Alexander Pushkin Pushkin, Alexander (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Pushkin, Alexander 1799-1837

(Full name Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin; also transliterated as Alexsandr Puškin) Russian short story writer, poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, and critic. See also Alexander Pushkin Criticism.

An outstanding figure of nineteenth-century Russian culture, Alexander Pushkin greatly influenced poetry and prose in his native language and set the foundation for the writings of the great Russian novelists—Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Ivan Turgenev. Known primarily for his narrative poems, particularly Yevgeny Onegin (1833; Eugene Onegin) and Medny vsadnik (1837; The Bronze Horseman), Pushkin absorbed many of the structural and stylistic characteristics of European writers—notably François Voltaire, Lord Byron, William Shakespeare, and Sir Walter Scott—and recast them in a uniquely Russian mold. With his short fiction, including several novellas, a few short stories, and many incomplete prose pieces, Pushkin sought to free Russian literature from the domination of eighteenth-century European classicism, arguing that prose should be simple and direct, clear and precise. His finished stories and incomplete experiments—particularly after 1827—mark his efforts to move Russian fiction away from the sentimental mode and set the literary course for the nineteenth century.

Biographical Information

Born into the Russian aristocracy in 1799, Pushkin was brought up in a heavily European-influenced environment. From his early years in Moscow, Pushkin had easy access to French and British literature—Voltaire, Byron, and Scott would become his early literary models. After graduating from a government lycée at Tsarskoe Selo in 1817, he obtained an appointment to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in St. Petersburg. While there he alternated between periods of reckless dissipation and intense writing, finishing his first full-length work Ruslan i Lyudmila (Ruslan and Lyudmila) in 1820. Just prior to its publication, however, Czar Alexander I exiled Pushkin to southern Russia for the allegedly revolutionary political sentiments expressed in his poetry. During the first four years of his six-year exile, he retained his civil service position and lived in various towns in the Caucasus and Crimea. Despite bouts of gambling and drinking, he was productive during his years in southern Russia and wrote prolifically. Pushkin was eventually pardoned by Nicholas I in 1826, though the czar appointed himself the poet's personal censor, keeping him under strict observation and forbidding him to travel freely or leave Russia. In 1831 Pushkin married Natalia Nikolaevna Goncharova, and in the final ten years of his life he lived primarily in St. Petersburg, producing his most enduring poetic works, including Eugene Onegin and all of his shorter fiction. In 1837 he was severely wounded in a duel with George d'Anthès, an Alsatian nobleman who had openly made sexual advances toward Pushkin's wife. Pushkin died two days later.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Povesti Belkina (1831; The Tales of Belkin) represents Pushkin's major contribution to the short story form. The volume consists of five tales—"The Shot," "The Snowstorm," "The Stationmaster," "The Undertaker," and "Mistress into Maid" (or "The Lady Turned Peasant")—all of them framed by the commentary of a fictitious editor, Ivan Petrovich Belkin. The austere prose of this work, bereft of poetic embellishment, moves rapidly and with little psychological commentary. Demonstrative of these tales, "The Shot" is a story of revenge occasioned by the conflict of youthful brazenness with a more mature reflection. The piece is recounted by three different narrators, including Belkin, and its hero, Silvio, who returns to finish a yearsold duel with a count. Once indifferent to the possibility of death, the count, now married, values his life and reacts with cowardice to Silvio's sudden arrival. Critics agree, however, that the novella Pikovaya dama (1834; The Queen of Spades) is Pushkin's finest prose story. In it he blends the tightly-plotted narrative technique and spare style of the Tales with a Gothic sensibility. Three successive games of cards, the curse of a dead countess, and the hero's eventual descent into madness all figure prominently in this supernatural tale that critics have found reminiscent of the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Relatively less attention has been devoted to Kapitanskaya dochka (1836; The Captain's Daughter), a largely realistic novella drawn from the historical events of the Pugachev peasant uprising, though it remains an important example of Pushkin's late work.

