The protagonist, Evgeny Vasil’evich Bazarov, is a medical student who considers himself a nihilist. He challenges the traditions and conventions of society and goes so far as to challenge liberal ideas. He pushes everything away from him if it goes against his nihilist beliefs; ridicules and criticises others for believing in ideas that are soft. He also has a friend, Arkady Nikolaevich Kirsanov, Bazarov’s best friend actually.
Arkady isn’t the same kind of nihilist like his friend though. He may subscribe to the concept as something that he felt would help him to find himself and make sense of the world around him. He does that in the beginning but later dissociates himself from his best friend’s beliefs. That is because he finds himself in what he had always appreciated, somewhat proving that he really is his father’s son because his ideas are derived from his father’s and are only different to the extent that he incorporates other beliefs and life lessons that he learnt.
The older generation cannot come to terms with the whole concept of nihilism. They deal with this situation in many different ways. This is where the generation gap comes in. Arkady’s father, Nikolai Petrovich, is a landlord and owns an estate in the country, cannot understand his son’s new ideas despite trying very hard. While Arkady’s uncle, Pavel Petrovich, is a complete opposite of his brother and probably the only character in the novel that is the most alike Bazarov, yet despises his nephew’s friend on ‘ideological’ differences.
On the other hand, Bazarov’s parents – simple, God-fearing Russians who are deeply entrenched in the Russian Orthodox tradition – cannot understand their son either. Their situation, however, evokes pity because their son is pushing them away just because he cannot handle the excessive emotion that his parents feel and display when they see their only son after about three years. And the reason why he cannot handle the overflow of emotion is that it is against his beliefs. There are a number of scenes in the novel where Bazarov’s mother is shown to be behaving more timidly in front of her son than she does in front of her husband. Her love for her son outdoes her timidity.
Neither can he bear this overflow when it is directed at him from the outside and nor can he bear it when it occurs within him. The latter happens when he encounters love for the first time. It is not just an infatuation; it’s a burning passion raging within him. But he is forced to ignore it, to kill it within him but can’t because the passion is so strong. The beginning of this passion, the very point where the reader begins to sense the change occurring within him, marks the moment where Bazarov’s end begins.
Turgenev’s treatment of female characters in Fathers and Children is rather varied. In the novel, both the traditional women from the Russian countryside, like Arina Vlas’sevna Bazarova, lived alongside (almost) to intelligent, educated and independent women like Anna Sergeevna Odintsova. However, one cannot really be sure how realistic Turgenev’s obviously fictional account of the 19th century Russian provincial society is.
Odintsova is a highly educated, articulate, intelligent woman who runs her entire estate independently. Of course, in a traditional society like the one she lives in, her existence is kind of an anomaly. It makes sense when the reader becomes aware of her loneliness and acute lack of intellectually stimulating company, both of which seem to go hand in hand. She finds the kind of company she requires in Bazarov; while he also experiences the same in meeting her. She is a highly relatable female character except when one discovers that she runs her estate with unprecedented military discipline. The meal and tea times are so strictly enforced that one may think that her estate operates like a strict boarding school with a fearful disciplinarian heading it. Display the slightest sign of tardiness and you would have hell to pay.
Odintsova’s sister, Katya, is a different kind of independent. Despite whatever she has learnt about the latest scientific and political beliefs and what she learnt from Bazarov, she continues to stick to her personal beliefs. In fact, she helps Arkady find himself and realise where his true feelings and loyalties lie, which is to the liberal beliefs of his family and Katya.
Then there is Arina Vlas’sevna, Bazarov’s mother. She is a conventional female character: meek, submissive, fears to directly speak to her son about whatever’s bothering her because she finds him so intimidating. Bazarov loves his mother, which is evident in his interactions with her but at the same time, regards her with disdain. Because his parents are not his intellectual equals in any way, Bazarov finds it tedious to stay with them too long, interact with them and even tell them how he feels because he is convinced that his doting parents cannot and will never be able to understand what he feels.
Understanding Fathers and Children fully is difficult because of its complexity. It is as if our knowledge of the book shall remain forever incomplete. The character of Bazarov and his relationships with other characters forms the conflict in the novel, as well as provides the crux of the novel’s central theme(s). No wonder Bazarov’s character has been so widely written about by critics and Turgenev’s contemporaries. At several points in his life, Turgenev himself had to defend Bazarov even though he wasn’t exactly sure how he felt about his protagonist*.
*From Turgenev’s letters - pp. 165-89, The Author on the Novel, Turgenev, Ivan, Fathers and Children, (W. W. Norton, New York, 2009)