Introduction

The Queen of Spades Alexander Pushkin

(Born Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin; also transliterated as Aleksandr and Puškin) Russian short story writer, novelist, playwright, and poet.

The following entry presents criticism of Pushkin's novella Pikovaia dama (1834; The Queen of Spades). See also, Alexander Pushkin Criticism.

The Queen of Spades is considered Pushkin's most successful prose work. Initially published in the series Library for Reading in March 1834, the story was then included in the volume Tales Published by Alexander Pushkin later that year. A critical and commercial success, The Queen of Spades achieved widespread popularity for its striking plot and the appeal of its enigmatic protagonist, the army officer Hermann. The story has been adapted as a play, several films, and an opera by Petr Chaikovskii.

Plot and Major Characters

The novella opens with a group of young army officers playing cards early in the morning. One of the men, Tomsky, recounts the story of his grandmother, the Countess. Sixty years before, while residing in Paris, the Countess lost a great deal of money while playing the card game known as faro. An acquaintance, the adventurer Saint-Germain, revealed to her three cards that if played consecutively would win her money back. That night she played the cards in order and won a tidy sum. Yet after that night, she never used the secret cards again and only disclosed the secret to one other person. Intrigued by the story, a young engineer named Hermann (also translated as Germann) determines to extract the secret from the Countess. He begins to court the old lady's companion, a young woman named Lizaveta. One night, while the Countess and Lizaveta are at a ball, Hermann sneaks into the Countess's bedroom. He confronts her, demanding the secret order of the cards. When she claims the story was a joke, he pulls a gun on her, causing her to die of fright. At the Countess's funeral, Hermann believes that the old woman's corpse casts a mocking glance at him. That night her ghost visits him and reveals the secret of the cards: he will win if he bets on the three, the seven, and the ace on three consecutive nights. He follows her instructions, winning on the three and seven; but on the third night, he places a bet on what he thinks is the ace—only to find that he has bet on the queen of spades. He has lost everything; furthermore, he believes that the picture of the queen on the card smiles mockingly at him. Devastated, he ends up in a mental institution, repeating the order of the cards over and over again.

Major Themes

One of the recurring themes in Pushkin's prose and poetry is gambling, especially with cards, which is the focus of The Queen of Spades. Some commentators have perceived Pushkin's interest in numbers and cards as related to number theory, numerology, and the practice of gematria. Critics have also considered the theme of good versus evil as an important one in the novella, as Herman has been perceived as an evil or Mephistophelean character. In addition, reviewers have identified other thematic concerns in the story as the destructive nature of greed and the power of sexuality, focusing on the Oedipal relationship between the Countess and Hermann. Other dominant themes in Pushkin's work are time, youth, and age, which are illustrated in the portrait of the Countess. Autobiographical elements have been detected in The Queen of Spades, as Pushkin has been described by biographers as an inveterate gambler, particularly with faro and dice. Moreover, like Hermann, Pushkin was known to believe in omens, fortune-telling, and parapsychological phenomena.

Critical Reception

There are two major critical interpretations of The Queen of Spades. In the first, the story is perceived as a supernatural tale, evinced by the presence of the magic cards, a winking corpse, and the Countess's ghost. Yet other commentators regard the events of the story as the realistic evolution of Hermann's mental illness: his distorted perceptions and irrational actions can be viewed as a result of guilt, alcohol, dreams, and hallucinations. Commentators have also explored and debated the provocative use of the numbers one, two, three, and seven in Pushkin's tale. The Queen of Spades has been deemed a very influential story, particularly on the work of the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. Critics have also detected the influence of several authors and works on Pushkin's novella, including that of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Masonic legends, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's Pique-Dame, Honoré de Balzac's La peau de Chagrin, and Le Rouge et le noir by Stendhal. Stylistically, commentators have traced Pushkin's development as a prose writer up to The Queen of Spades, deeming the story as his most successful prose work. His rejection of the established prose style at that time—characterized by flowery language and an abundance of metaphors, simile, and adjectives—in favor of a spare style, omniscient narration, irony, and symbolic details has been identified as a milestone for Russian prose writing as well as Pushkin's literary oeuvre.