The Queen of Spades

by Alexander Pushkin

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W. J. Leatherbarrow (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6043

SOURCE: Leatherbarrow, W. J. “Pushkin: The Queen of Spades.” In The Voice of a Giant: Essays on Seven Russian Prose Classics, edited by Roger Cockrell and David Richards, pp. 1-14. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Leatherbarrow unfavorably compares Pushkin's prose to his poetry and considers The Queen of Spades a unique work within the context of other nineteenth-century Russian prose works.]

Pushkin's literary status is beyond question for Russians and for those in the West who read Russian. He is ‘the father of Russian literature’, a remarkable genius directly responsible for the impressive development of Russian literature in the nineteenth century. He is also revered as Russia's finest poet.

But Pushkin's genius—both as artist and as instigator—is by no means as apparent to the casual non-Russian reader, who perhaps has little difficulty in appreciating other Russian writers, such as Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tolstoy. This certainly was the case with as intelligent and sensitive a reader as Matthew Arnold, who as late as 1887, some 50 years after Pushkin's death, commented that Russia had not yet produced a great poet.1

The reason for this view is not difficult to find. Poetry is, in general, very difficult to translate successfully, and this is particularly true of Pushkin's poetry. Therefore, the reader who wisely avoids the largely unsuccessful attempts to render Pushkin's verse in English has no alternative but to base his assessment of Pushkin on the poet's prose, which has been translated more effectively than his verse.2

Pushkin was a poet by temperament rather than by choice. His thoughts found their most natural expression in verse, and his adoption of prose towards the end of his short life in many ways ran counter to his nature. As Mirsky suggests, prose for Pushkin was a foreign language which had to be learned, and his use of it, although skilful, is nonetheless deliberate and self-conscious.3 Puskin's prose never quite conceals his natural tendency to write poetry and we can detect the poet in the very phrasing and tempo of his prose.

Judging Pushkin, therefore, on the strength of his prose is rather like judging Turgenev on the strength of his verse. With the exception of The Queen of Spades, Pushkin's achievements in prose are not comparable to his achievements in verse. Neither are tales such as Dubrovsky, The Captain's Daughter, and “The Negro of Peter the Great” likely to find enthusiastic admirers—as distinct from merely respectful ones—among modern readers familiar with the great prose achievements of Pushkin's successors.

But the failure of Pushkin's prose to affect the modern reader to the same extent as does that of, say, Dostoevsky in no way detracts from its immense historical significance. For without the examples of Pushkin's prose experiments on the one hand, and his novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, on the other, it is difficult to believe that the Russian novel would have flourished as it did in the half century following the poet's death.

Pushkin represented the culmination of a great age of Russian poetry. From the reign of Catherine the Great to that of Nicholas I, poetry had been the dominant literary genre, served by writers of outstanding talent and originality, such as Gavriil Derzhavin (1743-1816) and Vasilii Zhukovsky (1783-1852), as well as by a host of lesser figures. Imaginative prose fiction, as distinct from the historical works and travel sketches of Nikolai Karamzin (1766-1826), was largely unpractised. Most of the novels read during Pushkin's time were either French or quite unoriginal imitations of French models. There was no tradition of the Russian novel as such, and this point is made with delightful irony in The Queen of Spades when Tomsky offers to bring his grandmother a Russian novel and the old Countess replies: ‘Are there any Russian novels?’4

The only major literary figure who had made a consistent attempt to establish a truly Russian prose fiction was Karamzin, whose mawkishly sentimental tale Poor Liza, written in 1792, enjoyed a marked popularity amongst the Russian reading public. Karamzin had made an attempt, which was vigorously resisted by conservative literary figures, to liberate the Russian literary language from the ponderous archaisms of Old Church Slavonic. This he did by bringing it closer to the speech of the educated nobility. Indeed Karamzin's prose was the best Russia had to offer before Pushkin but, as Pushkin himself remarked in 1822: ‘That is no great praise’.5

Poor Liza has many obvious faults. Apart from its cloyingly sentimental plot about the suicide of a young serf-girl deceived by a thoughtless aristocrat, it is burdened by a wearisome, pretentious and totally unsuitable narrative manner. Purple passages give way to excessively emotional authorial interjections, which in turn yield to quite unconvincing dialogue. Karamzin was bound by literary conventions which did not allow for the straightforward, direct and realistic telling of a tale. Liza's speech—educated and formal—belies her lowly station in life. Peasant girls never spoke in this way, but Karamzin obviously considered it out of the question to introduce the vulgarisms of popular speech into a literature directed exclusively at an educated aristocratic élite.

In sum, everything about Poor Liza is excessive and artificial—a long way from the directness and simplicity of Pushkin's own prose manner. And herein lies the true significance of Pushkin's adoption of prose. In his first completed prose work, The Tales of Belkin, Pushkin experimented with existing narrative forms and conventions, adapting, testing, and even parodying them; in the process he created a versatile narrative medium—the first successful Russian prose style—which was to point the way and enable the great age of the Russian realistic novel to follow the golden age of poetry.

This achievement is all the more remarkable if we remember that prose did not come as naturally to Pushkin as poetry and that, with the exception of The Queen of Spades, Pushkin's prose lacks the sparkling vitality of his verse. Indeed, in the early part of his career Pushkin was openly contemptuous of prose. ‘The thought of prose makes me sick’, he wrote in 1823,6 and in view of the quality of prose written at the time we can perhaps understand his feelings. But fashions in literature change and the popularity of poetry had begun to decline by the end of the reign of Alexander I. Even Pushkin was no longer read as eagerly by a public that now craved prose. He was never a writer who pandered to public opinion, and poems such as The Poet and the Crowd (1828) and To the Poet (1830) demonstrate his disdain for the opinion of what he called ‘the rabble’, but it is notable that Pushkin's interest in prose should be awakened at a time when poetry was in decline. After all, he was the first Russian professional writer who relied for his livelihood on selling his manuscripts. Perhaps also he was fascinated by the possibilities of an unfamiliar medium.

By the time he turned to prose Pushkin had for some years been engaged in writing a novel, his masterpiece Eugene Onegin, which was not completed until 1830. But Eugene Onegin is written in verse and this makes, in Pushkin's words, ‘the devil of a difference’.7 It is quite unlike anything he wrote in prose despite its claim to being a novel. It has none of the studied austerity of his prose manner, but all of the wit and vicacity which characterise his best poetry. It is perhaps the fullest expression of Pushkin's poetic nature.

In all his best works Pushkin maintains an effective interplay between his material and his personality. Everything he wrote in verse bears the stamp of his temperament, but not in an obtrusive fashion as is the case with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who constantly force points of view upon their readers. Pushkin keeps company with his reader, not as a teacher or guide, but as an intelligent, witty and sensitive companion who, like the reader, is sufficiently detached from the themes, plots and characters of his works to be able to share his impressions, his delight, his amusement, his irony, and even at times his sadness. Eugene Onegin is the supreme example of this kind of work. It is a highly personal piece in which Pushkin mixes the formal elements of the prose novel (plot, characterisation, etc.) with an extensive yet controlled poetic self-display. Pushkin is the commanding presence in the work. He interrupts, digresses, comments and reminisces; and in the process he grafts onto the novel a rich additional subjective world.

If poetry and ‘the novel in verse’ offered Pushkin the means for this delightful self-display, prose afforded him the opportunity of trying something quite different which ran against the grain of his nature—narrative impersonality. The reader is struck immediately by the directness of Pushkin's prose style. His tales are above all action stories, where the plot is promoted at the expense of description, digression, dialogue and analysis. In Pushkin's prose, unlike his poetry, the narrator usually plays an essentially passive role. This is particularly obvious in The Tales of Belkin, where Pushkin employs several narrators in order to maintain a distance between the characters and situations described in the tales and the real narrator—himself.

This approach may be compared with that of Pushkin's contemporary, Nikolai Gogol, whose stories are showcases for an obtrusive storyteller. Pushkin viewed prose quite differently from Gogol. He also saw it as a method quite distinct from poetry as it allowed for a totally impersonal narrative. Ironically enough, it might well have been the writing of the capricious and highly personal Eugene Onegin that fully revealed to Pushkin the possibilities offered by prose. Certainly, in a well-known passage from Chapter III of the work Pushkin anticipates eventually abandoning poetry for ‘humble prose’.8 In his novel in verse Pushkin had for the first time tried his hand at an extended plot, extended characterisation and a detailed evocation of a certain class of Russian life. As Pushkin no doubt saw, prose is the medium best suited to a work of this type and this scale, and Eugene Onegin remains the only successful Russian novel in verse. The subsequent great Russian novels, although often relying upon characters and situations deriving from Pushkin's work, were written in prose. It is ironic, however, that few Russian novelists inherited Pushkin's view of prose as an impersonal narrative medium. The nineteenth-century Russian novel was to become the vehicle for the propagation of opinion and personal views.

Pushkin's first major prose attempt was “The Negro of Peter the Great,” written in 1827 after he had been reading the historical romances of Walter Scott. Like the works of Scott, “The Negro of Peter the Great” aims to evoke a distinct historical period, but unlike Scott's novels it is written in the terse and economic prose so characteristic of Pushkin. Significantly, it is unfinished. Many of Pushkin's prose works were left uncompleted, which suggests perhaps that they were seen by him essentially as experimental pieces rather than as independent works of art.

Pushkin did not turn to prose in earnest until 1830, shortly before his marriage. He had travelled to his father's estate at Boldino, which he was due to receive as a wedding present, and stayed there for most of the autumn because of an outbreak of cholera. This period of isolation at Boldino was the most intensely creative period of Pushkin's life. While there he completed Eugene Onegin, composed his Little Tragedies, and wrote the collection of stories entitled The Tales of Belkin. The Queen of Spades was written during a second, brief Boldino autumn in 1833.

As early as 1822 Pushkin had drafted an article in which he considered the principles of prose. Like so much of Pushkin's prose fiction, this article remained unfinished, but enough of it exists to show that Pushkin valued precision and brevity as the cardinal virtues of prose. In one passage he scathingly dismisses those writers who burden narrative with rhetoric:

What are we to say of our writers who, considering it beneath them to write simply of ordinary things, think to liven up their childish prose with embellishments and faded metaphors? These people can never say friendship without adding ‘that sacred sentiment whose noble flame, etc.’ They should be saying ‘early in the morning’, but they write: ‘Hardly had the first rays of the rising sun illumined the eastern edge of the azure sky …’ Oh! How new and fresh this all is! Is it any the better just because it is longer?9

In The Queen of Spades Pushkin puts his early ideas on prose most effectively into practice. It is a very short work, with a very simple plot, a handful of characters and no obvious message or rich passages of description. And yet it echoes in the mind like few other works, and lends itself to the sort of detailed analysis that critics usually reserve for much longer pieces. The virtues of precision and brevity are in evidence throughout the work, in its characterisation, its plot and its narrative style.

In his presentation of the characters, for example, Pushkin ignores the obvious ways of making a character memorable, such as detailed physical description, lengthy dialogue and thumbnail sketches of personal history or cast of mind. Instead he creates quite distinct images with the minimum use of words. His secret is quite simple, if difficult to emulate. Rather than give his reader masses of information in the hope that the really memorable and significant details are included somewhere, Pushkin selects only those details which are evocative enough to allow the reader to complete the picture in his mind. For example, the gambler Chekalinsky is perfectly sketched in only ten or so lines:

He was a man of about 60, of most respectable appearance. His head was covered with silvery grey hair; his full, fresh face expressed good humour; his eyes glittered, enlivened by a perpetual smile. Narumov introduced Hermann to him. Chekalinsky shook his hand cordially, asked him not to stand on ceremony and continued dealing …

Chekalinsky paused after every round to give the players time to arrange their cards and note their losses, listened courteously to their requests and more courteously still straightened the corner of a card which some thoughtless hand had folded over.10

How vividly Chekalinsky is depicted here, with his intelligence, his good nature, his charm and, not least, his tact in quietly passing over the ‘thoughtless hand's’ attempt to cheat by doubling a stake after the game had been played.

Pushkin is equally effortless and economical in presenting his hero, Hermann, who comes to life through a few simple leitmotifs which Pushkin repeats at intervals throughout the tale, as he would in a poem. These include Hermann's German origins, which would have been enough to render him ridiculous in the eyes of Pushkin's French-educated contemporaries, and his passionate commitment to gambling together with an unwillingness ‘to risk the necessary in the hope of gaining the superfluous’, which mark him out as a hopelessly split personality and anticipate his madness.

Pushkin is careful also in his deployment of the plot. Nothing is allowed to detract from the purposeful account of Hermann's descent from moderation to incarceration. This overriding concern for action makes The Queen of Spades a superb mystery story, and Mirsky comments that it ‘is as tense as a compressed spring’.11 The reader is caught up in the tempo of the work, and this tempo is never relaxed by digressions, descriptions and lengthy dialogues. Minimum use is made of adjectives and adverbs that might inhibit the flow of action.

Yet despite the apparent thinness of both Pushkin's scene-setting and his characters' dialogue, these are never less than totally convincing. Unlike Karamzin's Liza, Pushkin's characters speak as one might expect people of their kind of speak: Hermann, in the conventional clipped manner of a cautious German; the old Countess, in the dignified but slightly archaic manner of a living relic. Similarly, Pushkin sets his scenes with the brevity of a dramatist's stage directions, but the richness and authority of a novelist. The short opening paragraph conveys a wealth of important information:

Once they were playing cards in the rooms of Narumov, a Guards Officer. The long winter night had passed unnoticed, and they only sat down to supper about five in the morning. Those who had won ate with great appetite; the rest, in distraction, sat before their empty plates. But the champagne appeared, the conversation picked up, and all took part in it.12

How suggestive even the simplest words are. For instance, Pushkin does not need to describe who they (the cardplayers) are, for who but the privileged classes can afford to take supper at 5 a.m.? Likewise, the feverish compulsion of gambling is communicated by the short phrase: ‘The long winter night had passed unnoticed’. The single adverb unnoticed (nezametno) eloquently conveys the dedication of the participants.

By writing in this fashion Pushkin is able to convey a great deal in a very short space. By the end of the first page of the tale the scene has been set, both physically and socially, and the reader has been introduced to all the major characters (except Lizaveta Ivanovna), the tale of the mysterious cards, and the hero's tragically split nature.

In this way Pushkin demonstrates that denseness of language is unnecessary. A single word, provided it is the right word, can speak volumes. This is why The Queen of Spades, a short mystery story, raises as many questions in the reader's mind as a much longer work.

The Queen of Spades may come as a surprise to modern readers familiar with the work of other nineteenth-century Russian prose writers. It does not appear to provide those features expected in a masterpiece of Russian literature. It is by any standards brief, but particularly so in contrast with the immense novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky with which the term ‘Russian literature’ is usually associated in the West. Moreover, The Queen of Spades is, as we have seen, primarily an action story, uncluttered by the pages of philosophical and religious speculation which are recognised as another of Russian literature's hallmarks. Pushkin's tale contains no tortured intellectuals speculating about the meaning of life and death or repentant noblemen abandoning corrupt society for a more direct and meaningful life among peasants or cossacks. It appears to be a simple society tale, laced with a dash of the supernatural, which offers no obvious message or revelation.

It is not only modern readers who have been struck by the apparent slightness of The Queen of Spades. Although it gained an immediate popularity amongst the reading public in Russia, the Russian literary critics of the 1840s and 1850s, who were for the most part also social critics, found very little in the tale to write about. Men such as Vissarion Belinsky in the 1840s and Nikolai Chernyshevsky in the 1850s saw literature as a potentially powerful weapon in the struggle for social and political change. To readers of such outlook The Queen of Spades offered little. Belinsky was clearly embarrassed by the tale's exclusiveness—it was obviously written to be read with pleasure by readers of Pushkin's own society, the privileged and educated classes. Similarly, Chernyshevsky found many of Pushkin's works well-written but essentially slight.

Temperamentally, if not chronologically, Pushkin was an eighteenth-century aristocratic man of letters, whose works, in their elegance, precision and polish, reflect the conviction that art, if it is not well-executed, is nothing at all. His mature view of art was uncompromisingly aesthetic. ‘The aim of poetry is poetry’, he once wrote,13 and he could not look upon literature as a work-horse condemned to draw intolerably heavy philosophical and moral burdens. This is not to suggest that Pushkin did not take literature seriously; on the contrary, he believed that poetic inspiration was divine. It is simply that Pushkin's seriousness and commitment to literature were of a different kind from those of his successors; literature could be serious without being grave, and it could uplift without instructing. Pushkin wore the mantle of the artist lightly and elegantly, but this same mantle was to prove too cumbersome for many of his followers.

In his social attitudes too Pushkin differed from later Russian writers, and this is worth examining because throughout the history of literature the writer's social outlook has largely conditioned his view of art. The guilt, for example, which Tolstoy felt on behalf of his social class, the nobility, is central to the development of his writing and to his rejection of ‘sophisticated’ literature in favour of simpler forms accessible to the ordinary working people.

Pushkin was rarely inconvenienced by democratic leanings. He was the product of an established Europeanised aristocratic society, and inordinately proud of his own 600-year-old lineage. He regarded the nobility, and by implication the idea of social privilege, as ‘a necessary and natural feature of a great civilised nation’.14 He was an élitist and a snob, and these characteristics are quite obvious in his work. He addressed himself for the most part to his social equals and had little time for those who were unwilling or unable to appreciate the sophistication of his genius. Of course it was far easier for Pushkin to maintain this attitude than it would have been for Tolstoy. Pushkin lived and wrote towards the end of a great age of the nobility in Russia. Democratic and populist attitudes existed, but were nothing like as widespread or as fashionable as they were to become later in the nineteenth century, following the development in Russia of a mixed-class, as opposed to exclusively aristocratic intelligentsia.

Values have of course changed since Pushkin's day, and attitudes and assumptions regarded then as natural and unquestionable may now appear to be decadent, frivolous, unfair and irresponsible. Perhaps this is why The Queen of Spades fails to satisfy the literary taste of many modern readers, and here ‘modern’ can mean not just ourselves, but also people as close chronologically to Pushkin as Belinsky and Chernyshevsky, who had come to expect more from literature than a simple society tale. In short, The Queen of Spades is not likely to evoke widespread admiration today because it is, in a modern context, aristocratically unfair, provocatively amoral and intellectually lightweight. It cannot be described as ‘a vivid exposé of a corrupt society’, or ‘an urgent analysis of the ethical problems facing us all’, etc.

Many details of The Queen of Spades locate it firmly in a bygone age. For example, the story's exclusiveness has already been mentioned. It is directed unambiguously at a tiny, privileged section of nineteenth-century Russian society. One suspects that it would have meant little to people of lesser status, even to those capable of reading, for the reader is expected to grasp and appreciate references and attitudes familiar only to polite society. Apart from making allusions to contemporary society, figures and events, which the hypothetical middle-class reader of the time might conceivably have been able to trace, Pushkin assumes familiarity on his reader's part with manners, customs and attitudes practised only by the upper reaches of society.15 The reader is expected, for example, to respond immediately and in the right way to the distinction drawn by society between Hermann's status, that of an engineer, and Narumov's, that of a guardsman. Only then can he understand the suggestiveness of Tomsky's incredulity when the socially naive Lizaveta Ivanovna implies that the immaculately well-bred Narumov might be a mere engineer.

But in a more general sense Pushkin assumes that the intelligence and outlook of the reader are comparable to his own. For example, he takes it for granted that his reader will be able to play with ideas and concepts as easily and naturally as he does. For Pushkin such playfulness was second nature. He was able to juggle even with serious concepts without either being enslaved by them or rendering them ridiculous. A tone of playfulness and the skilful use of parody are central to The Queen of Spades, and their presence effectively deters the reader from interpreting the tale too seriously. Whoever draws heavy social or moral conclusions from this work is guilty of a gross failure of response.

