Fathers and Sons is a novel about two young men, Arkady and Bazarov, who have recently graduated from the University of Petersburg and travel to the countryside to visit their families. The two men quarrel over several women they fall in love with and, in the end, Bazarov dies of typhus and Arkady marries one of these women, Katya. The novel examines the generational differences in Russia at the time, between the old generation and a younger generation of nihilists. The novel presents love as a redemptive force.
Arkady Kirsanov has just graduated from the University of Petersburg and returns with a friend, Bazarov, to his father's modest estate in an outlying province of Russia. His father, Nikolai, gladly receives the two young men at his estate, called Maryino, but Nikolai's brother, Pavel, soon becomes upset by the strange new philosophy called "nihilism" which the young men advocate.
Nikolai, initially delighted to have his son return home, slowly begins to feel unease, and a certain awkwardness in his regard, as it emerges that Arkady's views, much influenced by Bazarov, are radical and make his own beliefs feel dated. To complicate this, the father has taken a servant, Fenichka, into his house to live with him and has already had a son by her. Arkady however is not troubled by the relationship: to the contrary, he openly celebrates the acquisition of a younger brother.
The two young men stay over at Maryino for some weeks, then decide to visit a relative of Arkady's in a neighboring province. There they observe the local gentry and meet Madame Odintsova, an elegant woman of independent means, who cuts a seductively different figure from the pretentious or humdrum types of her surrounding provincial society of gentry. Both are attracted to her, and she, intrigued by Bazarov's singular manner, invites them to spend a few days at her estate, Nikolskoe.
At Nikolskoe, they also meet Katya, Madame Odintsova's sister. Although they remain for only a short period, both characters undergo significant change: their relationship with each other is especially affected, as they both find themselves drawn to Madame Odintsova. Bazarov in particular finds this distressing because falling in love runs against his nihilist beliefs. Eventually, prompted by Odintsova's own cautious expressions of attraction to him, he announces that he loves her. She does not respond overtly to his declaration, though she too is deeply drawn to Bazarov while finding his dismissal of feelings and the aesthetic side of existence troublesome. After his avowal of love, and her failure to make a similar declaration, Bazarov proceeds to his parents' home, and Arkady decides to accompany him.
At Bazarov's home, they are received enthusiastically by his parents, and the traditional moeurs of both father and mother, who adulate their son, are portrayed with a nostalgic, idealistic description of humble people and their fast-disappearing world of simple values and virtues. Bazarov's social cynicism, invariably on display with outsiders, drops as he settles back into his own family's ambiance. Interrupting his father as he speaks to Arkady, he proves rather abrupt. Arkady, who has delighted Bazarov's father by assuring him that his son has a brilliant future in store, in turn reproves his friend for his brusqueness. Later, Bazarov almost comes to blows with Arkady after the latter makes a joke about fighting over Bazarov's cynicism. After a brief stay, much to the parents' disappointment, they decide to return to Maryino, stopping on the way to see Madame Odintsova, who receives them coolly. They leave almost immediately and return to Arkady's home.
Arkady remains for only a few days, and makes an excuse to leave in order to go to Nikolskoe. Once there, he realizes he is not in love with Odintsova, but instead with her sister Katya. Bazarov stays at Maryino to do some scientific research, and tension between him and Pavel increases. Bazarov enjoys talking with Fenichka and playing with her child, and one day he kisses her. Pavel observes this kiss and, secretly in love with Fenichka himself, challenges Bazarov to a duel. Pavel is wounded in the leg, and Bazarov must leave Maryino. He stops for an hour or so at Madame Odintsova's, then continues on to his parents' home. Meanwhile, Arkady and Katya have fallen in love and have become engaged.
At home, Bazarov cannot keep his mind on his work and while performing an autopsy fails to take the proper precautions. He cuts himself and contracts blood poisoning. On his deathbed, he sends for Madame Odintsova, who arrives just in time to hear Bazarov tell her how beautiful she is. She kisses him on the forehead and leaves; Bazarov dies from his illness the following day.
Arkady marries Katya and takes over the management of his father's estate. His father marries Fenichka and is delighted to have Arkady home with him. Pavel leaves the country and lives the rest of his life as a "noble" in Dresden, Germany.