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Fear of the Untaken Path: An insight of Anna and her nihilistic tendencies
Nihilism is the pure logic and harsh realism in which humans are scared to accept and afraid to let loose. To realize that there is no purpose in life is not a concrete idea; it allows for fear of the universe and the lives that are shaped and dependant on it. Anna Sergeyevna Odintsova in Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons represents the general human population that is uncomfortable with taking a step towards the harsh truth and logic that is labelled as nihilism. As the reader gains more insight of her character, it is perceived that she surrounds herself with responsibilities so as to divert herself from nihilism. Anna also attempts to love Yevgeny Vasilyev Bazarov and yet she finds she is merely intrigued by him because he has taken the path of nihilism that Anna sorely wishes she had engaged in.
Duty confines the future of people and it is no different for Anna. Her father was a gambler who had lost everything, forcing Anna to return from her education and take care of Nikolskye. She feels constrained by the obligations that she is held responsible for. Anna yearns to continue her scholarly interests and yet she knows that she should not; her family, land and title depend on her maintenance of Nikolskye. Her future seems blank and devoid of a purpose: “I am unhappy because…because I have no desire, no urge to live” (p. 95). Anna’s life has been preparation for thorough education and when that is destroyed she has “no urge to live”. This reasoning of hers could also be interpreted as an excuse. Anna weighs herself down with familial duties in order to forget the future that she intended to have and forces herself to be “dressed in lace, sitting in her velvet chair” (p. 95). Although she hates the burden she is forced to carry, it distracts her from the daunting prospect of nihilism. She even blames and criticizes Bazarov’s future:
‘I don’t need to tell you – you know it yourself – you’re no ordinary man; you’re still young – you have your whole life in front of you. What are you preparing for? What future awaits you? I mean to say – what goal do you want to reach, where are you going, what are your innermost feelings? In a word, who are you, what are you?’
This in itself reflects on Anna’s own doubt of character; she herself has no idea of what the future contains for her and has no desire to pursue it. She uses a strong psychological defence mechanism to assure herself that she is not in disarray. By blaming Bazarov and asking “who are you,” her own faults and lack of a distinct plan are revealed. Her thoughts and true feelings are projected through harsh criticism of other lives through her demand of “who”, “what” and “where” they intend to take their life. She originally wanted to pursue education and nihilism, but over time she felt secure within the boundaries she was placed in and never dared to venture out.
Having travelled from a place of chaos and disarray, both Arkady and Bazarov proceed to enter Anna’s world of order and stability. Nikolskye, Anna’s estate, is majestic with “a green roof, white columns and a pediment with a coat of arms,” (p. 178) and seems to be taken care of with great detail and precision. The imagery of the estate offers a sense of cosiness and comforting ancestral power. However, Anna tends to the estate with rigid formality instead of the tenderness and fondness that is expected. As her guests continue their stay they notice the schedule that Anna seems to tirelessly rely on. Bazarov seems to take in and interpret this unbroken routine the most:
‘You’ve organized your life with such faultless regularity that there can be no room in it for boredom or distress…for any painful feeling.’
Although Bazarov is a supporter in the principle of logic, he does not care for the almost obsessive attachment of “faultless regularity”. He finds it ridiculous that Anna should attend to these minute details, believing that she is conducting her estate as if it “were going along on rails” (p. 88). The way Anna controls her estate symbolizes a grander and much more important feature: distraction. She is wholesomely preoccupied with holding all the facets in her life together so “that there can be no room in it for boredom or distress…or any painful feeling”. Nihilism is often perceived as an ideology giving a disorderly and extremely open frame of mind. This philosophy is what frightens Anna; she is afraid of the messy feeling that she acquires and attempts to alleviate the sense by confining herself to an unyielding programme.
A major theme in Fathers and Sons is the love between Bazarov and Anna - or rather the lack of it. Bazarov’s behaviour towards Anna is filled with desire and love and he senses a hole in his consistent views on nihilism. He wishes to be close to his love; conversely, Anna tries to do so but ultimately fails. To escape from the grasp of nihilism she attempts to willingly love Bazarov, yet every time she appears to proclaim her love she falters and manages to slip away from him:
He quickly turned round, devoured her with his eyes and, grabbing both her arms, pulled her into his breast. She didn’t escape from his arms at once; but a moment later she was already standing far from him in a corner, and from there she looked at him. He rushed towards her… ‘You haven’t understood me,’ she whispered hurriedly in fright.
The imagery used by Turgenev is impeccable as it offers proportion between Anna’s thoughts and actions. Every time she considers loving Bazarov her thoughts deflect to the impossibility of romance. She is a stately and powerful woman with no desire for unnecessary attachments and the moment love approaches her she “[stands] far from him in a corner”. Anna physically moves from Bazarov’s love as she cannot stand to be in such an emotional and dramatic situation. This shows that Anna truly is a nihilist and yet shies away from it as much as possible. Another imagery that offers sudden and rapid movements is at Bazarov’s deathbed. When Bazarov proclaims his love, “Let me say rather – how wonderful you are! And now you’re standing here, so beautiful…” Anna “[shivers] involuntarily” (p. 191). The horror of succumbing to love is big enough for physical action. Another interesting aspect is the point of view that the reader is engaged in. Anna’s actions are seen from Bazarov’s standpoint and the horror she feels is properly shown. She is not able to absorb feelings of passion and love and it causes her to “shiver” to imagine anything other than logic.
Bazarov intrigues Anna since he portrays the future that Anna could have chosen: nihilism. He pulls Anna in not with his love for her, but with his intelligence and logic. It is this that leads Bazarov to believe that they are passionately in love. However, Anna only invites Bazarov and Arkady because she is “very curious to see a man who is bold enough to believe in nothing” (p. 72). Bazarov talks of everything and seems to have unlimited knowledge, but it is also his attitude towards life that draws her in. He is almost uncaring in his composure and believes in the destruction of all in order to rebuild a utopian society. Anna is helpless in holding back from the magnet of nihilism that connects them both. She does not love him although she tries, yet she cannot disconnect herself from his nihilistic views.
Anna has inherited a fear of the untaken path of nihilism and uses her entire willpower to set herself apart from it. Through her ancestral and household duties she finds an excuse to shield her from nihilism. By submerging herself in a pool of rules she distracts herself from the terror of a destruction and complete cultural reconstruction. However, she does not succeed in completely disassociating from nihilism; Bazarov remains to be an addiction. Anna placates herself with the belief that she loves Bazarov, yet she is simply intrigued by the ideology that has consumed his life. It is a projection of what she could have been had she pursued nihilism. Turgenev offers a final miserable prophecy within Fathers and Sons: if the common populace continue to deny their true thoughts and beliefs, a society based upon lies and denial will inevitably take place in this world.