IVAN SERGYEVITCH (TURGENEV) has given us a most complete picture of Russian society. The same general types are always brought forward; and, as later writers have presented exactly similar ones, with but few modifications, we are forced to believe them true to life. First, the peasant; meek, resigned, dull, pathetic in suffering, like a child who does not know why he suffers; naturally sharp and tricky when not stupefied by liquor; occasionally roused to violent passion. Then, the intelligent middle class; the small landed proprietors of two generations. The old proprietor is ignorant and good-natured, of respectable family, but with coarse habits; hard, from long experience of serfdom, servile himself, but admirable in all other relations of life.
The young man of this class is of quite a different type. His intellectual growth having been too rapid, he sometimes plunges into Nihilism. He is often well educated, melancholy, rich in ideas but poor in executive ability; always preparing and expecting to accomplish something of importance, filled with vague and generous projects for the public good. This is the chosen type of hero in all Russian novels. Gogol introduced it, and Tolstoy prefers it above all others.
The favorite hero of young girls and romantic women is neither the brilliant officer, the artist, nor rich lord, but almost universally this provincial Hamlet, conscientious, cultivated, intelligent, but of feeble will, who, returning from his studies in foreign lands, is full of scientific theories about the improvement of mankind and the good of the lower classes, and eager to apply these theories on his own estate. It is quite necessary that he should have an estate of his own. He will have the hearty sympathy of the reader in his efforts to improve the condition of his dependents.
In regard to the women of this class, Turgenev, strange to say, has little to say of the mothers. This probably reveals the existence of some old wound, some bitter experience of his own. Without a single exception, all the mothers in his novels are either wicked or grotesque. He reserves the treasures of his poetic fancy for the young girls of his creation. To him the young girl of the country province is the corner-stone of the fabric of society. Reared in the freedom of country life, placed in the most healthy social conditions, she is conscientious, frank, affectionate, without being romantic; less intelligent than man, but more resolute. In each of his romances an irresolute man is invariably guided by a woman of strong will.
Such are, generally speaking, the characters the author describes, which bear so unmistakably the stamp of nature that one cannot refrain from saying as he closes the book, These must be portraits from life! which criticism is always the highest praise, the best sanction of works of the imagination.From Turgenev, in The Russian Novelists, translated by J. L. Edmands (1887).