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The first five sections of “The Duel” explore the emotional and mental states of two lovers, Ivan Andreitch Laevsky and Nadyezhda Fyodorovna, who have fled to the Caucasus in search of happiness and now are living together without benefit of matrimony, to the scandal of local society. Now realizing how different daily life is from romantic dreams, how different life as a farmer would be from visions of love in a vineyard, Laevsky is convinced that he no longer loves Nadyezhda Fyodorovna. Only the lack of money prevents him from deserting her. As he tells his friend Alexandr Daviditch Samoylenko, the fact that Nadyezhda’s husband has died, leaving her free to marry, makes Laevsky’s plight more pressing. He does not want to marry a woman he does not love, and Samoylenko’s attempts to shame Laevsky for irresponsibility have no effect on him. To the zoologist Von Koren, Laevsky’s attitude is shocking, typical of the hedonists of the 1880’s.

Nadyezhda’s dreams of love in a seaside cottage have been as much unrealized as those of her lover. Rather than breaking her heart, his recent cold behavior has relieved her sense of guilt, for she has not only grown unenthusiastic about life on a farm; she has also run up debts without Laevsky’s knowledge and has taken Ilya Mihalitch Kirilin, the police captain, as a lover. Although she is now bored with Kirilin, Nadyezhda has some difficulty in justifying her infidelity.

At a picnic, while Laevsky contemplates flight from his situation, Nadyezhda considers accepting as a lover the son of the shopkeeper to whom she owes money, hoping in some way to escape from her debts while enjoying herself at the same time. Kirilin, too, desires her favors. When the lovers return home, Laevsky tells Nadyezhda that her husband is dead and hurries to Samoylenko, begging for a loan so that he can run away from her. While Laevsky waits for money to flee, Nadyezhda is desperately concealing her own pressing debts from him until a propitious time to confess. As Samoylenko extracts a loan from Von Koren, Laevsky finally admits to himself that his flight will be based on lies: to Nadyezhda, whom he will abandon; to the generous doctor, who will not be repaid in the foreseeable future; to his government superiors; to his creditors; and to his mother, from whom he will get some money, but not enough for his needs.

Meanwhile, because Kirilin has threatened her with exposure, Nadyezhda agrees to give him two more assignations. Angered by the judgmental Von Koren, nearly hysterical with financial worries and his desire to break off his love affair, Laevsky insults his benefactor Samoylenko and his enemy Von Koren, and the zoologist turns Laevsky’s unthinking words into a challenge to a duel. Later that evening, consumed with hatred for Von Koren and anxiety about his own situation, Laevsky has a final blow: The jealous son of the shopkeeper conducts him to the room where Kirilin is making love to Nadyezhda Fyodorovna.

Facing himself at last, Laevsky realizes that his life has been both selfish and meaningless, that Nadyezhda has become only what he made her, and finally, that she is the only person in the world for whom he really cares. Although the situation is unchanged, his debts unpaid, he now wishes to live. When Von Koren refuses to accept his apology, Laevsky fires into the air. Still impelled by hatred, Von Koren prepares to kill Laevsky, but a shout from the boyish deacon who is observing from the bushes throws off his aim, and Laevsky is spared, to find new joy in life and in love.

The final revelation comes three months later, at the time of Von Koren’s departure. Urged by Samoylenko, Von Koren admits to Laevsky, now married, hardworking, and happy, that he had misjudged him. Laevsky concludes that no human being knows the truth, but that through suffering and misery everyone does more nearly approach an understanding of life.

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