Critical Reception

Pushkin is considered by most critics the greatest and most influential Russian writer of the early nineteenth century. As many commentators have noted, Eugene Onegin's realistic presentation of scene and character provided the model for the modern Russian novel. In his prose, scholars observe, Pushkin rejected a stagnant literary tradition that counted fiction as an inferior genre; his ventures away from the sentimental fiction of the late eighteenth century thus signaled a new direction for Russian literature. Among his admirers, Dostoevsky and Nikolai Gogol singled out "The Stationmaster" as an early influence in their own work. Early critics in the west who read Pushkin outside of the context of his predecessors, however, often simply noted—as Gustave Flaubert did—the flatness of his prose. Despite such appraisals, interest in Pushkin's fiction in the twentieth century has remained strong, with contemporary scholars tending to rely on psychological analysis to re-examine his short stories, often highlighting the elements of irony and parody that they contain and evaluating Pushkin's experiments in narrative structure and technique.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Povesti Belkina [The Tales of Belkin] 1831

Pikovaya dama [The Queen of Spades] (novella) 1834

Kapitanskaya dochka [The Captain's Daughter] (novella) 1836

Arap Petra Velikogo [The Negro of Peter the Great] (unfinished novel) 1837

Istoriya sela Goryukhino [History of the Village of Goryukhino] (unfinished novel) 1837

Dubrovski [Dubrovsky] (unfinished novel) 1841

Other Major Works

Ruslan i Lyudmila [Ruslan and Lyudmila] (poetry) 1820

*Gavriiliada [Gavriliada] (poetry) 1821

Kavkazski plennik [The Captive of the Caucasus] (poetry) 1822

Bakhchisaraiski fontan [The Bakchesarian Fountain] (poetry) 1824

Stansy (poetry) 1826

Bratya razboiniki [The Robber Brothers] (poetry) 1827

Graf Nulin [Count Nulin] (poetry) 1827

Tsygany [The Gypsies] (poetry) 1827

Poltava [Poltava] (poetry) 1829

Boris Godunov [Boris Godunoff] (drama) 1831

†Mosart i Sal'eri [Mozart and Salie ri] (drama) 1831

Pir vo vremya chumy [A Feast during the Plague] [first publication] (drama) 1832

Domik v Kolomne [The Little House in Kolomna] (poetry) 1833

Yevgeny Onegin [Eugene Onegin] (poetry) 1833

Shazki (poetry) 1834

Istoriya Pugacheva (history) 1835

Puteshestvie v Arzrum [A Journey to Arzrum] (travel essay) 1836

†Skupoi rytsar [The Covetous Knight] (drama) 1836

Medny vsadnik [The Bronze Horseman] (poetry) 1837

†Kammeny gost [The Stone Guest] (drama) 1839

Rusalka [The Water Nymph] (unfinished drama) 1841

Table Talk (essays) 1857

Pushkin's Poems (poetry) 1945

The Letters of Alexander Pushkin (letters) 1963

The Critical Prose of Alexander Pushkin (criticism) 1969

Pushkin on Literature (letters, journals, and essays) 1971

*This work was circulated widely in manuscript form but never published by Pushkin.

†These works are collectively referred to as "The Little Tragedies."

V. Shklovski (essay date 1939)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pushkin's Prose," in Pushkin: A Collection of Articles and Essays on the Great Russian Poet, A. S. Pushkin, The U. S. S. R. Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, 1939, pp. 106-15.

[In the following essay, Shklovski praises Pushkin's prose and describes his historical narratives of Russian life.]


In Pushkin's days Russian prose was chiefly imitative. In 1834 Pushkin wrote an article of which the title alone "The Paltriness of Russian Literature"—is sufficient to show how matters stood. In this article he wrote:

"Voltaire and the titans have not a single disciple in Russia, but ungifted pygmies, fungi that grew up at the roots of the oaks: Dorat, Florian, Marmontel, Guichard, Madame de Genlis, hold sway over Russian literature. Sterne is alien to us all except Karamzin."

Pushkin strove to be a philosophical and literary influence in the country. He wrote for his readers and he was not content with writing poetry only. In an anonymous article published in the third issue of Sovremennik (The Contemporary) Pushkin wrote in the name of "Reader from Tver."

"You say that of late an indifference on the part of the public towards poetry, and a preference for novels, stories and the like has been noticeable. But is not poetry always an enjoyment for a few chosen ones while stories and novels are read by all kinds of people everywhere?"

Pushkin began his prose work with an historical novel. The first notes for The Negro of Peter the Great were jotted down in 1827.

It was the age of the great historical novels of Walter Scott, and also the age of new ideas on history. The different countries in their struggles against one another during the epoch of the Napoleonic wars were becoming conscious of themselves as nations. The great struggle was giving rise to a feeling for history.

"In our days," wrote Pushkin, "the word 'novel' means an historical epoch developed in the form of an imaginary story. Walter Scott gave rise to a whole throng of imitators."

Novels were written by Bestuzhev, Polevoi and Zagoskin.

