31 Days of Stories 2014, Day 12: “The Queen of Spades” by Alexander Pushkin (T. Keane, trans.)

May 12, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories

Captain's_Daughter_PushkinAlexander Sergeyevich Pushkin is generally considered to be the progenitor of Russian literature; his writing is “as revered by Russians as Shakespeare is by the British,” claims Phoebe Taplin. An advocate of social reform, Pushkin suffered censorship and exile during his lifetime, but is known for expanding the lexicon of Russian fiction to incorporate both the elevated style of the nobility and the vernacular of the lower classes. The author wrote in numerous genres – poetry most especially, but also novels and plays. A contemporary of Poe and Hawthorne, it is possible to argue that the great Russian writer also had a formative influence on the short story.

One of Pushkin’s most famous, and oddest, stories is “The Queen of Spades,” about a German-born engineer who forswears gambling until he hears the story of a Countess who knows a secret that allows her to pick three winning cards in a row. The man, named Hermann, plots to court the Countess’s ward as a means of gaining access to the elderly noblewoman and learning from her the names of the three winning cards.

The story is quite obviously outlandish, and becomes more so the longer it goes on. Formally, “The Queen of Spades” has certain properties of a romance, in the classical sense. That is, as the Harper Handbook to Literature, 2nd ed. defines it, “a continuous narrative in which the emphasis is on what happens in the plot, rather than on what is reflected from ordinary life or experience.” The author incorporates Gothic elements – secret passageways, a ghost – in a tale that, over the course of its telling, increasingly disavows its naturalist underpinnings and becomes more and more uncanny.

Of course Hermann’s scheme goes awry and he ends up accidentally killing the Countess before he is able to wrest her secret from her. It is only after she is dead, as a ghostly apparition, that she visits the German and tells him the names of the three cards that will win him his fortune, on two conditions: that he marry Lizaveta, the ward he deceived in order to gain time alone with the Countess, and that he never gamble again. The Countess’s system proves startlingly accurate, but Hermann ends up going mad after accidentally playing the wrong card in the final hand.

What does this all add up to? Is “The Queen of Spades” a story of madness and mystery, a mere bagatelle, or something else altogether?

The first thing to notice is the sophistication of its construction. The plot involving Hermann and the Countess takes up the second half of the story, but in the opening section, the German is a peripheral figure. Here, the story of the Countess and her mysterious ability is relayed by Tomsky, one of the guests at a card party attended by a group of Russian soldiers. The scene shifts in the story’s second part to the Countess’s chamber, where she is shown in conversation with Lizaveta. The middle sections of the story shuttle between the ward and the German, the latter of whom only takes centre stage on his own in the final sections of this relatively long tale. (Pushkin’s story is broken into seven parts and an epilogue, and runs more than thirty pages.)

There is a self-reflexive quality to much of the action, as when the Countess asks Lizaveta to bring her a novel, but not one of the contemporary kind, in which the hero kills his parents and there are dead bodies all over the place. This comment becomes ironic only in retrospect, after the scene in which Hermann unwittingly murders the Countess.

Following Hermann’s encounter with the Countess’s ghost, Pushkin writes, “Two fixed ideas can no more exist together in the moral world than two bodies can occupy one and the same place in the physical world.” Hermann begins to fixate on the names of the three cards the ghost has divulged to him, and becomes determined to put the knowledge to use as soon as possible. Here the reader might recall an earlier description of Hermann as the heir to a small fortune who “convinced of the necessity of insuring his independence … did not touch even the interest on his capital, but lived on his pay, without allowing himself the slightest luxury.” Although we are told that the German is “a gambler at heart,” he refuses to play on the basis that it is foolish “to risk the necessary in the hope of winning the superfluous.”

Is “The Queen of Spades,” then, a kind of veiled morality tale, a warning against the evils of gambling? Certainly, Hermann’s fate is not a happy one, and it is notable that he loses by playing the title card; the story’s epigraph reads, “The Queen of Spades signifies secret ill-will.” This being the case, where does the ill will come from? The Countess, bent on revenge against her accidental murderer? Or is Hermann already mad, and prey to a suggestibility that makes him believe a delusional vision in the middle of the night is real?

There is a hint that the Countess’s murder may not be the only crime of its kind Hermann is responsible for. When Lizaveta encounters Tomsky at a ball, the soldier refers to Hermann as “a truly romantic character” with “the profile of a Napoleon, and the soul of a Mephistopheles. I believe that he has at least three crimes upon his conscience.” The explicit link between Hermann and Mephistopheles plays up the Faustian undertones in the story, and the concordance between the number of crimes Tomsky believes Hermann to be responsible for and the number of cards the Countess divulges cannot be coincidental.

Romance, social satire, Gothic horror story, parable: “The Queen of Spades” contains elements of all of these. As a complex work of fiction it is ultimately irreducible to the kind of précis attempted here: Pushkin’s ambiguity and allusiveness ensure that any attempt to corral the story into a single definitive reading will fall short of the mark.

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