Monday, December 3, 2007

The duel in Nicholas Nickleby

I was surprised to find a duel, between two minor characters, in Chapter 50 of Nicholas Nickleby. It's a first-rate scene. It seems to me that duels are not commonly represented in English literature. Is that true? There's an important one in Clarissa. What else?

Dueling scenes bring out the best in many writers, for understandable reasons. The stark contrast between perfect health and imminent (voluntary, generally pointless) death leads most writers to heighten the perceptiveness of the chracters and the precision of the prose. Execution scenes often work the same way.

Pierre's duel in War and Peace is probably the peak of the genre, but the Russian tradition is rich. Eugene Onegin, A Hero for Our Time (and both Pushkin and Lermontov were themselves killed in really stupid duels), Chekhov's A Duel. Probaby many more.

A certain form of dueling persisted in Germany longer than almost anywhere. Fontane's Effi Briest includes a brilliant dueling scene, the tragedy in that case being that the duelist fully understands that the duel is a horrible mistake, a failure of character.

French writers travesty duels. The hero of Balzac's The Wild Ass's Skin has, or thinks he has, a magic talisman, so he fires not only without aiming but without even looking in the direction of his opponent. The duels in Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin are simply ridiculous, perfectly in keeping with the character of that novel.

The most famous duelists in America are politicians - Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson. I feel like I must be forgetting some crucial literary example. Please remind me.

Anyway, here's Dickens. The duelist is on his way to the duel:

"Now the noise of the wheels resolved itself into some wild tune in which he could recognize scraps of airs he knew, and now there was nothing in his ears but a stunning and bewildering sound like rushing water. But his companion rallied him on being so silent, and they talked and laughed boisterously. When they stopped he was a little surprised to find himself in the act of smoking, but on reflection he remembered when and where he had taken the cigar."

This is all good, but imagine that Dickens had left out the final phrase, had just stopped at the last comma. The story would carry on in the exact same way, and nothing important would be lost, except the most poignant detail in the passage.


  1. How about a duel that never was?

    "And now here's Mr. Bennet gone away, and I know he will fight Wickham, wherever he meets him and then he will be killed, and what is to become of us all?"

    "And, above all, keep Mr. Bennet from fighting. Tell him what a dreadful state I am in, that I am frighted out of my wits--and have such tremblings, such flutterings, all over me--such spasms in my side and pains in my head, and such beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day. And tell my dear Lydia not to give any directions about her clothes till she has seen me, for she does not know which are the best warehouses."

  2. Great example - classic Austen comedy.

    The English treatment is really different. Sir Charles Grandison actually declines to duel, risking his honor, because he is a man of high character. Then there's another duel that doesn't quite happen in The Pickwick Papers.

  3. Hey, yeah, Tom Jones. That's the one I couldn't remember.

    Or I think that's the one I couldn't remember.