The biography of one of Pushkin's ancestors lies at the basis of Pushkin's unfinished historical novel The Negro of Peter the Great. Peter I bought a Negro called Hannibal. The boy came from Northern Abyssinia. Peter sent him to Paris where the young man studied and served as an officer in the sappers. The tsar had a high opinion of him and wished to establish a position for him among the snobbish aristocracy. In the fragments of his novel Pushkin described his great-grandfather's life in Paris as that of a young man of society. In actual fact Hannibal, while in France, lived the hard life of an impecunious officer. In taking this subject Pushkin wished to tell a somewhat remarkable story. The fact is that Pushkin's great-great-grandfather on his mother's side was also a Pushkin and in the novel he apparently wished to represent the rivalry between his two great-grandfathers, the Negro and the Russian, over a Russian woman.

The novel is written quite realistically. Pushkin avoided the danger of giving a conventional picture of the past. Instead he gave an exact description of Peter's society "assemblies," contrasting the life of old Russia with the semi-Europeanised court of Peter.

In The Negro of Peter the Great Pushkin strove for a new understanding of history. He brought history nearer to himself and to his reader by making it, as it were, part of his own biography.

Pushkin's serene and objective art is always deeply personal.

Tales of Belkin begin with an introduction giving the biography of an imaginary character, Ivan Petrovich Belkin. Belkin is described as an unassuming man of no great education who acquired what learning he had from a village deacon. All the stories of Belkin were written by Pushkin in the autumn of 1830. They include "The Station-master," "Mistress into Maid," "The Shot," "The Snowstorm," and "The Undertaker." There was to have been another story of the series called "Notes of a Young Man." In this unwritten story Pushkin wanted to give a picture of the mutiny of the Chernigov regiment in 1825. But he was obliged to choose more innocent subjects.

The Tales were coldly received by the critics. People even spoke of Pushkin's decline. However, the story called "The Station-master" influenced Gogol and Dostoyevsky.

Pushkin does not tell the reader what his attitude should be toward the station-master. He does not make a hero of him nor does he solicit tears. The station-master's daughter, seduced by the hussar does not come to grief. And yet the reader's sympathy is wholly with the old man and not with the hussar.

Pushkin contrived not to humiliate his hero with pity and it was for this reason that Dostoyevsky ranked "The Station-master" higher than Gogol's "The Greatcoat."

The "Snowstorm" and "The Shot" belonging to the same series are more traditional but are remarkable for their skillful plot.

The author of History of the Village of Goryukhino is, like Ivan Petrovich Belkin, a native of this village.

In the guise of the history of the village, written by a landowner, Pushkin parodied "The History of the State of Russia" by Karamzin.

By reducing the scale of history, he depicted the peasant perfectly naturally. The realistic presentation of the muzhik destroyed the conventionality of the usual presentation of the State. Pushkin strove to give the picture of a village being ruined by the land-steward under the owner's instructions. This is how the "history" ends:

"The meetings of the peasants were abolished. He (the land-steward) collected the quit rent in small installments all the year 'round. In addition he collected unforeseen levies. The peasants did not seem to be paying very much more than formerly but however hard they tried they could not earn or save enough money. In three years Goryukhino became entirely destitute.

"Goryukhino was a dismal sight, the market place empty, the songs of Arkhip the Bald were heard no more and the children went out begging. One half of the peasants was busy in the fields and the others became farm hands. The day of the patron saint became in the words of the records 'not a day of rejoicing but an anniversary of sorrows and of prayers of distress.'"

It was impossible to continue in this strain. This would have been still more unacceptable to the censor than the story of a mutiny in the army.

The work was abandoned. Many years later our great satirist Saltykov-Shchedrin wrote "The History of a Certain Town" which clearly echoes Pushkin's History of the Village of Goryukhino.

Of all Pushkin's prose works the one that was most popular during his lifetime was the story entitled The Queen of Spades.

People wrote enthusiastically about it and declared that in it the Russian literary language had been created.

This was perhaps the only one of Pushkin's later works that met with success. Pushkin wrote:

"My The Queen of Spades is in great fashion. Card players punt on the three, the seven and the ace. At court a resemblance has been detected between the old countess and princess Natalia Petrovna, and apparently no offense is taken."

This story has a perfectly worked-out plot and is remarkable for its economy of words and the range of its dramatic action.

It cannot be doubled that when he wrote it Pushkin knew Stendhal's Red and Black. The type of the young man out for success was bound up in those days with the figure of Napoleon.

The idea of the "Napoleon" who considers himself above good and evil is met with again in Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.

"Napoleonism" as an exaggerated thirst for personal success was a typical phenomenon in Pushkin's time as well.

