Tales of Belkin
The Shot and the Ideals of Romanticism
A theme that is immediately apparent in Pushkin’s The Shot is “the noble man with a romanticized view of life”. This theme was common during the Romantic Era, the period in which Pushkin wrote, but is important for more than historical reasons; in many ways, such “romanticization” guides the entire experience of reading Pushkin’s storyline. As it often did, this theme takes place in an emotionally charged, descriptive narrative. Yet the true importance of Pushkin’s romanticism, here, is the manner in which romantic ideals guide the life of the Silvio, the character central to The Shot.
From the onset of the story, Pushkin makes his protagonotist an outsider. While he lives in a military outpost surrounded by Russian men, his name is “Silvio”, which is clearly not of Russian origin. He is older than the rest of the men and has mysterious qualities to him. His personality traits are paradoxical; he is inviting and keeps the door to his home open for all, yet mentally he is aloof from the rest. This aloofness makes the other men simultaneously respect and fear him. Pushkin wrote that “nobody knew what his circumstances were, or what his income was, and nobody dared to inquire about them” (23). While Silvio keeps his life separate from everybody else’s, the other men all scramble to understand what makes him seem so powerful. Pushkin makes the reader curious about this aloof character when he writes that Silvio’s walls “were riddled with bullet holes, and were like a honeycomb in appearance” (23). The idea of a noble outsider is already romantic and embodies the greater romantic theme of the isolated, heroic man.
The reader knows from the start that there is something heroic about Silvio. Even his name sounds subjectively heroic. Pushkin writes that “nobody knew the reasons that had prompted him to resign his commission and settle down in a wretched little town” (22), making it clear that Silvio’s life was once much more important. Silvio also rejects material wealth; his “rich collection of pistols was the only luxury in the wretched mud-walled cottage in which he lived” (23). Even before the Romantic Period, going back to religious philosophy in Buddhism and Christianity, people who rejected their material wealth were historically viewed as heroic.
Heroism stemming from individuality was an important theme in literature during The Romantic Era because it paralleled the surrounding environment that Romantic Era authors lived in. Many authors writing during the Romantic Era, such as Pushkin, experienced oppression from their government and expressed their free will through writing. Writers would often brighten their otherwise bleak reality by writing imaginative stories where an outsider, just like them, stood up against a formal, oppressive lifestyle to live passionately. The setting of this novel parallels Pushkin’s own struggle to do that; a group of men are entrapped in a monotonous military outpost where “there was nothing to look at but each other’s uniforms” (22) and they create a more arousing life for themselves by regarding Silvio as “the hero of some strange tale” (24). Silvio is a hero to them because he practices individuality in an otherwise conformist setting.
Pushkin continues to slowly reveal more details about Silvio’s life to the reader. The reader finds out that Silvio had once entered a duel that ended in an unusual way. Pushkin romanticizes this duel in its entirety. At the beginning of the duel, Silvio offers the first shot to his opponent, who would not agree to take it (27). A duel in which one’s life is at stake is not the time to try to be heroic, or, I guess in the case of a Russian Romanticist novel, it’s the perfect time. Next, Pushkin focuses on psychology and introspection, giving the reader a glance into the thoughts of a man that is about to shoot another man. When telling his story to the narrator, Silvio says: “He stood in range of my pistol, selecting ripe cherries from his cap and spitting out the stones so that they almost fell at my feet. His indifference infuriated me. ‘What’s the use’, I thought, ‘of depriving him of his life when he sets no value upon it’” (27)? While duels are considered barbaric in the present day, Pushkin presents the duel as a showcase of pride and sentiment that is valued above a victory.
The reader ultimately finds out that Silvio was waiting to finish the duel when his opponent began to value his life. Silvio waited five years for his opponent to become a happily married man, and every day during those five years he practiced his shooting skills. When Silvio continues the duel, he ends it by forcing his opponent to shoot at him, and then tells his opponent, “I am satisfied. I have seen your alarm, your confusion; I forced you to shoot at me, and that is enough. You will remember me. I commit you to your conscience” (32). Silvio waited to not even take this man’s life, but to make this man remember him indefinitely. Silvio then took a shot, marking a bullet hole above the one his opponent made, showing that his opponent’s life may well have been his. Knowing that Silvio had trained five years to become a perfect shot just to nobly let his opponent keep his life makes the ending emotionally charged and romanticizes the ideals of honor and pride.
Gibian, George. “The Shot.” The Portable Nineteenth-century Russian Reader. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Penguin, 1993. 22-33. Print.