The Queen of Spades is rich in literary allusions and echoes which would have been quite apparent to Pushkin's contemporaries. The whole tale is built around the juxtaposition of features characteristic of two literary genres popular at the time: the gothic tale of the supernatural, and the realistic social and psychological sketch. Pushkin assumes his reader's familiarity with these two forms and then proceeds to hold their seemingly contradictory demands together for the duration of his tale. As a result, the reader is never sure whether he is dealing with a work of fantasy or a work of psychological realism. The opening of The Queen of Spades skilfully establishes the ambiguity: the epigraph and Tomsky's introduction of the story of the mysterious card trick both speak clearly of supernatural forces awaiting the ambitious Hermann, but at the same time the reader learns of Hermann's hopelessly split nature, torn between the extremes of sobriety and wild imagination. Either could account for his eventual downfall. Likewise, the reader is made to feel uneasy about Pushkin's immaculately realistic depiction of upper-class Russian life by the occasional references to real people with mysterious associations, such as the strange Count Saint-Germain, who had revealed the secret of the cards to the old Countess.

Ambiguity informs the whole work. Is Hermann the victim of a supernatural conspiracy which avenges his abuse of Lizaveta Ivanovna and the death of the Countess? Or is he simply a mad German whose amply demonstrated imagination accounts for his apparently supernatural downfall? Pushkin allows both possibilities, and the uncertainty is skilfully reinforced in the following extract:

Hermann was the son of a Russified German, who had left him a small capital sum. Being firmly convinced of the need to consolidate his independence, Hermann did not touch even the interest, but lived on his salary, denying himself even the slightest extravagance. Moreover, he was reserved and ambitious, so that his companions rarely had the opportunity to make fun of his excessive thrift. He had strong passions and an ardent imagination, but his resoluteness saved him from the customary indiscretions of youth. Thus, for instance, although he was a gambler at heart, he never touched cards, for he reckoned that his circumstances did not allow him (as he put it) ‘to risk the necessary in the hope of gaining the superfluous’. Yet despite this he spent whole nights sitting at the card tables, following with feverish excitement the vicissitudes of the game.

The tale of the three cards had had a powerful effect on Hermann's imagination and preyed on his mind the whole night. ‘What if,’ he thought to himself the next evening as he wandered around St Petersburg, ‘What if the old Countess were to reveal her secret to me? Or tell me the three lucky cards? Why shouldn't I try my luck? … I could get introduced to her, win her favour, perhaps even become her lover. But that would all take time, and she is eighty-seven. She could be dead within a week, or even a couple of days! And what about the tale itself? Can one believe it? … No, economy, moderation and hard work—these are my three lucky cards. They will treble my capital, increase it sevenfold and bring me leisure and independence!16

On one level of this passage a strong case is made out for a realistic interpretation of subsequent events. We are told, for example, that Hermann ‘had strong passions and an ardent imagination, but his resoluteness saved him from the customary indiscretions of youth’; that he was ‘a gambler at heart’, but had ‘never touched cards’ and that he followed each game ‘with feverish excitement’. These brief psychological brushstrokes point unmistakeably to a man whose moderate veneer only just restrains a wild and imaginative nature. This interpretation is given added weight by Hermann's rapid and extreme psychological fluctuations, as for example when he dreams wildly one moment of becoming the Countess' lover, only to be brought immediately down to earth by the sobering thought that she is eighty-seven years old. As a result of this thought Hermann decides to dismiss his thirst for the secret of the card trick and resolves: ‘Economy, moderation and hard work—these are my three lucky cards’, which will ‘treble my capital, increase it sevenfold …’. The numbers Hermann hits upon here are significant, for the Three, the Seven and the Ace are the cards to be revealed to him later by the Countess' ghost. Pushkin is evidently suggesting that the numbers are for some reason already fixed in Hermann's mind and that he simply imagines the Countess' subsequent visitation.

At this point in the chapter the realistic interpretation has the upper hand, but Pushkin goes on to cloud the issue and resurrect the possibility of supernatural intervention. During his walk home Hermann suddenly finds himself before a large house. His enquiries reveal that this is none other than the house of the Countess whose history has so occupied his imagination. Coincidence, perhaps? He resumes his wanderings, but then again suddenly finds himself before the same house. Coincidence becomes less likely, and, like Hermann, the reader suspects the existence of some unknown force directing his steps.

There are many other instances of such ambiguity. It is not clear that Hermann really sees the Countess' corpse wink at him: Pushkin's use of the phrase ‘it seemed to him’ keeps the issue open.17 Neither are we sure that he really sees the ghost; we are told before this ‘visit’ that Hermann can think of nothing but the death of the Countess and that ‘contrary to his custom he had drunk a great deal’.18

Pushkin's emphasis upon such playful ambiguity is achieved perhaps at the expense of the more serious implications of a story about greed, ambition and murder, but certainly not at the expense of its entertainment value. And Pushkin's desire to entertain rather than instruct is one of the features which clearly distinguish him from later Russian writers.

We see the entertainer/parodist at work again in the choice of characters for the tale. All of them are literary stereotypes common in works of the time, and were therefore as familiar to Pushkin's contemporaries as they are today. But Pushkin does not give his reader what he has come to expect from such characters. He compels him instead to regard familiar figures in a new light. The reader of popular sentimental or sensational tales might well expect to respond to the conventional figures of the Countess, Lizaveta Ivanova and Hermann in certain well-defined ways. The old Countess, for example, is the familiar tyrant/villain figure and might be expected to arouse in the reader distaste for her obvious unfairness and selfishness; Lizaveta Ivanovna, the archetypal sentimental heroine/victim, should engender compassion; and Hermann, the stock romantic hero of melodrama, admiration for his strength of will. After all, he is the man of the future, trying to establish himself by manipulating the injustices of a vanishing way of life.

But these conventional reactions are not the ones Pushkin ultimately provokes in his reader. It becomes obvious in the course of the tale that Pushkin regards his characters not in a moral light, but in an aesthetic one, and the reader is invited to do the same. This distances Pushkin from the moralists who followed him and firmly set the tone of later Russian literature and discloses just how old-fashioned The Queen of Spades is. Pushkin's aristocratic self-confidence and his sense of the dignity and stability of his class and its values allow him to evade altogether the moral issues raised by the tale and to judge his characters—for judge them he does, albeit unobtrusively—against aesthetic and class criteria. Thus the self-centred, spiteful and no doubt undeserving Countess receives from Pushkin the tacit approval he withholds from the poor and worthy Lizaveta Ivanovna. Pushkin suggests that you do not have to be good to be appealing, and that style can conceal—indeed, atone for—a multitude of sins. And this wicked old lady certainly has style. Her dubious ethics and swollen legs count for little when we see just how skilled she is at the arts of survival and oneupmanship. She has lived for years with a secret which could make a fortune, but regards it as unimportant; as John Bayley has remarked: ‘Class has no need of magic’.19 She displays a remarkable ability to keep one step ahead of those who surround her. For example, when her grandson, Tomsky, lets slip that the last of the old Countess' contemporaries has passed away, the predictably solicitous Lizaveta Ivanovna tries to soften the news in order to spare the Countess' feelings. What she fails to see is that the old lady, far from being concerned and dispirited, is delighted. She has outdone her contemporaries by outliving them. She delights in attending balls where she is unwanted and where she knows that her presence as a relic of the past inhibits the future. Her stubborn refusal to rest in dignified peace is also entirely in character. There is no doubt that, of all the characters in the tale, she has the lion's share of Pushkin's sympathy.

Pushkin's attitude to Lizaveta Ivanovna is also unexpected. He obviously finds her poor, innocent and humiliated, but, most important of all, she is dull. She has a certain drab righteousness, but no style whatsoever. Pushkin's essentially aesthetic rather than ethical outlook is clear in a passage where, no doubt with the best of intentions, he begins to describe Lizaveta's hardships, but cannot resist transferring his attention from this tediously upright girl to the much more interesting items of furniture which surround her.20

The same is true of Hermann. Readers familiar with the character of Rastignac in Balzac's novel, Le Père Goriot, published in 1834 soon after The Queen of Spades, might see in Hermann a similar romantic, demonic figure. But Hermann is a parody of the romantic man of will, a vulgar and prosaic figure despite his involvement in the death of the Countess. One suspects that Pushkin allows the full weight of retribution to fall upon Hermann, not because he has killed, but because he has done so without style and panache. His real sin is his dullness and the ridiculous figure he cuts when, instead of murdering the Countess with the ruthless resolve of a Napoleon whom he resembles only in profile, he timidly waves an unloaded revolver under her nose and watches her die of fright. The old Countess displays her natural superiority even at the moment of death, by depriving Hermann of heroic stature.

In a world in which ethical considerations often rank higher than aesthetic ones Pushkin's tendency to invert this hierarchy is unlikely to find general favour. The Queen of Spades emphasises Pushkin's distance from present values and has been a particular source of embarrassment for Soviet literary critics who are expected to re-examine the great works of the past in order to emphasise those features which imply a progressive social philosophy. For such reapers The Queen of Spades yields a most frustratingly poor harvest.


  1. Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism (Second Series), London, 1908, p. 257.

  2. Two recent verse translations of Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin are worthy exceptions. These are by Charles Johnston (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1979) and Walter Arndt (Dutton, New York, 1981).

  3. D. S. Mirsky, A History of Russian Literature, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1964, p. 117.

  4. A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v desyati tomakh, Leningrad, 1977-79, VI, p. 215.

  5. P.S.S. VII, p. 13.

  6. Letter to P. A. Vyazemsky, 19 August 1823, P.S.S., X, p. 52.

  7. Letter to Vyazemsky, 4 November 1823, P.S.S., X, p. 57.

  8. P.S.S., V, p. 53.

  9. P.S.S., VII, p. 12.

  10. P.S.S., VI, p. 235.

  11. D. S. Mirsky, p. 119.

  12. P.S.S., VI, p. 210.

  13. Letter to V. A. Zhukovsky, 20 April 1825, P.S.S., X, p. 112.

  14. P.S.S., VII, p. 136.

  15. See J. Bayley, Pushkin. A Comparative Commentary, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1971, p. 321.

  16. P.S.S., VI, pp. 218-219.

  17. P.S.S., VI, p. 232.

  18. P.S.S., VI, p. 232.

  19. Bayley, p. 319.

  20. P.S.S., VI, p. 217.

William Edward Brown (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: Brown, William Edward. “Alexander Pushkin as a Writer of Prose.” In A History of Russian Literature of the Romantic Period. Vol. 3, pp. 218-24. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1986.

[In the following essay, Brown explains the relationship between Pushkin's The Queen of Spades, Ezersky, and the narrative poem The Bronze Horseman.]


Pushkin's most successful completed short story, The Queen of Spades, was written in 1833, during his “second Boldino autumn,” and published in the following year. During this same period he was working on the uncompleted second “novel in verse,” Ezersky, and the last of his narrative poems, The Bronze Horseman. Among these three pieces, in different genres, there is a fascinating and puzzling kinship. Hermann, the methodical and monomaniacal German who is the hero of The Queen of Spades, was first conceived as a character of a quite different sort—a dreamy romantic, in love with a “little German girl” with the significant name of Charlotte. There are only a few small fragments extant of the original “story about a gambler” which preceded the complete novella, but enough exists to make it evident that the kernel of the story would have been the hero's attempt to learn the secret of the “three cards” in the hope thereby of winning a fortune in order to achieve independence and marry his Charlotte. The first fragment of the original form of the story is told in the first person by a member of a group of young men which would presumably have included Hermann perhaps as a friendly outsider:2

About four years ago there was a gathering in Petersburg of several of us young fellows whom circumstances had brought into contact. We were leading a pretty disordered kind of life. We ate at Andrieux's without appetite, we drank without getting happy, we went to Sofia Astafevna's to drive the poor old woman crazy with our pretended choosiness. We killed the day somehow or other, and in the evenings we gathered at each other's quarters in turn.

The second fragment describes Hermann's sweetheart and her family, and briefly remarks on Hermann himself:

Now permit me briefly to make you acquainted with Charlotte. … Her father was at one time a merchant of the second guild, then an apothecary, then director of a pension, finally a proofreader and typesetter; he died, leaving his wife certain debts and a quite complete collection of butterflies and insects. He was a good man and had many basic kinds of knowledge which led him to nothing good. His widow, having sold the manuscripts to a shopkeeper, paid for a little tobacco shop and began to provide for herself and Charlotte with the labor of their hands.

Hermann lived on the same court as the widow, became acquainted with Charlotte, and soon they were in love with one another, as only Germans can still love in our times. …

And when the charming little German girl pulled aside the white window curtain, Hermann did not appear at his peep-hole [vasisdas] and greet her with his customary smile.

His father, a Russianized German, had bequeathed a small capital. Hermann left it in a savings bank, not touching the interest, and lived on his salary alone.

Part of the last fragment, slightly expanded, was retained in the brief characterization of Hermann in Chapter 2 of the finished novella. But the entire conception of this character, including his involvement with Charlotte, is radically changed in The Queen of Spades; Charlotte disappears altogether, and Hermann becomes a frustrated Napoleon.

The basic similarity of Hermann's relations with Charlotte in the original sketch with the aspirations of Ezersky in that fragment and of Eugene in The Bronze Horseman is clearly evident. What the denouement of the Ezersky story might have been is of course unknown; the other tales, one in prose and one in verse, both end in tragic frustration and madness. Hermann's efforts to win a quick fortune for himself and Charlotte would probably have come to the same end.3

Like many of Pushkin's works, The Queen of Spades has a subject which was suggested to Pushkin by an anecdote told by a friend:4

The old Countess was Natalia Petrovna Golitsyna, mother of Dmitri Vladimirovich, governor-general of Moscow; she had really lived in Paris in the fashion Pushkin described. Her grandson, [S.G.] Golitsyn, related to Pushkin that once he had lost at cards and went to his grandmother to ask for money. She would not give him money, but told him three cards, which had been designated to her in Paris by [Count] St.-Germain. “Try them,” said his grandmother. Her grandson bet on the cards and recouped his losses. The further development of the tale is entirely fictional.

The anecdote of the “three cards” is the generating principle of the tale. Related at the late supper of the group of card-playing young aristocrats (their dissipated habits are less prominent than in the first-person account in the fragmentary first version) it becomes fixed in the mind of the seemingly staid and cold-blooded young German engineer Hermann and transforms him into a monomaniac, bent on learning at all costs the secret that will bring him sudden wealth and lift him out of the bourgeois existence which he resents. The rest of the story, told with the utmost economy and directness, without any detours, is the account of this maniacal quest and its tragic outcome.

A fundamental theme of the novella is that of information given a living being by a ghostly visitor. Superficially this suggests E. T. A. Hoffmann. Although many of Hoffmann's characters have dealings with ghosts, perhaps the nearest analogue in the work of the German romantic is the story Ritter Gluck,5 in which a young musician meets a man who plays him music which he does not recognize from an opera by the great composer Willibald Christoph Gluck—an opera which is known to have been on Gluck's mind when he died, but which was never written. The performer of the music is the ghost of Gluck himself. In the Hoffmann story, however, there is no personal relationship between the two musicians, while the ghost which imparts to Hermann the secret of the three cards is that of the old Countess whom his unexpected appearance and threats have frightened to death, and Hermann's catastrophic third play, when he unaccountably draws the queen of spades instead of the ace appears to be the old woman's posthumous revenge. This aspect of the tale is underlined by the epigraph: “The queen of spades signifies secret hostility”—Most recent fortune-telling manual.

Like many writers of his day, e.g., V. F. Odoevsky, Pushkin in his novella resorts to the device of “double motivation,” that is, he takes pains to leave clues that allow the apparently supernatural incidents of the old Countess's apparition and revenge to be explained naturally: thus, Hermann is overwrought by the old woman's death and the apparently definitive loss of the secret of the three cards; he has been drinking more than usual; although he has been a constant spectator at card games, he himself has never before been a player, etc. At the same time, the most significant of the seemingly supernatural incidents—Hermann's unexampled success on the first two of his three evenings in Chekalinsky's gambling parlor, when he bets on the first two of the three-card sequence, the three and the seven—remains unexplained, or explainable only as sheer, and most improbable, coincidence. The Marxist critics who indignantly reject the idea that Pushkin, even for the purposes of his story, accepted such an irrational belief as that in ghosts, are letting a preconceived notion of Pushkin cloud their vision. Doubtless he did not personally subscribe to popular beliefs in otherworldly intervention; but he was not above using them for artistic purposes. Note, for example, the frequency of prophetic dreams in his works. At the end of Chapter 2 Hermann has a dream of dizzying success at the gaming table; just so the young monk Grigory in the fifth scene of Boris Godunov relates a dream that foretells his career as a pretender to the throne of Muscovy and its tragic end; and Petrusha Grinyov, in The Captain's Daughter, dreams that in some fashion the rough-looking muzhik who has been his guide through a snow-storm is his father: the muzhik, who is Pugachev, indeed saves his life and makes possible his marriage. Hermann's failure on his third play is from a rational point of view a perfectly natural occurrence, far more natural indeed than his earlier successes; in Hermann's fevered mind, however, it is a supernatural punishment. Just as he saw the features of the dead woman at her funeral contorted in a mocking grimace, so he sees the same leer on the face of the queen of spades. Pushkin makes no point of this, for his tale is perfectly objective, with no didactic overtones: but anyone wishing to read a moral into the fable could say that such ruthless and single-minded pursuit of money as Hermann's deserves his punishment; and that even in terms of his own hallucination he has merited it: his ghostly visitor left him with the words: “I forgive you my death, on condition that you marry my ward, Lizaveta Ivanovna.” The thought of doing so never enters Hermann's mind.

The tale is told with Pushkin's usual economy; there is no parade of description, either of background realia or of the psychology of the characters. It begins in medias res, with the words: “Once a card game was going on at the quarters of Narumov of the Horse Guards,” and whatever exposition is needed is supplied in passing as events develop. In six chapters the tragedy moves inexorably to its conclusion, from the first appearance of the anecdote of the “three cards,” to Hermann's scheme of extorting the secret from the old woman and her resulting death, through his appearance and faint at her funeral, to the apparition and revelation of the secret, to the final scene at Chekalinsky's, which is marked by an almost unbearable intensity. Contrary to Pushkin's usual practice, a brief epilogue informs the reader that Hermann has been confined to a madhouse, and that Lizaveta Ivanovna, the poor girl whom he had heartlessly made the tool of his insane cupidity, has found a wealthy husband.

Hermann's character is the heart of the story. It is briefly sketched in Chapter 2:6

He was secretive and ambitious moreover, and his companions rarely had occasion to make fun of his excessive parsimony. He had strong passions and an ardent imagination, but firmness saved him from the usual errors of youth. So, for example, though a gambler at heart, he had never taken cards in his hand because he reckoned that his fortune would not allow him, as he used to say, to sacrifice the necessary in hope of gaining the superfluous,—yet he used to sit for whole nights at the gaming tables and follow with feverish excitement the various turns of the game.

Hermann has often been compared with Julien Sorel, the ruthless arriviste of Stendhal's The Red and the Black. There is considerable similarity between the two heroes: both are of plebeian origin and resent their relatively low place in society and are ruthlessly bent on changing it; both look on other people as potential instruments for their own purposes; and both overreach themselves and suffer a catastrophic fall. Perhaps the guillotine is a happier ending than the madhouse! But there is a great difference: Julien, although he always has his eye on the main chance, is a man of passion; Hermann is cold-blooded and calculating. Julien is genuinely in love, first with Mme de Rênal and then with Mlle de la Mole. His fatal blunder is one of passion, when he attempts to murder the first of his mistresses when she becomes inconvenient to his second affair. Hermann, however passionate his letters to Lizaveta Ivanovna may sound (they are faithful transcripts from sentimental German novels, we are told) has no interest in her whatsoever; her beauty and innocence leave him wholly unmoved.