Pushkin makes Hermann resemble Napoleon and at the same time describes him as a mean character.

The Queen of Spades is an independent solution of those problems with which European art was then concerned. The solution of these problems and the method of solving them differs profoundly from those resorted to by Stendhal and Balzac.

In The Queen of Spades Pushkin attained the greatest simplicity of language. He uses the shortest possible sentences and hardly ever resorts to the use of adjectives.

The following is a passage from this story:

"It was a terrible night. The wind howled, wet snow fell in large flakes; the street lamps burned dimly; the streets were deserted. From time to time a sleigh driver, looking out for a belated fare, went slowly by, urging on his wretched nag.

Hermann stood there without his overcoat, feeling neither the wind nor the snow. At last the Countess's carriage drew up. He saw the old woman in a sable coat being lifted into the carriage by two footmen; then Lizaveta, in a light cloak, with fresh flowers in her hair, flitted by. The carriage door banged. The carriage rolled heavily, over the wet snow. The porter closed...

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Robert Conquest (review date 1958)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Russian Genius," in Spectator, Vol. 200, No. 6783, June 27, 1958, p. 844.

[In the following review, Conquest observes that Pushkin "did not produce a literature of extreme situations, " but rather explored "the circumstances of man as a passive object. "]

The Captain's Daughter is one of the stories in which Pushkin created Russian prose. Like that of Lermontov, it is true poet's prose, absolutely clear, objective, unpretentious and penetrating. The fictionalised account of his own Negro great-grandfather at the court of Peter the Great is less important in the canon.

Though Pushkin was indirectly involved in the Decembrist plot, and...

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André Gide (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Preface to 'The Queen of Spades,'" in Reflections on Literature and Morality, Meridian Books, 1959, pp. 275-77.

[In the following essay, Gide notes that the "clarity, balance, [and] harmony" of Pushkin's prose works set them apart from other Russian fiction of the same period.]

French connoisseurs already know Pushkin's The Queen of Spades in Mérimée's translation. It might appear impertinent to offer now a new version, and I do not doubt that the earlier one will appear more elegant than this one, which has no merit other than its scrupulous exactness. That is its justification. A preoccupation with explaining and rounding off induced Mérimée to...

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J. Thomas Shaw (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Puškin's The Shot'," in Indiana Slavic Studies, Vol.111, 1963, pp. 113-29.

[In the following essay, Shaw argues that "The Shot" offers two points of viewyouth and maturityand that Pushkin does not choose a privileged vantage for the reader.]

Puškin's short story, "The Shot," one of The Tales of Belkin, is often anthologized as one of the masterpieces in the art of the short story. However, it has received astonishingly little critical and scholarly attention; one usually finds only brief comment in the broader context of Puškin's prose in general or of The Tales of Belkin. Apparently there exists only one fairly detailed...

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Richard Gregg (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Scapegoat for All Seasons: The Unity and the Shape of The Tales of Belkin," in Slavic Review, Vol. 30, No. 4, December, 1971, pp. 748-61.

[In the following essay, Gregg analyzes the individual stories of Pushkin's Tales of Belkin, noting structural and thematic elements in the tales that unify the work as a whole.]

Pushkin's Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin are five in number, and four of them ("The Shot," "The Blizzard," "The Stationmaster," and "The Lady-Peasant") belong to the same literary species. The narrative features binding this quartet of stories together are, in the main, conventional. Each relates—among other...

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S. G. Bocharov (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Queen of Spades, " in New Literary History, Vol. IX, No. 2, Winter, 1978, pp. 315-32.

[In the following essay, Bocharov examines Pushkin's narrative technique and use of differing modes of speech in The Queen of Spades.]

"In the same way that two bodies cannot occupy the same place in the physical world, neither can two fixed ideas coexist in the moral world. The three, the seven, and the ace were soon overshadowed in Hermann's mind by the image of the dead countess."

Thus Pushkin in the last catastrophic chapter of The Queen of Spades reveals Hermann's fatal mistake. Critics concerned with the significance of numbers have...

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Caryl Emerson (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Grinev's Dream: The Captain's Daughter and a Father's Blessing," in Slavic Review, Vol. 40, No. 1, Spring, 1981, pp. 60-76.

[In the following essay, Emerson deploys Freudian analysis to interpret and explore the thematic significance of Grinev's dream in The Captain's Daughter.]

