Pierre’s Duel with Dolokhov

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It is one of the most memorable scenes in War and Peace: the duel between Pierre and Dolokhov. Tolstoy builds up the tension steadily. The scene is told from Pierre’s perspective, so that the reader really feels Pierre’s hurt feelings and damaged pride from a front row position.

Hélène

Pierre had married Hélène against his better knowledge. He knew that there was something strange about her, he had heard something about her improper relationship with her brother Anatole, but still he married her. It doesn’t take long for Hélène to show her true nature, but for now Pierre ignores his problems.

Rumours

Even when there are rumours going around that Hélène has an affair with Dolokhov, his friend whom he has offered a place to stay, has lent money and knows only too well, he does not want to believe them. Bottled up feelings, however, have the nasty habit of bursting out at the most inopportune moments.

The dinner

The old count Rostov gives a grand dinner, in true Moscow style, meaning that no expense or trouble is spared, in honour of general Bagration. Both Pierre and Dolokhov are present and they sit opposite each other. Because of the rumours about his wife, Pierre is in a bad mood and eats and drinks too much. At his wife’s command he is not wearing his spectacles (does she command him to see nothing?), but he is constantly rubbing the bridge of his nose (does he miss his spectacles and wishes to see better?). Pierre is becoming more and more convinced that the rumours must be true. Dolokhov’s insolence, sitting there across the table, merrily, is starting to annoy him more and more. He knows him better than anyone and he knowns that sadistic side of him, and he sees it in Dolokhov’s eyes right now. 

Pierre has finally had enough

He feels something terrible and monstrous rising in his soul. Dolokhov must be hoping for some kind of escalation, because he makes a toast “to the health of all lovely women, Peterkin—and their lovers!”. The terrible and monstrous feeling now takes complete possession of Pierre.  He rises, and as we know, he is big, and shouts at Dolokhov. All except Dolokhov are scared. Pierre challenges him.

The duel

The next morning they meet in a forest clearing and it turns out that Pierre has never even held a pistol. Dolokhov is an experience duelist and officer. All five people present know that this is murder. Neither Pierre nor Dolokhov apologises and the duel takes place. Pierre is willing to die and Dolokhov is willing to kill. Pierre is holding his left hand behind his back, because he knows it is not done to hold the pistol with both hands. He shoots first and is very surprised when he discovers he has hit Dolokhov in the chest, and he starts to sob. Dolokhov falls down into the snow, bites into the snow and raises his pistol. He refuses to give up. The seconds shout at Pierre to cover himself with his gun, but Pierre just stands with his feet apart, broadly. Everyone closes their eyes, Dolokhov shoots and… misses. Pierre lives!

When he comes home, Hélène makes a terrible scene and Pierre gets so angry with her, that he nearly kills her. 

Philosophy

The duel can be seen as a small scale version of the Napoleonic wars: Tolstoy even uses the same words here: “(…) the affair (…) was taking its course independently of men’s will”. Precisely the big idea behind the novel, history takes its’ course, in spite of our individual efforts to influence it.

The consequences 

The bear in Pierre has woken up. He is no longer the nearsighted and fat rich man that everybody takes advantage of and who is ordered around by his wife and used by his friend. He surprises even himself. He takes control of his life and tries to find himself. It will be a long journey, with plenty of hardship, but he’ll get there. 

Hélène has one lover after another and dies of the consequences of an abortion. Here too is an analogy with a bigger dispute, the Trojan wars in this case. This Helen may not have caused a thousand ships to launch, but she too was the cause of quarrel and bloodshed.

And Dolokhov? He survives and has learnt nothing. If anything he is even more bitter and cruel than before. He continues on his path of death and destruction. Except when he’s with his angel mother of course!

Tolstoy – War and Peace, part 4, chapters 3,4,5,6.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019

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30 thoughts on “Pierre’s Duel with Dolokhov

  1. At this moment in my country’s history the phrase “survives and has learnt nothing” means everything – the tragedy of banality, of believing conventionality is never dangerous.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Dave. And I hope it does attract new readers, because there is so much there that we can relate to. I always think it’s a bit stupid if people dismiss War and Peace as ‘rich people’s problems’.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Much of the novel still holds truth nowadays. Unfortunately. People don’t always learn from history. I hope that the U.K. will somehow escape from the Brexit and that the government will do the right thing.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I remember this scene from the Hollywood movie seen for the first time when I was eight y/o. I couldn’t understand WHY they try to shoot each other in a duel? This thoughts were absolutely not tangible for me. And I felt it so unfair towards Pierre. ..just child thoughts about that. – Later again.. ..russian or french literature… –> duels. Btw… …are there any duels in german literature?

    have a great week, Markus 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love this piece on the duel! Dolokhov is such a strange character, so violent, angry, wild, and unpredictable–and it’s vicious of him to have an affair with Helene. And your interpretation of the duel as a small Napoleonic war is brilliant.

    On Sun, Jan 27, 2019 at 2:19 PM A Russian Affair wrote:

    > elisabethm posted: ” It is one of the most memorable scenes in War and > Peace: the duel between Pierre and Dolokhov. Tolstoy builds up the tension > steadily. The scene is told from Pierre’s perspective, so that the reader > really feels Pierre’s hurt feelings and damaged pride ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  6. There must be duels in German literature too, probably in Goethe’s work?
    It’s a good thing that men don’t fight duels anymore, it is unfair. You kill or get killed defending your honor. So many men died in the prime of their lives, like Pushkin and Lermontov. Although when you read a lot of 19C Russian literature you start to think it’s normal 😄

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you so much, Mirabile! I agree, Dolokhov must be the weirdest character in War and Peace. Immediately after the duel Tolstoy shows him as a good son and brother, and let’s you think that he is human after all, but no, he gets worse.
    Have a great weekend 😊

    Like

  8. One of the many great scenes! And on my latest reread of W&P I really got to appreciate the character of Dolokhov, who’s bad but also good. I wouldn’t exactly call him and anti-hero, but he’s an example of what Dostoevsky said about human nature: it’s broad, maybe a little too broad.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yes, Dolokhov is the biggest mystery in War and Peace. I could have forgiven him, if he had prevented little Petya Rostov from dying… But I find him the most fascinating character.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Another fascinating post! Dolokhov himself is a little Napoleon, in many senses 🙂 Pierre is indeed a “Russian bear” -once he has had enough, he explodes. Yet, ‘Napoleon’ didn’t learn his lessons, while the ‘Bear’ did all right 🙂

    Like

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