Friday, 30 July 2021

Turgenev’s similes in First Love

First Love is about a 40-year-old Vladimir Petrovitch looking back at his first love—for a 21-year-old woman—when he was 16. My copy is translated by Constance Garnett. I’m not going to write much about either the story or the characters, this blog post is about similes. 

(emphases are mine) 

Here is Vladimir setting up the mood for his story: 

“I was all hope and anticipation, was a little frightened of something, and full of wonder at everything, and was on the tiptoe of expectation; my imagination played continually, fluttering rapidly about the same fancies, like martins about a bell-tower at dawn; I dreamed, was sad, even wept; but through the tears and through the sadness, inspired by a musical verse, or the beauty of evening, shot up like grass in spring the delicious sense of youth and effervescent life.” (Ch.1) 

There are 2 similes here, but the one that catches my attention more is “like martins about a bell-tower at dawn”. Birds. 

Now look at this passage, our boy Vladimir has fallen in love: 

“It is a storm, I thought; and a storm it really was, but it was raging so very far away that the thunder could not be heard; only blurred, long, as it were branching, gleams of lightning flashed continually over the sky; it was not flashing, though, so much as quivering and twitching like the wing of a dying bird. I got up, went to the window, and stood there till morning.… The lightning never ceased for an instant; it was what is called among the peasants a sparrow night. I gazed at the dumb sandy plain, at the dark mass of the Neskutchny gardens, at the yellowish facades of the distant buildings, which seemed to quiver, too, at each faint flash.… I gazed, and could not turn away; these silent lightning flashes, these gleams seemed in response to the secret silent fires which were aglow within me. Morning began to dawn; the sky was flushed in patches of crimson. As the sun came nearer, the lightning grew gradually paler, and ceased; the quivering gleams were fewer and fewer, and vanished at last, drowned in the sobering positive light of the coming day.…

And my lightning flashes vanished too. I felt great weariness and peace … but Zinaïda’s image still floated triumphant over my soul. But it, too, this image, seemed more tranquil: like a swan rising out of the reeds of a bog, it stood out from the other unbeautiful figures surrounding it, and as I fell asleep, I flung myself before it in farewell, trusting adoration.…” (Ch.7) 

2 bird similes. The entire passage is wonderful, but I especially like the originality of these images, especially when Turgenev compares lightning to “the wing of a dying bird”. 

Above are things being compared to birds, here’s a bird compared to a person: 

“… at that point my attention was absorbed by the appearance of a speckled woodpecker who climbed busily up the slender stem of a birch-tree and peeped out uneasily from behind it, first to the right, then to the left, like a musician behind the bass-viol.” (Ch.14)

I like that. Throughout First Love, the narrator compares his own feelings to fire a few times, or his thoughts to a hurricane, but those aren’t particularly interesting. I like the comparisons that are striking and unexpected, like the ones above. 

Here’s another animal simile, when Vladimir writes about his loss of interest in everything else and how he only hangs around Zinaida’s house all day: 

Like a beetle tied by the leg, I moved continually round and round my beloved little lodge.” (Ch.9) 

Turgenev’s comparisons are unusual. This comes from the scene where Zinaida and her mother, the old princess, visit Vladimir’s house and have dinner with the family and the entire time Zinaida ignores him: 

“I was standing there in my short jacket, staring at the floor, like a man under sentence of death.” (Ch.6)

That sounds melodramatic, but it fits in perfectly with the thoughts of a boy in love for the first time. 

This one is less striking, but also interesting:  

“My “passion” dated from that day. I felt at that time, I recollect, something like what a man must feel on entering the service: I had ceased now to be simply a young boy; I was in love.” (Ch.9) 

About halfway through the book, Zinaida starts a game of comparisons with the men and boys. 

““What are those clouds like?” questioned Zinaïda; and without waiting for our answer, she said, “I think they are like the purple sails on the golden ship of Cleopatra, when she sailed to meet Antony. Do you remember, Meidanov, you were telling me about it not long ago?”

All of us, like Polonius in Hamlet, opined that the clouds recalled nothing so much as those sails, and that not one of us could discover a better comparison.” (Ch.11)

I like that—he follows a Shakespeare reference with another Shakespeare reference. Later on, Vladimir compares himself to Othello. 

(A side note: I like that since I caught the Shakespeare bug and got into him properly, I’ve been seeing him everywhere. In Tolstoy. In Chekhov. In Balzac. And now in Turgenev. The Balzac story I read the other day but didn’t finish, “Another Study of Womankind”, also referenced Othello). 

I’ve seen that some reviewers remark on the “shocking reveal/ending”. I wasn’t shocked—I actually suspected it quite early on (First Love isn’t Emma). But I do think that the second half of the novella is better than the first. At the beginning, First Love gives the impression of being light, but it isn’t. 

A good read. 


  1. It's fascinating to see this list of similes in First Love. Turgenev often used nature related similes, and often birds. I once attempted to find the symbolic meaning in Russian culture of all the birds that appear in Fathers And Sons:

    1. Hey,
      I read your blog post yesterday (I was looking for your posts about Turgenev), but thanks for the link anyway.
      How do you like First Love?


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