The Shot and The Fatalist – When Fiction turns into Reality

A comparison of Pushkin’s story The Shot (The Belkin Stories – 1830) with Lermontov’s story The Fatalist (A Hero of Our Time – 1838).

On the eve of the anniversary of Pushkin’s death 181 years ago, I thought it’d be interesting to see how Pushkin wrote about fate and death and to compare one of his most famous stories with a strikingly similar story by Lermontov.


Fate and death in fiction

Now I don’t know if any of you have read both The Shot and The Fatalist? If so, I challenge you to recollect to which story ‘the Serb’ belongs and to which story a certain ‘Silvio’. Both men are outsiders with a passion for cards and pistols. One of them ended up in a duel and the other played Russian roulette…

Yes, both stories are about as Russian as it gets. There’s a regiment stationed in a small village and the officers play cards together every evening. Both Silvio and the Serb like to ‘hold bank’. Both stories feature a cap with a bullet hole. Both have an anticlimax in the middle and fate is the main subject in both stories. But that’s where the similarities end.

In Pushkin’s The Shot, Silvio gets insulted by a young officer, whom he challenges to a duel. The young officer arrives at the scene carelessly eating cherries and Silvio decides that he can’t get satisfaction from shooting someone who doesn’t care for life and postpones his turn to shoot. Silvio practices shooting every day for years until he finally hears that his opponent is about to get married. He goes to see the young man and take his turn to shoot, but his conscience intervenes: he can’t shoot at an unarmed man, so instead he organises a new duel. The young man, now more mature and really nervous, misses, piercing a painting on the wall. His wife comes in terrified and throws herself at Silvio’s feet. Silvio, seeing the real fear in his opponent’s face, is now satisfied and shoots a hole in the same painting instead, right next to the other hole.

In Lermontov’s Fatalist, the Serb claims that you can’t die, unless it’s your destined time to die. He makes a bet with Pechorin and to prove it he takes a random pistol from the wall of their host, points it at his own head and shoots. Even though the pistol turned out to be loaded, it misfires. He wins the bet. Pechorin, the fatalist, however, was certain that he saw in the Serb’s face a sign that he would die soon (having been in the army already for a long time, he is familiar with death) and right enough, the Serb gets in the way of a drunken idiot that same night and gets killed. Pechorin decides to put his own theory to the test and certain that it’s not yet his time to die, captures the dangerously drunken Cossack.

Pushkin lets Silvio take control of fate; he had the chance and (by law of honour) every right to shoot his opponent on two occasions and being the best shot the narrator has ever encountered, he would certainly have killed his opponent if he had done so. The young opponent realises this only too well. This is very much a story about honour, respect and satisfaction.

Lermontov lets fate take control. Pechorin happily bets with the Serb, who puts his life in danger for a bet, and Pechorin doesn’t feel any guilt about it, even though, or perhaps because, he sees death written on the face of the Serb that evening. This story is about predestination. Pechorin can be more courageous because he is a fatalist.


Fate and death in real life

It makes you wonder how both writers felt about fate and death when they themselves came face to face with a bullet that had their name on it.

Lermontov thinking until the last moment that the duel would be called off; nonchalantly going to the appointed place, we can almost picture him eating cherries, but getting himself killed anyway, after all his outrage after Pushkin’s death, and being regaled as Pushkin’s heir. Did he see death in his own face when he looked in the mirror that fatal day?

Pushkin feeling out of control of the situation, feeling forced to fight a duel with a trained military man, fully aware that he might die, leaving a wife and four children behind. He too practiced shooting. His bullet hit d’Anthès, but fate blocked it with a mere metal uniform button, and d’Anthès lived. Pushkin was hit in the abdomen and died two days later, having had plenty of time to reflect on death on the leather sofa in his study.


In 2010 forensic experts found bloodstains on the leather sofa in Pushkin’s study, proving that it was indeed the sofa that he had died on. Moments before he died he told his friend Dal: “I was dreaming we were climbing these books you and I, high on these shelves, and I got dizzy.”


© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos: illustrations from both stories combined by me; the waistcoat that Pushkin wore during the duel from Wikipedia; the couch in his study from The Moscow Times.