In one other respect there is a similarity between Julien and Hermann: both are “exceptional people,” and both are potential Napoleons. Julien sees the conqueror's meteoric career as a constant inspiration; and Pushkin twice explicitly compares his hero to Napoleon. Pushkin's heroes, whether in verse or prose, after his Byronic period are almost always ordinary, commonplace people—Eugene Onegin, the Eugene of The Bronze Horseman, Peter Grinyov, etc.; even young Alexei Berestov (“Mistress into Maid”), for all his melancholy pose and “black ring engraved with a death's-head” is a quite ordinary fellow. Vladimir Dubrovsky and Hermann are exceptions. Pushkin notes ironically that Hermann's “Byronic” character is rather an anomaly in his time. It is this demonic aspect of the prosaic-seeming young engineer which fascinates Lizaveta in Tomsky's description (Chapter 4): “He has the profile of a Napoleon and the soul of a Mephistopheles. I believe that he has at least three crimes on his conscience.” Tomsky is of course not serious—there is nothing in the story itself to support such a charge against Hermann—but Pushkin intends it as a clue to the potentialities of his character.

For the most part Pushkin refrains from himself describing his people or their thoughts; this is done much more effectively by depicting their actions. Thus there is no analysis of Hermann's deliberations between the time when he first hears of the three cards and his wooing of Lizaveta Ivanovna. The reader learns of this turn of events only in Chapter 2 when Lizaveta asks Tomsky if Narumov is in the engineers (we have been told in the first chapter that Narumov belongs to the Horse Guards, but Hermann is an engineer). Although in Chapter 4 Lizaveta, as she sits in her room after the ball, is described as passing in mental review the circumstances which have led to her rash assignation with Hermann, all this is already known to the reader, and her meditation only confirms what earlier chapters have shown. Lizaveta is presented most sympathetically. She is a presumably typical figure—the poor young companion of a tyrannical old woman. A dependent, hourly subject to the whims, tantrums and stupid “conversation” of a senile tyrant, Liza has romantic dreams about captivating a suitor who will enable her to escape from her humiliating captivity. Her desperation motivates her acceptance of Hermann's demand for an assignation, and her innocence of the world explains her failure to appreciate fully the risks involved. The disillusion she suffers when Hermann uses the first (and only) meeting with her for his own selfish purposes and she realizes that it is only money that he loves, not her, is crushing. Kindly Pushkin provides her with wealth and independence in the Epilogue—and a poor “companion” of her own. One hopes that her own experience may have made her humane.

The other fully developed character of the novella is that of the old Countess. In two splendid passages in the second and third chapters Pushkin shows her in action with Lizaveta and thereby reveals both what she is like and what her companion has to endure. Then he gives a concise summary of her character, which her behavior with Lizaveta has already enabled the reader to guess:7

The Countess, of course, did not have a bad heart; but she was capricious like any woman who has been spoiled by society; miserly and sunk in a cold egoism, like all old people who have fallen out of love with life and are estranged from the present.

Stylistically The Queen of Spades is the perfect example of Pushkin's realistic prose. In The Tales of Belkin the fictional transmission of the stories complicates the style. The first teller of the tales is a provincial official, an ex-army officer, a sentimental maiden lady, or the like; the tales are told to a colorless amateur writer (Belkin) who casts them in a simple, artless prose; and finally the third narrator, A. P. (Alexander Pushkin), colors it with elements of irony and occasional subjective feeling. The Queen of Spades is the first of Pushkin's completed stories to dispense with the distancing device of the fictional narrator. Sober, colorless, light, completely free of ornamentation or mannerisms, the language is the closest approach in Russian to classical French prose, which is indeed Pushkin's model. The sentences are short and structurally simple; the infrequent epithets are precise, each calculated for a definite effect; and the verb usually carries the principal idea. Note, for example, the sentence: “Hermann heard her hurrying footsteps.” Liza, returning with the Countess from the ball, and torn with anxiety over her imprudent assignation, is in haste to discover if Hermann really is in her room. The epithet “hurrying” tells all this with Pushkin's habitual neatness and economy. Or in Chapter 4 as Hermann leaves Lizaveta's room to make his escape down the concealed private staircase to the street, he makes his wordless farewell to her: “Hermann pressed her cold, unresponsive hand, kissed her bowed head, and left the room.” The word “unresponsive” tells the whole story of their relations: he has lied to her and used her as his tool, and all she feels for him is loathing and shame for her own gullibility.

When Pushkin feels it necessary to convey more fully the thoughts of his characters, he still uses the greatest economy. In the same climactic fourth chapter Hermann appears in Lizaveta's room and reveals his real purpose in their meeting and the death of the Countess:8

Lizaveta Ivanovna listened to him with horror. So those passionate letters, those ardent demands, that bold, stubborn pursuit—all that was not love! Money—that was what his soul craved! She could not satisfy his desires and make him happy! … She began to weep bitterly in her belated, tormenting repentance. Hermann looked at her in silence. His heart too was torn, but neither the poor girl's tears nor the wonderful charm of her grief agitated his grim soul. He felt no remorse of conscience at thought of the dead old woman. One thing horrified him: the irretrievable loss of the secret from which he had expected to get rich—Morning had come. Lizaveta Ivanovna extinguished the burned-down candle; a pallid light illuminated her room. She wiped her tear-stained eyes and raised them to Hermann; he was sitting at the window, with arms folded and frowning terribly. In that position he had an amazing resemblance to portraits of Napoleon. This likeness struck even Lizaveta Ivanovna.

Lev Tolstoi, on a rereading of The Captain's Daughter, felt that Pushkin's prose had aged: “Now in the modern trend interest in the details of a feeling justly replaces interest in events themselves. Pushkin's tales are somehow naked.”9 It is true that the great novels of the nineteenth century which came after Pushkin are distinguished by a fullness of psychological analysis which Pushkin never indulges in. But the great novels of his own day, especially those of Sir Walter Scott and Honoré Balzac are distinguished just as much for lengthy descriptions, antiquarian and historical and social disquisitions and the like. Pushkin eschews all this, and his prose does convey an impression of bareness. So does Voltaire's, and so does Stendhal's, and so does Mérimée's, all writers whom Pushkin knew and valued. Pushkin's prose is different from any of these, but it is essentially French; there is no Russian antecedent for it.

As a final stylistic note on The Queen of Spades, it is not without interest that some Russian writers have claimed to detect an almost poetic rhythm in the story. A. Slonimsky goes the farthest: “The theme of the three cards invariably calls up a rhythmical three-beat movement of the language, which sometimes passes into a regular dactyl.” He then quotes the words of Hermann's meditation: “What if the old Countess should reveal the secret to me? Or name for me those three sure cards” [ili naznachit mne éti tri vérnye kárty? …].10 Such attempts, however, are doomed to inevitable frustration, for while the word accents of a prose sentence are fixed, the sentence accent is not, and different readers will not read the same sentence identically. Lezhnyov derides Slonimsky's rhythmical reading of the three-card sequence: “Troíka, semérka i túz”[“the three, the seven and the ace”], which unfortunately for Slonimsky's thesis, sometimes appears without the connective “i,” for which the critic is obliged to substitute a purely arbitrary “pause.” As Stepanov says:11 “The laws of prose rhythm are different, and to try to fit Pushkin's phrase to verse measures … is a hopeless business, although one that obliquely testifies to its rhythmical organization as a principle.” Pushkin's prose has its own extremely complex rhythm, which one may feel, but which no schematic analysis has succeeded in defining.


  1. Pushkin, Sobranie, V, 233-262; trans. R. Edmonds in The Queen of Spades and Other Stories.

  2. Pushkin, Sobranie, V, 553-554.

  3. N. N. Petrunina (“Dve ‘Peterburgskie povesti’ Pushkina,” in Pushkin: Issledovaniia i materialy, X [L. Nauka, 1982], pp. 147-167) explores in copious and often unconvincing detail the interrelationships of the two completed and one fragmentary tale.

  4. Rasskazy o Pushkine, Zapisannye so slov ego druzei O. I. Bartenevym v 1851-1860 (M. 1925), pp. 46-47.

  5. See Ritter Gluck in E. T. A. Hoffmann (Berlin & Darmstadt: Tempel Verlag, 1963), I, 17-27.

  6. Pushkin, Sobranie, V, 242.

  7. Pushkin, Sobranie, V, 240.

  8. Pushkin, Sobranie, V, 253-254.

  9. L. N. Tolstoi, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (M. Goslitizdat, 1949—), Vol. 46, p. 188.

  10. A. Slonimskii, Masterstvo Pushkina, p. 522.

  11. Stepanov, Proza Pushkina, p. 253.

Jean Norris Scales (essay date June 1991)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1327

SOURCE: Scales, Jean Norris. “The Ironic Smile: Pushkin's ‘The Queen of Spades’ and James' ‘The Aspern Papers.’” CLA 34, no. 4 (June 1991): 486-90.

[In the following essay, Scales finds parallels between Pushkin's tale and Henry James's “The Aspern Papers.”]

Reflecting contrasting bodies of literature, Alexander Pushkin's The Queen of Spades and Henry James' “The Aspern Papers” present views of man that are remarkably similar—man in his obsession learning the ironic consequences of his excesses. Pushkin's milieu is prerevolutionary tsarist Russia, and James' environment, a late nineteenth-century European setting. Yet, there is poignant similarity in the obsessive desire of the protagonists, in the striking reversal on the brink of success, and in the ironic smile that reinforces the reversal of each story.

Pushkin's protagonist, Hermann, a German engineer, moves in the courtly circles of late eighteenth-century St. Petersburg, while James' narrator, an American literary critic, moves in a foreign world, that of nineteenth-century Venice. Born in 1843, six years after Pushkin's death in a duel, James gives a view of “publishing scoundrels” through his protagonist, beyond the more individualistic concentration of Pushkin's central character. Related by Pushkin in brisk, objective style and by James in more complex first-person narration, the stories show young protagonists as they move within a hair's breadth of their most cherished desires, only to have fulfillment denied. Acceptance of fate by the protagonists is implicit in the design of the stories.

At the beginning of Pushkin's story, Hermann is notably a quiet observer, watching card games hour after hour but never venturing into competition. Pushkin masterfully controls the revelation of the protagonist's interest as it moves from a flicker to blazing obsession. Upon hearing of the aged Countess Anna Fedotovna's story of a remarkable winning streak in Paris years before, Hermann is silently and irretrievably caught by the fascination of possessing the secret which turned her losses into astounding winnings. From this point, Pushkin traces the detective story that will bring Hermann into possession of the cherished secret withheld by the Countess for sixty years, and conveys the irony of his having received it.

Earlier than in Pushkin's story, James reveals the narrator's consideration of his “plan of campaign.” That which follows is only an intensification of those views expressed earlier in warlike imagery. The mystery of disclosing the narrator's increasing obsession is not present, for he from beginning to end reveals to the reader with frankness his singular purpose and his ultimate frustration. His subterfuge in exuding falsely a love of cultivating flowers, his moving into the dismal Venetian mansion of the aged Miss Bordereau and her niece Tina at exorbitant rent, and his unrelenting pursuit of the coveted Aspern papers outline the course of his campaign. In flattering speech, guarded silence, and audacious action, he unswervingly pursues his purpose. Unlike Pushkin's story, James' narrative does not bring the protagonist into the possession of his goal. Rather, the irony lies not in the consequences of his acquiring that which he sought, but in gaining by his own payment only a miniature reminder of his very bitter loss.

In each story there are tantalizing elements which increase the fervor of the pursuit. Hermann stands day after day below the window of the Countess, in time gaining access to her bedroom through an humble maid who is led to believe that his interest is in her. The success of the first stage of his mission leads Hermann to a frantic pressing of the Countess which results in her death, not by the gun that Hermann wields but from the shock of such an invasion. Her revelation of the card secret provides a second reinforcement of hope and a sharpening of the obsession. But shortly, when at the funeral Hermann sees the corpse of the Countess give him a mocking look, he is momentarily disconcerted: “At that moment it seemed to him the dead woman darted a mocking look at him and winked one eye.”1

James' narrator, foreshadowing his own ironic reversal, is tauntingly shown a picture of Jeffrey Aspern by Miss Bordereau several months after he has begun his battle with flowers at the Venetian palace. Studying the face of the brilliant young poet, the narrator, also in the delusion of an obsession, witnesses a mocking smile: “He seemed to smile at me with mild mockery; he might have been amused at my case.”2 Noticeably, James' protagonist, in control of himself, is not disconcerted. Rather, he accepts the delusion humorously: “I had got into a pickle for him—as if he needed it!” (p. 287).

In both works, the wry smiles of the dead Countess in Pushkin's story and of the Aspern picture in James' narrative foreshadow the conclusion. It is through the blindness of obsession that both protagonists persist and are thus defeated through their own stubbornness of pursuit. In the very first reference to the Aspern picture, there is an ironic ring, for Miss Bordereau inquires, “Do you know about curiosities?” (p. 251). It is only after the use of “curiosities” that she clarifies upon the narrator's questioning: “About antiquities, the old gimcracks that people pay so much for today.” (p. 251). In James' narrative the picture will indeed be a curiosity, for the handsome countenance will assume life in the narrator's mind and the semblance will be the symbol of defeat that is projected at the end of the story.

Further, the picture is a tantalizing play for Miss Bordereau in that initial conversation referring to it, for she titillatingly refuses to disclose the subject of the picture. It is through the narrator's keenness and to his joy that he recognizes the identity. He sees the Aspern picture as a step toward the Aspern papers. But this first inquiry regarding an Aspern property is disappointing, for Miss Bordereau refuses to entrust the picture to the narrator, slipping it silently into her pocket. His hope for the papers is renewed when the aged lady's health wanes. Upon the promise of assistance of Tina, and upon Miss Bordereau's death, the narrator sees victory in sight—in spite of her hateful epithet for him as he rummaged through the drawers in her darkened room.

Hermann in his St. Petersburg world is also led to believe that riches will be his as he utilizes the coveted card trick, twice to astounding success. It is only upon the third encounter that his house of cards comes tumbling down. In the heat of anticipation, he turns up what should have been an ace, to find the queen of spades smiling at him:

At that moment it seemed to him that the queen of spades smiled ironically and winked her eye at him. He was struck by her remarkable resemblance. …

“The old Countess!” he exclaimed, seized with terror.

(Pushkin, p. 46)

His sanity pushed to the limit, Hermann goes out of his mind and is confined to a mental hospital where he mutters constantly, “Three, seven, queen!” Thus Pushkin's protagonist in his obsession is led delusively to his tragic defeat.

Without the grimness of his Russian counterpart, James' protagonist in volatile zest moves to his crushing defeat. He cringes beneath the revelation of Tina, his assumed aide, the revelation that she has methodically burned the Aspern papers. The Aspern picture that she has given over to him then serves itself as a mockery of his futile pursuit. Paid for, and hanging above his desk, the picture remains the bitterest of reminders.

Although different in their literary heritages, Pushkin and James present interestingly comparable works. Pushkin in The Queen of Spades and James in “The Aspern Papers” strike a common chord in presenting the ironic consequences of an obsession and in using a pictured smile to reinforce the irony.


  1. Alexander Pushkin. “The Queen of Spades,” in Great Russian Short Stories, ed. Norris Houghton (New York: Dell, 1958), p. 42. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

  2. Henry James. The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers (New York: Everyman's Library, 1969), p. 287. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

Maxim D. Shrayer (essay date winter 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8486

SOURCE: Shrayer, Maxim D. “Rethinking Romantic Irony: Puškin, Byron, Schlegel and The Queen of Spades.Slavic and East European Journal 36, no. 4 (winter 1992): 397-414.

[In the following essay, Shrayer explores the romantic irony in The Queen of Spades in order to clarify Pushkin's status as a Romantic writer.]

It is a very good sign when the harmonious bores are at a loss about how they should react to this continuous self-parody, when they fluctuate endlessly between belief and disbelief until they get dizzy and take what is meant as a joke seriously and is meant seriously as a joke.1

Friedrich Schlegel, Critical Fragments

This essay will examine Puškin's The Queen of Spades (1833) in light of the current debates on the place of romantic irony in the Romantic movement. Puškin's oeuvre on the whole has been associated with Romanticism in one way or another, although scholars indicate some unsolved problems with Puskin's place in the Romantic “canon.”2 Hopefully, a discussion of romantic irony in The Queen of Spades—a recognized tour de force of Puškin's prose—well elucidate Puskin's status as Romantic writer.

The defining statement of romantic irony—both as an artistic style and as a philosophical system—originated within a group of German post-Kantian aestheticians centering around Friedrich Schlegel (1772-1829).3 Friedrich Schlegel and his followers in their aesthetic writings insist on the essentially chaotic nature of the universe and deny the possibility of any absolute order. The essence of reality is defined as becoming, rather than being. Schlegel writes, “An idea is a concept perfected to the point of irony, an absolute synthesis of absolute antitheses, the continual self-creating interchange of two conflicting thoughts.”4

According to Schlegel, one must always sustain the “incredibly difficult but not impossible dual awareness that everything one believes is both true and false.”5 This awareness opens new perspectives for artistic production. As suggested by Anne K. Mellor, a romantic ironist is one who creates or represents an ordered world in which he believes and to which he commits himself, and, acknowledging his own limitations as a human being, is simultaneously doomed to dwell in his fictional creations. A romantic ironist constantly teeters between self-creation and self-destruction, stripping away the limitations of his constructions.6 When commenting on the great difficulty of remaining faithful to his own aesthetic project, Schlegel wrote the following in his well-known essay On Incomprehensibility,

But what we want this irony to mean in the first place is something that happens in more ways than one. For example, if one speaks of irony without using it, as I have just done; if one speaks of irony ironically without in the process being aware of having fallen into a far more noticeable irony; if one can't disentangle oneself from irony any more … ; if irony turns into a mannerism and becomes, as it were, ironical about the author. … Irony is something one cannot simply play games with. It can have incredibly long-lasting after-effects.7

Jerome McGann in his book, The Romantic Ideology, outlines three major modern approaches to romantic irony. In modified form, they are as follows: Meyer Abrams' disregarding of romantic irony, Anne Mellor's taking Schlegel's views as foundation, and the traditional, or Kierkegaardian approach to romantic irony.8 The latter view considers romantic irony as a set of artistic devices that allow the author to “form a club with his readers and mock all and everything,”9 to appear as a figure in his own writing, and to comment upon the action.10

Anne K. Mellor's English Romantic Irony still remains the best book in English on the subject. Other useful discussions of the various aspects of romantic irony can be found in Furst (1984), McGann (1983), and Muecke (1969, 1970). Mellor's argument is based on her initial disagreement with Meyer Abrams' definition of the Romantic movement as outlined in Natural Supernaturalism. Abrams proposes that we view English and German Romantic works as presenting a secularized Judaeo-Christian idea of universal order, an order based on the teleology of Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained. Mellor points out that Abrams is correct in a very general sense, but his “failure” to discuss either Schlegel's concept of romantic irony or Byron's Don Juan as its greatest English example puts into question the very appropriateness of Abrams' attempt to constrict the romantic canon.11 As a result of his indifference towards Schlegel and some of Byron's works, Abrams' totalizing view of the Romantic movement does not account for some of its major modes and processes.12

Mellor's approach to the problem of romantic irony is Schlegelian. In the introductory chapter, she states her intention to distinguish the philosophical and ontological dimensions of the Schlegelian concept from its artistic or literary application. On the one hand, Anne Mellor's study is a major step towards understanding the problem; on the other hand, the study leaves one problem unresolved, namely the lack of a clearly outlined artistic (stylistic) dimension of romantic irony. It is through the literary dimension of romantic irony, rather than through its aesthetics or world-vision, that I will consider The Queen of Spades.

