First Love (Pervaia Liubov') by Ivan Turgenev, 1860
FIRST LOVE (Pervaia liubov')
by Ivan Turgenev, 1860
The seemingly ingenuous title of Ivan Turgenev's novella First Love (Pervaia liubov) is actually ironic. It implies that the principal narrator, Volodia, has gone on to experience other loves, although he apparently has not, and his elegiac tone at both the beginning and the end of the story further implies that his early love was unique. Conversely, First Love implies that adolescent love is somehow special, but by the end of the story we see that love affects people of all ages in much the same way. Among those reduced to helplessness by love—or, more exactly, by romantic love, by "being in" love—are Zinaida's assortment of suitors, from the green Volodia to the middle-aged Dr. Lushin, who is Volodia's father, and including Zinaida herself and even the 40-year-old Mark Antony, romantically assumed by the ignorant in the story to have been a youth when he loved Cleopatra. The story is not so much about first love as it is about romantic love. Ultimately, in fact, it is about something even broader. It is about vitality, what it means and feels like to be fully alive. Romantic love is important to the story primarily because people in love feel the life within and around them more intensely than others do.
This view of the story brings a number of its elements into sharper focus. For one thing we see that the lyrical descriptions of nature, for which Turgenev is famous, are more than atmospheric mood music; nature also functions as an objective correlative to the young Volodia's emerging sense that life can have aliveness and experience intensity. Even before he meets Zinaida, he senses this new "feminine" presence: "But through the tears and through the sorrow inspired by some melodious poem, or by the beauty of the evening, a joyous feeling of youthful and effervescent life sprang up like grass in spring." Later, correlating with the boy's tense awareness of rivalry in his love and of dangerous glamour in Zinaida's situation, the nightscape becomes portentous and uncanny: "Suddenly everything grew profoundly still all around me….Even the crickets ceased to chirrup among the trees…. I felt a strange agitation, as though I had been to keep an assignation and had been left waiting alone and had passed by another's happiness."
Among the more perishable essences in literature are the nuances of sexual desirability and, especially, of sexual charm. First Love depends heavily on our feeling Zinaida's attractiveness, which consists in a combination of seductiveness and imperiousness not necessarily in keeping with either the male or female tastes of a later age. The fascination with the mock punishments and mock beatings—for example, with flowers—that Zinaida metes out to her male worshipers is probably conditioned by a paradox of female imperiousness that seems less sheerly paradoxical today. Fortunately, however, in light of the main thrusts of the story, these beatings—the first time we see Zinaida she is delivering one of them—are part of a thematic counterpoint that loses none of its force with changing times; pain and violence continue to be as intelligible today as ever. Zinaida, the female focus of all of the love vectors in the story, repeatedly gives and takes punishment, taking it most climactically in the brutal blow Volodia's father deals her on the arm when he visits her in Moscow. Her kissing of the wound in this scene both confounds the watching Volodia and confirms for him the meaning, depth, and power of what he now recognizes as authentic love.
It is important that we not respond to this incident as mere brutality any more than we respond in that way to the playful beatings Zinaida doles out earlier. Even when she pushes a pin into the skin of Dr. Lushin, she forces him to laugh despite the pain and shame he feels. Nor is this a way of saying that love is sadomasochistic. The upshot, rather, is to define love as intensity of feeling, whether pleasurable or the opposite, and as such to contrast it with the various ways of being only half responsive and half alive. The opening frame of the story—the clichéd situation of after-dinner storytelling, along with the utter banality of the first two men's reminiscences—is one way of conveying this, as is the physical and moral shabbiness of Zinaida's mother and the home surroundings. The idle warnings given to Volodia by the middle-aged characters—Dr. Lushin and Volodia's father himself—about the dangers of romantic love ("that happiness, that poison") amount to warning him away from life itself, which is exactly such an oxymoronic mixture of intensely vital feelings. Neither of the two older men is the worse person for being unable to take his own advice.
It is often remarked that Turgenev characteristically portrays romantic love as doomed to impermanence. The comment is exasperating not only because such impermanence is an obvious fact of general human experience but, more importantly, because the comment misses the point and Turgenev's tone. First Love, for example, is a sad story, even tragic, but its final effect is to affirm vitality, however painful. The dwelling on death in the last pages, including the painful story of the old woman who so tenaciously and illogically clings to a life that has been sheer misery, complements the dwelling on the state of being half alive at the beginning. Both the front and end frames are chiaroscuros that lend brilliance and color to the explosiveness and wonder of life, which is most vividly realized through romantic love. After the blissful but painful experience of Zinaida's farewell kiss, Volodia says, "I would never wish it to be repeated, but I would regard myself as unfortunate if I had never known it." Looking back from middle age, he later adds, "What is left to me more fresh, more precious than the memory of that swiftly passed, vernal thunder of my morn?" The key fact is not that such vernal thunder has passed away but rather that it has existed.