The Hamlets and Don-Quixotes in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons
Two years before Fathers and Sons was published, Turgenev gave a speech titled “Hamlet and Don Quixote,” in which he cross-analyzed Hamlet and Don Quixote as two antitheses of basic human tendencies. For Turgenev, Don Quixote represented the ultimate altruism and conviction. Although being a fool of naivety, Don Quixote has faith for life, and he tries to achieve it through self-sacrifices and “undeviating worship” (94). He is an enthusiast and thrives with delights when devoting himself to his ideas (95). Hamlet, on the other hand, represents the ultimate egoism and skepticism. He doubts everything – “pitilessly includes his own self in those doubts,” and his self-awareness tortures him and makes it impossible for him to love, as well as to be loved (96-97). Also, despite his intelligence, Hamlet dies as fate’s fool without any real action (98). Turgenev took a clear stand against the Hamlets but at the same time acknowledged that the Don Quixotes execute passions blindly to the point of ridicule instead of merit (104). Turgenev concluded with a dualistic viewpoint and suggested balancing the elements of analysis and emotion in a person rather than taking the extremities.
This pro-conservative viewing of life as a compromise between thoughts and feelings is further developed in Fathers and Sons. Turgenev created Bazarov as his Russian Hamlet and bestowed many of Don Quixote’s qualities on Pavel Kirsanov. With the unfulfillment of both prototypes, Turgenev rewarded a satisfactory ending to Arkady and Nikolai, who by voluntary dismissing the above extremities, choose their mediocre stands on the human tendency spectrum and carry out life and its tedious responsibility.
It is interesting to note that Bazarov is addressed primarily by his last name in the novel as contrary to all the other major characters, associating the name with an almost symbolistic formality as if he is the focus of study – Bazarovian, echoing with Hamletian as the study of Hamlet. Bazarov shared with Hamlet the skepticism and egoistic behaviors, the nihilistic denial against the established order and higher powers, the refusal of genuine emotions such as love, and the ironic reflection on self-imposed death. Of course, considerable differences still exist between the two characters as they differ in social backgrounds: Hamlet is a 1600s royal aristocrat who learns the truth of his father’s death from a spirit. While Bazarov, being a part of the rising lower-rank intelligentsia in Russia, takes a materialist view and regards science as the only truth.
Neither Bazarov nor Hamlet has a firm belief in anything established, be it social order, convention, or God. Being unsatisfied with their current situation, they hover at the margin and brew up thoughts of revolt. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it [Denmark] is a prison.” Hamlet claimed in the second act of the play (Shakespeare 120). Such a denial of fundamentality, as Schlegel pointed out, rejects not only the presence of human sins and God but also any action, for action requires illusions (405). Bazarov also rejected everything of the present, as he proclaimed: “We act by virtue of what we recognise as beneficial […] At the present time, negation is the most beneficial of all—and we deny […] Everything!” (Fathers and Sons 40). As Arkardy stated, Bazarov and the nihilists are a “force” that destroys, yet just like Hamlet having absolutely no plan for what to do after his revenge and coup d’état, Bazarov never thinks about what it will be like on the clean slate after the overturn (Fathers and Sons 43). Indeed, just as he states to Pavel, “what could induce one to talk and think about the future, which for the most part does not depend on us?” (81).
Moreover, Bazarov and Hamlet are both in their nature egoists with rigorous reasoning ability, and they both end up devoured by self-skepticism. Precisely like Hamlet who occupy all his energy with indecisive thoughts and ends up with semi-madness and suicidal conclusions, Bazarov occupies himself entirely in doubts because he is unable to determine the nature of his relationship with Odinsova, and he too descends into a desperate mentality. Starting to reject even his own belief system, Bazarov the nihilist becomes depressed and hopelessly tried to grasp an answer from anyone, even passing peasants, who apparently could not give any (146). Gary Jahn, in his analysis of the novel’s relationship patterns, pointed out Bazarov’s dilemma “from which the only exits are a harmonization of antitheses or death”. “Unable to achieve the former, possibly even unaware of the true nature of his difficulty, [Bazarov] falls willing victim to the latter” (90).
