Title: The importance of the duel in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons

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Title: The importance of the duel in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons

Ivan Turgenev, a prominent Russian author, is considered a masterful writer on culture and society, noted for showing aspects of society through the depiction of everyday life. Such an art can be observed in his novel Fathers and Sons, written In 1862. As the title suggests, the plot of the novel revolves around Arkady and his father Nikolai, and Arkady’s friend Bazarov and his

family. Through these characters and their interactions, Turgenev explores some important aspects of society in Russia in the 1860s, and the changes occurring as the old gives way to the new. A key episode that Turgenev uses to highlight some of these ideas is the duel between Bazarov and Nikolai’s’ brother Pavel Petrovich. This episode is particularly significant because

it acts as a physical symbol for the generational conflict and social tensions that are explored in the novel. The duel also shows the patriarchal attitudes prevailing in the society at that time, and it results in a significant transformation of Pavel’s character and his attitude towards his brother. Perhaps most importantly, through Bazarov’s victory, it suggests the beginning of the dominance of the younger, intellectual generation over the refined but outmoded aristocracy.

Pavel represents the older, (although he is still in his forties), cultured class in Russia at that time. The son of a general, he has an ‘elegant and aristocratic cast’ (Turgenev,11) and he holds tradition and principles so strongly that he believes that ‘without principes taken on faith, there’s no taking a step, no breathing’ (Turgenev,17). The use of the French word for ‘principles’ is significant in itself as it shows the attachment to foreign languages and ideas in the upper classes at that time in Russia. In contrast, Bazarov, the son of a provincial doctor, and a nihilist who sees everything from a critical point of view, represents the younger generation. As Arkady explains, a nihilist ‘does not take any principle on faith, whatever the reverence that principle may be enshrined in” (Turgenev,17). Part of Pavel’s tradition is the notion of chivalry and the underlying animosity between these two men is escalated to a duel when he sees Bazarov kissing Fenichka, the de facto wife of Nikolai. Pavel’s reason is ostensibly to protect her honour, but in reality he has been contemptuous of Bazarov right from their first meeting. At that meeting, he barely acknowledges Bazarov when he is introduced to him, inclining only slightly without offering him his hand and referring to him as that ‘unkempt creature’ (Turgenev,12). On his part, Bazarov is equally unimpressed, calling Pavel a ‘queer fish’ (Turgenev,12) and showing his disdain of his stylish way of dressing and presenting himself when he remarks ‘his nails, his nails – you could send them to an exhibition!’ (Turgenev,12). This animosity between the two men worsens until Pavel grows to detest Bazarov.

The dislike between the two men ends in a duel as a result of Pavel’s belief in the idea of tradition and chivalry, and Turgenev seems to use it to show the emptiness of some of the traditions that the older generation cling to. Chivalry is also connected to the idea of patriarchy, something that both men seem to accept. For example, Bazarov seems to think nothing about flirting with Fenichka, and tricking her into letting him kiss her. Pavel, in a more complicated way, follows Fenichka around and observes her so closely that she becomes scared of him (Turgenev,120). The patriarchal assumption of male dominance leads to the duel in what is presented as an almost natural, inevitable way, because at the basis of it is Fenichka, the young, pretty, woman. After seeing Bazarov kissing Fenichka, Pavel doesn’t think twice about challenging Bazarov. And even though Bazarov adheres to beliefs of critical thought and empiricism, he also seems to accept the idea of duelling over a woman as a practical reality, even though he says that ‘from the theoretical standpoint, duelling is absurd.’ (Turgenev,121) Meanwhile,

Fenichka, about whom such a violent encounter has been arranged, is completely unnoticed and has no role in the matter, as she ‘sat in her little room like a mouse in its hole’.

