43 pages 1 hour read

Anton Chekhov

The Duel

Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1891

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Summary and Study Guide


The Duel is a novella by Russian writer Anton Chekhov. First published in 1891 in the newspaper New Time, The Duel exhibits Chekov’s mature prose in an important transition period in Russian literature and culture. The novella is situated between the decline of the great Russian Realist novel and the rise of the avant-gardist trends that would come to define the modernist era on the eve of the Russian Revolution. The Duel is a love letter to the Russian literature of the 19th century, at once citing and imitating the major literary stylistic achievements that had come before it and ushering in a new period, when ideological battles of the past—represented in the novella by an actual duel—have already been fought. What remains is to carry on in the specifically Realist way that Chekhov’s prose advocates—that is, attuned to the drama of ordinary life itself, with its myriad perspectives and lack of any final answer or solution.

A symbolic “duel” of the novella tracks alongside an actual duel that motivates the core of the plot, but this is a story of philosophical conversation, as well as the astute observation of characters’ behavior. The symbolic duel is between two rival social types, representing two ethical positions—Individualism Versus the Common Good. True to Chekhov’s equanimity, neither extreme is without its serious flaws and, true to the avant-gardist approach to plot that would become all the more obvious in his plays, nothing really happens—even in the context of the very dramatic event of a duel. Rather, by the end of the novella, readers are left to reflect on the insurmountable struggle and ordinariness of life itself—an ebb and flow of human folly and human insight, which are the closest polarities to “good” and “evil” as can be found.

This study guide uses the Modern Library of New York 2003 edition, translated from Russian by Constance Garnett.

Plot Summary

Ivan Andreitch Laevsky is having an affair with a married woman, Nadyezhda Fyodorovna. The couple flees Russia to live together in the Caucauses, a region that includes modern-day Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. The novella’s action begins some time after the couple’s relocation, when their romance has begun to fade. The couple originally planned to live a life of hard work but have not followed through on this vision. Laevsky is a government official, just as he was back in Russia. He signs papers and oversees the bureaucratic functioning of finances in the Caucauses but spends most of his time playing cards and bathing in the sea, where he has breakfast with his friend, the local army doctor Samoylenko.

Laevsky begins the first of several philosophical dialogues by asking Samoylenko about the ethics of leaving a mistress, eventually clarifying that he means his own desire to leave Nadyezhda Fyodorovna. Samoylenko argues that Laevsky should stay with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna regardless of how he feels, but Laevsky complains that he cannot do so because he is not in love and, to the contrary, utterly miserable. Laevsky loathes even the smallest actions of Nadyezhda Fyodorovna even though he feels guilty toward her. Nadyezhda Fyodorovna also feels guilty toward Laevsky for her own role in the disappointing life that they are living. She has also had an affair with a local police officer.

Later the action shifts to Samoylenko’s home. Samoylenko regularly serves dinner to two local young people: a zoologist, Von Koren, and a deacon, Pobyedov. Continuing the philosophical conversation, they discuss Laevsky’s wish to abandon Nadyezhda Fyodorovna. Von Koren makes a strong case against Laevsky’s character. He argues that Laevsky offers nothing to the good of society and could therefore be exterminated with impunity.

Another acquaintance accidentally invites Nadyezhda Fyodorovna to an evening picnic, against Von Koren’s wishes. During the picnic, Laevsky is made aware of Von Koren’s dislike for him, and Nadyezhda Fyodorovna flirts with other men but is ashamed when Laevsky rebukes her. Laevsky finally shares with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna the news of her husband’s death, which he has known since his first conversation with Samoylenko and which initially sharpened his need to escape from her. Nadyezhda Fyodorovna is distraught. Deep in debt, she has another affair with the local shopkeeper’s son. Also deep in debt, Laevsky requests a loan from Samoylenko to flee the town by steamer boat. Samoylenko does not have enough money himself but requests a loan from Von Koren, who surmises the money is for Laevsky and stipulates as a condition for the loan that Laevsky must leave with Nadyezhda Fyodorovna. Aware that his deception has been uncovered, Laevsky has a fit of hysterics and rebukes Samoylenko for sharing his confidences with others. Von Koren then challenges Laevsky to a duel.

On the evening before the duel, Laevsky learns of Nadyezhda Fyodorovna’s affairs and, as the climax of his own internal struggles, falls into despair over his mistress’ ruin as well as his own. He spends a sleepless night reviewing his past and coming to terms with his actions, experiencing in the process something close to a conversion. In the morning, he recognizes his fondness for Nadyezhda Fyodorovna as a fellow sinner like himself and they share a tender moment of shared despair before he departs.

The deacon Pobyedov arrives first at the scene of the duel to watch from afar. Laevsky is noticeably distant, causing the seconds to ask Von Koren that the duel be called off. Von Koren refuses, and although Laevsky fires first and purposely misses, Von Koren takes direct aim. Noticing the murderous intent in Von Koren’s face, Pobyedov shouts from his distant observational post and interrupts Von Koren’s concentration, causing him to miss. Neither man is wounded, though Laevsky’s side is lightly scraped by the passing bullet.

Three months pass. Von Koren departs for a scientific expedition and Laevsky and Nadyezhda Fyodorovna have remained in the town, working to repay their debts. Von Koren praises their transformation and bids them farewell, excusing himself for misjudging Laevsky’s character with the notion that “nobody knows the real truth” of a person (270). Laevsky applies this idea to itself as he gazes out at the steamer ships.