Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Not Only a Watch

I'm interested in the few moments where Turgenev flashes back into long accounts of a character's background (or, at the end, forward into their futures). The first instance of this occurs right at the start of the book, with a present-tense introduction of Nikolai which soon darts into the past. We hear about his father and his birth, and then about his mother, who "belonged to a group of 'lady commandants;' she wore splendid caps and silk dresses that rustled"(4). Turgenev gives us the same kind of life-story of Pavel, who, in his youth "rarely spent an evening at home...(he was making gymnastics fashionable among young people in society) and had read a total of some five or six books in French"(22). And for Odintsova, whose aunt "growled and grumbled from morning to night, and wouldn't even go out for walks in the garden unless accompanied by her one servant, a gloomy footman in worn, pea-green livery with light blue braid, and a three cornered hat"(59).

Notice that, between broader reports of life events, Turgenev almost comically injects strangely specific details: the dresses that rustled, the five (or six) books in French, the three cornered hat. These details seem to inhabit--and perhaps mock--these characters' views of themselves: we can imagine Pavel being very proud of his five or six French books, and we instantly understand that rustle signify a kind of material authority (I wonder, too, if Turgenev is entering Nikolai's childhood viewpoint here, too).

These asides offer us basic information about these characters--quickly, too, which is important in such a short novel (strange, because it doesn't feel short at all). Importantly, they are not mainly about the "fathers and sons" who have leading roles in the boo; they are about side characters. They fill in the book's general title--it is not only about the central fathers and children: every character, Turgenev reminds us, is someone's child and, abstractly if not literally, will go on to influence the next generation. Just as the vivid details Turgenev injects into their lives will go on to affect our perceptions of them. Who, at book's end, can forget about even the serf Peter, whose wife "turned down offers from two fine suitors because neither of them owned a watch, whereas Peter owned not only a watch but also a pair of patent leather boots"(155). How those boots must matter to his wife! A final detail like that cuts through the book's array of ideologies and parallel conflicts to give the novel a freedom that, like Bazarov's grave, is more enduringly ambiguous.


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  2. Oooh, this is a good post. I especially like the last sentence. It's such a nice sentence. (I love cleanly-written essay endings, probably because I'm not very good at them myself.)

    You cut to the quick in describing what it is that makes this book great--that is, its attention to detail. This is all the more admirable with the book's juxtaposition of these details with such top-heavy and vaguely ponderous ideals as nihilism and modernity. It would have been scarily easy for the book to sink into a black mire of purple prose and self-indulgent musings, but if that did happen, the book would lose the majority of what makes it so compelling.

    I do have one question, though. You say that the asides are mainly centered on the "side characters" of the story. Why do you think that is? I mean, if details provide backstory to characters as secondary as the serf Peter, wouldn't they work just as well in giving main characters like Bazarov much-needed depth? Or do you feel like the time spent talking about the main characters is already sufficient?

  3. I had a similar thought to Rebekah's: As I recall, Turgenev only gives these kind of descriptions about characters of the older generation. Is it that we lack the historical context for the older generation? Or is it that the young characters are more oriented towards the future, whereas these descriptive passages root characters like Nikolai and Pavel in the past?

  4. I also thought this was a great post. It reminds me of our discussion in class about the book being more of a portrait of the 19th century than a portrait of particular characters.

  5. As for the side characters question: it might be that Turgenev is, in a sense, telling us that this is all we'll get of these characters--that we won't see their lives play out in the way we see Arkady's or Bazarov's. It's their moment in the sun.