Mellor defines romantic irony in the following way:

Romantic irony, then, is a mode of consciousness or way of thinking about the world that finds a corresponding literary mode. The artist who perceives the universe as an infinitely abundant chaos; who sees his own consciousness as simultaneously limited and involved in a process of growth or becoming; who therefore enthusiastically engages in the difficult but exhilarating balancing between self-creation and self-destruction; and who then articulates this experience in a form that simultaneously creates and de-creates itself is producing the literary mode that Schlegel called romantic irony. As a literary mode, romantic irony characteristically includes certain elements: a philosophical conception of the universe as becoming, as an infinitely abundant chaos; a literary structure that reflects both this chaos or process of becoming and the systems that men impose upon it; and a language that draws attention to its own limitations.13

Mellor's definition is brilliant, but how does it apply to the actual object of Mellor's examination—Byron's long lyrical poems, especially Don Juan?

The problem with the relation of Byron's long poems to romantic irony as defined by Mellor is that the poet himself as the agent who demystifies his various Byronic characters (Giaour, Manfred, Childe Harold, Don Juan, et al.) often falls into the trap of Byronism, either by becoming a Byronic character himself or by identifying with one of the Byronic characters. Byron is a romantic ironist when he is anti-Byronic, thus allowing for a double vision in his poems. The Giaour is the only character in the eponymous poem with whom we can identify,

And tell him—what thou dost behold!
The withered frame, the ruined mind,
The wrack by passion left behind,
A shrivelled scroll, a scattered leaf,
Seared by the autumn blast of Grief!(14)

But even then, we are mindful of the Giaour's incredible narcissism, sado-masochism, and patriarchal outlook. This stance corresponds to Mellor's romantic-ironic “dual awareness,” also central to Puškin's The Queen of Spades. Conversely, when, towards the end of Don Juan, Byron collapses his anti-Byronism and his Byronism into one whole, the result is certainly not romantic-ironic, but rather stable-ironic and one-dimensional. As stable irony it also possesses a dialectic of its own—one which Mellor does not see. Don Juan roams from one place to another, from one woman to another, and his life becomes more schematic, less human and less appealing. In fact, Byron's persona and Don Juan as the Byronic character are almost inseparable at the end of Don Juan. The open-endedness of the poem is not “incomprehensible,” it is a logical result of Byron's aesthetic betrayal of romantic irony.

In Puškin, more so than in Byron, we find a romantic ironist par excellence. The emblematic achievements and shortcomings of Byron's career revealed to Puškin the failure of any attempt to impose a philosophical or ideological schema upon the fictional text. Schlegel, the inventor of the philosophical concept of romantic-ironic simultaneity, remained forever within the abstract domain of his aesthetic writings, and his novel Lucinde completely disregards his own aesthetic principles. Byron did not read Schlegel; nor did Puškin, who did not like reading in German. In general, Puškin was skeptical of “philosophical meanderings”.15 Byron in his long poems is a romantic ironist only half-way. In The Queen of Spades16, however, Puškin masters the artistic technique of romantic irony.

The main feature of Puškin's romantic irony in The Queen of Spades is the existence of two dimensions interacting within the narrative. One of them—apparent to most readers of the story—is a limited and local dimension which may be referred to as the thriller (ghost thriller, gambling thriller, etc.).17 The thriller corresponds to the conventions of Puškin's contemporaries, of the Russian society of the first third of the 19th century. The other, larger, dimension belongs to the narrator and his agents of romantic irony in the narrative. The complex interaction between the two dimensions serves to position the reader vis-à-vis the text so as to manipulate and control her/him. Puškin's genius recognized that although fiction should always be more than a thriller, it should be a “good” thriller all the same. Only then can the author play what T. S. Eliot called “monkey tricks” behind the back of the audience. And it is this very romantic-ironic vision of the Universe which permeates the discourse of The Queen of Spades.18

As indicated earlier, the study of romantic irony in Russian literature has been unsatisfactory. In the West, scholars of Russian literature have tended to treat Romanticism in the manner of Abrams. Since Abrams' view leaves no place for romantic irony, many scholars in the field focus on other aspects of the Russian Romantic heritage.19 In Russia, where scholarship is still shaped by Gor'kij's distinction between positive and negative romanticism, romantic irony is not viewed separately from stable irony.20 As a result, in the many studies of The Queen of Spades scholars rarely mention romantic irony.21

What is the function of romantic irony in The Queen of Spades? Let us first look at Germann as a demystified Byronic character and identify this demystification with the technique of romantic irony in the text. Then, let us examine the most prominent readings of the story from the point of view of romantic irony. Finally, we will consider the status of narration and the modes of romantic irony in The Queen of Spades.

Viktor Žirmunskij, in an influential study of 1924, suggests that only questions of the actual artistic impact of Byron's poetry upon Puškin's poetry—not questions of the impact of Byron's personality and Byron's ideas upon Puškin—belong properly to the domain of literary studies.22 Puškin borrowed from Byron a new literary genre—the long romantic lyrical poem (romantičeskaja liričeskaja poèma)—and certain concrete images and motifs, but he borrowed these traditions not mechanically, but in accordance with his individual taste and the creative aspirations of his epoch. Žirmunskij examines in detail the way Puškin was influenced by the novelistic plots and medieval fabulae of Byron's poems.

The impact of Byron's romantic irony upon Puškin's prose might have travelled via Puškin's “southern” poems. In The Queen of Spades one can find at least three features of Byronic influence: the romanticized medieval fabula is certainly present in the narrative;23 the structure of the narrative resembles some of Byron's poems with sudden beginnings/entanglements and abruptness of narration; and Germann himself is a Byronic character. Puškin as romantic ironist demystifies Germann's Byronism in the course of the story.

From the very first episode when we encounter Germann observing the officers gambling at Narumov's, he is surrounded by an aura of mystery and alienation. He is of German extraction. He never punts although he spends nights watching the play, which “interests him intensely”24 (igra zanimaet menja sil'no).25 Very little is said about Germann when we first meet him; nonetheless the reader is intrigued by the obvious differences between Germann and everybody else at the gaming table. Germann is unlike anyone. His words reveal strength of character, pride, and alienation. His strategy in life is not to sacrifice the ‘essential’ for the sake of the ‘superfluous.’26 Germann, like everyone else at Narumov's, hears Tomskij's story, and his comment is skeptical.27 Germann is Byronic, gloomy and alienated, and his non-participation in the game intrigues the officers and the readers. Tomskij, unlike the others, is portrayed as being confident that he understands Germann and can see through him. As several critics suggest, Tomskij's characterization of Germann as an “economical”28 German (rasčëtlivyj nemec) is offered at this point in the narrative precisely to obfuscate the doubleness of Germann's nature.29

It is important to keep in mind that Germann appears in Chapter 2 disguised under his uniform. And in fact the reader is not certain until Germann's story is narrated at the end of the chapter that Germann and the young engineer beneath Lizan'ka's window are the same person. Lizan'ka herself does not yet know Germann's name.

There is a tradition in the criticism of The Queen of Spades of viewing Germann as a Napoleonic figure.30 (Napoleon, of course, was among the most important personalities for Byron and other actors on the Romantic stage.) External rather than internal affinities exist between Germann and Napoleon allowing us to read Germann as one of the many little Napoleons of his time and milieu.

Germann the Byronic/Napoleonic figure sees Lizan'ka's pretty face in the window of the Countess' house, and this event “decides his fate.”31 In Chapter III up until the point when Germann enters the Countess' house, communication between Germann and Lizan'ka develops and their mutual attraction grows. Germann the Byronic/Napoleonic figure here becomes a Wertherian figure. We certainly know that Germann wants to learn the secret of the three cards. Because of the effect of the narrative, however, until Germann hides in the Countess' bedroom when she returns from the ball, the reader is not sure whether Germann came for the Countess' secret or for a rendezvous with Lizan'ka. It is not by chance that Germann, a Russified German, copies his first letters to Lizan'ka from a German novel which very well could have been The Sufferings of Young Werther by Goethe. Germann as an innamorato is inventive in conventional terms. As his passion grows, he begins to compose his own letters and expresses in them both the “inflexibility of his desires and the disorder of an unrestrained imagination”32 (nepreklonnost' ego strastej, i besporjadok neobuzdannogo voobraženija).33 Because Lizan'ka has no idea of Germann's real intentions (if one can speak of them in the letter-exchange episode), she is caught in an actual romantic situation. But one must emphasize that although the readers are told of Germann's true goal, they are still likely to “buy into” Germann's Wertherian romance.

From acting like Werther, Germann metamorphoses into Faust in the episode in the Countess' bedroom. Andrei Kodjak in his article on the Faust legend in The Queen of Spades examines the role of the legend in Puškin's narrative. In particular, he discusses the Faust legend as one of the four main sign systems in the story along with the numbers sign system, narrator sign system, and ghost sign system. Sharing Kodjak's beliefs, Mark Simpson treats The Queen of Spades as a Russian Gothic novel which re-enacts the Faust legend. Kodjak's reading of The Queen of Spades as a Faustian tale is, nonetheless, not free of shortcomings. Still, the scene at the Countess' bedroom certainly carries some traits of Faustianism. Here Germann offers to take over the Countess' sin, in a Faustian pact with Satan: “Reveal your secret to me! What is it to you? … Perhaps it is connected to a terrible sin, to a pact with the devil. … Think: you are old, you do not have long to live—I am ready to take your sin on my soul. Just reveal your secret to me. Think. …”34

Tomskij creates a bridge for the reader from Germann as Faust back to Germann as a Byronic/Napoleonic character. During the ball scene, chronologically preceded by the scene in the house and narrated after it, Tomskij describes Germann to Lizan'ka as a “truly romantic character” (lico istinno romaničeskoe), having the profile of Napoleon and the soul of Mephistopheles' and “at least three crimes on his conscience.”35 Lizan'ka, conditioned by sentimental novels36 and sharpened by Tomskij's remark at the ball, regards Germann with a mixture of fear and desire. The narrator's comment about the vapidity of the persona, created by the contemporary novels and recreated by Lizan'ka's imagination,37 passes virtually unnoticed. In the scene in Lizan'ka's bedroom, Germann is portrayed as a Byronic/Napoleonic figure again. Hands crossed and brows knitted, he even sits on the window-sill in the pose of Napoleon. Lizan'ka sees the resemblance between Napoleon's portrait and Germann. Germann's act reveals a great strength of will, callousness (he is breaking Lizan'ka's heart), and fearlessness (he is ready to go alone down the secret back stairs in the first hour of morning).

The next chapter enhances Germann's mysterious aura as he makes a public appearance at the Countess' funeral service. Germann falls down by the coffin after the Countess winks at him. The reader knows this from the omniscient narrator. But the society has a different impression of Germann: Lizan'ka faints after his fall, the two falls are connected, and one of the Countess's close relatives tells an Englishman that Germann is the Countess' illegitimate son. One can assume that this information quickly circulates. Thus, the St. Petersburg public is increasingly intrigued by Germann; and they focus on his Byronism/Napoleonism.38

When Germann punts for the first time in his life at Čekalinskij's house, bets 47,000 rubles and wins, it is a major event.39 Everyone knows that he has never played before. At the same time, the society perceives Germann as a Byronic/Napoleonic character after the incident in the cathedral. These two notions are interwoven, and the society becomes preoccupied with Germann's personality and his secret. Not saying anything to anyone, Germann leaves after winning two nights in a row. When he arrives at Čekalinskij's on the third night, everyone is mystified by him. Puškin writes:

Everyone was waiting for him. The generals and Privy Councillors left their whist to watch such unusual play. The young officers jumped up from the couches; all of the servants gathered in the drawing-room. They surrounded Hermann. The old gamblers did not place their cards, waiting impatiently to see how he would end.40

It is only when Germann loses in the game that everyone turns away from him. To society Germann is mysterious and Napoleonic insofar as he controls their imagination by winning astronomical sums. Once he has lost, there is no more mystery about him. Thus, Germann's loss demystifies him in the eyes of society. His Byronism/Napoleonism is gone in a moment. What the society now sees is a madman. The same society needs to complete the cycle of Germann's mystification-demystification by sentencing him to an institution. Only when he is confined to a madhouse is Germann seen by them as a madman. There is only a small step between perceiving Germann as a Byronic/Napoleonic persona and as a madman. And Germann makes this step himself—he loses. Society has to put Germann in an institution to redeem its own recent infatuation with him. Society has to separate itself from Germann since if he is not mad, they are. At the same time, the society with the exception of the omniscient narrator and—to some extent—Tomskij, completely misreads Germann from the very beginning.

One might propose that Germann as a romantic-ironic character undergoes a process of demystification within the course of the narrative.41 The narrator constructs him as a Byronic character at the beginning. Germann goes through a first circle of demystification, moving from Byronism/Napoleonism through Wertherianism to Faustianism and then back to Byronism/Napoleonism. There are in fact two circles in Germann's demystification. One, the inner circle, encompasses the Germann-Werther-Faust-Napoleon stages and is based on the events that are hidden from the public and known to the reader. Exemplifying this circle is Germann's pursuit of Lizan'ka and of the old Countess with her secret. In the first circle the reader possesses a great advantage over the public and recognizes what Germann is striving for. The inner circle of demystification joins the larger external circle when Germann collapses in the cathedral. For the public, Germann's demystification begins at Narumov's in Chapter I and ends at the madhouse; it culminates at the last punting night scene. And it is precisely the technique of romantic irony, or one of parallel mystification and unravelling the mystification, that allows the reader to join with the public in the punting scene. Although the reader is seemingly much more aware of Germann's actual self, she/he still identifies with Germann's maniacal desire to win. The reader is still mystified by the three cards. In fact, in the last punting scene, when Germann places his last bet of 188,000 the reader—joined with the public—is inseparable from Germann. The reader is Germann for a moment! When he loses, things come to order. Germann is put into a madhouse. The society forgets about him as quickly as they were once lured by his mysterious aura. The readers can enjoy the information, shared with them by the narrator, and speculate about possible readings of the story. Tomskij can marry Princess Polina and remain above and beyond society. And what about the narrator? And Puškin? They can observe their readers become their characters, particles of the fundamentally unchanging infinite Universe.

One must distinguish two main readings of The Queen of Spades. The first treats the story as realistic and tries to demystify all the instances of the mystic and the fantastic.42 It reads the punting scene as realistic, a queen of spades simply sticking to the ace due to the newness of the pack. It then treats Tomskij's anecdote as consisting of two parts. One—the real, presents Count Saint-Germain as an historical person who lived in Parisian high society in the 1750s and died in 1784.43 In the realistic reading, Count Saint-Germain simply gives Tomskij's grandmother the money she lost in punting. The very story of the cards—the second half of Tomskij's narration—evolves out of Saint-Germain's mystical aura. This reading would seem very attractive in the context of romantic irony, but it contains one flaw that is fatal. The “realists” deem it important for the narrator to signal to his reader that there is no mystery, no secret. But does not the omniscient narrator himself witness the appearance of the Countess in Germann's bedroom: “someone looked in his window from the street”44 (kto-to s ulicy vzgljanul k nemu v okoško)?45 Why would he mention it at all if not to allow for the “ghost thriller” to continue? The realistic reading is important if perceived in light of Mellor's double vision: the narrator asks the reader to accept the ghost story and to question it simultaneously. It is not by chance that he refers to someone at the window. Could that someone have been a passer-by? But one is not fascinated by this version. One wants the Countess' ghost. One seeks the thriller!

The second reading is most explicitly presented in Kodjak's article. He interprets The Queen of Spades not merely as a “thriller ghost story,” but as a psychological tale. For Kodjak the Faust legend is central in the narrative. Kodjak points to the connection between Count Saint-Germain, Germann, and the Countess (Grafinja in the Russian). Germann and Žermen (Germain) are phonologically almost identical, and their names are related etymologically, as well. The Countess (grafinja) is never referred to by her last name although it is revealed in the story. Kodjak believes that this omission separates the Countess from her grandson Tomskij, with whom she shares her last name, being his paternal grandmother. Tomskij is also a prince, not a count, which is very unlikely since his father, the Countess' son, would be expected to inherit the title of his parents. The Russian word grafinja sounds like both Germann and Žermen. Kodjak sees Germann as a Faustian character, but one devoid of the humanistic quest of Goethe's character. By offering the Countess to take over her sins, or to assume her pact with Satan, Germann commits a Faustian act in a formal sense. Kodjak suggests that the Countess once made a pact with Satan, or committed a Faustian act herself: she served as the recipient of the sin, taking it over from Saint-Germain when he revealed to her the secret of the winning cards. Then, in Kodjak's scheme there is a chain of Faustian acts in the course of which the pact with Satan is transferred from one hand into another. The problem most certainly lies in Saint-Germain himself. Commentators refer to Count Saint-Germain as an historical figure whose involvement with black magic, alchemy, and mysticism was legendary. Tomskij gives the following portrait of Saint-Germain:

… he passed himself off as the Eternal Jew, as the inventor of an elixir of life and the philosophers' stone and so forth. He was laughed at as a charlatan, and in his memoirs Casanova says that he was a spy; however, in spite of his mysteriousness St. Germain had a very respectable appearance and in society was a very genial person.46

The information in the possession of the reader could be used as evidence of Saint-Germain's being another Faustian persona, although one trying to understand the meaning of life and therefore more like Goethe's Faust than like Germann. But Kodjak contradicts himself. Germann offers to take over the Countess' Faustian sin, or to sell his soul to Mephistopheles. Such an act implies that the Countess had earlier sold her soul to Mephistopheles; by letting Germann take over her pact with Mephistopheles, she will free herself from that pact and regain her/a soul. But how did the Countess come to sign the pact with Mephistopheles, and who is her Mephistopheles? From Tomskij's story one knows that Saint-Germain revealed the three cards (the secret) to the Countess. One also knows that he was a “close acquaintance” (korotko znakom) of the Countess and that she still “loves him madly” (ljubit bez pamjati).47 The Russian korotko is most likely a euphemism. On the other hand, in order for her to pass her sin (secret) over to Germann, she has to have assumed a sin from someone else. If Saint-Germain is her sin's donor, and she is his recipient, Kodjak's scheme has problems. In fact, the public image of Saint-Germain as a mystic and alchemist, a Faustian type, further complicates Kodjak's scheme. But, as Mark Simpson has suggested, in Gothic novels the recipient of Satan's favor must always await his return, often in disguise.48 Kodjak himself treats the scene in the Countess' bedroom as empty of communication between the Countess and Germann.49 If that is true, the Countess then takes Germann for another man whom she awaits; her eyes become enlivened when he appears in front of her. Whom does she await?

If in Paris the Countess had made a pact with Saint-Germain in which she acted as Faust and he as Mephistopheles, it is Saint-Germain she awaits at such a late hour in her bedroom. The Countess' pact with Saint-Germain as Satan could have occurred on various terms. The question is whether it occurred at all. Why would the Countess speak with love about Satan who possesses her soul? This is not what Faust felt for Mephistopheles! If one agrees with Kodjak's version of the absence of communication between the Countess and Germann, or if one agrees that the Countess is taking Germann for Saint-Germain, the whole notion of a Faustian exchange between Germann and the Countess is put into question. Kodjak sees Saint-Germain as both Faust and Mephistopheles, but Saint-Germain can only act as one of the above in his encounter with the Countess in Paris.

In each Faustian act of exchange, the recipient of the soul assumes the role of Mephistopheles and the donor the role of Faust. To put it differently, Mephistopheles passes the sin (secret) on to Faust in exchange for Faust's soul. If the Countess acted as Mephistopheles in the exchange with Germann, she would obtain his soul and give him the secret of three cards. In the “bedroom episode” Germann talks precisely about such an exchange. He offers to take over the Countess' sin, that is her pact with Mephistopheles. He offers to free her from the pact by assuming her role in the pact, the role of a Faust, not of a Mephistopheles, unlike the apparent suggestion of Tomskij's characterization of Germann. Even if Germann and the Countess miscommunicate rather than have no communication at all, even if the Countess envisions getting Germann's soul to die in peace while Germann thinks about replacing her in her pact with Mephistopheles in exchange for the secret of the three cards, the situation still does not follow the logic of Kodjak's argument. Moreover, further complicating the situation, Kodjak suggests that there are parallels between Germann and Saint-Germain: both have a quest, share similar names, and seek information.50

A possible solution would establish Saint-Germain as Mephistopheles and Germann as one of the many simultaneously existing facets of the multifaceted Mephistopheles. The Countess awaits Saint-Germain, who controls her as either her lover or the possessor of her soul; the first, or a combination of both roles, typifies Tomskij's embedded narrative. Indeed, why would she deny the existence of the three cards, saying instead, “That was a joke … I swear to you, it was a joke!”51 (èto byla šutka … kljanus' vam! Èto byla šutka!).52 Perhaps it really was a joke? Ultimately, then the Countess dies, scared by Germann, one of Saint-Germain's hypostases.

