Nikolai Petrovitch Kirsanov and his servant Piotr are waiting the arrival of Arkady, Nikolai's son, who has recently finished his studies at the University of St. Petersburg and is returning to his country home for a visit. Nikolai is a landlord with a moderate estate. He is the son of a Russian general who had achieved a degree of fame in the front lines of 1812. Unlike his brother Pavel, who excelled in military service, Nikolai "could never distinguish himself by his courage." Later, the two brothers shared an apartment in St. Petersburg, where Nikolai finished his studies at the university.
Nikolai married the daughter of his landlord in spite of the objections of his father, and settled in the country, where Arkady was born. His wife died prematurely, leaving Nikolai lonely and isolated. When Arkady came of age, his father went with him to St. Petersburg and remained there with him for three school years while Arkady pursued his studies. The final winter, Nikolai was unable to remain with Arkady and is now nostalgically recalling the past while waiting for the arrival of his son. During his daydreaming, the coach carrying Arkady arrives and the father and son lock in an embrace.
Turgenev was a writer intently interested in social reforms, and as a realistic novelist, he set his works in contemporary Russia. Thus, the background and the social changes going on in Russia at the time do function in his novel. Ultimately, Bazarov must be seen as one of the rising new middle class that will dominate the scene in Russia for the next generations. Previous to the 1840s and 1850's, the middle class was virtually nonexistent as a social power, but during these decades, this class began to produce its own intelligentsia that asserted itself in many areas of Russian life. The contrast between a member of the old school such as Pavel with Bazarov, the new middle class, will be developed at length later in the novel.
The relationship between the great landowner and the serf was undergoing a tremendous change also. The situation in Russia during this time is analogous to the conditions found in the southern states of America in the 1840s and the 1850s. The serfs were actually similar to the black slaves in that they lived completely at the mercy of the wealthy landowner. In 1862, the serfs were granted complete freedom, but before that time, most of the more advanced landowners and thinkers had voluntarily freed their serfs in the manner that Kirsanov and Bazarov had done. Earlier, a person's wealth was often evaluated in terms of the number of serfs he owned, and thus we have the expression that the estate was valued at two hundred "souls." By the time of this novel, the word "souls" was used satirically as "baptized property." Turgenev is aware of the basic contradiction involved in recognizing the serfs as Christian souls and some landowner's personal property at the same time.
Thus the first chapter gives us an indication that this was a time of change. Turgenev refers to Piotr as one of the "new, emancipated servants."
Early in the first chapter, we are introduced to a technique that Turgenev employs often. In this case, he interrupts the narrative briefly and addresses the reader directly in order to give us some background information. Later realists will not enter so directly into the narrative. Turgenev uses both the traditional nineteenth-century technique of speaking directly to the reader and the more recent technique of presenting scenes directly without author intrusion.
In the background information, we discover that Nikolai has spent a great deal of time in St. Petersburg while Arkady was enrolled in school there and has in the past had a close relationship with his son. This must be kept in mind when we observe the tension that will soon develop between the father and son. We are also made aware of a certain romantic bent in Nikolai's nature as we observe him dreaming of his past happiness. As soon as Arkady appears, Nikolai will rapidly learn to conceal his romantic thoughts.
Keeping in mind the title of the novel, we realize then the importance of Turgenev's building and expressing directly the exact nature of the father's personality so that he will be seen in contrast to his son's newer and more advanced ways of thinking.