‘So here you are, you’ve returned to Russia – what precisely do you intend to do?’
‘To plow the land,’ answered Lavretsky, ‘and to strive to plough it as well as possible.’ -From Home of the Gentry, page 136-
Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) was born into a landed and wealthy Russian family. He was a shy and soft spoken man, and never married. He wrote Home of the Gentry in 1859 to great acclaim – it is his most widely read novel.
The novel opens in the small Russian town of O- and introduces the reader to Marya Dmitrievna Kalitin – a widow who is raising her daughters alone. Marya Dmitrievna is ‘more emotional than kind-hearted‘ and is a woman of wealth and comfort. Her elderly aunt, Marfa Timofeyevna Pestov, also resides in the house and is a striking contrast to Marya Dmitrievna. In the first pages, the reader learns that a distant relative by the name of Lavretsky has returned to Russia after having spent several years abroad with his beautiful, yet unfaithful wife. The marriage has gone by the wayside and Lavretsky has vowed to return to the land and ‘plough it as well as possible.‘ Not long after his return, Lavretsky’s head is turned by Marya Dmitrievna’s eldest daughter Liza. As the novel unfolds, the reader witnesses the expected plunge into love, and then the tragic unraveling of Lavretsky’s happiness.
Home of the Gentry is full of numerous secondary characters with long names – something I have come to expect when reading the classic Russian novelists. Turgenev reveals the depths of his characters’ motivations, drawing detailed sketches of their thoughts, backgrounds and philosophical musings.
On one level, the book deals with the idea of a young generation of Russians who have become enamored with European ideas which leave them uprooted from Russia. But, on a more intimate level, it examines the idea of happiness and whether or not man (or woman) is destined to ever find contentment. Turgenev’s philosophy seems to be one of cynicism when it comes to marriage – his characters are either faithless or motivated to marry for financial gain. The novel puts forth the belief in God within a religious framework ruled by rigid adherence to moral pathways…and this belief ultimately enslaves rather than frees an individual. Poignant, bleak and sad, the novel is not an uplifting story.
It is always difficult for me to rate these kinds of intellectual classics as I believe there is much I miss in terms of interpretation. Students of Russian history and literature undoubtedly will gain more from this novel than those of us with limited knowledge in those areas. The novel is short but dense. Much of the style is reflective of the time in which it was written. Although I am happy I read this classic, it is not one I could recommend to most readers. But, if you love Russian literature and want to experience a uniquely Russian novel, this is probably one you should add to your list.