Analysis of Joseph Conrad’s The Duel

As with many of his shorter pieces, Joseph Conrad interrupted work on a novel—in this case Chance—to write the Napoleonic novella The Duel. It was originally published serially in Britain as “The Duel—A Military Tale” in Pall Mall Magazine in January through May of 1908. That same year, in July through October, it was published in the United States, in Forum, as “The Point of Honor.” Following the serial publication in Britain, A Set of Six was released in August 1908, in which The Duel was collected with five shorter works. Both the novella and the book received good reviews on both sides of the Atlantic; critics cited the thrilling pace, directness, and credibility of the narrative, as well as its comic and ironic under- and overtones. Favorable comparisons were made to the work of Turgenev and Meredith, while a French reviewer called the novella “artistically imperfect” though showing “prodigious imagination.” The Duel is, characteristically for Conrad, an ironic dramatization of apparently actual events: a duel in which the duelists fought again and again throughout most of the Napoleonic period. This particular duel achieved sufficiently legendary status to be retold, or synopsized, in print with every subsequent resurgence of dueling. It is believed—and Conrad suggests as much in his preface to A Set of Six—that the source of the novella lies in one of these many retellings, such as that which appears in the September 1858, number of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (though it is unlikely Conrad saw this particular one).

In Conrad’s version of the tale, two young hussars— light cavalry officers in Napoleon’s army—become embroiled in a duel, the cause of which only they (and the reader) know. They face off against each other in several bloody but nonfatal encounters over a period spanning 16 years. Their duel is suspended, however, whenever they are called to duty in support of Napoleon’s own long-running and wide-ranging duel against the rest of Europe, or whenever one outranks the other—dueling with inferiors being an even greater crime than dueling itself. The feud—and it does resemble a feud more than a duel—comes to an end when the hubris of one of the combatants gets the better of him, leaving him with two empty pistols and facing a well-armed opponent. Of the two main characters in Conrad’s story, Armand D’Hubert is clearly the protagonist. The other, Gabriel Florian Feraud, from the manner in which Conrad characterizes him from the outset, is obviously the antagonist. Feraud is a professional duelist; he is the instigator in every encounter with D’Hubert. He is the one who, when he has all but forgotten about D’Hubert and the duel, is set off yet again by even the slightest mention of his opponent. Feraud (mis)reads every transfer of duty and promotion granted to D’Hubert as personal affronts. D’Hubert, on the other hand, is the unwilling, yet complaisant, victim of Feraud’s rage. Today, these two could be classified as codependent, as D’Hubert’s willing submittal to his nemesis’s every summons enables Feraud to act out his rage against the lot he was dealt in life. D’Hubert cannot and will not disengage from Feraud, who cannot and will not disengage from him. It is a point of honor in both cases for both men, and it must be worked out between them.

Perhaps the most significant irony—and a significant element of Conrad’s creative reworking of a wellknown story—is that the events following the initial confrontation between D’Hubert and Feraud are, in effect, a duel over dueling. Though the story is told from a third-person, omniscient point of view, readers’ knowledge of the circumstances and the characters involved is focalized through D’Hubert. Conrad skillfully uses this narrative technique to build sympathy for his protagonist. The narrative itself is compressed between a beginning and an ending that frame as well as define the story. It begins with a misreading of events and intentions by Feraud. He is to be placed under house arrest for dueling, a violation of his Emperor’s rules; his rage at the general who orders him placed under arrest is transferred to the messenger, D’Hubert. The ending, and the literal end of the duel, occurs when D’Hubert leaves Feraud no room to misread the real meaning of honor. As in Sir Walter Scott’s tale, “The Two Drovers,” it is the act of a relatively minor character—in this case, the general requesting the arrest of Feraud—that serves as the unintentional catalyst, precipitating the events in an otherwise nonreactive yet potentially volatile situation.

Conrad, Joseph. “The Duel.” In A Set of Six, 8th ed. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1926.
The Duellists. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel. 1977.
Ferguson, J. DeLancey. “The Plot of Conrad’s The Duel,” Modern Language Notes 50, no. 6 (1935): 385–390.
Knowles, Owen, and Gene Moore. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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