Dueling as a Commentary on Gambling and Risk Taking

Published: April 23, 2013

One of the biggest gambles a person can make is a gamble with their life. A duel is one such example of a gamble. Dueling consisted of two individuals with matched weapons and agreed upon rules (such as the distance apart and the role of a dueler’s second). The weapons employed in these contests ranged from swords and rapiers to, as time passed, pistols and revolvers. Duels traditionally revolved around a code of honor, which depended on the culture of the participants. The end goal was usually not to kill one’s opponent (although that was the most common outcome), but to satisfy one’s honor by demonstrating a willingness to risk one’s life for that honor. However, dueling was still a dangerous undertaking and governments progressively began to make dueling illegal to stop the practice all together.

Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons both detail scenes involving duels. The two stories are set in the early 19th century and 1859, respectively, and both take place in Russia. However, each dueling account makes a different commentary on the nature of free will and the ability of a character to make a personal choice. The characters challenged in the duel also exhibit different personal attitudes towards the concept of “honor,” which influences how they treat the concept of a duel.

The description of the duel between Onegin and Lensky asserts that no matter the catalyst, once a challenger has initiated the call for a duel, they take away their opponent’s free choice in the matter based on an adherence to the honor code or to social expectations, depending on each character’s philosophy. The challenged cannot refuse, and the challenger cannot change their mind. Once the ability for free agency is removed, the death of one of the characters is  unavoidable because that is the logical outcome of a duel. Once the duel has been declared, each party must carry out their traditional and scripted actions.

However, the description of the duel between the doctor Bazarov and Pavel in Fathers and Sons asserts that the opposite is true, and that despite the need to protect personal honor, the duelers always have a choice about how to carry out the duel. Turgenev writes an account of the  duel and treats it in terms of gentlemanliness rather than pure fate and honor. Each participant makes their own decisions and defines their own role in the situation. Both dueling scenes are similar in that uncertainty about the future and the inability to control the external events related to their gamble is the greatest stressor for the characters.

First, the dueling challenge in Eugene Onegin begins when Onegin, annoyed with Lensky for dragging him along to a ball he did not want to attend, dances with and pays an unusual amount of attention to Olga, Lensky’s fiancée. Lensky is overcome with rage and jealousy and, despite their close friendship, challenges Onegin to a duel. This is his gamble. It is inspired by jealousy and driven by passion. It closely parallels the famous concept of a “crime of passion,” in which the offender acts under the influence of emotions too strong to control. Pushkin describes Lensky’s decision to issue the dueling challenge to his friend Onegin thusly:

Poor Lensky’s reeling from the blow.
He curses woman’s reckless course,
Exits, calls loudly for his horse,
Rides off. A pair of pistols though,
Two bullets – nothing else – await
The hour that must decide his fate. (Pushkin 5.45)

In a crime of passion the perpetrator is said to be so overcome with feelings of love, lust, rage, jealousy, or desire that they are unable to control their actions, resulting in violent consequences. Lensky is clearly in the grips of a powerful emotion as the text above describes him as “reeling from the blow.” This supports the idea that Lensky did not have free will in undertaking this risk to his life. Or, at the very least, he did not actively seek to exercise his free will or formulate a decision based on reason, but was rather carried along by outside or subconscious forces. He took this gamble compulsively and he was the pawn of his own passionate emotions. The fact that two bullets and the hour are described in the passage as the only things capable of deciding his fate also supports this theory. In addition, Lensky attributes the entire situation he now finds himself in to “woman’s reckless course” and Olga’s behavior rather than Onegin’s behavior. This is interesting because it appears as though Onegin was only using Olga as a pawn to express his annoyance at being at the dance in the first place, yet Lensky focuses on her as the transgressor. Sound decisions are made after observing the conflict or problem, understanding the problem, a decision, and then lastly an action. In this sudden and passionate decision to challenge Onegin to a duel, Lensky does not think methodically, logically, or even extensively about the situation before making his decision. Thus, the reader is left to think that the duel was not a sound logical decision, but instead, a decision based on compulsion and emotion. External forces like those previously mentioned, and not Onegin or Lensky’s actions as free agents, will determine the outcome of the duel.

