Discussion about Dishonored tends to focus on the game's morality. Should Corvo kill his opponents, or neutralize them by nonlethal means? Is it right to assist a suitor in abducting Lady Boyle? Should we poison the elixir still for our own gain? While a lot of writers have addressed these questions, not many have considered the question of whether Corvo's actions are honorable in the context of 18th and 19th century thought - which is odd, considering the game's title. Perhaps this is because we read Dishonored as a modern revenge tale, when its roots lay in a class system and social structure that's antiquated and unfamiliar to a modern audience. In the eyes of British honor culture, Corvo is a villain. His conduct is not that of a gentleman: he allows himself to be subjugated, he takes unfair advantage, and his vicious methods speak to his foreign origins. Interestingly, when we look at Dishonored from this perspective of honor culture, its themes appear very different.
Before we continue, I need to speak briefly about methodology. In writing this column I'm transposing a values system on Dishonored that, while broadly analogous to a British-inspired aristocratic society that practices dueling, is an imperfect fit. While they share many similarities, Dunwall is not London, and Corvo's time cannot be directly compared to the 18th and 19th centuries without straining both the game and the historical record, and this may lead to a reading of the game that was not intended by the developers or hold up to extended scrutiny. Therefore, I urge you not to consider this a definitive or complete reading of Dishonored, but rather a reinterpretation of its themes in light of historical thoughts and attitudes.
In order to put Dishonored's themes in the proper context, I contacted Dr. Stephen Banks, an associate professor at the School of Law of the University of Reading. Dr. Banks is a specialist in British honor culture and has written numerous books and articles about the practice of dueling in English society, including Duels and Duelling and A Polite Exchange of Bullets: The Duel and the English Gentleman, 1750-1850. According to Dr. Banks, to understand British honor culture, we have to jettison our normal conceptions of right and wrong, since dueling was less about morality and more about displays of social power. We also have to leave behind our modern understanding that what separated the British upper classes from "commoners" was their wealth, social power, and political clout. Gentlemen - as the ruling class called themselves - believed that they were different from the working class not because they had these advantages, but because they had a store of internal honor that most of humanity lacked, which made them unwilling to be subjugated. "When a gentleman viewed a whipped slave," says Dr. Banks, "he didn't view a man who had been a victim of power relations and social structure, he saw a man who had allowed himself to be whipped. Better to rebel, to deny he has a master and to be killed than be so subjugated . This is what a gentleman (in theory) would do."
To drive home the point that they were not only socially but physically different, the small group of gentlemen controlling society structured every aspect of English culture to reinforce the message that they were above the common masses. "The way this was done," explains Dr. Banks, "was through the repetition of acts that constantly emphasized that a gentleman was distinctly and qualitatively different." Gentlemen, for instance, always served as officers in the military and were granted certain privileges, such as the ability to take quarters outside of camp and an exemption from physical punishments like flogging. Gentlemen had titles and forms of address, so that literally talking to them was different than conversing with a member of the working classes. This special treatment under the laws of society was present in civilian life as well, and gentlemen accused of crimes often found themselves dining as guests of public officials the night before their trials, since jails were dirty places unfit for a man of breeding. "In other words, there was a legal, physical, psychological boundary between a gentleman and other members of society." These privileges also came with obligations - namely that a gentleman must keep his honor intact by holding himself separate from the common people (an officer could lose his commission for sitting down at a table with enlisted men), preserving his image as something different and nobler, and above all else, make sure no one challenged his honor or tried to subjugate him. Failing to uphold this system would mean being cast out of the elite class entirely.