Virgin Soil was Turgenev’s last and longest novel, published in 1877. It explores Turgenev’s ideas of Populism, namely that Populists were people with good intentions but undertaking a path that would not lead to success. The work also constituted an attempt to do justice to the problems of Russian society and address these issues. His works focused on gradual reform to violent revolution and he was known among contemporary Russian authors as having a pure image of love and the devotion between husband and wife.
What is Virgin Soil about?
The main concern of Virgin Soil‘s plot revolves around the illegitimate son of an aristocrat, Nejdenov. Nejdenov has joined a Populist group, the members of which are slowly trying to disseminate their ideals to the peasantry of Russia. In doing so, Nejdenov becomes the tutor to an aristocrat’s young son and becomes a minor part of his family. He meets the brother-in-law of his employer, a fellow Populist, and the niece of his employer who lives in his house and also has sympathies towards the Populist movement. Minor spoilers: the rest of the plot is surprisingly mostly about a romantic plot thread.
Genre: Literary Fiction
There’s not much more to say here. This book doesn’t fall to strongly into any of the formed genres other than being Russian literature.
As I discussed above, Turgenev had some very romantic ideals in his life, specifically about the dedication a wife should have to her husband. Interestingly, throughout the novel these ideals come out again and again. In fact, if anything stuck out about the plot to me it was the focus on romantic relationships whenever it was possible.
Plot: Russian Revolution-ish
The central focus of the plot is ultimately the rise of Populism in late 19th century Russia. While the romantic plot threads are more prominent and easy to follow, the rise of Populism is absolutely parallel to them. The reason for the “ish” in this plot heading is that Turgenev makes it clear through his characters that he didn’t think radical or revolutionary action is necessary or required in the case of Russia, or perhaps at all.
Most of the characters in this novel are surprisingly likeable and sympathetic. Even those that are opposed to one another are given chances to be seen as human beings. For example, when a love rival is introduced to foil our protagonist, he is not cast as a strict antagonist but given features that the author clearly thought redeem him as a revolutionary. Even the aristocratic family that Nejdanov ends up working for are given moments of fleshing out, where their backstories and personalities are established, in order to give you a feeling for who they are outside of social status. I really liked this as the story is so heavily character driven that not knowing these details about everyone would have been hard to follow.
Largely a product of the time period, the language of the text can be a bit convoluted. This is in part due to several characters being fluent in French and interspersing their speech with French phrases and words. I have enough familiarity with French that I was able to read these lines in the text, but it was a bit annoying nonetheless. In addition to this, the conversations in the text were sometimes confusing. Where I felt it would have been more interesting to read the dialogue of a conversation, there was summary, and where there was dialogue it was often rather boring and full of tangents and monologues. I skimmed a lot of conversations due to this, reading only a few lines to get the gist of the conversation so the following plot points would make more sense.
In the end, very little is resolved. To avoid spoilers, I will simply say that a singular event leads to the wrapping up of all the plot lines and loose threads with no rhyme or reason. You can clearly see through much of the novel that there will be some sort of romantic conflict between two characters eventually, but this never comes about and instead becomes a singular character’s dramatic and nonsensical choice. Whereas for much of the novel the main actors in the story behaved in ways that made sense for the characterization they were given, by the end they were utterly ridiculous and making strange choices based on the philosophy the author was attempting to present through them.
I’ll be honest, I was expecting this to be more like the Russian literature I’ve read in the past. I’m used to the dark, the gritty, the pessimistic. I was not expecting a romance and a plea for wifely dedication. The main couple aren’t awful, nor do they work well together. The romance didn’t fully interest me and I wasn’t invested in it. Honestly, only one character interested me out of all of them and she was constantly reduced to her beautiful eyes. In doing some research on the author, I learned that this work came after a massive creative failure of his, so perhaps he lost his spark and that is reflected in this work. Whatever the reason may be, Virgin Soil is lackluster, but not a heinous read. If you’re into this sort of book, you can always give it a shot. It’s free on Kindle!