Press "Enter" to skip to content

The American Heritage Dictionary defines nihilism

as an extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence and that the world or one’s mind, body, or self does not exist. Nihilism was a revolutionary movement of mid 19th-
century Russia that scorned authority and tradition and believed in reason, materialism, and radical change in society
and government. Ivan Turgenev writes Fathers and Sons which contains characters who are proclaimed nihilists who
represent the new and young generation of Russia in the 1860s. The character of Evgeny Vasilich Bazarov is and
established nihilist who denies love and despises all romantic ideas. These ideas provide much conflict between
Bazarov and other characters in Fathers and Sons who are representatives from the older generation of romantics.
Turgenev uses nihilism as the groundwork of characters and as a foundation for conflicts among characters in
Fathers and Sons.
In the beginning of the novel, Bazarov is a strict nihilist, a person who believes in nothing, and “. . . examines
everything from a critical point of view and doesnt accept even one principle on faith, no matter how much respect
surrounds that principle.1 Bazarov views every aspect of life through a scientific outlook, maintaining that human
emotions are rubbish. “I’ve already informed you that I don’t believe in anything. . . . science in general simply
doesn’t exist.2 . Bazarov believes that art and thought are senseless traditions which arouse dormant energy and
emotion. Bazarov regards science as the greatest nonsense and labels it a religion in itself. Bazaars nihilistic
approach specifically denies emotion. He mocks and criticizes Pavel Petrovich for attempting to find love.
I maintain that a person who stakes his whole life on the card of a woman’s love, then withers and sinks to the point
of becoming incapable of anything when that card is trumped- a person like that isn’t a man, isn’t a male.3
Later in the novel, Turgenev begins to lead Bazarov through a series of contradictions that provide reasonable doubt
toward Bazaars earlier proclaimed nihilistic beliefs. The first hint of Bazaars emotional side takes place during his
handling of Fedosya Nikolayevna Savishna’s, or Fenechka’s, child. “‘How quiet he was with you,’. . . . ‘All children
are quiet with me, ‘ Bazarov answered. ‘I understand this sort of thing.’ ‘Children know who loves them,’ Dunyasha
Bazarovs philosophical and emotional breakdown occurs when he meets Anna Sergeevna Odintsova. Before his
encounters with Odintsova, Bazarov regarded women as sex objects without any substance to offers. However,
Bazarov found quite the contrary when with Odintsova. “‘If a woman pleases you,’ he used to say, ‘try to get to the
point; if that’s impossible, well- too bad; turn your back- your not at the end of your rope.’ Odintsova pleased him. . .
. but soon he understood that he would not ‘get to the point’ with her, and to his amazement, he lacked the strength to
turn his back on her. His blood caught fire at just the thought of her; he could have easily subdued his blood, but
something else was taking root inside him.5 The !
emotion and romantic side of Bazarov now takes over as he is stupidly and madly6 in love with Odintsov. Bazarov
acknowledges that his falling in love with Odintsova directly challenges his philosophy of nihilism. This conflict
causes much contemplation within Bazarov as he is quite disturbed at the contrast of his feeling and his views. His
whole body was trembling. But it was not the trembling of youthful timidity or the sweet fretting over a first
declaration of love that overcame him: it was passion struggling within him- powerful and painful-passion that
resembled malice.7 In an attempt to cling to his philosophy of nihilism he leaves Odintsova. During Bazaars trip
home, he belittles women as he had done before. He surrounds himself in his nihilism and his experiments. Bazarov
went into complete isolation; he was overcome by fever to work. However, Bazarov can not supress his feelings. He
has transformed from a nihilist into a romantic. Turgenev uses nihilism as!
a source of inner conflict for the character of Bazarov, and forces Bazarov to disregard his nihilistic principles and
accept himself as a romantic.
