I don’t usually read old short stories, especially those that deal with uptight families in dusty dining rooms — 19th-century literature, basically. Don’t get me wrong, I like Victor Hugo and Fyodor Dostoevsky as much as anyone else, but their narratives benefit from the space they’re given to develop. You can’t restrain epics like “Les Miserables” or “Crime and Punishment.” It’s 20th-century authors, with their fragmentary and surrealist plots, who can capture us in just 20 pages. The reason I appreciate stories like Ivan Turegenev’s “First Love” so much is because they prove just how wrong I am.

It could be said that “First Love” raises all these red flags. Published in 1860, this Russian novella tells the story of Vladimir Petrovich, an aging aristocrat who recounts the tale of his first true passion. The plot largely revolves around the experiences of this  young protagonist as he transits between his own dusty dining room and — you guessed it — the dusty dining room of the beautiful 21-year-old Zinaída. As I warned, the setup feels outdated, yet “First Love” captures me all the same.

Vladimir isn’t the only bachelor enamored with Zinaída. From lusty hussars to melodramatic poets, it seems every influential male in the village pines for the princess. Each one of these colorful characters loves differently. The cynical Doctor Lúshin slanders the princess behind her back but is happy to suffer any humiliation at her hands. Byelovzóroff, the most daring of the group, constantly threatens violence against others as a testament to his passion. Then there’s a sentimental poet, a malicious Polish count and, of course, Vladimir. The youthful protagonist loves exactly as a teenager would — abstractly — valuing the thrill of emotion more than the beloved herself.

None of them can capture the young woman’s heart, however, which prompts her to pursue an affair with another man. Since it would be a disservice to reveal his identity, I will only say that, at the time, her choice was so outrageous that it nearly led to the story’s censorship. Ultimately, Turgenev elevates Zinaída’s above the suitors and Vladimir, for when all is said and done, her’s is the only passion which persists: “He is waiting for me, and is convinced that I shall come — and I shall come, and there is no power in existence which can stop me when I wish to go to him.” 

The genius of this short story lies in how it so blatantly betrays readers’ expectations. The “first love” archetype is certainly overused. From the perspective of a 21st-century reader, even one who doesn’t mind the occasional rom-com, nothing seems more tiresome than having to go through another one. Turgenev’s novella is not only bearable, rather, it is excellent precisely because it undermines the format.

If  Turgenev wanted to follow the beaten path, he could have honed in on his narrator’s passion. That’s where we think the story is going: the introduction of the beloved, a few obstacles in between, and then love gained or lost. “First Love” follows in the first two steps, but when it’s time to cross the finish line, the plot takes a turn. 

The latter half of the story focuses not on the narrator but on Zinaída. The maiden takes the center role and the pining protagonist is relegated to the backstage. That is because, unlike Vladimir, Zinaída is willing to pursue her affair. Her love is not only profound, but active. That is why, when faced with Zinaída’s actions, the narrator can only stand in awe: “Yes ,— I thought, — that’s what love is, — that is passion, — that is devotion.”

The traditional first love narrative isn’t really about love — it’s a coming of age story, a rite of passage. Turgenev effectively turns the traditional romance story on its head by drawing a clear line between passion and affectation.Vladimir’s love is in fact superficial, but Zinaída’s isn’t. Because she remains true to her emotion, and because she is willing to sacrifice, her experience transcends the erosion of time. This is why she is the center of the story — under the guise of first love, Turgenev quests for truth.

Having studied in an international school, I grew up expecting my four years of college would be some of the most memorable of my life. The COVID-19 pandemic took one of those years. But “First Love” proves that, although we have a tendency to overvalue our youth, what matters in life is not what could have been, but what is.

Breitman’s article is part of an ongoing column featuring reviews of classic books that one should read. Read the other articles here.