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Monday, January 22, 2018

The Essential Influence Of Fathers–Lessons From Turgenev, Lawrence, Miller, And O’Neill

Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (alternatively translated ‘Fathers and Children’) is less about the relationships between parents and their offspring, than about the evolution of a young man born into a traditional family with conservative values of paternity, filial and paternal responsibility, and expected social values from a predictable bourgeois to a proto-revolutionary. ‘The first fictional Nihilist’ as some critics described him, Bazarov has less to do with the emotional and biological determinism of most father and sons, but is still influenced by a heritage he rejects.

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But for the best expression of the bewilderment of life one must turn to the portrait of a man, to the famous Bazarov in Fathers and Sons . Turgenev raises through Bazarov the eternal problem—Has personality any hold, has life any meaning at all? The reality of this figure, his contempt for nature, his egoism, his strength, his moth-like weakness are so convincing that before his philosophy all other philosophies seem to pale. He is the one who sees the life-illusion, and yet, knowing that it is the mask of night, grasps at it, loathing himself.

One can hate Bazarov, but not have contempt for him. He is… rid of sentiment and hope, believing in nothing but himself, to whom come, as from the darkness, all the violent questions of life and death. "Fathers and Sons" is an exposure to the power to mold one’s own life. Bazarov is a man of intellect—the pawn of an emotion he despises – and a man of gigantic will—who can do nothing but destroy his own beliefs.  He is a man of intense life within which is the hopeless struggle between mind against instinct, of determination against fate, of personality against impersonality.

But though Bazarov is the most positive of all Turgenev's male portraits, there are others… Rudin, typical of the unrest of the idealist; Nezhdanov ("Virgin Soil"), typical of the self-torture of the anarchist; Shubin ("On the Eve"), hiding his misery in laughter; and Lavretsky ("A House of Gentlefolk"), hiding his misery in silence. In all Turgenev put his hand upon the dark things; and perceived character, struggling in the "clutch of circumstances," the tragic moments, the horrible conflicts of personality. His characters have that capability of suffering which is the true sign of life...  (From "Turgenev and the Life-Illusion," in "The Fortnightly Review" (April, 1910).

The question of the influence of fathers on their children is not unique to Turgenev; and in fact other authors have focused much more directly on it.  Walter Morel, the father of Paul in Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, while less directly important to the sexual maturity and personal development of his son than his mother, is nonetheless as important.  The elder Morel is essentially male if only stereotypically so. He is most at home with men, in male environments, comfortable in an atmosphere of male camaraderie and easy, non-imposing or –demanding friendships and uncomfortable and inept in any more intimate especially with his wife and their children. His masculinity is pro-forma, characteristic of a class and philosophy, and as such meaningless.  He cannot understand his wife, her Oedipally incestuous relationships with her son, and the strictures of class and society which have forced her into surrogate authority. 

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Nevertheless, howsoever Lawrence may have idealized the relationship between Paul and his mother and marginalized his father, the importance of Walter Morel cannot be minimized.  Paul has been feminized; and believes that the feminine values he sees in his mother – artistic sensitivity, empathy, and social intelligence – are worth far more than his father’s male drudgery and arrogant simplicity.  Yet he cannot ignore his father’s essential maleness – a certainty, sexual confidence, and simple valuation. Paul is male, suspects his father’s brand of virility, but is not completely content with his obviously distorted and exaggerated love of and dependence on his mother.

Because of his mother’s willful determination to keep Paul to herself, she encourages a mutual conspiracy against Walter. She hates her husband for his crudeness, low birth, and social and emotional ignorance; and encourages her son to feel the same. They alienate and marginalize Walter who eventually, beaten and neutered, accepts his role as paternal supernumerary.  Yet Paul, after failures in his adult relationships with both Miriam and Clara, wonder if he has been too feminine and ignorant of his father’s sexual confidence.  After his mother’s death Paul is lost – neither feminine in his sensibilities nor masculine in his sexual character.

Bazarov’s father has had an influence on his son only by way of general example.  He is not Bazarov’s father but all fathers intent and insistent upon on conforming their sons to an outdated, retrograde sensibility; and by extension a society which collectively has no interest in progress, value, or evolution.

"He has abandoned us, cast us off!" his father muttered. "Abandoned us, he only feels bored with us now. Alone, all alone, like a solitary finger," he repeated several times, stretching out his hand with the forefinger standing out from the others.

Then Arina Vlasyevna came up to him and leaning her grey head against his grey head, she said: "What can we do, Vasya? A son is a piece broken off. He's like a falcon that flies home and flies away again when it wants; but you and I are like mushrooms growing in the hollow of a tree, we sit side by side without moving from the same place. Only I will never change for you, and you will always be the same for me."

Vassily Ivanovich took his hands from his face and embraced his wife, his friend, more warmly than he had ever embraced her in his youth; she comforted him in his sorrow.

Vassily Ivanovich has been a complaisant father, accepting that sons will always leave and abandon yet uncertain about their unguided future.  It is one thing to accept the independence of sons, but another to accept its consequences and, by extension, the responsibility of their fathers.

Arthur Miller in All My Sons has written about father-son relationships in a moral context.  How can a son who has always admired, respected, and loved his father possibly accept the fathers horrific moral failure? How can he accept the fact that his father has cheated on an Air Force contract and jeopardized fliers lives, perhaps even that of his eldest son?  Is there any room for forgiveness or at least understanding?  In The Price Miller has again dealt with the relationship between fathers and sons.  One son, always dutiful and respectful to his father, is considered naïve and ignorant by his older brother.  The two siblings have dramatically different views of their father; and that difference can never be resolved.

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In Death of a Salesman, Miller returns to the same theme of father-son relationships and asks to what degree sons can forgive their father, understand the shame and difficulty of salesmanship in a time of depression and desperation.

Eugene O’Neill in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night focuses on the relationship between James Tyrone and his sons, all dominated by their mother Mary, a needy, selfish, and manipulative woman no different from Gertrude Morel.  Tyrone, like Walter Morel, has been neutered by his wife, and that his sexual dependence has corrupted them and inhibited their own sexual maturity.

So where is the line drawn? Can one, after more than 150 years dispute Freud and his Oedipal theories? Will sons of heterosexual families always be consigned to mother-love father-jealousy?  Will modern gender politics finally delegitimize patriarchy and paternal influence and we can finally dismiss Coriolanus?

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Unless Lawrence is wrong and there is no such thing as male essence – a natural, genetic, inextinguishable disposition to assertiveness, sexual impatience, aggression, and ego –and that gender is never entirely determined by social influence, there will always be male fathers; and that the reflections of Miller, O’Neill, Lawrence, and Shakespeare will be perennially valid.

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