Turgenev certainly liked to shoot birds, but they are also regular visitors in his work. I thought it would be fun to look up all the birds that feature in his most famous novel Fathers and Sons, and see if there is a bird-leitmotif in there. I found plenty of birds and, no need to worry, he’s not shooting any of them. The final page of Fathers and Sons provides the ultimate confirmation of the important role that he assigned to the birds:
“There is a small village graveyard in one of the remote corners of Russia. Like almost all our graveyards, it presents a wretched appearance; the ditches surrounding it have long been overgrown; the grey wooden crosses lie fallen and rotting under their once painted gables; the stone slabs are all displaced, as though some one were pushing them up from behind; two or three bare trees give a scanty shade; the sheep wander unchecked among the tombs…. But among them is one untouched by man, untrampled by beast, only the birds perch upon it and sing at daybreak. An iron railing runs round it; two young fir-trees have been planted, one at each end. Yevgeny Bazarov is buried in this tomb.”
Only birds are allowed to sit on the grave of one of the greatest heroes of Russian literature…
A Short Summary of Fathers and Sons
The protagonist Bazarov is a nihilist, he believes in nothing but science. His friend Arkady is a bit younger and looks up to him. Together they visit first Arkady’s father and later Bazarov’s parents. The parents adore their sons and are extremely happy to have them visit, but the sons are easily bored and don’t stay long. In the course of the summer the friends drift apart; Arkady gives up his nihilist ideals and gets engaged. Bazarov returns to his parents and helps his father, who is a doctor, with his practise. One day in town he assists in dissecting a peasant who has died of typhus and accidentally cuts himself, gets infected and dies soon after.
Now let’s attempt to analyse the wide variety of birds can be found in this short novel. The symbolic meanings of birds varies widely on both time and region, so I tried to use only the most common meanings and characteristics, that I could find.
“A plump young chicken in motley plumage strutted self-importantly along them, tapping away firmly with its large yellow claws.”
– This is the scene as father Nikolai waits impatiently for son Arkady. A chicken symbolises a need for shelter and protection. Father is anxious for his son to get home, so that he can keep an eye on him again, even though his son is already big. Bazarov calls Arkady a chicken a couple of times later on.
“A large grey dove flew down on to the road and hurriedly set about drinking from a puddle beside the well. Nikolai Petrovich started watching it and then his ear caught the sound of approaching wheels.”
– Same scene, Nikolai is still waiting. The dove is of course a symbol of peace, and more significantly, in biblical terms: a messenger of peace and deliverance. Indeed, Nikolai’s mind can rest at ease, no sooner has he seen the bird, or his son arrives. Ancient Slav beliefs say that the soul of the dead goes into the dove, so the dove could also be Arkady’s mother, who has died a long time ago, especially since Nikolai was just thinking of her.
3/4 Skylarks and Rooks
“Everywhere skylarks poured out their song in unending, resonant streams. Lapwings cried as they circled above the low-lying meadows or ran about silently among the tufts of grass. Rooks wandered about, darkening beautifully among the soft green of the low spring wheat and disappearing in the rye, which was already beginning to whiten, their heads showing here and there among its smoky waves.”
– This is the scene that greets Arkady and Bazarov as they drive to Nikolai’s house. The skylark, lapwing and rook are all three strongly associated with spring in Russia, optimistic, cheerful spring. The skylark also symbolises the divine, flying up to heaven singing. There are several sayings in rural Russia concerning the rook, and most of them are about farming. Nikolai has recently turned his estate into a ‘farm’, a company with paid employees. It is not doing very well yet.
“‘You’ve got a bit of marshland there, by a grove of aspens. That’s where I started up half-a-dozen snipe. You can go and kill them, Arkady.’ ‘You’re not a hunter yourself?’ ‘No.’”
– Bazarov has gone for an early morning walk and tells his friend Arkady at breakfast about the snipes he saw. He uses the word ‘killing’, clearly he does not agree with his friend’s hobby. Snipes are notoriously difficult birds to hunt, due to their erratic flight pattern.
6 Long-tailed Siskin
“From the ceiling, on a long cord, there hung a cage containing a short-tailed siskin; it ceaselessly chirruped and jumped about and the cage ceaselessly rocked and shook and hemp seeds pattered down on to the floor.”
– This cage hangs in Fenitchka’s room. She is Nikolai’s unofficial wife; Nikolai is a widower, but he now has a child with the young Fenitchka, the daughter of his former housekeeper. Later he marries her, but at this point he is still embarrassed about the relationship. The siskin is a typical Russian bird, and Fenitchka is a typical Russian girl, with all the qualities generally associated with that.
“Dunyasha would gladly giggle at him and give him sidelong, significant looks as she ran past him all aflutter like a little quail.”
– Dunyasha is a servant girl in Nikolai’s house and she has taken a liking to grumpy Bazarov. She tries to attract his attention. In Russia the quail symbolises a young woman.
“Swallows flew high above; the wind had quite died;”
– Actually you can already tell by that short sentence that it is a warm summer evening. Nikolai is outside thinking about his love for nature and poetry and the generation gap between him and his son, who thinks poetry is nonsense. The swallow stands for freedom. Nikolai worries too much about what others think, and thinks himself old, but he is only in his forties, and independent, free to marry Fenitchka. Several swallows flying above you is a good omen, Nikolai shall be happy.
“And now I hope, Arina Vlasevna, having sated your mother’s heart to the full, you’ll think about sating our dear guests because, as you know, even nightingales can’t live on songs alone.’”
– Long lost son Bazarov has returned home to his delighted and adoring parents, together with his friend Arkady. Father tells mother to stop crying over his return and arrange dinner instead, because literally it says “it won’t do to feed nightingales fables”, thus Bazarov and Arkady are nightingales. Nightingales are generally considered poetic birds, valued for their beautiful and varied song. I should think here that father means quite literally that his wife should stop crying and feed those clever nightingales. Nightingales are always considered a good omen.
