It is the first instance in Russian literature where a novel carries out a dual character study, as on the one hand Bazarov and Arkady explore their nihilistic opposition to the open display of emotion, and, on the other hand, Bazarov feels a deep love for both Madame Odintsova and Fenichka. The psychological insights found in this novel served as inspiration for such major novels as those of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
There is a great deal of criticism regarding the generational tensions in Fathers and Sons. The elder generation represents the liberal movement that swelled in Russia during the 1830's and 1840's, seeking governmental changes mirroring those going on in Western Europe and North America, while the younger generation is a far more cynical one, embracing nihilism as its ideology. A third group that adds tension to this debate is the Slavophiles, who urged a return to traditional Orthodox religion as a cure for the evils that plagued Russian society. The struggles between generations and among classes had three causes in Russian society that differ from our own time and society: the Russian class system was highly rigid; there were few women in the middle-class who had the leisure to write and provide their own perspective; and the Russian government, even under the more liberal Alexander II, still exercised tight control and censorship over any writings considered to be dissident in nature (Greene, p. 271).
However, there are tensions in the novel beyond the intergenerational. The interactions between male and female characters, particularly with regard to romantic relationships, are particularly instructive, and they show both the underlying assumptions that tend to govern all of those sorts of relationships, as well as the particular social restrictions that limited women's choices during the middle of the nineteenth century. Additionally, there are also tensions between those who are able to find satisfaction in marriage, and those who cannot (Goldberg, p. 89).
Early on, Bazarov is too dedicated to nihilism to even think of believing in the foolishness of love. "And what about those mysterious relations between a man and a woman We physiologists understand all that. You just study the anatomy of the eye: where does that enigmatic gaze come from that you talk about It's all romanticism, nonsense, rubbish, artifice" (26). As a medical student, Bazarov at this stage feels that any depth to relationships is much less real than the anatomy lessons he is learning.
This all changes, though, when he meets the young widow Anna Odintsova. She is drawn to Bazarov's extreme intelligence and unorthodox thought, as well as his blunt way of communicating. She baits him into confessing his love for her, pleading with him for a "strong attachment" that is "all or nothing. A life for a life. You take mine, you give up yours, without regrets, without turning back"(75-76). This leads Bazarov to confess his love to her: "Then you should know that I love you, stupidly, madlyNow see what you've extracted"(80). He is angry at himself for revealing his emotion to her, because his nihilist thought emphasizes a stoicism, even a cynicism about the durability of such ephemeral things as