Books read: the two stories and Pushkin’s Button by Serena Vitale.

You can read these wonderful and short stories online here:

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/pushkin/aleksandr/p98sh/

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lermontov/mikhail/l61h/book4.html

And more about the final moments of these two great writers here:

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2017/10/15/lermontovs-fatal-duel/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/pushkins-own-duel/


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32 thoughts on “The Shot and The Fatalist – When Fiction turns into Reality

  1. I’m relieved that as writers in today’s world, we only write about fighting to the death. I’d hate to think I’d have to experience the same fates as some of my characters! 😳😁

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fascinating! I’m about to read my very first Pushkin, after seeing a theatrical adaptation of Eugene Onegin. I loved the play and can’t wait for the book. I got the Folio Edition on sale!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Amusing and fascinating topic,i found it strange or ironic that both of them dies in duel and both of them wrote about fighting n duels.
    I don’t know authors who wrote earlier about what would happen to them later

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The third time around, Elisabeth!! As always, you open me to a whole world of literature that challenges us to look deep into the needs, aspirations, hopes of humanity. Whether we believe in fate or predestination, each of us faces the dilemma of a finite life and the recognition of the many variables that influence our decisions on how to create a place for ourselves in those fleeting years. A wonderful post that illuminates and fosters a desire to learn more.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Hello Rebecca! Thanks so much for your insightful comment. That’s it exactly how it is, these stories don’t just entertain us, they also challenge us to think about life, about what happens when we are faced with extreme circumstances. In that way it helps us prepare and deal with extremes. What makes this case extra interesting is that both writers lived lives as least as extreme as their stories.
    I enjoy our discussions about life and literature, Rebecca!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I do get all the duels mixed up, but read Lermontov more recently so that one is fresh in my mind. I do love Pushkin dearly, but always think of the duel in Eugene Onegin, because that’s the one I know the best. Thanks for another great post about Russian lit!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yes, I get the duels mixed up too 😉 And the fictional ones with the real ones. It’s fascinating stuff!
    I’m glad you enjoyed reading my post, take care, Kat!

    Like

  8. Life, and fate, in older times was the duels of honor, or wars, now day, victims of violent deaths; suicide, vehicle accidents, crime, and victims of mass random shootings.
    Different time, but fate still holds up, you never know if a predictable routine day, may end in death…
    Lermontov’s Fatalist, story that you can’t die, unless it’s your destined time to die, it holds true.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Wonderful and smart comparison of this two stories… …and the idea to compare it on the level of fiction and real life. Great, Elisabeth.
    To be honest, I didn’t know the two stories, but I know what happened in real life with both authors. Your article inspired me to add a third layer to your article… …a comparison with ‘nowadays’. All this keywords like fate, fatalism and proud still exist in in russian societies all days life. There is still a strong believe in fate. There is a lot of proud. There is fatalism… ….and a huge love to authors like Pushkin and Lermontov, because they found words and metaphors for all that, what you are not able to say. I’m not sure why there is such a strong believe in fate, but I think that fate for russians is a kind of excuse, shelter and explanation for everything that happened, when you get repressed and dictated by forces that govern you like czars and sovjet regimes…. …and you are not able to change a thing.
    And there is another keyword that goes hand in hand with the others. Duell. If you are not able to change a thing and the is no deus ex maschina you need something to believe in what could change the fate. Even when you believe that your name is already written on that bullet (or not), there is still something deep in you which make you believe you hold something in your hand for a twist of fate.
    On the other hand fatalism is a wonderful chance for letting go on all your sorrows…. ….pff, so why worry when everything is already written in stone?

    Have a nice weekend, Markus

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you, Markus, for adding an extra layer to my story! I enjoy reading you philosophy on Russian life so much. There is of course a lot to be said for fatalism, much like saying that things that happen are ‘God’s will’. I suppose it makes life much easier;-) And if you feel like taking some control; fight a duel!
    In these cases that didn’t work out very well though. At least for us, because who knows what wonderful stories we are missing out on?!
    Take care, Markus!

    Liked by 1 person

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