Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Corvo Is Not An Honorable Man

Robert Rath | 10 Jan 2013 12:00
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Some of Corvo's conduct would be excused during wartime. During the Napoleonic wars, for example, gaining intelligence from enemy documents was considered a perfectly honorable military objective, and Spanish guerillas employed many of the same ambush tactics Corvo uses without earning the disdain of their English allies. Also, by the time of the Peninsular war against Napoleon, the British Army was beginning to abandon its love affair with formalized warfare in favor of the total war model, which included the use of sharpshooters to kill enemy officers. In 1809, a British rifleman named Tom Plunket managed to kill a French general with a long-range shot. Far from being ashamed of the achievement, Plunket's commander promoted him to Corporal, gave him a purse of money and lauded him in front of the entire 95th Rifles. Therefore, in some circumstances eliminating a high value target would be considered perfectly legitimate. However, Corvo is not a soldier and he is not on a battlefield, meaning he cannot claim such exemptions and his actions look more like murder.

Furthermore, even Corvo's merciful actions are anything but - it's true, for instance, that Corvo spares Overseer Campbell's life by marking him with the heretic's brand. Yet as a result of that action, Campbell gets thrown out into the streets of the Flooded District where he's ravaged by the rat plague, a death far crueler than any Corvo's weapons could inflict. Much the same could be said for the fate of the Pendleton twins who end their lives as slaves in their family silver mine, Lady Boyle who's sold off to an obsessive suitor, and Hiram Burroughs, who presumably faces execution for his crimes. In fact, the irony of these actions is that Corvo is dishonoring these aristocrats the same way he himself was dishonored - by stripping away their social status and downgrading them to live powerless, subjugated lives. While it's certainly a poetic reversal, it has nothing to do with how a gentleman is supposed to treat his enemies. During wartime, captured officers were often given the right of parole and allowed to live relatively normal lives, and even Napoleon - a dictator who murdered thousands - was allowed an honorable if restrictive exile. Corvo isn't interested in respecting his opponents. He's not a gentleman, but a killer crawling through the sewers. "Corvo," says Dr. Banks, "seems to be the exemplar of everything an English man of honor would despise."

And that's the interesting part, of course, because Corvo isn't English. Or rather, he's not from Gristol like the other members of the conspiracy. Corvo hails from Serkonos, a southern island filled with grapes and dates, with sunny beaches and trade links to the East. Due to the island's description and place names, as well as the name "Corvo" itself - which means "crow" in Italian, and can mean either "crow" or "raven" in Portuguese - Serkonos seems to be Mediterranean in nature, which opens up an exciting line of inquiry in our discussion of honorable combat. See, Corvo's actions don't seem to line up with English honor culture but they do resemble the Italian vendetta, which is a fundamentally different from of honor combat. Duels are a display of courage in a structured environment, while the vendetta is retaliatory murder. The vendetta is different from the duel, says Dr. Banks, because it involves social groups and is focused on doing harm: "The vendetta is a familial phenomenon in which the obligation to perform it is imposed upon groups. The sentiment expressed is perhaps something like, I cannot live as a man in this world knowing this man has harmed my family and I have done nothing." In the vendetta, you do not have to respect your opponent. You can stab someone in the back. You can deceive and trap them, or destroy their lives. You do everything possible to avenge the people you love. That sounds a great deal like Corvo and his actions in Dishonored. After all, we are talking about a game that carries the tagline Revenge Solves Everything, and frequently hints that Empress Jessamine and Lady Emily may figuratively or literally be Corvo's family. Therefore, in addition to Corvo's decreased social status causing friction with the Loyalists, we might add culture clash to the mix, and it's a historically-based culture clash too. According to Dr. Banks, a great deal of English dueling literature from the late 18th and early 19th centuries stated that the English were "superior to the Southern Europeans because in England men of honor dueled with manly courage and then made up their differences, whereas in Southern Europe cowards stab each other in vicious and interminable vendettas." Given this vast cultural gulf, as well as their desire to clean up after the dark deeds that would inevitably stain their characters, it's unsurprising that the top tier of the Loyalist leadership ultimately tries to distance themselves from Corvo and all associations with him.

While it's an imperfect reading of the game, examining Dishonored through the lens of English honor culture highlights an aspect of the game's narrative that might otherwise not come to light. A straight interpretation of Dishonored reveals a game about redemption and mitigating the damage to society, but filter it through honor culture and you'll find a narrative fraught with power relationships: that Corvo's dishonor made him a useful tool to the Loyalists, that his work for them debased his reputation further, and that ultimately, the Loyalist leaders found out - to their eventual ruin - that Corvo didn't play by their elegant rules.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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