The final image of the novel, of the old lady in rags and dying on a hard floor with a sack under her head as she fights to stay alive despite a lifetime of misery gives the novel a greater perspective than just a young man sadly in love with a woman he won’t have. The novel speaks to a greater need for people to live, at all costs and at any price, no matter the amount of pain it inflicts.
I have to admit to not feeling as close to Vladimir as I would have liked. Not because I didn’t share any of his experiences – what young man hasn’t – but there was a strange formality in him that seemed at odds with his age. I understand he was well bred and that his manners contrast beautifully with the situation of his love, but even when he was most mad, in the garden at midnight, I never really felt like I was with him. Had this been a slightly more modern novel – say written in the 1910’s or 20’s – there might have been a needed sexual undercurrent that is sorely missing here. I can’t blame Turgenev since we have to consider when the novel was written, but still it’s an element of human nature that is important.
Zinaida, however, though we never get the novel from her point of view, I felt much closer to. Her character is the real strength of the novel because we learn so much about her through her actions and the actions of everyone around her. She is a flirt, she is manipulative, she is poor (having once been wealthy), but she is not a bad person. In fact I felt more empathy to her than I did towards Tolstoy’s Anna – they were similar women, but Zinaida felt more … within reach. She wanted to be in love, not just be loved. And who doesn’t want that? All her suitors were dolts, except for the one man who did have her.
I liked the image of his father’s horse, the near wild Electric. This mirrored the father quite poetically and gave substance to his feelings in a way we could understand.
All-in-all this is a very sad novel, but it does speak to how we struggle in life to live and how imperfect we are. Yes we may know the right things to do, but passion is almost always stronger than logic.