Thus eventually, deaths of both Bazarov and Hamlet befall surprisingly yet inevitably. Of the exact ironic manner – a small but fatal wound inflicted through extremely rare chance, – Bazarov and Hamlet died tragically and disturbingly but left behind nothing tangible. Hamlet was killed before he can contribute any of his knowledge to the governing of his country, and Bazarov died with all his underdeveloped ideas and unsolved problems. “I’d break down so many things, I wouldn’t die, why should I!” thought Bazarov unreconcilably on his deathbed, “And now all the problem for the giant is how to die decently, though that makes no difference to anyone either.…” (Fathers and Sons 154). Both Hamlet and Bazarov ended up being nothing but fools manipulated by fate’s “old joke” and were soon forgotten: memories of Hamlet would disappear with the newly crowned Norwegian prince, and Bazarov too soon faded into oblivion with only his eldered parents weeping at his gravestone (159).
Finally, Bazarov and Hamlet also share the refusal of basic human emotions and the backfire of such denial. Hamlet’s nihilistic tendency makes him incapable of love, and Ophelia to him is but a pawn in his game of revenge. However, upon viewing the dead Ophelia, Hamlet experienced a genuine and robust emotion which at that moment he interpreted as love. Took action without reasoning and leaped into her grave he proclaimed: “I love Ophelia – forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?” (Shakespeare 328). Hamlet did not have the time or wish to ponder upon that unexpected emotion as the play rushes towards its climax, but Bazarov did after he fell in love with Odinsova. As a materialist who regarded feelings as no more than constructible physical responses, the realization of his involuntary “romanticism” vexed and scared him (Jahn 90). It was not until his death when he accepted his emotion as part of his nature and confessed to Odinsova “I love you! […] Love is a form, and my own form is already breaking up” (Fathers and Sons 154).
Unlike the enormous resemblance between characteristics of Bazarov and Hamlet, there exhibited less similarity between Pavel and Don Quixote. Pavel is strongly egocentric compare to Don Quixote’s readiness for self-sacrifices. However, Don Quixote and Pavel are both attracted to traditional romantic virtues; they are both less educated and rely more on intuition rather than reasoning, and they both exhibit extreme stubbornness in their pursuit of self-imposed ideals.
Just as Don Quixote fixates himself on chivalry after reading immensely about it, Pavel focuses all his efforts on trying to be an English gentleman because he adores England’s democratic structure and the elegance of its aristocrats. Despite his actual discomfort and reservation when he is around English people, Pavel nonetheless sticks to his ideal living style (158). Pavel’s blind devotion corresponds to Don Quixote’s impudence when acting out his so-called chivalry, which ends up revealing a comic aspect of the character.
With their romantic and enthusiastic nature, Pavel and Don Quixote also pursuit love waywardly with great naivety. As Turgenev pointed out in his speech: “Don Quixote loves an imaginary, nonexistent Dulcinea and is ready to give his life for her… loves ideally, chastely, so ideally that he does not discover that the object of his passion does not exist.” (“Hamlet and Don Quixote” 100). With Pavel, he devotes his youth to the fruitless pursuit of a woman whom he cannot conquer, and he later becomes superfluous over his love triangle with Nikolai regarding Fedosya. Both Don Quixote and Pavel end up as beaten and languid obsoletes. Having given up all passion and pursuit, they fade into the tide of history. Indeed, relying primarily on the whims of emotion, people such as Pavel and Don Quixote soon become “dead” mentally as soon as the will power runs out (Fathers and Sons 130).
As Turgenev’s archetypes for Hamlet and Don Quixote, neither Bazarov nor Pavel received happisness and fulfillment at the end of the novel. Turgenev himself believed that true happiness in life is a “union of positive human character,” a perfect balance of thought and feeling (Jahn 89, “Hamlet and Don Quixote” 102). Thus, in the context of Fathers and Sons, it could be argued that such ideal happiness presents itself in the life of Arkardy and Nikolai Petrovitch. On the one hand, both Nikolai and Arkardy are married to the women they love who provide them with emotional richness and family love. On the other hand, they utilize their thinking in important problems such as the management of estate and emancipation reforms that unite both the “refined” and “uncultivated” gentries (Fathers and Sons 157). They possess the passion that allows them to stay constantly in action but at the same time they also have the power for critical thinking if they choose to. Because of such inner balance, they can achieve psychological wellbeing as well as societal fulfillment, at least in the imaginary realm of the novel.
