Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons

In Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons (1862), Bazarov and Anna Sergievna debate the value of studying individual lives. Bazarov declares.

“[T]he study of detached personalities is scarcely worth the trouble. For all we human beings are alike, in body as in spirit. In each of us there is an identical brain, an identical spleen, an identical heart, an identical pair of lungs, an identical stock of the so-called moral qualities (trifling variations between which we need not take into account). Therefore from a single specimen of the human race may all the rest be judged. In fact, human beings are like trees in a forest. You never find a botanist studying its individual trunks.”

Katia, who had been arranging her flowers, glanced at Bazarov in amazement, and, in so doing, encountered his keen, contemptuous gaze, and blushed to her ears. Anna Sergievna shook her head.

“Trees in a forest!” she exclaimed. “Think you, then, that there is no difference between the wise man and the fool, the good and the bad?”

“No, I do not,” replied Bazarov. “On the contrary, I believe that such differences do exist. The point is that they exist only as between the sound and the ailing. For instance, a consumptive’s lungs are not as yours and mine; yet they have been fashioned precisely as our own have been. Also, whereas, to a certain extent, we know whence bodily disorders arise, moral disorders come of faulty education, the thousand and one follies with which the human brain is afflicted, in short, any irregular condition of the social body. Rectify that body, and moral sickness will soon cease to be.”

Speaking as though he were saying to himself, “Believe me or not as you like, it is all one to me,” Bazarov drew his long fingers through his whiskers, while his eyes glowed like coals.

“Then you think,” pursued Anna Sergievna, “that, once the social body has been rectified, stupid and evil people will cease to exist?”

“At all events, once the social body is properly organised, the fact that a man be wise or stupid, good or bad, will cease to be of importance.”

“Ah! I understand! That is because we all possess an identical spleen?”

“Precisely so, madam.”


The novel as a genre, particularly as written by Turgenev, is all about the study of individuals–what makes people different, not what makes them similar. Dostoevsky and Kafka, both of whom were influenced by Turgenev, also dug deeply into the lives of individuals. This is what all serious novelists (except maybe Don DeLillo) do.

When Bazarov claims that

moral disorders come of faulty education, the thousand and one follies with which the human brain is afflicted, in short, any irregular condition of the social body. Rectify that body, and moral sickness will soon cease to be.”

he portrays the human mind or character as a blank slate that can be educated into a moral or immoral condition. Here I am reminded of the education John Stuart Mill received from his father. Bazarov’s thinking, then, has much in common with utilitarianism. Such thinking shows an underappreciation of the operational autonomy (structural determinism, operational closure) of psychic systems, which I think of as block boxes. A just society or good educational system cannot automatically produce good people–nor does a bad social environment automatically produce bad people. Consider a character such as Huckleberry Finn, who logically should not have risen above the moral stature of his father. If utilitarianism, along with views such as Skinnerian behaviorism, accurately described reality, then the novel as a genre would be have no value. The individual cannot simply reflect social conditions; there has to be something mysterious about the individual. Otherwise, the only thing to do would be to write about social conditions and leave the individual alone. Bazarov is the mortal enemy of the novelist.

Bazarov has sense but lacks sensibility; he discounts art and emotion. He is like Elinor in the Jane Austen novel, but much worse. As Bazarov’s father puts it,

“He is an enemy to all expressions of emotion.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.