At the beginning of the novel we find Nikolai Petrovich Kirsanov waiting at a posting station with his valet Pyotr for the return of his young son Arcady, who is coming home from Petersburg where he has recently completed his degree. While Nikolai sits waiting the reader is introduced to his circumstances. We are told how he is the son of a half-literate general who had served in the war against Napoleon in 1812 but spent most of his life in the provinces, and of a strong mother of the type of "commanding matrons". Nikolai, following an education by ineffective governors is prevented from taking up his commission in the army by injury, is allowed to take up a civilian post by his father. At eighteen he entered the Petersburg university and took his degree in 1835, the same year in which his father and mother died. As soon as the mourning period was over he married the daughter of his former landlord, "a pretty and, as they say ‘cultured’ girl, who was addicted to reading serious articles in the Science section of the Gazettes." Shortly thereafter they moved to his country home, where their son Arcady was born. In 1847 his wife died, the shock almost killing him, and in 1855 he accompanied Arcady when he went to university in Petersburg, staying with him for three years before returning for the winter of 1858-9. It is thus that we find him waiting for his son in May, 1859. The timing of the novel is important as its action coincides with the period in which Turgenev himself freed his serfs, and in which the oncoming emancipation of the serfs was becoming increasingly obvious and the arguments for and against were becoming an increasingly important part of the Russian public consciousness, and the publication of the work in 1862 followed just one year after the signing of the Emancipation Act by Alexander II in February 1861.

When Arcady does arrive at the posting station he brings with him one of his fellow students, Yevgeny Vassilich Bazarov. They then return in the company of Nikolai Petrovich and his valet, Pyotr, who Turgenev describes ironically as "a representative of a modern and more perfect age", to Arcady’s father’s rather chaotically run estate; the problems of which reflect to a great degree those experienced by Turgenev himself in the running of his own estates, especially as Nikolai, like Turgenev has freed his serfs. Arcady and Bazarov both stay for a while on the Kirsanov’s estate. Here Bazarov, who declares himself to be a "nihilist", and who becomes the hero of the novel, occupies himself with early morning walks in search of specimens for dissection and examination later in the day in preparation for the medical examinations which he intends to take in the following year, while Arcady spends his time in idleness. Here on the estate the reader is also introduced to two more important characters; Arcady’s uncle Pavel Petrovich and the young peasant-girl Fenichka who is Nikolai’s lover and who has borne him a baby son. Pavel Petrovich is a foppish, intolerant and laconic Anglophile who has led a frustrated and pointless life and been disappointed and disillusioned by his unsuccessful love for a woman whom he followed everywhere much in the same way that Turgenev followed Pauline Viardot. It is his arguments with Bazarov which illuminate the conflict between the two generations, that is, between the "new men and women" as exemplified by Bazarov, and the brothers Kirsanov and everything that they stand for, or to put it yet another way, between the fathers and sons. Fenichka, a young girl of only twenty-three entrusted to Nilkolai’s care after the death of her innkeeper mother from cholera, is naturally uncertain of how to behave in the company of the members of the Kirsanov family as she is of a lower social standing, and while she is the mother of Nikolai’s child she is not his wife. She is particularly nervous of Pavel, but he does make efforts to show her his goodwill, even though he does so with obvious discomfort. Likewise, Arcady, who believes that his father should marry Fenichka and validate their union, does not make her feel comfortable, and it is in fact only Bazarov with whom she seems truly at ease, and once she discovers that he has medical knowledge she is even happy to have him woken during the night to have him check on her baby.

Life continues at the estate at Maryino with Arcady living the life of a "true sybarite" and Bazarov going on with his studies, while all the time the animosity between the latter and Pavel Petrovich heightens, and Nikolai becomes more and more enervated by Bazarov’s scathing attitude towards his old-fashioned ways. Then a message arrives from one of Nikolai’s late wife’s relations, a certain Matvey Ilyich Kolyazin, who has arrived in the provincial capital to inspect the area in his official capacity and invites Pavel, Nikolai and Arcady to come and stay with him at his lodgings in town. That same evening what Turgnev calls the "battle royal" takes place between Bazarov and Pavel. That is, an animated argument takes place between them at tea during the course of which Bazarov sneers at Pavel’s beliefs in the aristocracy, liberalism, progress, principles, art and the emancipation of the serfs, calling them "a lot of foreign - and

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