Because Kodjak does not acknowledge romantic irony as Puskin's method in The Queen of Spades he must concentrate on the Faust sign system in his study.53 However, only by acknowledging Saint-Germain's crucial role in the course of the romantic-ironic mystification can we fully account for the problematic points in the narrative.

One additional problem remains to be explained, the scene of the Countess' visit to Germann's bedroom. Both the Countess and Germann are manipulated by Saint-Germain; Saint-Germain exercises his power to bring the Countess' ghost to Germann's bedroom and have her reveal the secret of the three cards. And it is precisely because of the “intoxicating” impact of the ghost thriller upon the reader that Saint-Germain allows the Countess' visit. Everything—the secret of three cards, Germann, the Countess, the punters, and the public—is predicated upon the romantic-ironic design of the story, with Saint-Germain being the agent of the romantic-ironic manipulation. The art of Puškin as romantic ironist in The Queen of Spades is to allow the reader to apprehend his design, to see the manipulations of Saint-Germain, while still prompting the reader to desire to ghost thriller, to ‘buy into’ the mysticism, and to stop her/his breath short when the Countess visits Germann and when he punts at Čekalinskij's.

Kodjak almost recognizes romantic irony without identifying it.54 His notion of a doubleness in the narrative—ghost thriller and Faustian psychological story—partly anticipates my own view of the technique of romantic irony. Kodjak's discussion of the role of the omniscient narrator in his narrator sign system bears upon this discussion. How exactly is the narrative organized in terms of romantic irony?

Tomskij relates the story of the three cards at the beginning of The Queen of Spades.55 Unknowingly, he is largely responsible for constructing Germann as a romantic-ironic character.56 Indeed, Tomskij is the only human being in the story who is partially aware of the double nature of Germann—his profile of Napoleon (external, appearance) and his soul of Mephistopheles (internal, nature). Therefore, Tomskij may be at least partially aware of Germann's role as one of the facets of Mephistopheles inserted into the story to manipulate the readers.57 It is not by chance that Tomskij is not present during the punting scene at Cekalinskij's.58 Tomskij seems to sense the constructedness of the narrative he is living. Theoretically, he could be the one to stop Germann or to denounce the three cards' secret. Because in the punting scene the reader completely forgets about the romantic-ironic design and allies herself/himself with Germann (i.e., becomes the object of Saint-Germain's manipulation) Tomskij is not present in the scene. Otherwise, his presence would remind one of the manipulation. But even Tomskij the aristocrat, although he stays above and beyond the public (mystified and demystified by Saint-Germain via Germann), remains a part of the thriller narrative. He marries Princess Polina and is promoted to captain. Apparently, he is constructed to suspect/signal that everything is of Puškin's romantic-ironic design, that everything is manipulated by Saint-Germain, the narrator's agent. But he himself lives within this design although he chooses not to subscribe to its mystifications.

Thus, romantic irony serves as the main structural/structuring principle in the narrative of The Queen of Spades. The parallel co-existence and interaction of the two dimensions of the narrative—the “thriller” and the meditation on the vainness of human efforts to overcome fatum—allows for a variety of interpretations and readings of Puškin's story.59 This in part explains the unceasing interest of scholars in The Queen of Spades and its popularity with readers. The pleasure of reading The Queen of Spades lies in its doubleness: optimistic/pessimistic, mystifying/demystifying, closed/open, etc. Moreover, the reader can enjoy the excitement of being manipulated by the narrator and falling into the traps of the narrative even when she/he has apprehended the manipulation and attempts to undo it.60

Puškin as romantic ironist opposes the teleology of Paradise Lost/Paradise Regained. Puškin's world is part of the greater design of the eternal universe, and the narrative of Regained Paradise is simply another mystification that one empowers, similar to the way in which one takes stock of Germann's punting.61

This essay does not provide an exhaustive analysis of romantic irony in The Queen of Spades. In fact, it sets out only one of the issues of the larger evaluation of the artistic techniques of Russian Romanticism, and it is intended to broaden our horizons of understanding the tale.62

“The bottle is half-empty,” says Kant. “No, it is half-full,” Schlegel responds. “Wait, Greek brothers,” Byron intervenes, “it is half-empty because we are drinking the brandy and will drink the other half too as we go, and we can go out and buy another one and start over again.” Puškin's final chord is the most universal, “It is always the same and depends upon the way we look at it: half-full and half-empty, and we don't even have to drink to be drunk.”

Only the latter vision allows for a combination of the fantastic/mystic and the real in a form that leans towards the harmonization of realistic and aberrational in (re)presentation.63


  1. Schlegel, 156.

  2. See, for example, Victor Terras' discussion in his article “Puškin and Romanticism,” 51.

  3. The concept of romantic irony is anatomized in a number of Friedrich Schlegel's works, particularly in his essay On Incomprehensibility (1800), in Athenaeum Fragments (1798), and in Critical Fragments (1797). A comprehensive modern translation of several F. Schlegel's works is in Firchow's Friedrich Schlegel's Lucinde and the Fragments. Cathleen Wheeler's The Romantic Ironists and Goethe contains a rather useful selection from a number of texts pertaining to the subject of this essay.

  4. Schlegel, 176.

  5. Mellor, 13.

  6. See Mellor, 4-5, 7-8, 14-15.

  7. Schlegel, 267.

  8. See McGann, 22.

  9. This formulation was suggested to the author by Professor William Galperin of the English Department at Rutgers, New Brunswick; despite its allegorical character it seems to be very precise.

  10. Mellor, 18.

  11. See Mellor, 5-6.

  12. Abrams limits his picture of the Romantic movement to its organicist trend, the provincial British version represented largely by poets of Protestant sensibility: Wordsworth, Coleridge and Blake. At the same time, he ignores the second major trend of European Romanticism—the Continental, or romantic-ironic trend. For a recent polemics, see, for instance, Galperin, 133; it is remarkable that in his rather critical review of Frederick Garber's book on romantic irony Galperin departs from a reference to the post-Kantian nature of the aesthetics of romantic ironists and from the reassertion of the two trends of European Romanticism; the distinction between the two trends is crucial in the overall approach to the texts of romantic irony. Works by both Byron and Puškin exemplify the Continental trend.

  13. Mellor, 24-25.

  14. Byron, 113.

  15. As demonstrated by Lauren G. Leighton, Puškin must have been indirectly familiar with the ideals of the Schlegel school, most likely via P. A. Vjazemskij; see Leighton 1987, 134-135, 90-91, 96-97, 63, 51-54. This is not to say that there is a necessary connection between Puškin's familiarity with Schlegelean aesthetics and his art as romantic ironist; Coleridge, who was well versed in post-Kantian philosophy, including the Schlegels, nonetheless represents the provincial English non-ironic trend of European Romanticism. Although Leighton does not speak of romantic irony per se, in various places of his commentary he outlines the features that are romantic-ironic, as, for instance, in his notes to Vjazemskij's criticism: “Even the most vigorous champions of the new Romantic school were troubled by what they considered ambiguity in Puškin's verse tales. He did not spell out his heroes' motivations, and he did not decisively resolve their conflicts or fully develop his themes.” (Leighton 1987, 54). Sergej fon Stejn's discussion of Puškin's attitudes to philosophy during the Lyceum years is also very illuminating: “Skeptičeskoe otnošenie Puškina k filosofii opredeljaetsja očen' rano, imenno v Licee […]. Škol'noe eja izučenie rešitel'no ne davalos' Puškinu, o čëm soxranilis' mnogočislennye rasskazy ego licejskix tovariščej. Došlo do nas i dokumental'noe ob ètom svidetel'stvo v otzyve professora A. P. Kunicyna, kotoryj konstatiroval, čto uspexi Puškina v filosofskix predmetax ‘ocen’ neveliki, a osoblivo po časti logiki’.” (53) Štejn also quotes from Puškin's letter to Delvig of May 2, 1827: “Ty penjaeš' mne … za nemeckuju metafiziku […]. Bog vidit, kak ja nenavižu i preziraju eë.” (57)

  16. Examination of romantic irony in Puškin's oeuvre remains to be undertaken; Evgenij Onegin is first on the author's list of candidates.

  17. J. Thomas Shaw refers to The Queen of Spades as “psychological thriller.” (115)

  18. Two points in Mellor's book call for further investigation. First, one might question the idea of simultaneity of the two dimensions/visions of romantic irony in Mellor's schema. Second, on a larger scale, it is difficult to substantiate the idea of hovering between self-creation and self-destruction, between being and becoming. Romantic ironists like Puškin and—to some extent—Byron always maintain a very clear, non-chaotic vision of the universe. This vision rejects any teleological narratives of apocalyptic rebirth in the unchanging and all-encompassing infinite Nature.

  19. Terras' article “Puškin and Romanticism” is an exception that seems to prove the rule; Terras mentions romantic irony as one of the aspects of Puškin's oeuvre. Although he seems to be leaning towards Abrams' approach to Romanticism, he nonetheless defines romantic irony as the “doubling of the poet's mind which allows him alternately to merge with his work and then again to observe it from the outside” (Terras, 50). Terras also talks of a strong dose of romantic irony in The Queen of Spades. As of today, the only notable article to discuss Russian romantic irony is that by Roman S. Strug, published in the collection Romantic Irony (see Strug, 1988). Strug's article gives only a brief outline of some dimensions of the subject without going into textual details.

  20. Thus, for instance, Jurij Mann's Poètika russkogo romantizma (1976)—a major contribution to the field—hardly at all considers the problem of romantic irony.

  21. V. V. Vinogradov's “Stil' ‘Pikovoj damy’” (1936)—perhaps the most meticulous analysis of the tale ever undertaken—makes only a few references in passing as regards irony and its stylistic implications. The most significant among Vinogradov's observations on irony in The Queen of Spades concerns the problem of the gambling jargon and its potential for ironic two-dimensionality. (Vinogradov, 100) Some discussions of the tale's style—relevant to this essay—may be found on pp. 77, 93, 106, 107, 113 of Vinogradov's article.

  22. See Žirmunskij, 14-22.

  23. This was demonstrated by Andrei Kodjak in his article on the Faust legend in The Queen of Spades.

  24. A. S. Puškin, “The Queen of Spades,” tr. Carl R. Proffer, 311; hereafter Proffer.

  25. Puškin, 320.

  26. Proffer, 311.

  27. Vinogradov makes a suggestion that as early as in Chapter 1 Tomskij is already launching the mechanism of mystification: “No v ‘Pikovoj dame’ tajny kartočnoj igry uže v pervoj glave osvoboždeny Tomskim ot istolkovanija ix razgadki v šulersko-bytovom plane. Prežde vsego xarakterno, čto oni svjazany so staruxoj—čerez neë—s Kaliostro. Krome togo, predpoloženie o šulerskoj ulovke srazu že otricaetsja Tomskim. …” (85)

  28. Proffer, 311.

  29. See Makogonenko, 183; his article is written from a retrograde critical position, but contains some observations that anticipate the subject of this study. In an influential article on the theme of gambling in Russian literature Jurij Lotman characterizes Germann as follows: “Germann—čelovek dvojnoj prirody, russkij nemec, s xolodnym umom i plamennym voobraženiem—žaždet vnezapnogo obogaščenija. Èto zastavljaet ego vstupit' v čužduju dlja nego sferu Slučaja.” (Lotman, 134)

  30. See ibid, 187.

  31. Proffer, 316.

  32. Proffer, 318.

  33. Puškin, 336.

  34. Proffer, 320.

  35. Proffer, 321; the following excerpt from Wheeler's introduction to her anthology The Romantic Ironists and Goethe will perhaps explain why Carl R. Proffer opted for ‘romantic’ instead of the Russian romaničeskoe: “The word ‘Romantisch’, used to signify the distinguishing characteristic of modern literature, originated form a family of terms, including ‘Roman’ (meaning only very roughly ‘novel’ and including romance and related prose narratives), the adjective ‘Roman’ (meaning Roman civilization), ‘Romanze’ (referring to medieval romances and ballads), and ‘romantic’ (suggesting love, the sentimental, the exotic, and the fantastic). All these elements contributed to the acceptance of ‘Romantisch’ as the adjective used to describe the essentially modern.” (3). Thus, lico romaničeskoe in Puškin's text can be read ‘a modern character,’ ‘a new character,’ ‘a character of the new epoch,’ ‘a figure of romantic-ironic discourse’.

  36. Shaw writes the following about the state of Lizan'ka's mind: “Lizaveta Ivanovna's imagination, like that of other heroines in Pushkin's works, is fed by her reading. She is prepared to accept Tomsky's characterization of Germann […]. She ‘did not know anything of the German language’; hence the ‘current novels’ involved were English and French, and the hero is the Byronic hero and the hero of Gothic and post-Gothic novel.” (Shaw, 124)

  37. Puškin, 344.

  38. In an interesting article Diana Lewis Burgin elucidates the connections between the gossip about Germann and the ironic narrative mode: “The gossip about the Countess at her funeral is included to support the reader's speculation that the Countess had a natural son, an apparently tangential possibility which is in fact central to the mystery. The gossip is a typical mystery story device […]. Deliberately and ironically misleading in that it gives only partially correct information, it nevertheless sets the reader thinking about a possibility he may have ignored or forgotten.” (Burgin, 54)

  39. Jurij Lotman (1975) argues for a special, privileged position of card-playing in the Russian socio-cultural milieu of the time. His observations regarding the semiotics of gambling in the context of The Queen of Spades are highly provocative.

  40. Proffer, 325.

  41. Shaw speaks of the “uncrowning of German” as implying the uncrowning of Napoleon and the Napoleonic ideal. (119)

  42. See Makogonenko quote from L. V. Cxaidze's article “O real'nom značenii motiva trëx kart v ‘Pikovoj dame’.” (Makogonenko, 183-184)

  43. See Puškin, commentary, 774.

  44. Proffer, 323.

  45. Puskin, 349.

  46. Proffer, 312.

  47. Proffer, 312.

  48. Simpson, 55-56.

  49. Kodjak, 105-106.

  50. Felix Raskol'nikov also points out the problems in Kodjak's analysis of the Faustian legend in The Queen of Spades, see Raskol'nikov, 250-251.

  51. Proffer, 319.

  52. Puškin, 340.

  53. Burgin also sees irony as a clue to resolving the contradictions of the mystery in the tale: “Puškin reveals the mystery through irony. The truth is spoken by a character who doesn't know he is right or believe in what he says.” (53) Later in the same article Burgin reaffirms her earlier statement on irony: “Germann's overactive but spiritually bankrupt imagination, which reflects his banal, immoral and overly cautious soul, almost guesses the demonic implications of the secret; but, ironically, he never understands its passionate side (alien to his unromantic personality), nor does he believe the truth his imagination speaks.” (55) Burgin's observations are very close to the author's understanding of romantic irony in The Queen of Spades.

  54. A similar assertion is made in Paul Debreczeny's excellent chapter on The Queen of Spades in his The Other Pushkin (1983): “The linking of Hermann with Mephistopheles is ironic not only because it romanticizes the hero, but also because in offering to take the old Countess's sins on his own soul in exchange for her secret, he tries to enter into a contract in which he would act the part of Faust.” (204-205)

  55. Burgin speaks directly of Tomskij's manipulatory function: “Tomskij tells the story of Čaplickij in order to manipulate Germann into conflict with the Countess by increasing the credibility of the Countess' secret.” (49)

  56. Shaw might have been the first to emphasize Tomskij's privileged position in the narrative and his linkage with the ironic modes: “If there is irony, it is concealed in the characterization of Tomsky in the story itself.” (117) Later in the article, Shaw speaks directly of Tomskij's role: “That Tomsky is given any position in the epilog—and particularly the concluding one—suggests that his role in the entire story is more important than has been hitherto recognized.” (118)

  57. In this connection, Debreczeny writes the following: “Moreover, the text of ‘The Queen of Spades’ amply demonstrates that the view of Hermann-as-Mephistopheles is more Tomskij's and Lizaveta's than the narrator's own.” (191)

  58. Gleb Zekulin indicates the peculiarity of Tomskij's appearances in the story, see Zekulin, 77.

  59. A number of scholars have expressed in various ways the idea of a double vision in The Queen of Spades. The author is most indebted to J. Thomas Shaw who noticed that “everything is presented in double vision, one of which is ironic” (126), Paul Debreczeny who spoke of “fantasy within reality, past within the present, and lyricism within an ironic framework” (211), and Diana Lewis Burgin who observed that Puškin creates the “reader ambivalence about the reality of irrational occurrences” in order to “interpret the story in several ways, either fantastically, realistically, or both.” (46)

  60. In her introduction to the prose section of The Ardis Anthology of Russian Romanticism Christine Rydel describes The Queen of Spades as a story wherein Puškin “begins to debunk Romantic myths” (189); although Rydel does not speak directly about the romantic irony of Puškin's story, her brief remarks on the double status of the narrative anticipate several conclusions of this essay.

  61. Debreczeny concludes the following about Puškin's vision: “Pushkin's poetic vision, open to symbolical and psychological complexities, discerns the transitory nature of life and the unity of opposites reconciled by the passage of time.” (238)

  62. Finally, it ought to be mentioned that Puškin's art and vision in The Queen of Spades (1833) was shaped by the defeat of Decembrism in 1825 that signified a collapse of Byronic aristocratic optimism. Lauren G. Leighton's article on gematria in The Queen of Spades (Leighton, 1977) made the author think about the connection between Puškin's romantic irony and Decembrism; the author intends to undertake a study of the impact of Decembrism on romantic irony in Russian literature.

  63. The author gratefully acknowledges his indebtedness to the following teachers and colleagues for their advise and encouragement at various stages of this work's completion: Vladimir E. Alexandrov, William Galperin, Daria Kirjanov, James L. Rice, Alexander M. Schenker, Mary-Adair Woodall. Special thanks to SEEJ's anonymous readers.

Works Cited

Burgin, Diana Lewis. “The Mystery of ‘Pikovaja dama’: A New Interpretation.” Mnemozina: Studia litteraria russica in honorem Vsevolod Setchkarev. Joachim T. Baer and Norman W. Inhgam, eds. Munchen: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1974.

Byron, George. Poetry. Frank McConnel, ed. New York: Norton, 1978.

Debreczeny, Paul. The Other Pushkin: A Study of Alexander Pushkin's Prose Fiction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983.

Firchow, Paul, ed. and tr. Lucinde and the Fragments by Friedrich Schlegel. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971.

Furst, Lilian R. Fictions of Romantic Irony. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Galperin, William. “Self, Text, and Romantic Irony: The Example of Byron. By Frederic Garber.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 89:1 (1990): 113-114.

Kodjak, Andrei. “‘The Queen of Spades’ in the Context of the Faust Legend.” Alexander Puškin. A Symposium on the 175th Anniversary of His Birth. A. Kodjak and K. Taranovsky, eds. New York: New York University Press, 1976. 87-125.

Leighton, Lauren G. “Gematria in ‘The Queen of Spades’: A Decembrist Puzzle.” SEEJ 21, no. 4 (1977): 455-69.

Leighton, Lauren Gray, ed. and tr. Russian Romantic Criticism. An Anthology. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Lotman, Ju. M. “Tema kartočnoj igry v russkoj literature načala XIX veka.” Učënye zapiski tartusskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta. Vol. 394 (1975): 120-144. (Trudy po znakovym sistemam. Vol. VII).

