In Dune (2021), on the directions of Vladimir with a bargain to release his wife, Dr Yeuh betrayed Duke Leto's family:

Dr Yeuh: I jammed their comms and lowered their shields. I delivered the Duke and his family.

Vladimir: The bargain to the letter. And what was I to do for you?

Dr Yeuh: Deliver my wife from her agony.

What does "The bargain to the letter" mean?

3 Answers 3


Vladimir Harkonnen is dropping some words from the beginning of the phrase to make it sound more poetic.

What he's really saying, and would be understood is: "[You have followed] the bargain to the letter." Meaning that Yeuh has done exactly what was agreed upon when they made the initial bargain.

  • 2
    The full idiom is "the letter of the law" Collins, often contrasted with "the spirit of the law" Wikipedia. If you stick just to the letter, and not the spirit, then you may be criticised. Nov 22, 2021 at 19:37
  • 7
    @NigelTouch That is the typical use of that phrase, but I don't think there's any contrast here. Vladimir isn't saying that Yueh did only what they had agreed, but didn't follow the spirit of the bargain. Interestingly, what the Harkonnen's do next is a perfect example of following the letter, but not the spirit of their agreement.
    – Mordred
    Nov 22, 2021 at 21:14
  • 11
    @NigelTouch No, "the letter" stands by itself as a phrase with this meaning. Colocation is not the same thing as idiom. One can follow the law, a contract, an agreement, a promise, an order, etc. "to the letter". Nov 23, 2021 at 8:43
  • 2
    @NigelTouch: If I do something to the letter or [X]; you have no way of knowing if I also did something to the spirit of [X]. It is possible that doing something to the letter implies doing more than the spirit (e.g. I crossed every t and dotted every I), less than the spirit (e.g. I smile at customers as my employer requests, but it's clearly a fake smile), or avoids the spirit (e.g. I smile at customers as my employer requests, but intentionally awkwardly). But none of those are inevitable, they are highly contextual and you cannot make any definitive statements here.
    – Flater
    Nov 23, 2021 at 16:32
  • Saying an agreement was followed "to the letter" also strongly implies that it was at the same time violated in the spirit. In this case, the Baron is expecting Dr. Yueh to have done something out of bounds (the tooth, but he doesn't know that yet), and equally the Baron knows that He will be following the bargain to the letter, not the spirit, by "freeing" Yueh's wife through killing her.
    – PcMan
    Nov 24, 2021 at 18:24

As others have indicated, the statement means that he completed his side of the bargain exactly as detailed. However, following something to the letter often includes the implication that you have violated the spirit of the agreement while conforming to the exact requirements. Vladimir makes this statement to Yeuh because he has also conformed to the letter of the bargain. Specifically, he has delivered Yeuh's wife from agony - by killing her. If she is dead, she is not in agony and so the Baron has fulfilled the letter of the bargain. Generally, it would be assumed that delivering her from agony would mean to release her from captivity and torture. (Yeuh makes it clear that he was not fooled by the Baron's duplicity and fully expected the Baron to kill her.)

It is common to see this usage of the phrase when saying that something conforms to the letter of the law.

  • 4
    +1. Your extra detail is vital to fully understanding it. Suggest you integrate some sources. "The letter of the law" Collins. "Letter and spirit of the law" Wikipedia. Nov 22, 2021 at 19:43

Merriam-Webster to the letter

exactly or precisely
obey the law to the letter

Vladimir is affirming that what Dr. Yeuh has just claimed he did was exactly according to the bargain that they had previously made.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .