In the late 1850’s, three wealthy Russians have supper at the home of one of the men. After the plates are cleared away and the middle-aged gentlemen are enjoying cigars, they trade stories of their first loves. Two of them tell stories that are completely lacking of passion and soul, revealing the shallowness of the men themselves. The third, Vladimir Petrovitch, has a story that is so out of the ordinary that he is reticent to tell it. His companions, desperately lacking any passion of their own, beseech him to tell them his tale. Reluctantly he agrees, but in order to do the story justice, he must first write it down, promising to read it to them at a future date.
Thus begins Ivan Turgenev’s 1860 novella, First Love. At age sixteen while living in the country, Vladimir meets twenty-one-year-old Zinaida Alexandrovna Zasyekina, the daughter of a titled but very poor family living on the adjoining property. Zinaida is a beautiful and spirited young women and Vladimir falls hopelessly in love with her. Zinaida toys with him mercilessly, enticing him with hints of a deep and romantic affection and, alternatively, pushing him away and treating him with condescending, sisterly affection. (Perhaps the 19th century equivalent of “Let’s just be friends.”) At one point, she even asks Vladimir to look after her twelve-year-old brother, emphasizing the their age difference and that Vladimir is still just a boy.
Adding to Vladimir’s frustration are the numerous suitors who come calling on Zinaida every evening. They are all older than Vladimir and superior to him in either wealth or social class. She plays them all off one another, but occasionally indicates that she favors Vladimir. On these occasions the young man’s heart swells and there is no joy greater than the joy felt by a young man in love for the first time. There is also no sadness greater than the sadness brought on by unrequited love.
Vladimir is a sensitive and observant young man and he is able to see through Zinaida’s extreme coquettishness and notices a gradual change in her manner. Beneath her façade, he can see that she truly is in love, but not with him. Nor is it one of the other suitors, although at first he suspects it is one of them. The penultimate heartbreak for Vladimir is that Zinaida’s secret love turns out to be Vladimir’s own father. In the final chapters, this heartbreak story, as all good heartbreak, turns tragic.
Turgenev is one of the early practitioners of literary realism. First Love is told in first person and adheres strictly to the limitations of omniscience that that point of view requires. Turgenev uses that to his advantage in several specific places, such as when Vladimir witnesses an altercation between his father and Zinaida. He is unable to hear what they are discussing, but his visual observation provides enough for for us to understand the depth nature of their relationship.
The true artistry of this novella is revealed at the conclusion when the reader reconsiders the entire story once again, this time taking a far more sympathetic view of both Zinaida (and really, the first time through she’s very hard to like) and Vladimir’s father. What is finally revealed is that this story is not only a tale about a youthful unrequited love but also about Zinaida’s place in society, society’s expectations of all of us, and ultimately about the nature of love itself.
Turgenev’s influence is even more apparent in the development of psychological fiction. He has a gentle touch that captures complex and nuanced emotional states in his characters and can be seen as a precursor to Henry James and Joseph Conrad. This same approach to fiction can still be seen in such contemporary works as Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.
Turgenev lived during changing times in Europe. Later events would sweep away the aristocracy in his native Russia, but during his lifetime the social order, and the aristocracy that it supported, was already crumbling. The characters in First Love reflect this along with the very nature of the story that the older Vladimir tells to his shallow and passionless companions.
For more articles in this series, see “The Art of the Novella.”
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