Makogonenko, G. “O nekotoryx osobennostjax poètiki ‘Pikovoj damy’. K stavos'midesjatiletiju so dnja roždenija A. S. Puškina.” Neva 6 (1979): 177-188.

McGann, Jerome. The Romantic Ideology. A Critical Investigation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Mellor, Anne K. English Romantic Irony. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1980.

Muecke, D. C. The Compass of Irony. London: Methuen, 1969.

Muecke, D. C. Irony. London: Methuen, 1970.

Puškin, Alexandr. Polnoe sobranie sočinenij v desjati tomax. Vol. 6. Moscow: Nauka, 1964.

Puškin, A. S. “The Queen of Spades.” Carl R. Proffer, tr. The Ardis Anthology of Russian Romanticism. Christine Rydel, ed. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1984.

Raskol'nikov, Feliks. “Irracional'noe v ‘Pikovoj dame’.” Revue des études slaves 59, 1-2 (1987): 247-261.

Rydel, Christine, ed. The Ardis Anthology of Russian Romanticism. Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1984.

Schlegel, Friedrich. Lucinde and the Fragments. Paul Firchow, tr. and ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1971.

Shaw, Joseph T. “The Conclusion of Pushkin's Queen of Spades.Studies in Russian and Polish Literature in Honor of Wacław Lednicki. Zbignew Folejevski, ed. The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1962. 114-126.

Simpson, Mark S. The Russian Gothic Novel and Its British Antecedents. Columbus: Slavica Publishers Inc., 1986.

Štejn, Sergej fon. Puškin mistik. Riga: Esperanto, 1931.

Strug, Roman S. “Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol: Ironic Modes in Russian Romanticism.” Romantic Irony. Frederick Garber, ed. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1988. 241-249.

Terras, Victor. “Puskin and Romanticism.” Alexander Puškin Symposium II. A. Kodjak and K. Pomorska, eds. Columbus: Slavica Publishers, Inc., 1980. 49-59.

Vinogradov, V. V. “Stil' ‘Pikovoj damy’.” Vremennik puškinskoj komissii. Vol. 2. Moscow-Leningrad: Izdatel'stvo Akademii nauk, 1936. 74-147.

Wheeler, Cathleen. German Aesthetic and Literary Criticism: The Romantic Ironists and Goethe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Zekulin, Gleb. “And in Conclusion, Who Is Tomsky? (Rereading ‘The Queen of Spades’).” Transactions/Zapiski of the Association of Russian-American Scholars in the USA XX (1987): 71-79.

Žirmunskij, Viktor. Bajron i Puškin. Iz istorii romantičeskoj poèmy. Leningrad: Academia, 1924. Reprint by Mouton, The Hague, Paris, 1970.

Justin Doherty (essay date April 1992)

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SOURCE: Doherty, Justin. “Fictional Paradigms in Pushkin's ‘Pikovaya dama.’” Essays in Poetics 17, no. 1 (April 1992): 49-66.

[In the following essay, Doherty delineates various critical interpretations of The Queen of Spades and offers one of his own based on a discussion of Pushkin's main fictional paradigms.]

Pikovaya dama (The Queen of Spades) is generally considered to be one of the most significant works in nineteenth century Russian literature; it is also one of the most frequently written about. Even so, it is my feeling that studies of this text have left fundamental questions unasked; partly this is a result of a traditional bias in Pushkin scholarship in Russia as well as in the West. Whatever the reasons for this, it is surely necessary both to challenge certain received ideas about Pushkin's major works, and to explore new ways of interpreting them. In this article, I am interested in particular in the notion of reading which, as I see it, is woven into the general texture of Pikovaya dama; much of this article will accordingly be devoted to discussion of the fictional models or paradigms around which Pushkin has constructed his text. The reasons why such an approach is relevant have been indicated by Donald Fanger, who writes:

[…] Pushkin's experiments in prose were highly conscious and principled ones, conducted by a professional on literary materials, and (as his finished prose made clear) informed with an awareness that a whole range of problems […] remained to be worked out before the instrument might be applied as the times seemed increasingly to require. The result was to invest much of his fiction with an aura of stylization, other literary presences tending to loom more or less distinctly through the translucent character of his writing.1

For our purposes, ‘other literary presences’ will be interpreted as generalised, rather than specific, models and antecedents which are present in Pushkin's text.

Before proceeding to the text of Pikovaya dama itself, it is worth briefly summarising the main currents in earlier interpretations of this story. Broadly, these fall into three main groups: those whose main concern is literary-historical or textological; those which attempt a formal or structural analysis of the text; and those which attempt an ‘exegesis’ of the text, revealing some hidden, often occult, meaning. The latter two strands will be of most interest to us. Both these approaches, however different, assume a basic coherence in the text, and very often a reliable set of meanings which emerge from this structural coherence. Put another way, the text is ‘readable’, the particular aptitude or competence of a given reader permitting more and more new meanings to be ‘read’ out of the text. Indeed, Pikovaya dama seems, like many ‘great’ literary works, to have an inexhaustible store of meanings contained within itself; but as in many similar cases, the situation is really not so simple.

My discomfort arises from the fact that the coherence, seriousness of intention, and basic ‘legibility’ of this text are scarcely ever questioned; and even when they are, critics seem reluctant to draw the logical conclusion to their insights. I shall give two examples from recent essays by American Slavists which exemplify the problem, as it affects both exegetical and structural approaches to Pushkin's story.

In a study of Pushkin's incorporation of Masonic motifs and symbols into Pikovaya dama, Lauren Leighton is ready to admit a non-serious attitude on the part of the author:

[…] When Freemasonry is shown to be associated in the tale with a wide range of cabalistic, thaumaturgic practices—the whole question of number and numerology—Puškin's delight in word and number games, in astounding coincidences, and in just plain spoofing subjects Freemasonry to outright ridicule.

However, this assertion is but a prelude to the ‘serious’ claim of the discovering of a new buried meaning in the text: Pushkin's purported anagrammatized incorporation of the name of the Decembrist Kondraty Ryleev, whose fate is claimed to have obsessed Pushkin in the years following 1825. This leads Leighton to make the ‘meaningful’ conclusion:

Truly, as Akhmatova has stated, The Queen of Spades is a sophisticated, multi-meaninged, multi-levelled work of art whose full implications we have not yet begun to appreciate.2

However subversive the text may be in its irreverent use of certain perceived occult motifs, digging a little deeper produces a new, more serious intention on the part of the author.

An example of another recuperative reading of Pikovaya dama, this time using a structural approach, is an essay by Roberta Reeder on Pushkin's apparently parodic use of Hoffmann in his story. This essay attempts a fairly rigorous structural comparison between Pikovaya dama and several of Hoffmann's best-known stories; Reeder's analytical model derives from Vladimir Propp's analysis of Russian fairy-tales. Her conclusion is that Pikovaya dama is constructed as a parody of the canonical Hoffmann Novelle, indeed, along the lines of Hoffmann's own self-parodying tales such as ‘The King's Bride’. But having demonstrated that Pushkin's story belongs to a non-serious literary genre, Reeder is at pains in her conclusion to restitute the text to the realm of traditional literary values, and goes so far as to suggest a naive identification with the story's characters:

On the one hand, Charles Passage is correct when he notes the seriousness and probing of the human dilemma in The Queen of Spades. However, the work does have a comic, grotesque side as well. With the schemata of the Hoffmann tale as background, we can see how Pushkin masterfully parodied the Kunstmärchen tradition. He has taken specific character types and typical actions and exaggerated and inverted them for the purposes of parody. Yet, as Shaw has pointed out in discussion of Evgenij Onegin, we laugh at Evgenij and Tat'jana as literary parodies of the sentimental and Byronic tradition, but we sympathize with them as characters who strive to be larger than life, but whose human limitations prevent them from succeeding. The same can be said for Germann and Lizaveta. This is perhaps one of the elements wherein Pushkin's greatness lies.3

Such recourse to the most unreflecting traditional assumptions about literary texts is, then, disappointingly widespread. If there is a subversive tendency of one kind or another identified in the text, then it is always easy to find a serious intention to control it. Pushkin's text may well, as Lauren Leighton asserts, have ‘implications we have not yet begun to appreciate’, but could this be because we have not yet begun to read it properly?

The aim of this article is to question the kind of critical assumptions I have indicated, and to consider important implications in this text which the desire to extract serious meanings seems so easily to obscure. I hope to show that Pikovaya dama is much less ‘coherent’ than critics have claimed, and that it is in fact very difficult to read any clear meanings into this text at all. Rather, this is a text which silences a number of potential meanings, which resists any single interpretative procedure. It is a text, though, whose sophistication and complexity are considerable, but whose sophistication and complexity seem to work against the reader in a teasing, playful, sometimes malevolent and ultimately frustrating way. In a manner which is peculiarly characteristic of certain of Pushkin's works, it appears to trivialize its own serious potential. This article, then, will examine Pushkin's ‘ludic’ attitude in Pikovaya dama, and look at some of the ways in which the reader is manipulated through ‘typical’ situations, themes and characters to be left in a state of unknowing perplexity.

The first important question to address in approaching Pikovaya dama is its genrological status: if this is not clearly established, the way is open for interpretations which distort the story's true character. I have in mind here the type of retrospective readings which see Pikovaya dama as a precursor of so-called ‘psychological realism’: the assumption here is that this story can, and should, be read in the same manner as a ‘realist’ novel. As a corrective to this type of assumption it is worth quoting the comments of Dostoevsky, perhaps the greatest Russian exponent of ‘psychological realism’, in a letter of 1880, which give his reading of Pikovaya dama as a fantastic tale:

[…] the fantastic in art has its own limitations and rules. The fantastic must coincide with the real to the extent that you are almost obliged to believe it. Pushkin, who gave us almost all forms of literature, wrote The Queen of Spades which is the height of the art of the fantastic. You believe that Hermann really did have a vision, one which matches precisely his general outlook, and at the same time, by the end of the story, when you have finished reading it, you do not know what to think: was this vision a product of Hermann's inner being, or was he really someone in contact with another world, a world of evil spirits hostile to humanity (Spiritism and its teachings). This is real art!4

Dostoevsky's comments are of interest for two reasons. First, they tell us something reasonably reliable about how the text would have been read by Pushkin's contemporaries (Dostoevsky would have read it as a teenager in the 1830s), and thus point us, as readers, to the type of ‘rules’ and referents which apparently shape the story and give it meaning. To this extent, the assignation of Pikovaya dama to the genre of the fantastic tale must in turn inform our reading of it.

But Dostoevsky's comments are also interesting in their almost exact coincidence with the definition of the fantastic tale proposed by the literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov in his classic study of this genre, his Introduction à la littérature fantastique. Todorov's preliminary definition of the genre is as follows:

In a world which is clearly our own, familiar, without devils, sylphs or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. Whoever witnesses the event must choose between two possible solutions: either there has been a delusion of the senses, a trick of the imagination, and so the laws of the world remain as they are; or else the event really has occurred, it forms an integral part of reality, but it is a reality governed by laws unknown to us. Either the devil is an illusion, an imaginary being; or he really does exist, like any other living being; except that we don't meet him very often […]

The fantastic is this hesitation experienced by someone who knows only the laws of nature, confronted with an apparently supernatural event.5

Todorov acknowledges that his own conclusions are prefigured in a number of nineteenth century writers and theorists, and indeed it would be absurd to suppose that writers of fantastic literature were ignorant of the procedures on which their fiction was built. These authors were, rather, only too aware of what they were doing; one might compare the comments of one of Pushkin's contemporaries, V. F. Odoevsky, on the fantastic tales of E. T. A. Hoffmann:

Hoffmann discovered the only way in which this element [the fantastic] may be incorporated into literature; his fantasy always has two sides: one which is pure fantasy, the other realistic; so that our proud nineteenth century reader is not invited to believe unconditionally in any miraculous event which is being recounted to him; everything by which this same event might be accounted for plainly and simply is brought to the fore in the story,—in this way he may have the best of both worlds; man's natural attraction to the marvellous is satisfied, and at the same time the exacting spirit of analysis is not offended; the reconciling of these two contrary elements was a feat of true genius.6

The literary context, then, in which Pikovaya dama belongs, is centred on the well understood model of the fantastic tale, which writers like Pushkin proceeded to utilize quite consciously and with considerable sophistication.7

Pikovaya dama conforms to various criteria on which the genre of the fantastic tale depends: it has an extraordinary hero, presents extraordinary and improbable events, and ends in catastrophe. But Pushkin was too sophisticated a writer to either accept or to imitate at face value a genre and manner which by the 1830s were more often parodied than taken seriously. Pushkin's appropriation of the fantastic tale is extremely self-conscious, and indeed often has the appearance of a parody. But before going on to examine in detail the ways in which Pushkin's version of the fantastic tale operates, one should perhaps remember that the fantastic tale was itself a self-conscious and in some sense a parodic literary form: for underneath the vicissitudes of plot and the employment of devices aimed at creating suspense, shock and horror in the reader, the Gothic novels and fantastic tales of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are themselves more or less refined derivatives of the much older fairy-tale or folk legend (one might recall that the German term for Hoffmann's fantastic tales is Kunstmärchen or ‘art-fairy-tale’).

Retracing a story like Pikovaya dama to a remote model in the fairy-tale (skazka) is actually less fanciful than it at first appears to be. Aside from the distant ancestry of the fantastic tale in general in the fairy-tale, Pushkin was himself knowledgeable about and interested in the Russian traditional skazka. According to biographical tradition, Pushkin heard numerous folk-tales and legends directly from his elderly nanny, Arina Rodionovna, while confined to his family estate of Mikhailovskoe in 1824-26, and they exerted a powerful effect on his literary imagination.8 This is testified in several ways, both in Pushkin's attempts to create his own imaginative versions of Russian skazki,9 and in his incorporation of motifs and images clearly derived from the skazka into other works (as in the fortune-telling and dream sequences involving Tatyana in Evgeniy Onegin). Pikovaya dama is less obviously connected to the fairy-tale, but at a deeper structural level (as is the case with other examples of the literary fantastic) Pushkin makes use of it by constructing his story around several of the basic elements of the traditional Russian fairy-tale.

Vladimir Propp, the Russian ethnographer, in a famous study of the Russian skazka, discovered that any folk-tale in Russia conformed to a single pattern, with a limited number of possible actions, and a small number of possible characters to perform these. Ann Shukman has suggested that this type of pattern may underlie many Russian works of fiction; particularly common is what she describes as the ‘classic’ plot-scheme for the Russian skazka: ‘The classic Russian fairy-tale had as its core the story of the hero who is despatched, journeys to another kingdom, acquires a magic object, overcomes the antagonist, wins the princess […]’.10 Shukman goes on to suggest that just such a pattern can be seen in the basic plot-structure of Pikovaya dama. The story does indeed centre on a hero's quest for secret knowledge, which is granted to him by the ‘donor’ (the Countess) in circumstances with clear supernatural overtones: the Countess' ghost visits Hermann shortly after her death. Hermann then sets about using this secret knowledge to win his fortune, but is unsuccessful and precipitates his personal catastrophe. The reason he fails is that he abuses his knowledge, and rejects an essential condition of the fairy-tale plot: he is motivated not by erotic love for the beautiful princess (Liza), but instead by greed.

Indeed, the condition that erotic love must be a primary motive for heroic deeds is made explicit in the story when the Countess' ghost says to Hermann: ‘I forgive you my death, so long as you will marry my ward Lizaveta Ivanovna’.11 By this stage of the story (Chapter Five) we are well aware that Hermann is a false hero, and so do not actually expect him to marry Liza. It is therefore with a certain degree of satisfaction that we read of Hermann's final calamitous defeat at the hands of the gambler Chekalinsky, his ‘antagonist’—and observe that in Hermann's error in playing the queen of spades instead of an ace there is the intimation of revenge by the Countess herself. However, the reader's satisfaction here is not, I do not think, a moralistic delight in seeing an evil-doer punished; rather, it has to do with the expectations raised by a story which follows the fairy-tale plot structure so closely. Reading has conditioned us to anticipate Hermann's demise, once we know him for the false hero that he is.

Furthermore, there is an explicit indication in the text itself that Pushkin quite consciously derived the fundamental plot of his story from the skazka. After hearing Tomsky's anecdote in Chapter One of the story, Hermann's reaction is articulated in the single word: ‘skazka’. The surface meaning here is clearly that Tomsky's anecdote is a fiction; but quite evidently, the implications are greater than that. In particular, it is interesting that Hermann's interjection should be precisely to suggest that the fairy-tale (skazka) is a type of literature which is ‘false’, that is to say, which does not correspond to his experience and general expectations of life; this is of some importance in relation to later developments in the story. Moreover, there is significance in the fact that Hermann himself articulates this response to the anecdote: for his is the second of three apparently ‘typical’ reactions to Tomsky's anecdote (the first saying that it is a fluke [sluchay], the third suggesting that trick cards were used). Here Pushkin's apparently casual use of detail hides a very subtle design.

There are two ways in which this point may be developed. First, there is a certain irony in the fact that what Hermann initially perceives to be a ‘fairy-tale’, that is, a ‘tall story’, becomes more and more of a reality in his imagination as the main narrative develops. For it is quite possible that Hermann's initial reaction is correct, and Tomsky's anecdote is an invention; that the story of the mysterious win at cards by the Countess is an elegant, though transparent, disguise for her having offered herself to the Comte de Saint-Germain, the man who apparently gave her the secret of the three winning cards, in return for money which she needed to repay a gambling debt. This reading is corroborated when in Chapter Three, threatened by Hermann, the Countess insists that the anecdote of the three cards was ‘a joke’ (shutka). We must then ascribe the dead Countess's visit to Hermann, and the secret she reveals to him, as the work of Hermann's imagination, and the fact that the three cards he imagines to be magically endowed actually win, to chance. This interpretation has been supported by more than one critic.12

Secondly, Hermann's assertion allows us to infer that if there is a fairy-tale plot model in Pikovaya dama, it is precisely Tomsky's anecdote which provides it. The anecdote thus assumes the status of a ‘story within the story’, where it and Hermann's own story reflect one another in fascinating ways. This must in turn affect the relationship between story-telling and truth: for if the reliability of Tomsky's anecdote about the Countess is open to doubt, then surely we can say the same about Pushkin's story about Hermann … In the main narrative of Pikovaya dama, just as much as in interpreting Tomsky's anecdote, Hermann finds himself very much in the position of reader. In any estimate, he is not a very good reader; his whole personal catastrophe, after all, stems from a misreading of Tomsky's anecdote, whose fictionality, if by that we mean its non-correspondence with actual experience in the world, ought to be transparent to him. Hermann's subsequent failure to read this anecdote as a product of the imagination, is matched by Hermann's own developing fantasy which, in his mind, assumes an every growing sense of reality and truth. Hermann's fantasy about his own power and destiny, then, facilitates not only his fatal error at cards, but his basic misperceptions in key scenes such as the Countess' funeral, and indeed his firm belief that the Countess' apparition before him actually took place.

Hermann's status as a misreading reader in the story corresponds closely to Tzvetan Todorov's observations on the structure of fantastic tales—for it is often via the perceptions of one or more characters that we are obliged to interpret ambiguous events. Hermann ‘reads’ the events as they occur as unambiguously supernatural, because his interpretation later on in the story is founded on the identification in his mind between a fictional paradigm (Tomsky's anecdote) and the realistically possible. In our role as readers of Pushkin's text, we find ourselves in a similar position, though in relation to a different paradigm: that of the fantastic tale in general. But the problem of how to read the fantastic tale is exacerbated in Pikovaya dama by Pushkin's self-conscious and possibly parodic use of the fantastic. It is therefore necessary to be more exact in defining the relationship between Pikovaya dama and this genre: does Pushkin's text parody the fantastic tale, or does it go beyond the confines of the literary fantastic, and indeed of literary parody itself?

