Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Duel” is often classified as a short novel because of its length and because of the complexity of its structure. In most Anton Chekhov short stories, there is one scene in which the protagonist comes to realize a truth about life or a revelation about himself. “The Duel,” on the other hand, has several important revelatory scenes before the duel and a final scene three months after the climactic duel, wherein there is a final turn of character.

Throughout Chekhov’s story, there is constant opposition between love and hate, between fidelity and infidelity. Whatever speeches the characters may make about values, they are motivated by their emotions. Laevsky and Nadyezhda both blame each other for the failure of their dreams, and both take revenge by infidelity—on her part, physical unfaithfulness, and on his part, the planned desertion. Although they talk, they do not confide. Von Koren himself, hating what Laevsky stands for, is eager to kill him, and Nadyezhda’s other two professed lovers are willing to blackmail her into having sexual relations with them and to betray her to her husband. Only Samoylenko and the deacon are truly good-natured.

However, the movement of the story is toward reconciliation. Laevsky’s suffering and Nadyezhda’s unfaithfulness bring them to a love based on mutual understanding rather than on illusion. Von Koren learns that even men like Laevsky can change and that his own hatred can be turned to liking.

Laevsky’s final realization, that human beings proceed like a small boat in high waves, unevenly yet with progress, suggests that the harsh judgments made by Laevsky, Von Koren, and even Nadyezhda in the first sections of the story were erroneous. None of them knew the inmost feelings of the others, which were revealed to the reader by Chekhov; each of them had unique grievances and unique dislikes, which culminated for the men in the duel and for Nadyezhda in her rendezvous with Kirilin. From a distance, human hatred can be as laughable as the young deacon found it; it can also be as wrong as the tolerant Samoylenko, the reconciling and forgiving force, insisted. Given the wrongs of which all human beings are capable, neither high-minded speeches nor destructive actions make sense. However, even mistakes—like the duel—can produce reform.