The Point of Honor: A Military Tale by Joseph Conrad
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Traveller was kind enough to point me to this tale of a pair of French duelists who meet several times regarding their “point of honor". Though I felt the beginning was rather long and seemed to drag on a bit, the story itself elicited more emotion out of me than I had expected. I’ve often wondered what thoughts went through a man’s head when he knew he was going to die in a duel, and Conrad does a great job of portraying just how one might feel, given those circumstances. Like any work of its time, there is more than a little melodrama when we peek into the characters’ thoughts, but Conrad also shows surprising restraint, as well, in that his characters don’t seem like they’re overacting too much when presenting dialogue. There is a movie version of this story, directed by Ridley Scott (so it has to be pretty good, right?), that I will now have to see.
As some might know, I fence, when I have the time (very rare nowadays), so I take particular interest in works about swords and swordsmanship. I’ve written a story or two myself about the same. Most works are rather cursory in their accounts of the combat itself, and The Point of Honor is no exception. I suppose that Conrad might have learned how to wield a saber while in the Merchant Navy, though I’m not sure of this.
In any case, what stands out is not the descriptions of the fighting, but what the men are feeling (or not feeling) before, during, and after the fight. Of course, the duel itself is merely the reinforcement of cultural norms expressed through the use of arms. If I were smarter by half, I could go on about this, but suffice it to say that the duel, social expectations of French society at the time (read Balzac, if you want more on this), and the intensity of emotions felt by the characters throughout are all part of a self-perpetuating cycle. These two men are truly “caught up" in events that lay beyond their control. But this sword, as they say, has two edges. By participating in the forbidden duel itself, the men kick against authority (all discreetly, of course) while, at the same time, reinforcing the social walls that forced them into this long, slow game of cat and mouse in the first place.
Despite the seeming inevitability of the duelists’ ongoing encounters, the end is a bit of a surprise and is quite satisfactory. Though there are other books about dueling that are much more thorough, none of them delve so deeply into what it means to be a human duelist.
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