The Shot Themes
Two closely interrelated primary themes of Alexander Pushkin’s story are heroism and honor. The behavior of the officer, who at first seems to epitomize the valiant warrior, later forces the reader to question whether he upholds those values. The affronts to honor, initially addressed in a card game, expand into a larger consideration of the role of honor within daily life as well as on the dueling ground or battlefield. Underlying these particular themes is the larger issue of masculinity, as the author suggests without explicitly stating that honor is specifically connected to specific gendered manifestations. Women do not play any roles in the story. Further related to manhood is the contrast between immaturity and true adulthood, which requires men to weigh consequences of their “honorable” actions.
Under the code of manly conduct that governed the society about which Pushkin wrote, men felt compelled to defend their honor. The character of Silvio, who has engaged in numerous duels, understands this code in ways that set him apart from other men. Expertise in marksmanship and commitment to engaging in the duel are two essential elements. However, for Silvio, there are other equally important components of correct personal behavior, which reflects not only the individual’s status but also social values.
The reader learns that the specific duel considered in this story was intended as a rematch that would resolve the dilemma that had resulted years earlier when neither participant was killed. Honor, for Silvio, is an even greater issue in the new encounter, as facing up to the challenge will be a further indicator of courage. A contrasting perspective, however, paints this second meet-up as foolhardy bravado, in that the original cause of the challenge no longer matters. The question of whether either participant can refuse a challenge without losing honor now assumes a larger role. These deliberations over how to characterize courage and honor suggest that, for Pushkin, the underlying social values have become outmoded.
Themes and Meanings
The modern reader is at first taken aback at the melodramatic quality of this story; the narrative as it unfolds also seems to a great extent to depend on coincidence. There is, however, a clear though indirectly stated thematic intent. Certain virtues of the military officer—stoicism, indifference to danger, and an unyielding sense of personal honor—are first set forth and then called into question where they appear to excess. At the outset, Silvio appears to be the embodiment of this heroic, valorous type, the more so for the aura of mystery that enshrouds much of his past. With calm and controlled dignity, he dismisses the offending officer from their game of cards; yet he does not, as many would have, pursue the matter to a formal duel. The narrator is even more astonished when he learns that Silvio’s conscience is troubled, not by a victim of his extraordinary skill, but by memories of the effrontery of an opponent who ridiculed the fears most men inwardly suffer when dueling.
The count’s story casts the issue in a different light. Although there is still the image of Silvio as...
(The entire section is 788 words.)