I thought I had read The Duel when I first started reading Chekhov last year, but I was mistaken–I think I mixed it up with The Kiss. At any rate, The Duel is a substantial, enlightening text. It has a farflung setting, in the Caucacus, where the main character, Laevsky, has run away with a married woman to try to live the good life. Laevsky is a bored and corrupt minor scoundrel in the best Chekhov manner, wracked by self-pity, and the analysis of his shortcomings and pathetic machinations is both searing and sustained. Chekhov creates an extraordinary foil for Laevsky in the zoologist character von Koren, who seems to be an updated version of Turgenev’s seminal Bazarov. The Duel is very much aware of its literary predecessors: as Laevsky and von Koren are about to face off in the climax, a ritual that they know is outdated by decades, they remember how it’s managed from reading about duels in literature, in Lermontov and “in Turgenev, too, Barzarov exchanged shots with some one there…” The duel itself is an interesting device, because we see that the story is based on two conflicting philosophical positions, or rather modes of life, and Chekhov manages to make a tidy and poignant conclusion out of it, and he creates a number of great characters as well.
The literary echoes even get the story going, as Laevsky recalls Anna Karenina as he decides that he has fallen out of love with his mistress, Nadezhda Dedorovna. At first we’re seeing things almost purely from Laevsky’s perspective, and we think that he’s gotten himself into a bit of a pickle. Laevsky unburdens himself to the kindly, rather foolish and old-fashioned military doctor Samoilenko, and we initially consider Laevsky with a large portion of Samoilenko’s natural sympathy. But Samoilenko has two men that he boards, making meals for them, von Koren and “the Deacon,” a young man fresh from the seminary. Von Koren is a man of science, of course, with all of the intensity of Basarov but none of the politics. Von Koren is a keen critic of character, and Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism and Nietszche are added to the the mix–Samoilenko laments “the germans” on more than one occasion. Von Koren describes how Laevsky has corrupted the moral landscape of the town, introducing gambling at vint and new modes of drinking, not to mention living openly with his mistress. And now Laevsky’s self-pity, his inability to work or do anything to help himself, takes on a more desperate and destructive edge.
Nadezhda Fedorovna, meanwhile, is just as corrupt, immobilized, and unhappy as Laevsky. Chekhov does a great job of revealing the desperation of two troubled, weak, damaged individuals who live together and make a bad situation worse through their inability to communicate–it’s the stuff of the best modern realist fiction. The rather amazing thing here is how he uses the old-fashioned means of the duel to bring these characters back together, redeeming Laevsky through his brush with death and showing how the truth can save a seemingly doomed couple. Nadezhda isn’t exactly a sterling heroine, compromised from the start by her flight from her husband and living with Laevsky, and her shallow weakness and rising desperation are well-observed as she sleeps with not just one but two men in the small town, the second of them simply in hopes of cancelling a debt. The second affair is used deftly to drive the plot towards the climax, as her second lover takes Laevsky to catch Nadezhda in bed, under duress, with the first. Laevsky, obsessed with getting away and already engaged to duel von Koren, is emotionally scarified and barely able to stand when he shows up for the confrontation. His humiliation goes a beat further, as von Koren is determined to wipe him out, feeling the drive to dominate and kill rising as the critical moment arrives. But the quiet Deacon, a laughing sidekick for von Koren but a man of faith, yells out when he sees von Koren’s bloodlust and the distraction throws off the shot. It’s one of Chekhov’s characteristic minor notes of grace–not showing any belief himself, but instead the effect of the ability of some men to believe, morality at work in the world. In a story filled with the immobility, neuroses and self-deception of the semi-educated, as well as the world of science and its effect on philosophy, it’s a startling conclusion. Perhaps we should have expected that the Deacon would play such a role. The image of Laevsky at the end, transformed and working hard every day to pay off his debts and living in acceptance and even deep contentment with Nadezhda Fedorovna, is quite satisfying, even more so when von Koren says goodbye and seems to understand that his philosophy is limited, that he underestimated Laevsky’s capacity for change and redemption. And the final image is very fine, of von Koren’s boat being rowed out to the ship that will take him away, the oarsmen battling the waves on the day of a dark Chekhov storm, making three strokes forward to be pushed two strokes back.