However, Turgenev perfunctorily sketched over how exactly Nikolai and Arkardy accomplish such a successful living. What kinds of agricultural reforms did they install to increase productivity and save their fallen estate? How did they deal with the tension between gentries and former surfs that grew day by day? Also, let alone emancipation reform, did they even have a future proposed for their own peasants? The truth is, Nikolai and Arkardy, despite their integrated nature, are mediocre. They follow the extremists with admiration but soon discover that such lifestyles – to dive deep into an aspect or execute it out with utmost devotion – is too much a burden to the mind and body. They quit being at the forefront and feel satisfied as the ordinary. They would have no intention for social progressions because they are busily occupied with their individual living and are perfectly happy about it. Unfortunately, in Turgenev’s Russia with the growth of social tension, the apparent tranquility of aristocratic family life is merely a mirror image that would inevitably shatter from turmoil underneath. When an old society finally falls apart, there are no happiness reserves for all individuals no matter where one stands on the human spectrum.
Turgenev himself realized the unavoidable collision between the two ends of the social gap, and he did not try to stop it. In fact, Turgenev did not force on his personal opinions to praise or condemn any character, as other social writers, like Dickens, often did. Fathers and Sons enables open interpretation from extreme revolutionist to devote conservatives alike. All sides of Critics saw a bit of Bazarovian elements in themselves – just as Hamlet attracting viewers with opposite opinions and appealing to something inside them. An intense discussion was raised “on who the nihilists were and what they should become” (Pozefsky 571). And with the growth of overall revolution spirits, young Russians after 1862 were “almost all out of What is to be Done, with the addition of a few of Bazarov’s traits” (Brumfield 495). Fathers and sons, with its accurate observation on human nature, brought up much more political attention than that of its personal and interpersonal aspects, which arguably, is more of Turgenev’s focus of this novel.
In conclusion, Fathers and Sons is conceivably a continuation of the discussion on Hamlet and Don Quixote as two ends on the spectrum of human nature. Bazarov and Pavel, as two culturally-modified archetypes, significantly reflect social mentality and appeal to every active thinker of the time. The discussion surrounding the novel laid the ideological foundation for the extremists and radicals, whom with both Bazarovian thinking and Don Quixote’s never-compromising devotion, executed a serious of historical events that followed.
 Thanks to the convenience of kindle format, it could be clearly identified that the surname Bazarov appeared five-hundred times in the text while his first name and patronymic Yevgeny Vassilyitch appeared only thirty-four times. Interestingly, Anna Sergevna Odintsova, the main female protagonist, has her last name addressed a-hundred-and-one times, a close match with the number of appearances of her first name and patronymic: a -hundred-and-twenty times.
Brumfield, William. “Bazarov and Rjazanov: The Romantic Archetypes in Russian Nihilism.” The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1977, pp. 495-505.
Jahn, Gary. “Character and Theme in ‘Fathers and Sons’.” College Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1997, pp. 80-91.
Pozefsky, Peter. “Smoke as ‘Strange and Sinister Commentary on Fathers and Sons’: Dostoevskii, Pisarev and Turgenev on Nihilists and Their Representations.” The Russian Review, Vol.54, No.4, 1995, pp. 571-586.
Schlegel, August Wilhelm von. Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, Translated by John Black. George & Sons, 1894, 405-406.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by Abigail Rokison-Woodail. Arden Performance Editions (kindle format), 2017.
– Fathers and Sons. Translated by Constance Garnett. digiREADS, 2017, kindle format.
— “Hamlet and Don Quixote”. Translated by Moshe Spiegel. Chicago Review, Vo.17, No.4, 1965, 92-109.
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