Similarly, Onegin is depicted as only having one option when Lensky challenges him. The following is his reaction to the challenge and his immediate feelings regarding his earlier actions that caused Lensky to become so impassioned:

Onegin without hesitating,
Turned to the envoy, mutely waiting,
And spoke as if he scarcely cared,
What might result: ‘Ever prepared.’
(…)Yet left Eugene, alone, dismayed,
Unhappy with the role he’d played. (Pushkin 6.9)

Onegin speaks as if he “scarcely cared,” yet when the envoy leaves, Pushkin describes Onegin as “alone, dismayed/Unhappy with the role he’d played.” He first adopts this careless attitude,because he is demonstrating his confidence by acting as though he is not flustered by the challenge. The second attitude described in the passage, in which Onegin feels alone and dismayed, demonstrates that he feels there is nothing he can do to change the way events are unfolding. Once the gamble has been made, there is no turning back or changing the course of events. The reader can see this in Onegin’s feigned indifference when speaking to the envoy despite the fact that truthfully he feels regret and unhappiness. He even condemns himself: “And rightly so: For sitting sternly/In private judgment on his action/He condemned himself severely/First: he’d erred in his reaction…” (Pushkin 6.10) Nevertheless, there is no action that he can undertake to adjust the way events are, and will be, playing out. His role as the challenged individual is already written: “‘But now, too late: the moment’s past… Besides'” – he thought – “‘the die is cast.'” (Pushkin 6.11)

The dueling scene from Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons sheds a different light on the nature of the agent’s free will within its dueling scene. The challenger is Pavel and the challenged is Bazarov. The catalyst for the declaration of a duel is similar to the case described in Eugene Onegin. If one compares the incidents which lead Lensky and Pavel to issue their challenges, one must note that Lensky’s anger is born out of intense emotions including passion, jealousy, and betrayal. Pavel’s challenge, on the other hand, is born out of his devotion to the honor code, a dislike of Bazarov, and the fact that Pavel witnessed Bazarov kiss the hand of Fenechka, the love of Pavel’s brother Nikolai as well as the mother of one of Nikolai’s children. Pavel is also  attracted to Fenechka, and this gives him an additional reason to be unhappy with Bazarov’s actions. All these reasons push Pavel to take a risk and to issue the challenge to duel.

“I’ve decided to fight a duel with you.”

Bazarov opened his eyes very wide.

“With me?”

“With you, absolutely.”  

“What on earth for?”

“I could explain the reason to you,” Pavel Petrovich replied. “But I prefer to keep on that score. To my way of thinking, you’re superfluous here; I can’t stand you, I despise you…(Turgenev 116)

If one analyzes the differences between each story’s account of how the challenge to duel is issued, one can already notice large differences between the ways the characters react to the challenges. Onegin responds calmly, and it seems as though he only ever had one answer. No matter what the circumstances, he would have accepted the duel, and likely in the same emotionless manner, because his answer was already pre-determined by the honor code and clear to him. He recognizes the risks involved and that he could be killed, however he willingly accepts this as part of the gamble.

Bazarov, on the other hand, asks questions and seeks clarification. He reacts with more thought and concern. Like Onegin, he is not happy about being challenged to a duel. However, the reader gets the sense that Bazarov has a choice but is unwilling to sacrifice the chivalrous tradition of defending one’s honor by refusing to participate in the duel. This is evident when he accepts by saying: “You can remain a gentleman… I also accept your challenge as a gentleman.” (Turgenev 116) Afterwards, he exclaims: “Damn it all! So elegant and so stupid! What a farce we’ve just acted! That’s how trained dogs dance on their hind legs. But it was impossible to refuse; he’d have thrashed me.” (Turgenev 118) This quotation demonstrates Bazarov’s dismissal of the gentleman’s concept of ironing out disagreements with a duel. However, it also explains why he felt it was necessary to accept the duel although he does not identify himself as a gentleman follow the same standards of upholding one’s honor. This is all the more interesting because he dislikes the social norm and the way in which it makes their actions similar to “how trained dogs dance on their hind legs.” He also claims to fear the “thrashing” he would have received from Kirsanov (Pavel?) had he denied the social norm. In the end, he is compelled to accept the duel by a mixture of fear and recognition of a social norm he dislikes.