The duel acts as a catalyst and results in a dramatic change in Pavel’s attitude towards his brother’s relationship with Fenichka. With his elegance and refinement, and his adherence to old traditions and the importance of appearances, Pavel has not shown sympathy towards the awkwardness of his brother’s relationship with Fenichka, the daughter of his deceased housekeeper and with whom he has had a child. The minor wound sustained by Pavel during the duel has a strong effect on him. When Pavel faints after he’s wounded during the duel, Bazarov refers to him as one of ‘these nervous people’ (Turgenev, 126), and it does seem that his emotions and nerves are stirred up by the encounter. Though his own beliefs and values are against such an inter-class marriage, Pavel urges Nikolai to marry Fenichka. (Turgenev,133) In a sense, this may be considered something of a sacrifice on Pavel’s part. The duel seems to have given him some perspective on the fragility of life, and Pavel decides that he wants his brother to lead a life in which he is truly happy. Whatever the case, Pavel’s paternalistic, passionate and teary outburst to Fenichka saying ‘love him, love my brother!’ (Turgenev,132), shows a significant development of his character and seems to indicate that, with his loss in the duel, he is already giving up some of his traditional beliefs.

Turgenev presents Bazarov as a character who has both positive and negative sides. His manner is abrupt and he doesn’t pay attention to his appearance or to other people’s feelings. However, despite this, he often acts in a humane and polite way, and the episode of the duel is significant in showing both the positive and negative sides of his character. Turgenev shows him to be slightly ashamed of the way he took advantage of Fenichka by flirting with her and tricking her into smelling the flowers with him and then suddenly kissing her. By showing him shaking hishead and assuming an ironic attitude, Turgenev shows us that Bazarov does have a conscience about his actions which he has to deliberately push aside (Turgenev,120).

The duel is used as a physical manifestation of the struggle of ideas, and the fact that Bazarov is the victor symbolizes the ascendancy of the young intellectuals, with their nihilistic ideas, over the older generation clinging to traditions and principles. Pavel places emphasis on right ways of dressing and behaving, but while he superficially follows painstaking rituals his actual behaviour is sometimes less thoughtful than Bazarov’s. The tone with which Pavel and Bazarov discuss the idea of a duel is written in such a way as to make that traditional notion of chivalry quite ridiculous. For example, Pavel is ‘compelled to beg…five minutes’ of Bazarov’s time and Bazarov responds that ‘all my time is at your disposal.” And yet the subject under discussion is a duel with pistols that could lead to the death of one of them. Bazarov’s calm acceptance, and polite mocking tone, highlights the underlying viciousness of Pavel’s challenge. Even when Bazarov is waiting for Pavel to arrive at the duel he thinks to himself ‘What a piece of foolery’ (Turgenev,124) and yet he is prepared to go ahead with it. As with so many disputations between them, it is Pavel who is the aggressor and Bazarov who takes the line of least resistance. Therefore, when Pavel’s shot misses and Bazarov’s shot wounds Pavel, our sympathy is with Bazarov. That sympathy is heightened when Bazarov ignores his right to one more shot, and instead declares ‘I’m not a duellist but a doctor’ (Turgenev,126) and proceeds to take care of the wound. Although it is Bazarov who leaves Nikolai’s house as a result of the duel, and his disregard of Fenichka seems callous, nevertheless, he is presented as intelligent and humane, in comparison with Pavel’s aggression and sentimentality.

The challenge to a duel, even though part of society’s tradition, is quite out of the ordinary, but Turgenev has written it in an understated style, without making it overly dramatic. In doing so, he has managed to attach many layers of importance to the episode. Turgenev uses the episode to depict some tensions in Russian society in the 1860s, especially the contrast between ideas of chivalry and tradition, represented by Pavel, and the rational, empirical ideas of Bazarov. The victory of Bazarov, followed by the significant transformation of Pavel’s views, suggests that Turgenev uses the episode to show us the direction society is taking. However, the characters of Pavel and Bazarov are not all completely good or bad and although the dueling episode suggests that Turgenev is sympathetic to Bazarov, it also shows that Pavel is capable of changing and becoming less selfish and hemmed in by traditions.

Edition used: Turgenev, Ivan. Fathers and Sons. New York : WW Norton & Company, 1989.

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