By Chet Yarbrough
By Anton Chekhov
Narrated by Fred Williams
The truth of human nature is the bête noir of Anton Chekhov short stories, exemplified by “The Duel”; re-told in Fred Williams’ narration of “The Kiss and The Duel and Other Stories”.
One who categorizes and evaluates people is more likely a judge, jury, and executioner of their own life. “The Duel” pricks human conscience with a tale about frippery, sensualism, science, and enablement. (A movie was made of this story and released in 2009—not seen by this critic but given a good review in an April 27, 2010 review in the New York Times.)
Chekov creates several memorable characters in “The Duel”–Laevsky and Nadya, an married couple choose to live in un-wedded hell that leads to boredom, mutual disgust, and lust for change; Von Koren, a zoologist that sees Laevsky as an empty soul; without conscience, morality, or honor; and Samoylenko, a physician that enables Laevsky to trip down a path of human degradation.
Laevsky is a poor Russian aristocrat with good looks and the ability to seduce women, either married or unmarried. Nadya is a married woman who chooses to run away with Laevsky. They settle in a small town in the Caucasus where the circumstance of their relationship is known by the townspeople. Von Koren is an intellectual planning to leave town to explore the world but gets tangled in Laevsky’s life. Von Koren resents Laevsky’s profligate life style; he is aware of Laevsky’s lies to a mutual friend, Samoylenko, to get money to leave his mistress and return to St. Pertersburg.
An irony of Von Koren’s life is his work as a zoologist at a time when Darwin’s “evolution of species” is de rigueur. Doctor Samoylenko gets into a conversation with Von Koren about animal roles in nature and their evolution in a wry attempt to have Von Koren understand Laevsky’s life as a member of the human species. It is a failed argument because it is not overtly driven home to Von Koren by Samoylenko but Chekhov is writing for the reader to offer another way of looking at Laevsky’s profligate life.
Von Koren, in a morning meeting at Samoylenko’s house, infers to Laevsky that he knows of his nefarious plan to leave town; i.e. the plan to leave his mistress and his debts by taking money borrowed from Samoylenko that will never be re-paid. Laevsky is embarrassed when he is confronted by Von Koren. Laevsky challenges Von Koren to a duel. The duel is set for the following morning with an evening that offers time for Laevsky to see what frippery and sensualism has done to his and Nadya’s lives.
These characters are perfectly drawn to build to a climax that exposes truths about humanness; i.e. we are all flawed, we are good and bad, we live lives of desperation, we act like animals when in crises; however, we are capable of becoming better selves when confronted by life crises brought on by our base nature.
Chekhov died young, when he was 44, but he lived the life of a young person grown wise. He learned how to write about life in a way that enlightens the world. [contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]