There is a long tradition of interpreting Pikovaya dama as an ironic or parodic text. In a seminal essay on Pushkin's story, the Russian critic A. L. Slonimsky identified this with Pushkin's use of the basic techniques of the fantastic tale: ‘In the constant vacillation between a fantastic and a psychologically plausible motivation, in the hidden realistic suggestions—Pushkin's sense of irony is gradually revealed.’13 This tradition of interpretation suggests that a ‘fantastic’ reading of Pikovaya dama is undermined by careful ‘realist’ motivation—so that from beneath the guise of a fantastic tale a work of ‘psychological realism’ eventually emerges. More recently, this view of Pushkin's text as the narration of triumphant realism has been brought into question. How, after all, can a text parodying the literary fantastic transform itself with such facility into a work of strict realism? The American Slavist Diana Burgin prefers to use the term ‘mystification’ to describe Pushkin's technique in Pikovaya dama, and allow for a plurality of possible interpretations, rather than dogmatically assert the dominance of a single one:

In order to make the fantastic credible, to suspend momentarily the reader's disbelief and draw him into the mystery of his tale, Puškin employs the narrative device of mystification. He plays upon certain characters and events in such a way as to make them seem strange and mysterious when they are not, and, conversely, he de-emphasizes or mocks those mystifying or supernatural events […] which are clues to the real mystery. Using the device of mystification as a veil for his supernatural mystery, Puškin creates in the reader ambivalence about the reality of irrational occurrences, so that he can, with ample justification in the text, interpret the story in several ways […]14

The terminology used here may not be quite clear (the Russian word mistifikatsiya, meaning a ‘leg-pull’, is clearly what is meant), but the stress on the importance of reading in Pikovaya dama, and on the absence of any single obviously ‘correct’ reading of the text, are important points to make. I should now like to examine several instances of Pushkin's self-conscious play with the conventions of the fantastic tale, or ‘mystification’, as Burgin calls it.

On several occasions, this is quite undisguised. One such instance occurs in Chapter Two, in the frivolous conversation between the Countess and her grandson, Tomsky, where she asks him to supply her with something to read:

—[…] bring me a new novel, but please, not one of those modern ones.

—What do you mean, grand'maman?

—I mean a novel where the hero doesn't kill his father, or his mother, and there aren't any drowned corpses. I'm terrified of drowned bodies.

—There aren't any novels like that nowadays […]15

We might care to add, that the real misfortune of this situation is that the Countess herself will very soon become a corpse, though, perhaps fortunately for her, not a drowned one. This apparently trivial episode highlights a theme which pervades the story: the author's knowing awareness of life's imitation of art, of the contamination of ‘reality’ by fictional worlds—which is to recognize of the text's status as fiction and metafiction. The conscious merging of fiction and reality is of course characteristic of much of the literature of this period. But Pushkin is able to ascribe this attitude to several of his characters, in the form of a systematic misperception of things; as a result the entire world of Pikovaya dama seems to consist of the projection of fictional models onto whatever one takes to be reality in the text.

In particular, the image of Herman which is built up in the story has several facets, but which all centre on the stereotyped figure of the Romantic hero-villain. The most extreme instance of this comes from the least reliable source—from Tomsky, the teller of the original anecdote. In Chapter Four, he describes Hermann to Liza in the following way:

This Hermann […] is a truly Romantic individual: he has the profile of a Napoleon, and the soul of a Mephistopheles. I am sure that he has at least three crimes on his conscience […]16

This statement is replete with irony, over and above the fact that Tomsky himself does not mean what he says. First, it comes after the narration of Hermann's visit to the Countess in Chapter Three, which precedes it temporally: thus Tomsky's words are actually true, inasmuch as Hermann has committed the crime of precipitating the Countess' death, though Tomsky of course does not know this. Then the remark on Hermann's resemblance to Napoleon embeds itself in Liza's mind so strongly that when later that same night she contemplates the villainous Hermann, it recurs:

She wiped her tear-stained eyes and looked up at Hermann: he was still sitting on the window-sill, with his arms folded, a fearsome frown on his brow. In this pose he bore an extraordinary resemblance to Napoleon.17

In case we do not understand how Hermann comes to have this effect on Liza's imagination, we are then instructed in a rare authorial intervention: ‘The portrait which Tomsky had painted matched the image which she had created herself, and thanks to the latest novels, this already hackneyed figure terrified and captivated her imagination’.18 As if to underline the irony, Liza is here also depicted with her arms folded, and head lowered: she has herself involuntarily adopted the pose of her admired ‘Napoleon’.

Hermann's supposed Mephistophelean qualities are also largely imaginary, though in this case they are projected through Hermann's own self-representation. This emerges most clearly when he pleads with the barely conscious Countess in Chapter Three:

[…] Reveal your secret to me! […] Perhaps it is connected with some awful sin, with the loss of eternal happiness, with a compact with the Devil … Think on it: you are old; you have not long to live,—I am willing to take your sin upon my own soul. Only tell me your secret!19

Hermann's connection with the powers of evil is clearly an imaginary one, and these suggestions are not substantiated elsewhere in the story. In this sense he is clearly a parodic version of the true evil genius of Romantic fiction; but of all the story's characters, he is perhaps the only one not to realise this.

Hermann's character, as we are told by the story's narrator early on, is constructed around two opposing principles: that of the solid and disciplined German bourgeois, and the passionate, Romantic (and also German) dreamer. The mechanism of his character is such that one of the two sides must eventually get the upper hand: as we are told at the beginning of Chapter Six, ‘Two fixed ideas cannot exist side by side in the moral universe, just as two bodies cannot occupy one and the same space in the physical world’.20 Indeed, Hermann's character depends so obviously on this type of rationalistic formula that it is hard to find much ‘psychological’ depth in it, or even much psychological plausibility. There is a whole series of oppositions characteristic of the Romantic age which underlies the basic split in Hermann's character: reason and madness, calculation and passion, nobility of character and bourgeois philistinism, erotic love and self-love, and so on. Hermann, who embodies these opposing principles, is thus inherently contradictory—a bourgeois Romantic, a German Napoleon, a heroic villain, a rationalising madman, a passionate lover who prefers Mammon to Eros. His consciousness is a dialogue between his two opposing sides, in which the triumph of his passionate disposition appears inevitable.

But Hermann is not only contradictory, but an illusory Romantic hero who demonstrates through his own thoughts and actions the irreality of Romantic fictional models. Just as other characters (Liza, Tomsky) imagine him to be something he is not, he too relies on an imaginary picture of himself and the world. Pushkin repeatedly uses the word voobrazhenie (imagination) in relation to Hermann, as in the first ‘psychological’ portrait of him in Chapter Two, where this word occurs three times:

  1. ‘He had strong passions and a fiery imagination […]’.21
  2. ‘The anecdote about the three cards made a strong impression on his imagination and occupied his thoughts for the whole night’.22
  3. ‘The extraordinary anecdote again affected his imagination’.23

In Chapter Five, after attending the Countess' funeral, Hermann drinks more than usual in order to quell his ‘inner trouble’; we are told that ‘the alcohol fired his imagination still more’.24 In Chapter Six, we are given a sense of the force of Hermann's imagination as it turns increasingly to manic obsession:

Three, seven, ace—soon took the place of the image of the dead old woman in Hermann's imagination. Three, seven, ace—did not leave his thoughts and were constantly on his lips. Seeing a young girl, he would say to himself: ‘How slender she is! … A real three of hearts!’. If someone asked him the time, he would answer: ‘five minutes to the seven’. Every corpulent man reminded him of an ace. The three, the seven and the ace appeared to him in his sleep, taking on all manner of forms: the three blossomed before him in the shape of an opulent flower, the seven took the form of a Gothic portal, the ace—of a giant spider […]25

However plausible or otherwise we find this ‘psychological portrait’, it is clear that in this text the word imagination is a negative force. It is Hermann's imaginative embroiderings on a dubious anecdote, after all, which lead to the Countess' death and to Hermann's own catastrophe. Pushkin's text is anti-Romantic in this sense, but he is unable to escape the value-system which Romanticism had created: for this reason, it is a consciously parodic text at the level of characterisation. Hermann is referred to as ‘this already hackneyed figure’ (eto uzhe poshloe litso)26 in the main text of the story; and indeed, it is only Hermann himself in the story who fails to have his eyes opened to this basic truth. Pushkin's attitude to this character is already clear in the basic paranomasia on his name, Hermann/German (further extended to include the Comte de Saint-Germain, which renders him both Hermann's cousin, and his spiritual, eighteenth century and French father): this is very much the playfully ironic attitude identified with Pushkin by Slonimsky.

The type of language or discourse associated in the text with Hermann is another important clue as to how he should be read. At this level, it becomes clear that he is a character whose basic features are deceptiveness and lack of authenticity. One type of inauthenticity may be seen in Hermann's smug Bourgeois dictum that he is ‘not in a position to risk the necessary in the hope of acquiring the superfluous’;27 this is a hollow and facile covering for Hermann's fundamental anxiety about his situation, but, ironically, the story ends with him doing the opposite of this and risking his patrimony on a card game and losing it. But the most glaring instance of Hermann's lack of authenticity is his attempt in Chapter Three to woo Liza by copying his love-letters from a German novel ‘word for word’.28 We may be right in assuming that Hermann's writing here makes ‘authentic’ discourse impossible to achieve; but this leads the reader to ask whether there is beneath Hermann's quite deliberate deception a more authentic discourse which will eventually emerge?

At face value, if we believe the story's narrator, it appears that just such a process of a stripping away of elegant deceptions, to reveal the true ‘inner man’, is what takes place. Once Hermann's passionate imagination gets the better of him, ‘truth’ is revealed—though it emerges through the same medium of letter-writing; this is described slightly later in Chapter Three:

Hermann did not relent. Every day he made sure that Liza continued to receive letters from him. No longer were they translated from the German. Hermann wrote them inspired by passion, and spoke in a language which accorded with his nature: in them was expressed both the ardour of his desires, and the disorder of an unbridled imagination.29

Here one must be very careful in reading Pushkin's artful prose, for on the surface we are faced with a characteristic Romantic paradigm. First of all, we are told, Hermann was ‘inspired by passion’, but hindsight will tell us that this is not the expected erotic passion associated in the Romantic hero with truth and authenticity, but a criminal passion for financial gain. So to the same extent that erotic passion leads to a direct expression of truth, so, one infers, Hermann's anti-eroticism (exemplified by his notion of becoming the lover of the eighty-seven-year-old Countess who personifies the real object of his desires) must be inauthentic and in some sense untruthful. The illusion of truth which appears to confront the reader here is further supported by Pushkin's careful designation that, in the language of passion in which Hermann expresses himself in his letters, Hermann speaks, rather than writes (‘he spoke in a language which accorded with his nature’). This superiority of ‘speech’ over ‘writing’ is, we know, deceptive. In any case Hermann in his letters is not speaking, but writing: the language of the heart is mediated by the pen; and the conventionality of such uses of the verb ‘to speak’ in describing an act of writing is clear enough. Through this rather obvious appeal to ‘truth’, then, Hermann's epistolatory speech is shown to be every bit as fraudulent as his earlier copying from German novels. Furthermore, given Hermann's insecure status in the text as a parodic hero, in a way copying from a German novel is more appropriate and authentic for him, since that is where he originates and where he ultimately belongs. Indeed, the ‘speech’ of his own heart, passions, imagination or whatever would probably have no real difference from the stilted discourse of a bad epistolatory novel. In any case the addressee, Lizaveta Ivanovna, is no more capable of discerning the difference than Hermann himself.

In the end it becomes apparent that there is no naturally truthful discourse for Hermann to adopt, as the story makes a nonsense of the idea of an authentic language of feeling or of anything else. For it turns out that Hermann's ‘unbridled imagination’ is not captivated by the conventional language of the heart, but is instead in the thrall of an artificial system of signs—the language of cards. Hermann, we are told, may be subject to strong passions and possessed of a vivid imagination, but ‘in his soul’ he is a gambler, the casually inserted budushchiy v dushe subtly undermining the impression that Hermann is a Romantic hero of another kind.30 This ‘deeper truth’ is easily forgotten through the many peripeteia of the story, but it affects the discourse which constitutes Hermann's interior monologue in powerful ways—as is clear from the opening paragraph of Chapter Six. This gradual intrusion of the language of cards, which has a partly comic function here, as well as indicating the extent of Hermann's mental dissolution, becomes dominant in the Epilogue to the story, with Hermann left muttering ‘three, seven, ace! three, seven, queen! …’31 This turns out to be the language of Hermann's heart in its most essential form, because it is all that is left of Hermann himself, the obsessive gambler.

While Hermann's own discourse may be deceptive and implausible, there are other ways in which the plausibility of the text as a whole is subjected to doubt, for this is a text in which the ‘author’ is not entirely silent. Each chapter is prefaced by a brief epigraph, playful, obscure, and provocative, and this system of epigraphs provides a framing of and commentary on the action which makes up the story. While the story's main narrator is a relatively unproblematic figure, the author's is an ironic and teasing voice which upsets and interrupts our attempts to read the text ‘normally’. The epigraphs are intrusive, for one thing, because many of them are in French, and not Russian; for another, as Viktor Shklovsky pointed out, because they are pointedly prosaic, and derive from inconsequential, marginal sources;32 finally, because they are unashamedly spurious, most having been shown to be Pushkin's own inventions (only the epigraph to Chapter Two can be convincingly attributed to another individual—it records a bon mot of the poet Denis Davydov).33 Why did Pushkin so elaborately surround his text with a series of frivolous, if elegant, ironic comments?

Clearly this was not done to underline the seriousness of the story's inner meaning, for nearly all the epigraphs trivialize and undermine the content of a given episode. The epigraph to Chapter Three, for instance, is a comment on Hermann's letters to Liza which draws attention to their insincerity; apparently Pushkin's own invention, it sheds an ironic light on the claim that Hermann's passionate outpourings on paper are the true discourse of his heart. A second, even more striking example is the epigraph to Chapter Five, which relates the Countess' apparition before Hermann shortly after her death. Here, Pushkin has concocted a quotation which is attributed to Swedenborg, where a ghost appearing before the great mystic can only utter the banal greeting ‘How do you do, Mr Counsellor’.34 Swedenborg was widely read in the 1820s and 30s; so his authority should underline the seriousness of an intrusion of the supernatural. Instead, the banality of Pushkin's faked quotation points to something else: the banality of the supernatural itself in the literature of the period. Thus it is suggested by this epigraph that what would appear to be the most profound and mysterious episode in the story is both uninteresting and commonplace. And the very factitiousness of the quotation (which presumably would not appear in Russian if Pushkin had read it in a genuine source) draws attention to the factitiousness, obvious surely to Pushkin's sophisticated readership, of the supernatural tale as such.

This self-conscious character of Pushkin's text affects other levels of potential meaning too: for in still further ways Pikovaya dama sets up an elaborate game between author and reader, using as an intermediary an apparently good-willed, if naive, third-person narrator. What, for instance, is one to make of the elaborate numerological symbolism evident in the abundance of threes and sevens in the text? Does Pushkin really imitate Masonic rituals in his description of Hermann's behaviour in the Countess' secret chamber? Surely not in any serious way, given the status of the text as a whole, if one can only recuperate serious meanings by constructing a ‘serious’ Hermann. But there are other reasons too. As far as Pushkin's use of numbers is concerned, it is easy enough to read a symbolic meaning into these: for example, the numbers three and seven both figure in the year of Pushkin's death, 1837; indeed, the Countess is 87 years old, and if her age and the unlucky number 13 (the ace and the three), which happens to be 100-87, are combined, one also arrives at 1837, after a bit of shuffling, it is true.35 Does this prove anything? Take a less ‘meaningful’ date—say 1833, the year Pushkin wrote the story: two threes, the ace and the seven, plus the ace. In fact, just about any date can be found to be enciphered in the text.

But if this is not convincing enough, it is worth turning instead to one of the governing thematic ideas in the text: the theme of card-playing and gambling. Card playing is a superstitious activity, and Hermann himself, we are told in Chapter Five, is superstitious as well as obsessed by cards.36 Cards may be used in fortune-telling and necromancy. Card players are conscious of the ‘magic’ properties of different ranks and suits.37 But card-playing sets the scene for Tomsky's anecdote as well as providing its subject, and as such partakes of the same ambiguity as the anecdote itself. These ambiguous properties of card-playing are exploited throughout the story.

On the one hand, gambling, as in the stories of Hoffmann,38 may be symbolic of the demonic world—gambling is evil, and Hermann's sensational story might seem to encourage such an interpretation of Pikovaya dama.39 On the other hand, card-playing is a game, an autotelic and self-justifying activity, belonging culturally to a world of trivial, non-serious pursuits, and this connotation supports the alternative view of Pikovaya dama as an ironic, non-serious and ludic text. Indeed, the fact that card-playing is so closely aligned with story-telling and reading in this text suggests that these activities belong in a similar realm.

Evidently, Pushkin makes no attempt to resolve the ambiguity surrounding card-playing, for the suspense in the story, on the model of the classic fantastic tale, lies in the tension created between our scepticism towards and willingness to believe the story we are reading. But there is one important clue as to how we should perhaps interpret the theme of card-playing in the epigraph to Chapter One, whose meaning, obscure to the modern reader, would have been clear enough to Pushkin's contemporaries. Here, Pushkin gives a parodic imitation of apparently well-known ‘revolutionary’ songs by two members of the Decembrist movement, Ryleev and Bestuzhev;40 Pushkin's verses (actually written in 1828 when he included them in a letter to Vyazemsky) have been interpreted as an ironic comment on the decline in the Russian aristocratic elite in the years after the failed Decembrist revolt of 1825 and the ensuing cynicism and loss of faith in democratic ideals. Part of this decline expressed itself in the unusual popularity of card-playing in the years following 1825. In the context of Pikovaya dama, the irony lies in the non-correspondence between the tone of the verse text and its referent. The scene described is implicitly solemn—the opening lines A v nenastnye dni (‘And in bleak winter weather’) suggest something conspiratorial and dangerous, while the delo (serious business) with which the protagonists occupy themselves is nothing more serious than a game of cards (underlined by the rhyme melom/delom [‘with chalk’/‘with business’], which has a trivialising effect).41 The seriousness, then, is a sham, as we are shown with an irony which is many-layered. So we can perhaps, in taking this seriousness at face value, be misreading the text in much the same way as Hermann misreads his ‘text’, the anecdote told by Tomsky.

It would seem, in conclusion, that, however coherent and readable Pikovaya dama may seem on the surface, to recuperate anything ‘meaningful’ requires that we ignore the very clear gestures of irony and parody on the part of the author, and so ‘misread’ the text. What we miss, in doing so, are the playful, intricate and elegant ways in which Pushkin frustrates our attempts to read this text in ways which would seem to us appropriate and productive of meaning. For this is a self-conscious text which may in the end be ‘about’ nothing, even though it raises many serious questions about the nature of fiction and of human discourse in general. It seems to me that Pushkin has produced in this story something considerably more important than simply the parody of the fantastic tale which is its starting point; in the end, it is something more like a parody of writing, reading, and critical interpretation all together. Certainly what this text does not do is to point the way for ‘psychological’ novels of the later nineteenth century. If it anticipates anything, then it is something far more modern. Take for instance, the at once conclusive and empty final sentence of this story—‘Tomsky has been promoted to Captain and is engaged to the Princess Pauline’ (Tomsky proizveden v rotmistry i zhenitsya na knyazhne Poline):42 the fatuous way in which this sentence rewards the originator of the dubious anecdote himself, effecting the text's sole gesture towards a happy, ‘fairy-tale’ ending, stands as a challenge to the reader to find something significant in it. Does it mean anything? Does it achieve anything, other than render itself, our reading of it, and even Pushkin's writing of it, equally ridiculous?


  1. Donald Fanger, The Creation of Nikolai Gogol, London, 1977, p. 32

  2. Lauren Leighton, ‘Puškin and Freemasonry: “The Queen of Spades’”, in New Perspectives on Nineteenth-Century Russian Prose, Columbus, Ohio, 1981, p. 25 (my italics).

