“Our Fathers in Flesh and Spirit”: Intertextuality in Čexov’s “The Duel”

With the publication of Evgenij Onegin, Puškin set a pattern within Russian Romantic literature which, in many ways, served to make the tradition self-reflexive and self-parodic. The dependence on Romantic literary models for cues on how to behave in everyday life is responsible to a large extent for the failure of Tat′jana and Onegin to find happiness in the prosaic reality they inhabit. Puškin turned more fully to Romantic parody later in his Povesti Belkina, where his characters again encounter complications when real life fails to conform to literary stereotypes. Similarly, Lermontov’s Pečorin, that terribly Romantic figure, is, at the same time, deliberately parodied in the novel in the figure of Grušnickij, who affects a tragic air in accordance with Romantic demands and then discards that air once out of sight and sound of those who would be influenced by it.

Čexov’s works, of course, belong to a different tradition, but they nonetheless reflect the habits of their Russian precursors. In “The Duel,” for example, Čexov offers a twist on this tradition of intertextual referencing by having his hero not only identify himself explicitly with literary antecedents, but also use those literary creations to justify and explain his own existence. When Laevskij refers to himself as a “superfluous man,” he is not unconsciously or subconsciously invoking literary models: he quite deliberately defines himself as a product of a literary phenomenon. When he identifies Onegin, Pečorin, and Bazarov as his “fathers in flesh and spirit,” he lays the blame for his own shortcomings at the feet of these literary heroes. In other words, Laevskij’s weaknesses and faults, his inability to lead a meaningful life, result from literature: literary antecedents define him, and, as a result, they cripple his life. And Laevskij’s foil, the zoologist and Darwinist, Von Koren, who so fiercely ridicules the hero’s claims to literary victimhood, himself resorts to literary models in order to carry out his vendetta against Laevskij. The duel he proposes is both an anachronistic Romantic ritual and a glaring, conscious, and inept parody of the duels fought by Pečorin and Bazarov.

Ultimately, Čexov, like Puškin, exposes the inability of literary models to address the true complexity of life. But whereas Puškin uses Western Romantic models for his characters to emulate, Čexov relies primarily on the Russian phenomenon of the “superfluous man,” and thus brings the formula full circle: Turgenev and his contemporaries, in depicting this type, strove to reflect a real phenomenon of Russian social reality. Laevskij, ironically, sees himself not as an example of that social reality, but rather as the product of the literary phenomenon. Literature created him, not social ills.

This paper will draw its theoretical framework in part from studies of intertextuality (e.g. Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and others), but it will also base its discussion upon the long-standing and inescapable intertwining of social reality and art that characterized Russian literature in the nineteenth century.