Turgenev also uses nihilism to create conflict between characters in Fathers and Sons. Bazarov is the primary
nihilist in the novel, and ever conflict due to nihilism involves Bazarov. The first conflict occurs between Bazarov
and Pavel Petrovich. Pavel is a traditional aristocrat who cherishes art, music, and nature. With Pavel and Bazarov
living under the same roof, a conflict is quite evident. Pavel challenges Bazaars beliefs in a haughty and
condescending manner, as he is not able to understand them. Bazarov highly criticizes Pavel for his traditional and
views of the older generation. Tension mounts between the two while they both live under the same roof. This
tension eventually leads to a duel between the two characters. Ive decided to fight a duel with you. Pavel stated,
With me? Bazarov questioned. With you , absolutely, What on earth for? Bazarov questioned again. !
I could explain the reason to you, but I prefer to keep silent on that score. To my way of thinking, youre
superfluous here; I cant stand you, I despise you, and if thats not enough…… So be it! Bazarov stated8 These
two characters are just one example of conflict due to nihilism in Fathers and Sons.
The most obvious conflict due to nihilism is Bazaars relationship with Odintsova. At the onset of their relationship,
Odintsova is fascinated with Bazarov and is ….very curious to meet a man whos bold enough not to believe in
anything.9 . Bazarov and Odintsova share many weeks together and during that time, the two argue and debate with
each other. Bazarov is fascinated by Odintsova and he becomes ambiguous about himself and his beliefs. Conflict
arises when Bazarov proclaims his love for Odintsova. After Bazaars proclamation, both characters become aware
that Bazarov is not the nihilist that was once believed. Bazarov leaves immediately and their relationship is never the
same again. Bazaars fails as a nihilist and forever feels ashamed and uneasy when around Odintsova. The conflict
between Bazarov and Odintsova totally cripples Bazarov. His principles and his beliefs are completely shattered due
to his love for Odintsova. Bazarov is defeated all the same. !
Nihilism also creates conflict between the characters of Bazarov and his good friend Arkady Nikolaevich Kirsanov.
Arkady is a great admirer and follower of Bazarov, who at one time, also proclaimed that he is a nihilist (However,
Odintsova has cleverly concluded that Arkady is in no way a Nihilist). Conflict takes place between these two
during the famous haystack scene which takes place after Bazaars failed proclamation of love to Odintsova. As
Bazarov is retrieving back to his nihilistic roots, he criticizes and attacks Arcades character and his romantic
tendencies which are similar to Pavel Petrovichs. Look, said Arkady suddenly, a dry maple leafs broken off
and is falling toward the earth; its movements are like those of a butterfly in flight. Isnt it strange? Whats saddest
and dead resemb!
les whats most joyous and alive. Oh, Arkady Nikolaich, my friend! Bazarov cried. One think I ask of you: no
fine talk…….I see you really do intend to follow in your uncles footsteps. That idiot would be so pleased to hear
you! Enough, please, Evgeny; we might end up really quarreling Oh, Arkady! Do me a favor, lets have a real
quarrel once and for all-to the bitter end, to the death.10 An inevitable quarrel is stopped by Bazaars father. These
two characters end up arguing due to Bazaars principles (which at one time were so strong and solid) which he has
lost and is searching to find.
Turgenev uses nihilism as the groundwork of characters and as a foundation for conflicts among characters in
Fathers and Sons. Bazarov completely shifts from nihilism to romanticism. Bazarov begins as an absolute nihilist,
investigating everything from a scientific viewpoint. Odintsova challenges this attitude, bringing out Bazaars
emotions, and helps Bazarov realize that he is not a nihilist. The use of nihilism causes conflict between Bazarov
and Pavel, Arkady, and ultimately Odintsova. Turgenevs use of nihilism is a central theme in his novel Fathers and

1 Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862; W.W. Norton and Co., 1996) p. 95
2 Turgenev p. 21
3 Turgenev p. 26
4 Turgenev p. 32
5 Turgenev p. 60
6 Turgenev p. 80
7 Turgenev p. 80
8 Turgenev p. 57
9 Turgenev p. 116
10 Turgenev p. 101