10 Telling a bird from its flight
“‘Have it your way, please,’ responded Vasily Ivanovich with a friendly grimace. ‘I may be put on the shelf now, but I’ve also been about the world a bit and I can tell what a bird is from its flight.”
– Bazarovs father thinks that Arkady is a spoiled youth, accustomed to luxury, Arkady denies that, but clearly the father doesn’t believe him. What he probably thinks is that Arkady could never be a real nihilist like his son Bazarov, because he comes from an aristocratic family. This is the second time that Vasili uses an expression with a bird.
11 Fledgling Hawk
“Somewhere high above in the tips of the trees the unceasing screech of a fledgling hawk rang out plaintively.”
– Bazarov and Arkady are lying in a haystack, talking and in the background you can hear a hawk and also cocks crying at each other. Their talk ends in a quarrel. An aggressive person can be referred to as a hawk, and cocks are also known for their aggression. This is one of the first signs of the friends drifting apart.
“‘There’s nothing for it, Vasya! Our son’s cut off from us. He’s a falcon, like a falcon he wanted to come and he flew here, then he wanted away and he flew away. But you and I, we’re just a couple of old mushrooms, we are, stuck in the hollow of a tree, sitting side by side and never moving. Except that I’ll always remain the same for you for ever and ever, just as you will for me.’ Vasily Ivanovich took his hands away from his face and suddenly embraced his wife, his true friend, more tightly even than he’d been used to embrace her in his youth, for she had comforted him in his misery.”
– A typical and brilliant Turgenev piece of writing; in a way it summarises the whole book, capturing the difference between the generations. In Russian fairytales the falcon stands for a young man: fearless, courageous and fast. It also symbolises the boundless energy of the youth, often bordering on madness. So it is up to the young to conquer the world, and Arina and Vasily are doing the right thing by leaving their little falcon (I have noticed that Turgenev sometimes uses ‘falcon’ as a term of endearment) free. Here it’s Bazarov’s mother who uses and expression with a bird in it.
“He held in his hand a half-opened book while she picked out of a basket some last crumbs of white bread and threw them to a small family of sparrows which, with their characteristic cowardly impudence, jumped about twittering at her feet.”
– Arkady is sitting in the garden with Katya, about to declare his love for her. She is feeding sparrows, widely associated with marriage in Russian folk tradition. This scene clearly suggests she is ready to get married.
“‘I suppose,’ he began again in a more excited voice, just as a chaffinch in the birch foliage above him launched casually into song, ‘I suppose it’s the duty of any honest man to be entirely candid with those … with those who … with people close to him, I mean … and so I, er, intend …’”
– The next day Arkady wants to propose to Katya, and chaffinch ‘casually’ starts to sing. The male bird (casually!) sings to attract a mate, but Arkady is feeling anything but casual. Chaffinches are monogamous birds and thus Katya and Arkady can expect a happy and harmonious relationship.
“‘Goodbye, old mate!’ he said to Arkady when he’d already climbed into the cart and, pointing to a pair of jackdaws sitting side by side on the stable roof, added ‘There’s a lesson for you! Learn from them!’ ‘What’s that mean?’ asked Arkady. ‘What? You can’t be all that poor at natural history! Or have you forgotten that the jackdaw is the most respectable family bird? Let them be your example! Farewell, signor!’”
– Here Bazarov even explains the superstitious meaning to us; jackdaws are indeed mates for life and in some cultures a pair sitting on a roof predicts a new arrival. Jackdaws looking at a traveller (Bazarov is already in the carriage!) is, however, a very bad omen indeed…
16 A wee grouse hen
“Arina Vlasevna was so flustered and ran about the house so much that Vasily Ivanovich compared her to ‘a wee grouse-hen’ and the docked tail of her short blouse actually did give her rather a bird-like look.”
– Bazarov has returned home again and his mother is in all states. Turgenev uses the visual image of a grouse hen to bring the scene to life. We can certainly imagine her running about like a wee grouse hen.
17 A Crowing Cock
“Everyone had long faces and a strange quiet descended. A noisily crowing cock was removed from the yard and carted off to the village, quite unable to understand why it was being treated in this way.”
– When Bazarov gets ill they remove a noisy cock from the yard. Bazarov’s fighting spirit has left him too, he is going to die.
Legend has it that the original last page of Fathers and Sons was full of tear stains. Well, I certainly cant read it without crying, so it’s probably true. Read and weep, dear readers..
“Often from the little village not far off, two quite feeble old people come to visit it—a husband and wife. Supporting one another, they move to it with heavy steps; they go up to the railing, fall down, and remain on their knees, and long and bitterly they weep, and yearn and intently gaze at the dumb stone, under which their son is lying; they exchange some brief word, wipe away the dust from the stone, set straight a branch of a fir-tree, and pray again, and cannot tear themselves from this place, where they seem to be nearer to their son, to their memories of him…. Can it be that their prayers, their tears are fruitless? Can it be that love, sacred, devoted love, is not all-powerful? Oh, no! However passionate, sinning, and rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers growing over it peep serenely at us with their innocent eyes; they tell us not of eternal peace alone, of that great peace of ‘indifferent’ nature; tell us too of eternal reconciliation and of life without end.”
-Fathers and Sons by Turgenev. I read the Dutch translation by Karel van het Reve and the Constance Garnett English translation. The 17 bird quotes are from the Oxford edition.
The photo of the skylark is from Wikipedia and the painting is from V.G.Perov, “The old parents at the grave of their son”.
© Elisabeth van der Meer 2020