Structure, characterisation and narrative technique

Fathers and Sons

is by far the longest of Turgenev’s novels. It is twice as long as Rudin and has much greater variation in the length of the chapters than any of its antecedents. Nearly two thirds of the work takes the form of dialogue, and this slows down the action, giving almost the effect of a cinematic close- up, a technique which has led one critic to remark that: "if Dostoevsky is an eminently dramatic novelist, Turgenev may be properly called a cinematic novelist." However, others would argue that Fathers and Sons can be seen precisely as a drama in four acts and an epilogue. Act I, comprising chapters I-XI shows Bazarov and the Kirsanovs, Act II, comprising chapters XII-XIX shows Bazarov and Odintzova, Act III, chapters XX-XXIV, shows the decline of Bazarov, and Act IV, chapters XXV-XXVII, his fall.

The narrative style of the novel varies and there are two main ways in which Turgenev constructs his characterisation. The first source of information is that which the characters themselves supply to the reader through the dialogue, which as has already been noted, forms two thirds of the content of the book. The second source of information is that given by other characters in the course of conversation and that given by the narrator himself. In turn, this second essential source of information can be divided into three main strands. The first of these is what seem to be minimally evaluative, maximally objective surface descriptions of appearance, actions and reactions. The second consists of overtly evaluative remarks about behaviour and the third of information relating to heredity and environment.

Information from the second of these categories, that is, surface description that tend to focus on elements such as hair, facial expression and colouring, clothing and body language, is not applied equally to the characters. For this reason, readers learn little about the looks of Arcady, Nikolai and Katya. At the end of the novel they are still somewhat faceless, whereas the other major characters are given more authorial attention in this respect. For example, Pavel and Bazarov’s habits and details of dress are very important aspects to consider with regard to characterisation.

Regarding objective descriptions of characters’ reactions to the actions of other characters it is important to note that in Fathers and Sons when Turgenev uses description of external reaction to convey internal feelings he tends to show characters expressing themselves with less mobility the more intense their emotions, such as is shown by Bazarov when he is spurned by Odintzova or when Pavel reacts to Arcady’s first announcement that Bazarov is a nihilist. In this respect it is in fact those characters who respond he least externally who are intended to be understood to experience the most intense emotions.

When it comes to overtly evaluative comment about behaviour one notices that Turgenev uses an interesting cinematic technique in that character is developed through individual scenes, which Batyuto called "frames", which follow each other in quick succession, each shedding new light on one or more of the characters. This is particularly a technique used for the characterisation of Bazarov, who, unlike all the other major protagonists of the novel, is given virtually no pre-history. Fisher claims that this lack of detail in Bazarov’s case could reflect Turgenev’s predilection "to ignore the psychology of types that are essentially alien to him." However, others would argue that Turgenev instead uses this lack of formative detail to preserve the enigmatic nature of Bazarov’s character, or that Turgenev is inviting his readers to draw on the similarities between Pavel Petrovich and Bazarov, who are both egotistical and insensitive to nature, and in this way construe a similar past for Bazarov as that of Pavel as described in the section about his relationship with Princess R. However, it is inevitable that as Pavel Petrovich is the one of the two whose pre-history is definitively given, it is on his side that the reader’s sympathy lies. But while the coldness and indifference of Pavel and Odintzova are genuine, Bazarov’s remains generally untested, and when it is, such as when he is rejected by Odintzova, it proves to be eminently assailable, showing that if his life had but lasted a bit longer he might have developed the capacity for sensitivity and some sort of humility.

David Lowe has argued that in Fathers and Sons two narrative personae can be discovered who differ in their perceptive abilities. The first of these is an author/creator who even occasionally addresses the reader directly and has moments of omniscience, such as when he describes Bazarov’s inner struggle with romanticism in chapter seventeen. The other authorial persona is that of a limited first-person point of view from a faceless, passive witness of events. This second narrator only guesses at motivations and thoughts, often giving many possible options and regularly using phrases such as "as if".

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