(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Queen of Spades stands at the peak of Pushkin’s achievement in prose writing. The story was popular with the general reading public at the time, particularly for its striking plot. The story opens with a number of young officers conversing after a card game. One of them, Narumov, wonders why his grandmother, who possesses the secret of winning at the game of faro, never plays. It is revealed that she was once an avid gambler and was given the secret of the game on the promise of using it only once to save her from poverty.

Hermann, a German engineering officer who usually never gambles, becomes obsessed with discovering the secret from the countess. He begins a correspondence with the countess’s young companion, Lizaveta, who hopes that Hermann will deliver her from her poor position. They arrange to meet, but once inside the house, he confronts the old countess. When she refuses to reveal the secret, he pulls out a gun, and she dies of fright. During the countess’s funeral, it seems as if the corpse winks at Hermann, and that night her ghost visits him and gives him the secret of winning. Hermann places the bets over three consecutive days. On the third day, he loses on the last card, the queen of spades. Having lost all of his money, he goes mad.

The story is a society tale, and part of its appeal, particularly at that time, was its depiction of the cold glamour that characterized fashionable society. Pushkin achieved the ultimate concision...

(The entire section is 608 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As the story opens, a group of young military officers are playing cards into the early morning. One officer remarks that Hermann, an officer in the Engineer Corps, likes to watch the others play, but he himself does not play. The prudent and industrious Hermann replies that he is attempting to build a fortune and does not want to risk the essential in order to gain the superfluous. Prince Pavel Tomsky changes the conversation by telling the story of his grandmother, a strong-willed socialite when she was younger. While on a trip to France, the young beauty lost a large sum at cards, a sum that her long-suffering husband refused to give her in order to honor her debt. The countess ran to a friend, the count St. Germain, who gave her the secret of victory at cards. The countess returned to the tables the next evening, regained the money that she had lost, and settled her debts.

The officers who have listened to the story react to it in different ways. One believes that the story is fantasy, another that the cards were marked, and a third that the victory was a result of pure chance. Although Tomsky cannot explain what happened, he believes that a secret exists and that his grandmother has been derelict in not passing it on to her family. On this note, the officers break up their card game as the sun begins to rise.

The narrative changes to the countess, who is now an elderly lady unable to do much but terrorize her domestic staff. Elizaveta Ivanovna is a ward of the countess and completely dependent on the old lady for her sustenance. Elizaveta’s life is difficult, as she endures the conflicting orders and irrational opinions of the countess and can find no way out of her predicament.

One afternoon, Elizaveta looks out the window as she is sewing and spies a young officer standing on the corner and staring at her window. It is Hermann, who was strongly impressed by Tomsky’s story about his grandmother and wishes to learn the secret of the cards before the countess dies. He stands on the corner and dreams of ways to enter the house and confront the countess. When he notices Elizaveta Ivanovna at the window, an idea comes to him. He sends letters to her, some taken word-for-word from German novels, in which he professes his love and importunes her for a meeting. After an initial reluctance, Elizaveta Ivanovna, viewing the young officer as a potential deliverer from her dreary existence with the countess, concocts an elaborate plan to let the young officer into the house and into her room for a private meeting.

All goes according to...

(The entire section is 1053 words.)