In his historical drama Boris Godunov, Pushkin gives the novice Grigorii a dream. The young man climbs a winding staircase to a tower, from which Moscow seems an anthill; the milling crowd below looks up and laughs; Grigorii is ashamed, terrified, falls headfirst, and awakes. The monk Pimen interrupts the writing of his chronicle to recommend fasting and prayer to calm...

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Paul Debreczeny (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Introduction," in Alexander Pushkin: Complete Prose Fiction, Stanford University Press, 1983, pp. 1-7.

[In the following essay, Debreczeny places Pushkin's prose within the context of European-influenced Russian fiction and suggests that even Pushkin's incomplete prose fragments were influential.]

Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin, widely acknowledged the progenitor of modern Russian literature, was born in 1799 and died of a wound received in a duel in 1837. His greatest achievement was in poetry—lyrical, epic, dramatic—and he did not turn to prose in a serious way until the end of the 1820's, but the fiction he wrote in the last decade of his life was to have...

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John Mersereau, Jr. (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pushkin's Belkin Tales," in Russian Romantic Fiction, Ardis Publishers, 1983, 127-41.

[In the following essay, Mersereau analyzes Pushkin's prose fiction—particularly the Tales of Belkin—tracing influences of the tales and viewing them as part of a story cycle.]

The best authors of the Romantic period began their careers as poets, and among them only Perovsky-Pogorelsky was exclusively a prose fictionist. Not surprisingly, Alexander Pushkin displayed an extraordinary gift for prose, although his talent in that area was hardly recognized during his lifetime—Marlinsky was more to the public taste. It was in the later twenties that Pushkin...

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Adele Barker (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pushkin's 'Queen of Spades': A Displaced Mother Figure," in American Imago, Vol. 41, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 201-09.

[In the following essay, Barker argues that Hermann's actions in The Queen of Spades are the result of an unresolved Oedipal fixation.]

Alexander Pushkin's story The Queen of Spades, written in 1833, deals with a young officer named Hermann, who is obsessed with obtaining the secret of three cards which will bring him fabulous wealth. Hermann's single-mindedness in extracting the secret from a rich old countess leads him to court her ward, Lizaveta Ivanovna. As the young officer stands in the countess' boudoir one night...

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V. S. Pritchett (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Alexander Pushkin: Stories," in A Man of Letters: Selected Essays, Chatto & Windus, 1985, pp. 264-68.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Pritchett briefly surveys developments in Pushkin 's short fiction, characterizing his early prose style as "expository" and "scholarly," but praising his later works, especially The Queen of Spades.]

The reader who knows no Russian is cut off from Pushkin as a lyrical poet and yet can respond to a narrative poem like Eugene Onegin in, say, Sir Charles Johnston's recent Byronic version and to the volatile wordplay of Nabokov's translation. Like Byron, Pushkin is one of the world's greatest...

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John Bayley (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pushkin's Tales," in Partisan Review, Vol. LIX, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 197-215.

[In the following essay, Bayley places Pushkin's tales within a biographical context and explains the difficulty Westerners often have in detecting the originality of his works.]

Pushkin is not only Russia's primary and archetypal author but her most astonishingly versatile one. He was himself fascinated by Mozart, whose music he deeply admired, and there is something Mozartian about his genius, which is in the same manner with variety, gaiety and depth. In one of his "Little Tragedies"—brief "dramas of investigation" as he called them—he contrasted the temperament of Mozart...

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Walter N. Vickery (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Prose Writings," in Alexander Pushkin, revised edition, Twayne Publishers, 1992, 122-29.

[In the following excerpt, Vickery presents an overview of Pushkin's short fiction and concludes that his integral contribution to the Russian short story lies in his use of narrative technique rather than in the content of his writings.]

Pushkin, along with some of his contemporaries, realized early in his literary career that Russian prose had lagged far behind Russian poetry in its achievements. Furthermore, the flowery characteristics of much Russian poetry had infiltrated prose. As early as 1822 he comments, "Voltaire may be regarded as an excellent example of...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Bayley, John. "Prose." In Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary, pp. 306-54. London: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Extensive discussion of Pushkin's short stories and other prose works, finished and incomplete.

Bürgin, Diana Lewis. "The Mystery of 'Pikovaja Dama': A New Interpretation." Mnemozina: Studia Litteraria Russica 15 (1974): 46-56.

Emphasizes the role of mystification, irony, parody, and the supernatural in The Queen of Spades.

Davydov, Sergei. "Pushkin's Merry Undertaking and 'The Coffinmaker.'" Slavic Review 44, No. 1 (Spring 1985): 30-48.

Semantic study of "The Coffinmaker" that uses...

(The entire section is 533 words.)