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