In many of Turgenev's novels, it is difficult to detect a discernible structure. His greatness often lies with the individual scenes rather than with the total work. The Russian literary critic Avrahm Yarmolinsky says, "the total effect of Fathers and Sons does not measure up to that of individual scenes, so that the whole is less than the sum of its parts." This critic does not mean to imply that Turgenev had no structure, but that the greatness of the novel is best found by the manner in which individual scenes are rendered so powerfully.
The overall structure of the novel is seen through the journeys that the young students make. Furthermore, if we keep the title constantly in mind, we see that the author is building these journeys around the fulcrum of each of the two sons in relationship with his father. Thus there is a type of structure that involves Arkady and Bazarov meeting Arkady's father, and then leaving to meet Bazarov's father. This allows the reader to perceive large and sweeping contrasts.
The purpose of the journeys also influences the development of the structure. We have two types of students or young men. We want to see their basic philosophy of nihilism in action in many types of situations. Thus the novel opens by showing how nihilism evokes certain responses in the older landowning family of the Kirsanovs. Furthermore, here Bazarov comes into conflict with a representative of the old school of romanticism. In the opening portions of the novel, we observe drastic conflicts of opinions. Following this, Turgenev must move to another scene in which we can observe the same nihilistic theories in practice in another environment.
The confrontation with the second set of parents must be withheld until we see Bazarov and Arkady on some neutral ground. This leads them to the house of the liberal and intelligent Madame Odintsova. Here we see that Bazarov is not as adamant in his philosophy as he was in the presence of the romantic Nikolai or the effete Pavel Kirsanov.
The novel eventually moves to a confrontation with Bazarov's parents. During the scenes in the Bazarov house, we note a striking difference between the two young people. Thus, Turgenev has chosen a structure that allows his characters to reveal certain aspects of their personality and their philosophical views dramatically by bringing them into contact with many different aspects of life. After the visit to the Bazarov house, note how Turgenev symbolically presents the rift between Arkady and Bazarov by having each one go off on a separate voyage of his own.
In general, Turgenev has utilized a structure of movement back and forth in order to develop his theme of the new and radical in confrontation with the old and the traditional. To embody this theme, it is necessary for the main characters to move from one place to another in order to come into contact with various ideas in juxtaposition with which their own ideas are tested and evaluated.