Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Corvo Is Not An Honorable Man

Robert Rath | 10 Jan 2013 16:00
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Challenges to honor most often came from inside the gentlemanly order. The world of the upper classes was a competitive world, where men jockeyed for position and recognition from authority, leading to strange power relationships. At all times, men tried to uphold their honor and show that they deserved a position amongst society's elite, meaning that disrespect could not be tolerated socially or else they would be seen as lacking the manly strength to resist subjugation, and therefore lose their social capital. In this culture, a disrespectful gesture in itself was cause for a gentleman to defend his honor via pistols - since no one, the logic went, disrespects a man who is considered respectable. As an example, Dr. Banks gives the following scenario: "I am taking my wife to the theatre. Whilst taking our seats my wife is barged aside by someone else rushing to take theirs. Who is at fault? I am. Why? Because someone about me has suggested that I am unable, unwilling to protect my interests ... this gentleman has presumed that I have no honor." The only way to defend his honor in this situation would be to show that the man's presumption was wrong by challenging him to a duel. However, Dr. Banks stresses, this is where people usually misunderstand honor culture: in this scenario the offended party does not defend his honor by killing his opponent in the subsequent duel, but by risking the danger of being killed himself. Essentially, he proves his honor is intact by showing a willingness to stand up for his character at the risk of his own death. At times, this led to bizarre incidents. During a duel in 1828 between Sir Jacob Astley and Captain Garth, the Captain - who had slept with Astley's wife - refused to fire at Astley. As a result, Astley made Captain Garth promise that he would return fire on the next round, since otherwise the duel couldn't vindicate Astley's character - in other words, Astley literally had to urge the man who had bedded his wife to try and kill him. Honor wasn't restored by avenging disrespectful behavior, but by showing that the disrespect was never warranted in the first place.

By this point, you will no doubt wonder how these rules apply to the duel between Corvo and Lord Shaw. In two words: they don't. When Corvo delivers Lord Pendleton's letter to Shaw, he is unaware that the letter challenges Shaw to a duel. Furthermore, Shaw agrees to duel Corvo in Pendleton's stead, growling that "Pendleton is a gutless, lying sack of shit. I hope he's paying you well for this." After the combatants choose their pistols and take their places, Corvo dutifully kills Shaw, or alternately spares him with a hasty sleep dart. (Particularly inventive players might even Stop Time after Shaw fires, then use Possession to walk him in front of his own bullet.) However, the point remains that the whole affair is highly irregular, especially since Corvo essentially approaches Shaw as an envoy, serving in the role of second (an impartial referee who would oversee the duel and attempt to get the parties to reconcile beforehand) rather than that of a challenger. "[Seconds are] natural referees of honor, not potential protagonists," notes Dr. Banks. "I have never come across a second used in this manner." In other words, Lord Pendleton breaks the rules of honor - and the spirit of the duel - by both failing to face his opponent personally and manipulating Corvo into killing his rival. This doesn't reflect well on Pendleton and it's not supposed to - Dishonored regularly portrays Pendleton as a cowardly figure who would rather get other people to fight his battles for him. But in a larger context, this scene is essentially a microcosm of Corvo's treatment by the Loyalists as a whole.

Throughout the course of Dishonored, the leaders of the Loyalist Conspiracy regard Corvo with a formal friendliness - but they don't treat him with respect. Despite his centrality to the Loyalist plans, Corvo's attic room in the Hound Pits is the worst in the building, both dirtier and in poorer repair than the servant's quarters. Even though he was formally Lord Protector and the Loyalists know the title was unfairly stripped from him, he is the only noble in the conspiracy that everyone - even the servants - refers to by first name. Worse still, they order him around like a servant, sending him out on dangerous missions to do the conspiracy's dirtiest wetwork, that is, when he's not delivering messages or filling whale oil tanks. None of these examples are acceptable treatment of an aristocrat of Corvo's stature, especially one who is part of the Empress's inner circle. But of course, there's the rub: the Empress is dead, and her assassination occurred on Corvo's watch. Though he is entirely innocent of her murder, Corvo is still publicly disgraced by his failure to protect Jessamine, and due to that failure his social status appears to have been downgraded. Under the code of honor he is no longer a gentleman, since he allowed himself to be subjugated and disgraced first by his arrest and imprisonment like a common criminal, as well as accepting his subsequent domination by the Loyalists.

The type of fighting that the Loyalists order Corvo to perform precludes him from regaining his status as a gentleman, since his missions force him to further stain his character. According to Dr. Banks, in the 18th and 19th century mind, "Honorable combat is about equal combat." In fact, a general sense of fairness is what made English duelists replace the sword with the pistol, since fencing required a specialized education and gave the young an unfair advantage against the old. Regardless of how the player approaches missions in Dishonored, Corvo never fights fair. He stabs people from behind. He snipes guards long-distance. He uses booby traps and magic. Shockingly to an 18th century mind, he rifles through people's private correspondence. In short, the already-disgraced Corvo does all the tasks the blue bloods of the Loyalist Conspiracy are unable to perform because it might sully their reputations.

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