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Teaching Turgenev's Novella "First Love"

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English teacher

Like many of us, high school students are often attracted to stories with characters going through similar struggles and life changes. I have found some success teaching Alan Sillitoe's novella The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1959), whose 17-year-old protagonist from a working class home, Colin Smith, has been caught burgling and is sent to a reform school. Discovering Smith’s gift for running, school officials enter him in a cross-country competition. His victory would bring the institution much prestige. Smith must decide whether to play by society's rules (and win the race) or rebel against those rules because he rejects society (and throw the race).

Another engaging story with a teenage protagonist is Ivan Turgenev's First Love. Though published more than 150 years ago, the novella poignantly describes the intense joy and searing pain experienced by anyone falling in love for the first time. If that isn’t difficult enough, the book’s protagonist, Vladimir, is falling for an aristocratic girl five years his senior who herself is being courted by suitors thrice his age. The beautiful Zinaida does much to encourage and discourage Vladimir's attentions, at times treating him like a younger brother, but at other moments hinting that she loves him best of all.

In one scene, she orders him—if he truly loves her—to jump down from a high wall. “I flew down, just as though some one had given me a violent push from behind,” he relates. The boy hits the ground with such force that he momentarily passes out.  He awakes to Zinaida smothering his face in kisses. “How could you do it, dear; how could you obey?” she cries. “You know I love you.” What ecstasy! But it dissolves when she realizes that he’s keeping his eyes closed even after regaining consciousness, so as to extend her affections. She orders him home like a boy who’s played a prank on her.

Despite the story's devastating ending--Vladimir discovers that Zinaida has been carrying on an affair with his own father--the question of exactly what Zinaida feels for the 16-year-old is never made clear. It is that mystery that makes for a thought-provoking essay question, in which I ask students to invent a word that describes the feelings/love/affection Zinaida has for her young suitor.  This call to creativity has produced some wonderful essays, not to mention unique words, three of which I share here: (tleave) a combination of true love and teasing; (anaxia) love rooted in feelings of resentment, curiosity, and wishful thinking; and (mandamour) love not without passion, but without certainty.

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