held in 1877.
Following the publication of Virgin Soil, Turgenev, now virtually self-exiled from his homeland, no longer attempted to describe the Russian political scene. His remaining works—prose poems and stories—are described by critics as nostalgic, philosophical, and frequently pessimistic, and are often concerned with the occult. After a long and debilitating illness, Turgenev died in Bougival, near Paris, with Pauline Viardot at his side. His body was returned to Russia by train. There, despite the unfavorable reception of his later works and the efforts of the Russian government to restrict memorial congregations, Turgenev was widely mourned by his compatriots.
Works in Literary Context
Ivan Turgenev was steeped in the literary traditions of western Europe as well as Russia. He even met several of his idols, including Gogol and Aleksandr Pushkin, as a student. Among his European influences were Goethe and Shakespeare, whose works he learned almost by heart.
A Master of Character
The plots of Turgenev’s novels are often slight. Instead, interest centers largely on the characters, who are both unique individuals and representatives of more universal qualities. Turgenev draws his characters with a psychological penetration; their minds and personalities are revealed through their own words and actions, not through direct exposition by the narrator. Turgenev was particularly adept at portraying women in love, and at creating an atmosphere of pathos, but not sentimentality, in his unhappy love stories. Fatalism and thwarted desires are hallmarks of the novelist’s work. His characters are generally unable to control their destiny, either because of their own flaws or through arbitrary fate.
Turgenev’s sheer literary virtuosity— his skills with dialogue, character, descriptions of natural and social environments, and conveying ideas through image and illustration—earned him many admirers. Among the illustrious writers who claimed him as an influence were the French novelist Emile Zola and the American literary giants Henry James and Ernest Hemingway. At one point, Turgenev was a close friend of Tolstoy’s, but their relationship was strained by ideology, as Tolstoy was a Russian patriot (or “Slavophile”), not a Westernist.
Works in Critical Context
Criticism Through the Years
Turgenev’s novels got an uneven critical reception at the time of their appearance. Because of the highly political content of most of Turgenev’s works, the earliest Russian commentators tended to praise or disparage his writings along partisan lines. Similarly, many foreign critics of the nineteenth century were interested in Turgenev primarily for the light his prose shed on the political situation in Russia. Turgenev’s works were quickly translated into French, German, and English, and he developed an overseas following. Many English and American readers considered Turgenev the most accessible of Russian writers and they—particularly American critics—took a lively, generally appreciative interest in his career beginning with the publication of A Sportsman’s Sketches. Early Russian and English-language critics by no means neglected the aesthetic qualities of Turgenev’s works, however, recognizing from the start that his fiction was more than simply the literal portrayal of the people and concerns of a particular country at a given historical moment.
Turgenev’s literary reputation has remained generally stable over the years, with twentieth-century commentators echoing and amplifying the conclusions reached by their nineteenth-century counterparts. Critics agree that Turgenev’s work is distinguished by solid literary craftsmanship, especially in the areas of description and characterization. Keenly observant, he infused his work with precise, realistic detail, bringing a natural scene or character into focus through the evocative power of his words.
Fathers and Sons
Turgenev’s 1862 novel Fathers and Sons remains perhaps his most studied work. Dmitry I. Pisarev, in a contemporary review of the book, states, ”Turgenev’s novel, in addition to its artistic beauty, is remarkable for the fact that it stirs the mind, leads to reflection, although, it does not solve a single problem itself and clearly illuminates not so much the phenomena depicted by the author as his own attitudes toward these phenomena.” Novelist Henry James, in his French Poets and Novelists, states of the author, ”His works savour strongly of his native soil, like those of all great novelists, and give one who has read them all a strange sense of having had a prolonged experience of Russia.” James also notes that the author ”is particularly unsparing of the new intellectual fashions prevailing among his countrymen,” especially in Fathers and Sons, ”for the figures with which he has filled his foreground are, with their personal interests and adventures, but the symbols of the shadowy forces that are fighting for ever a larger battle—the battle of the old and the new, the past and the future, of the ideas that arrive with the ideas that linger.”
- ”Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev.” Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Joann Cerrito. vol. 37. Detroit: Gale, 1993, pp. 353-4
- Freeborn, Richard. Turgenev: The Novelist’s Novelist. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.
- Gettman, Royal Alfred. Turgenev in England and America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1941.
- Lord, Robert. Russian Literature: An Introduction. New York: Taplinger, 1980.
- Lowe, David A., ed. Critical Essays on Ivan Turgenev. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.
- Magarshack, David, ed. Ivan Turgenev: Literary Reminiscences and Autobiographical Fragments. New York: Grove, 1958.
- Moser, Charles A. Ivan Turgenev. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.
- Pritchett, V. S. The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev. New York: Random House,
- Schapiro, Leonard. Turgenev: His Life and Times. New York: Random House, 1978.
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