“First Love” by Ivan Turgenev

I felt fortunate to have recently read Ivan Turgenev’s “First Love” — a touching account of Vladimir, a sixteen-year-old boy who became deeply smitten with his new flirty gorgeous neighbor gal named Zinaida, described by his own mother as “a woman capable of anything.” Zinaida and Vladimir ended up as good friends and even came to declare love for each other. But hold it – the boy may have felt strong amorous feelings for the girl who was five years his senior; she in turn had only brotherly affections for him. The reason? She had fallen in love with someone else. With whom? The identity of the third party, the boy’s competition for her love would be revealed in the latter part of the novela. Yet you impatiently ask: C’mon, who was the guy who got to complete this sweet Russian romantic triangle? To everyone’s surprise, it was the boy’s very handsome father. See, how can you not love this story.

Vladimir : Oh, sweet emotions, gentle harmony, goodness and peace of the softened heart, melting bliss of the first raptures of love, where are they, where are they?

Describing his relationship with his father : Sometimes he was in high spirits, and then he was ready to romp and frolic with me, like a boy; once – it never happened a second time – he caressed me with such tenderness that I almost shed tears…. But high spirits and tenderness alike vanished completely, and what had passed between us, gave me nothing to build on for the future – it was as though I had dreamed it all.

Zinaida and Vladimir’s father’s first meeting : When my father was on a level with Zinaida, he made a courteous bow. She, too, bowed to him, with some astonishment on her face, and dropped her book. I saw how she looked after him. My father was always irreproachably dressed, simple and in a style of his own […].

Zinaida reciting lines from “On the Hills of Georgia” : That the heart cannot choose but love. That’s where the poetry’s so fine; it tells us what is not, and what not only better than what is, but much more like the truth, “cannot choose but love,” – it might want not to, but it can’t help it.

Vladimir on his on and off insecurity as to Zinaida’s secret beau : I thought I would walk off my sorrow. I wandered a long while over hills and through woods; I had felt not happy. I had left home with the intention of giving myself up to melancholy, but youth, the exquisite weather, the fresh air, the pleasure of rapid motion, the sweetness of repose, lying on the thick grass in a solitary nook, gained the upper hand; the memory of those never-to-be-forgotten words, those kisses, forced itself once more upon my soul.

I fancied her very walk was quieter, her whole figure statelier and more graceful… And mercy! With what fresh force love burned within me.

I saw her blush, and grew cold with terror. I had been jealous before, but only at that instant the idea of her being in love flashed upon my mind. ‘Good God! She is in love! But with whom?’

Zinaida hinting to her suitors of the man who owns her heart : . . . but out there, by the fountain, by that splashing water, stands and waits he whom I love, who holds me in hs power. He has neither rich raiment nor precious stones, no one knows him, but he awaits me, and is certain I shall come – and I shall come – and there is no power that could stop me when I want to go out to him, and to stay with him, and be lost with him out there in the darkness of the garden, under the whispering of the trees, and splash of the fountain.

Vladimir witnessing in stealth Zinaida’s strength of devotion to his father : . . . a strange feeling stronger than curiosity, stranger than jealousy, stranger even than fear – held me there. I began to watch; I strained my ears to listen. It seemed as though my father was on something Zinaida would not consent. I seem to see her face now – mournful, serious, lovely, and with an inexpressible impress of devotion, grief, love , and a sort of despair – I can find no other word for it. She uttered monosyllables, not raising her eyes, simply smiling – submissively, but without yielding. My father shrugged his shoulders, and straightened his hat on his head, which was always a sign of impatience with him …. Then I caught the words “You ought to free yourself from that.” Zinaida sat up, and stretched out her arm…. Suddenly, before my very eyes, the impossible happened. My father lifted the whip, with which he had been switching the dust off his coat, and I heard a sharp blow on that arm, bare to the elbow. I could scarcely restrain myself from crying out; while Zinaida shuddered, looked without a word at my father, and slowly raising her arm to her lips, kissed the streak of red upon it.

Vladimir, in the end, deeply pondering on his feelings and the affair between his first love and his father : I had grown much older during the last month; and my love, with all its transports and sufferings, struck me as something small and childish and pitiful beside this other unimagined something, which I could hardly fully grasp, and which frightened me like an unknown, beautiful, but menacing face, which one strives in vain to make out clearly in the half-darkness….

I, now…what did I hope for, what did I expect, what rich future did I foresee, when the phantom of my first love, rising up for an instant, barely called forth one sigh, one mournful sentiment?

And what has come to pass of all I hoped for? And now, when the shades of evening begin to steal over my life, what have I left fresher, more precious, than the moments of the storm – so soon over – of early morning, of spring?

Vladimir’s family moved to another city. One day a letter was received which caused violent agitation to his father and made him shed tears. He then requested his wife to send money to their former hometown. My guess: Zinaida became ill. Unfortunately, soon after, Vladimir’s father died of a stroke. On the very morning of the day when he was stricken down, he had begun a letter. “My son, fear the love of a woman; fear that bliss, that poison….”

Four years passed. Vladimir had graduated from university and learned that Zinaida had gotten married. But before he was able to see her, she, too, passed away while giving birth to her child.

Vladimir : Even then, in those light-hearted young days, I was not deaf to the voice of sorrow, when it called upon me, to the solemn strains floating to me from beyond the tomb. […] Her whole life had been passed in the bitter struggle with daily want; she had known no joy, had not tasted the honey of happiness. One would have thought, surely she would rejoice at death, at her deliverance, her rest. […] only with the last spark of consciousness, vanished from her eyes the look of fear, of horror of the end. And I remember that then, by the death bed of that poor woman, I felt aghast for Zinaida, and longed to pray for her, for my father – and for myself.