Bazarov contemplates the risks involved in gamblingwith his life more thoroughly than Onegin. He considers leaving a note, which he dismisses as being too romantic and not following his nihilist beliefs, and he thinks of how he does not know how to use a pistol, another factor that increases the risk for him. The fact that Turgenev makes it clear that Bazarov is inexperienced with pistols is interesting since it forces the reader to think of the duel as more of an unfair and unbalanced encounter than the duel in Pushkin’s novel. When Bazarov and Pavel’s duel does not result in a death, it is all the more surprising because the reader has been told that Bazarov had no experience with pistols.

The way in which each dueling scene plays out also makes for interesting commentary on the ability of the characters to carry out their own chosen actions or follow their assigned role within the gamble or duel. Despite the fact that Onegin feels regret and is unhappy about the duel with Lensky, he knows his role, and he will fulfill it to the best of his capability. Both men feel a measure of regret and wish that the events had unfolded differently, however the social norm states that honor must be satisfied, and each character has their own individual motivations (such as Bazarov’s effort to put off a “thrashing.”) Now that the challenge has been issued and the stakes of the gamble declared, honor must be satisfied regardless of personal desire.-. If one juxtaposes Bazarov and Onegin’s attitudes, it becomes apparent that while Onegin is honor bound to accept the duel, Bazarov is more motivated by self-preservation. He accepts the challenge “as a gentleman” and to avoid any retaliatory action from Pavel, But immediately afterward, he compares his behavior with that of trained dogs and dislikes his own course of action.

The second aspect of these two dueling scenes that makes a statement on the nature of free will in risk taking and gambling is the way in which the duels are carried out. Onegin behaves as if he has no choice. Now that the challenge has been made, there are actions he regrets, but nothing he can do to control the turn of events from that point. It is entirely in the power of fate and external forces. He even sleeps so soundly that he oversleeps. When the duel begins, he fires the first shot, which kills Lensky. This is ironic because he has a closer relationship with Lensky than Pavel does with Bazarov, and yet the duel between the latter pair has a less devastating outcome. Onegin and Lensky are actually friends whereas Bazarov and Pavel cannot stand each other. However, within the context of his duel, Bazarov behaves as though he has free choice:

“Are you wounded?” he asked.

“You had the right to summon me to the barrier,” Pavel Petrovich said. “The wound’s not serious. According to our conditions, each of us still has one shot left.”

“Well, forgive me, that can wait for another time,” replied Bazarov, grabbing Pavel Petrovich, who’d begun to turn pale. “Now I’m no longer a duelist, but a doctor”(Turgenev 120).

The first indication of his free agency and choice is that he does not take the second shot after his first poorly-aimed shot wounds Pavel, despite the fact that the opportunity is available to him. He could have taken another shot to end Pavel’s life and the dispute but does not. Secondly, he reverts to his doctor’s role after injuring the older man, and Pavel survives. The person who decides the outcome of the duel is, in the end, Bazarov. He does not give up his free choice once the gamble has been struck, and the duel ends on his terms and by his choice.

Both works of literature describe duels between two men. The duel in Eugene Onegin is between two former friends, whereas the duel in Fathers and Sons is between two men who cannot stand each other and are from different generations. There are major differences described in the characters’ motives, the conduct of the duels, and the outcomes of the duels. The first duel affirms the theory that within this form of gambling, once the dueling challenge has been issued, the future is predetermined. The second duel supports the theory that no matter who the concerned parties are, the outcome of the gamble will always be in the hands of the independent agents participating in it. This theory is reflected in the outcomes of each duel as well; Lensky is killed, whereas Pavel’s life is both endangered and saved by Bazarov. In these ways, when these two dueling accounts are juxtaposed, we see the different ways in which Pushkin and Turgenev view the inevitability of fate in a gamble with one’s own life.

Works Cited

Pushkin, Aleksandr S. Eugene Onegin. Princeton: Princeton Univ., 1990. Print.

Pushkin, Aleksandr Sergeevich, and Charles Johnston. Eugene Onegin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979. Print.

Turgenev, Ivan Sergejevic, and Isaiah Berlin. Fathers and Sons. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965. Print.

Turgenev, Ivan Sergeevich. Fathers and Sons. New York: Modern Library, 1961. Print.

About the author

Kate West

Kate West is an undergraduate senior at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN, majoring in Russian and Aerospace Studies. Upon graduation, she will go to initial flight screening and undergraduate pilot training in the southern United States.

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