  3. Roberta Reeder, “‘The Queen of Spades”: A Parody of the Hoffmann Tale’, in New Perspectives on Nineteenth-Century Russian Prose, Columbus, Ohio, 1981, p. 96 (my italics).

  4. F. M. Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochineniy, t. 30, L., 1988, p. 192; all translations in this article are my own.

  5. Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastique, Paris, 1970, p. 29.

  6. V. F. Odoevsky, Russkie nochi, L., 1975, p. 189.

  7. In this respect it is perhaps worth noting Pushkin's own evident interest in the literary fantastic, for he seems to have read widely, if not uncritically, in this field. His personal library held many standard productions in the genre, mainly in French, though with a considerable number in English too. Most of these, interestingly, have publication dates from the late 1820s and early 1830s (Pikovaya dama was written in 1833). Pushkin had the twelve-volume French translation of the works of Hoffmann by Loeve-Veimars (Paris, 1829-33), as well as a two-volume selection and a biography of Hoffmann, also by Loeve-Veimars. Among French writers, he had works by Hugo, Janin, Mérimée, Musset and Nodier, all published between 1830 and 1833. Of the standard ‘Gothic’ novels in English, Pushkin had the collected novels of Anne Radcliffe; Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer and Bertram, and a single-volume set of novels by Beckford (Vathek), Walpole (The Castle of Otranto), and ‘Monk’ Lewis (The Bravo of Venice). Among Pushkin's other books in English, there is also the following intriguing item:

    W. Godwin, Lives of the Necromancers or an account of the eminent persons in successive ages, who have claimed for themselves, or to whom have been imputed by others, the exercise of magical power. London, 1834.

    For a description of non-Russian books in Pushkin's library, see Tatiana Wolff, Pushkin on Literature, London, 1971, Appendix, pp. 485-522.

  8. See e.g. Ernest J. Simmons, Pushkin, Gloucester, Mass., 1971, pp. 219-21.

  9. But note that not all of Pushkin's skazki actually draw on Russian material: see e.g. S. A. Fomichev, Poeziya Pushkina: Tvorcheskaya evolyutsiya, L., 1986, p. 190, who includes only ‘Skazka o pope i o rabotnike ego Balde’ (1831), ‘Skazka o tsare Saltane’ (1831), and ‘Skazka o mertvoy tsarevne’ (1831) in this category.

  10. Ann Shukman, ‘The Short Story, Theory, Analysis, Interpretation’, Essays in Poetics, 2,2, 1977, pp. 27-95 (see esp. pp. 75-78).

  11. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochineniy, t. 4, M.-L., 1936, p. 210; all references to Pushkin will be to this edition.

  12. See e.g. M. Gershenzon, Mudrost' Pushkina, Ann Arbor, 1983, p. 98.

  13. A. Slonimsky. Masterstvo Pushkina, M., 1963, p. 524.

  14. Diana Lewis Burgin, ‘The Mystery of “Pikovaja dama”: A New Interpretation’, in Mnemozina: Studia litteraria russica in honorem Vsevolod Setchkarev, ed. Joachim T. Baehr and Norman W. Ingham, Munich, 197?, p. 56 (quoted by Leighton, ‘Pushkin and Freemasonry’, p. 22).

  15. Pushkin, op. cit., p. 197.

  16. Ibid., p. 207.

  17. Ibid., p. 208.

  18. Ibid., p. 207.

  19. Ibid., pp. 205-6.

  20. Ibid., p. 211.

  21. Ibid., p. 200.

  22. Ibid., p. 200.

  23. Ibid., p. 201.

  24. Ibid., p. 210.

  25. Ibid., p. 211.

  26. Ibid., p. 207.

  27. Ibid., p. 193.

  28. Ibid., p. 201.

  29. Ibid., p. 203.

  30. Ibid., p. 200.

  31. Ibid., p. 214.

  32. V. Shklovsky, Zametki o proze Pushkina, M., 1937, p. 58.

  33. See G. P. Makogonenko, Tvorchestvo A.S. Pushkina v 1830-e gody (1833-1836), L., 1982, pp. 220-21.

  34. Pushkin, op.cit., p. 209.

  35. Compare M. Falchikov, ‘The Outsider and the Numbers Game (Some Observations on Pikovaya dama)’, Essays in Poetics, 2,2, 1977, pp. 96-106.

  36. Pushkin, op. cit., p. 209.

  37. Shklovsky, op. cit., p. 57.

  38. Reeder, op. cit., pp. 81-83; see also Charles Passage, The Russian Hoffmannists, The Hague, 1963, p. 135.

  39. See Yu. M. Lotman, ‘Tema kart i kartochnoy igry v russkoy literature nachala XIX veka’, Trudy po znakovym sistemam, 7, Tartu, 1975, pp. 120-42 (esp. pp. 129-30); but note that Lotman sees in Pushkin's story an alternative association of card-playing with positive forces which have the potential to disrupt the ‘automatic’ world in which the characters move (pp. 136-39). I am grateful to Joe Andrew for drawing my attention to Lotman's article.

  40. Makogonenko, op. cit., pp. 218-19.

  41. Pushkin, op. cit., p. 193.

  42. Ibid., p. 214.

Caryl Emerson (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Emerson, Caryl. “‘The Queen of Spades’ and the Open End.” In Puškin Today, edited by David M. Bethea, pp. 317. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Emerson relates Pushkin's utilization of supernatural elements and realism in The Queen of Spades to his use of parody.]

In Puškin, however, the idea of fate, fate acting with the speed of lightning, is deprived of any of the strictness and purity of religious doctrine. Chance is that point which casts the idea [of fate] in a position of faceless and vacillating indeterminateness, an indeterminateness which nevertheless retains the right to pass judgment over us. … Chance chops fate off at the knee and constructs it on a new scientific basis. Chance is a concession to black magic on the part of precision mechanics, which had discovered in the tiresome hustle and bustle of atoms the origin of things, and right under the nose of the distraught church had craftily managed to explain the world order as disorder. …

Homelessness, orphanhood, loss of an aim and a purpose—all the same, blind chance, elevated to a law, suited Puškin. In that idea the enlightened century preserved untouched, for the nonce, a taste of that mystery and trickery dear to the poet's heart. In it there was something of the card games that Puškin loved. Chance meant freedom—the freedom of fate transfigured by some lapse of logic into arbitrary license, and the freedom of human insecurity, torn to shreds like a drunkard. It was an emptiness fraught with catastrophes, holding out promise of adventure, teaching one to live by faking it, by taking risks. … With the ascension of freedom, everything became possible.

—Abram Terc, Progulki s Puškinym (Collins-London: Overseas Publications Interchange, 1975), 37-39.

Of the many controversies surrounding Puškin's Pikovaja dama (The Queen of Spades), one of the most persistent has centered on its almost seamless fusion of the fantastic with the realistic.1 On the one hand, the tale is saturated with unexplained—indeed, inexplicable—coincidence and supernatural events, very much in the Gothic (and later the Gogolian) tradition. On the other hand, the work is remarkably precise in historical and topographical detail, with a sober, reportorial narrator who documents by the day, hour, and minute the uncanny and the mundane with apparently equal confidence. As one student of the tale has remarked, this neutral narrator “does not moralize, does not issue warnings, does not terrify, but permits the readers themselves to assess characters and events” (Poljakova 1974: 385).

Given the uncertain genre of the tale, this burden on readers to “assess characters and events” through their own efforts has presented a challenge. The Queen of Spades both invites logical decoding and appears to frustrate it. In this essay I will suggest that such a dual—and ultimately contradictory—invitation to the reader constitutes a deliberate strategy on Puškin's part, Puškin's extension, as it were, of his own profound and endlessly inventive categories of parody into a realm we would today call reader-reception aesthetics.

First, a few words on the sorts of parody one finds in Puškin. On the most elementary and playful level there is outright blasphemy, as in Gavriiliada. And then there are Puškin's famous inversions of moral scenarios or literary cliché, such as the fate of the Prodigal Son theme in “Stancionnyj smotritel'” (“The Stationmaster”) or the mockery of feuding families and civilizing the natives in “Baryšnja-krest'janka” (“Mistress into Maid”). But one of Puškin's most sophisticated sorts of parody can be found, it seems, at a level above that of specific theme or plot. Here I draw on Gary Saul Morson's discussion of parody in his book The Boundaries of Genre: “Parodies are usually described and identified as being of (or ‘after’) a particular author or work, but the parodist's principal target may, in fact, be a particular audience or class of readers” (Morson 1981: 113). With Shamela as his case in point, Morson suggests that Fielding, like many parodists, “implies that readers must not be too ready to accept the invitations authors extend, and that reading is an action which, like any action, can be performed responsibly or irresponsibly” (1981: 114).

Precisely this target—readers who are “too ready to accept the invitations authors extend”—seems to me a defining characteristic of this final category of parody of Puškin. What is parodied is the reader's search for a system or a key, and in this search, the more numerous the partial hints and tantalizing fragments provided by the author, the more challenging and irresistible the search becomes. We glimpse the method in Evgenij Onegin (Eugene Onegin). In that novel the formal symmetry governing the action and fates of the heroes encourages us, along with Tat'jana, to seek a “key” to Onegin's personality. When Tat'jana asks, alone in Onegin's library (Book Seven, XXIV), “ne parodija li on?” (Is he not a parody?), that parody could have several targets. Not the least of these targets is the reader or analyst of the novel, who persists in the attempt to make all of Onegin's disparate segments add up to a psychologically satisfying explanation.2

The strategy is even more boldly present in Boris Godunov. There the presence of a real-life, documented historical event beneath the dramatic plot greatly increases the possibility and range of parody. Puškin takes Karamzin's well-known, providential, over-determined story and reworks it so that only the open-ended, indifferent characters win—characters with infinitely malleable biographies, like the Pretender. The seemingly disjointed structure of the play, in which all the major action is offstage, encourages the audience to seek a hidden unity. But precisely that search can be seen as part of the target of the parody. The absence of unity in Puškin's historical drama is more than a “Shakespeareanism.” It can be read as a comment on the nature of history itself—in which, we know, Puškin always respected the element of chance, “that powerful, instantaneous tool of providence.”3

Indeed, as Puškin surely divined, the very idea of historical unity distorts. Contemplating a historical event, later generations do not need to impose a unity on it. They already know how the story will end. Thus the “unity” that we perceive in any account of the past has no necessary connection with logic, system, or causality; it simply reflects the outrageous privilege of historical perspective. One possible way of exposing that false unity would be to confront the audience of historical drama with an event on stage as it might have looked in its own time and on its own chaotic, present-tense terms to its participants. With canonized historical plots such as that of Boris Godunov, this sense of radical openness is exceedingly difficult to transmit. Part of what Puškin parodies in Boris Godunov, I suggest, is audience gullibility: historical themes, when clothed in a present-tense form like drama, can never be honest to the event. That event will always appear chaotic and open-ended to those living it, and somehow inevitable and predetermined to those re-creating it or witnessing it later in narrative art.

If Boris Godunov has provoked its share of searches for hidden unity and keys to its meaning, those searches are meager and amateurish fare when compared to the studies devoted to the decoding of The Queen of Spades. My purpose here is not to survey the extremely rich and clever secondary literature in any detail, but merely to offer some general categories of classification.

To state first the obvious: The spare, efficient, dense, and objectively cold prose in this tale encourages the reader to assume that someone is in control. Meaning appears to be distributed by some higher power, or at least by a higher narrative perspective. The critical search for this unified meaning seems to fall into four basic categories or strategies. Each strategy erects a symbolic system in the text that relates to some narrative or visual patterns—in behavior, plot, language, or number; these patterns are then interpreted as tying together all the details of the story.

There are, first, the socio-literary studies that focus on the mechanics and ideology behind gambling in Puškin's era. Exemplary here might be Jurij Lotman's discussion of card games and gambling in nineteenth-century Russia (Lotman 1975) and Nathan Rosen's classic essay on the meaning of the three magic cards (Rosen 1975). As Lotman points out, the concept of chance (and the challenge presented by games of chance) involves both a negative and a positive aspect: what is rational collapses into the chaotic and the anomalous, but at the same time what is dead becomes animate, mobile, changeable. Gambling is a metaphor for multiple, co-existing codes in a society and in a text. The impulse to coordinate, rank, and crack these codes has been the motivation behind much of the criticism on The Queen of Spades.

A second category would be the psychoanalytical-generational treatments. These include the vision, by Murray and Albert Schwartz (1975), of Germann as a sexual impotent who seeks through gambling the prerogatives of parenthood, and also Diana Burgin's ingenious hypothesis (Burgin 1974) that the Countess revealed the secret of the three cards to Čaplickij because he was her natural son by St. Germain and also (once he grew up) her lover. Burgin suggests that this taboo-ridden family cabal exercises a fatal attraction for Germann; he tries obsessively to gain entry but fails, and can only imitate its patterns hopelessly unto death.

On a different level of analysis are the linguistic and syntactic studies, of which V. V. Vinogradov is the illustrious founder. Representative of this approach would be Heidi Faletti's inquiry into the frequency of parataxis in the text (Faletti 1977), and her suggestion that this tendency to bunch together clauses without conjunctions has a thematic significance: it is the linguistic expression of a plot “organized largely on the basis of juxtaposition” (1977: 133).

Finally we have the various erudite numerological studies. Prototypical here is Lauren Leighton's “Gematria in The Queen of Spades: A Decembrist Puzzle” (1977). Leighton reveals a multitude of anagrams, chronograms, cryptograms, cryptonyms, and logogriphs that suggest Masonic allusions and references to the executed Decembrist Kondratij Ryleev. This final category is perhaps the most quantified of the searches for a “key to the work.” But critics in all categories would probably ascribe to Diana Burgin's comment in the paragraph of her essay that opens a subchapter entitled “Questions: Clues to the Solution of the Mystery”: “It is up to the reader to speculate on the implications of the text, piece together the information they offer, and come up with the solution to the mystery. Let us begin this task by examining four passages” (1974: 47). The primary responsibility of the reader is to uncover a system that will explain the work.

In the midst of these many mysterious codes, the question inevitably arises: Who is the reader of all this hidden material? If Puškin is parodying the code-breaking efforts of an audience, on what level does this audience exist? In a recent essay, “The Ace in Puškin's ‘The Queen of Spades,’” Sergej Davydov assumes that the audience parodied is internal to the text; that is, it is Germann himself: “Puškin settles his own account with Germann. … He surrounds him with mysterious events, teases him with anagrams and cryptograms which the calculative engineer repeatedly failed to solve” (1989: 130). This idea of internal audience is intriguing. But it seems to me equally—if not more—plausible that the audience parodied by Puškin is in fact the reader external to the text, and for a reason quite opposite to the “failure” Davydov detects in Germann. Puškin might well be parodying his readers precisely because of their success and skill at reading codes.

Support for this hypothesis (albeit grudging support) can be found in even the most severely puzzle- and key-oriented criticism. For much of it ends on an oddly indeterminate note. After prodigious code-cracking efforts, Leighton asks “what functions gematria serves in the tale” (1977: 464). And he modestly concludes that it adds interest, zest; it “enriches the style by enlarging the tale's lexical means, expanding its semantic fields, and adding to its morphological and syntactic texture. … It helps to unify the tale's parts into a gracefully organic whole, and it makes for a greatly intriguing, and therefore greatly entertaining, narrative.” The puzzle, in other words, is not cracked; it is only elaborated. Several other studies conclude in much the same way (Davydov, Poljakova): despite all the apparent overcoding, something in the text is always missing; the integrative move that will cap the deed is forever deferred. It is either the elusive ace, or the absence of resolution in the debate over realistic versus supernatural motivation, or the lack of a single literary prototype that the heroes of the tale might be parodying. As Paul Debreczeny points out, there appear to be many diluted prototypes for both characters and scenes. “Puškin used details of literary models only as so many tiny building blocks,” Debreczeny concludes (1983b: 202). What, then, do these blocks actually build?

In answer, I would suggest that the codes we get in this story, wonderfully crafted as they are, were designed by Puškin not to build any single unified structure, or to solve any single puzzle. Scholars have long noted this strategy on a blunt compositional level, in Puškin's choice of epigraphs. The epigraphs to Queen of Spades rarely summarize but rather comment ironically on their chapters, defining “the chapter's tonality—sometimes, to be sure, against the spirit of its content” (Poljakova 1974: 410). But it would seem that the irony of structures in this tale is not confined to a dialogue between epigraph and text. That irony is itself a clue to a larger disjunction. For just as the self-contained scenes in Boris Godunov do not add up to the dramatically resolved whole that was expected of tragedy, so the mysteries in The Queen of Spades are not really solvable by a single code—by the sort of code we would seek, say, in a good detective story. And yet the evidence for crackable codes is so overwhelming in The Queen of Spades that we, along with Germann, are almost flung into the search. This passion on the part of the reader to explain the whole by a single key might well be the real target of Puškin's parody.

With this hypothesis, yet another reading of the story becomes possible: Puškin provides us not with a code, and not with chaos, but precisely with the fragments of codes, codes that tantalize but do not quite add up. He teases the reader with partial keys—because the reader, like Germann, does not really want to gamble. The reader wants to decipher, to study the past so that it will reveal the future, to predict patterns of behavior and events. We know from the very plot of the tale, however, that only desperately passionate true gamblers—people willing to stake everything on true chance, like St. Germain, the Countess, Čaplickij—can be privy to true secrets (Burgin 1974: 53).

In this reading, the key passage in the text has nothing to do with threes, sevens, numerology, or cryptography. It is, rather, the Countess's final words to German: “Eto byla šutka” (it was a joke)—not, note, a riddle, which has an answer already implied in the asking. Simply a joke, non-repeatable and non-systematizing, randomly successful in one context and perhaps a complete fiasco in some other time and place. Naturally Germann cannot read this response properly, because his whole life is one of calculation. When he answers the Countess with “Etim nečego šutit'” (This is no joking matter), it is clear to what extent his entire being is alien to the lesson of real gambling, namely, that there is no system.4 As Lotman points out in his essay on the card game, Faro is a model of fate. And, Lotman continues, “the external world, which possesses an inexhaustible supply of time and unlimited possibilities of resuming the game, inevitably outplays every individual” (1975: 477-78).

This wisdom, which is routinely applied to Germann, could apply to code-crackers outside the text as well. For Puškin always promises system, but it is a trap. In this connection it is worth mentioning the excellent essay by Michael Shapiro on Puškin's “semiotic dominant” (Shapiro 1979). Shapiro suggests that the one truly characteristic feature of Puškin's work is its definition by negation. And the essential negated value in The Queen of Spades, I suggest, is the search for system. As Shapiro points out, it is not the supernatural that drives Germann mad, but chance itself, the most everyday and natural randomness of events. As Shapiro concludes his reading of the tale: “The element of chance which irrupts into the conclusion just when success is nearest is conditioned by the preternatural, by that whole realm of the (private) imagination which is opposed to reality as its negation. The reversal is all the more powerful since all of the events leading up to the moment of potential success are themselves accidents” (1979: 125).

There is, in short, a philosophy of history in this tale, just as there clearly is in Boris Godunov. The means are different because the problem that time poses in each work is different. In the play, Puškin parodies our search for system in the past; in the story, he parodies our search for system in the future. Blindness to the present—Germann convinced of his ace and confronted by a Queen—is common to both works. If Dmitrij the Pretender survives because he is so thoroughly a product of contingency, then Germann, in contrast, perishes because he cannot live in that sort of world once the promise of code has been offered him. In the seductive fragments of an explanation that are strewn around his story, we glimpse what might be the real logic of the tale: an allegory of interpretation itself. In The Queen of Spades Puškin appears to be celebrating the spirit of the true gambler, whom chance can impoverish but could never drive mad.


  1. In an excellent, as yet unpublished essay, Felix Raskolnikov summarizes the major Soviet contributions to this debate on “the real versus the irrational” in The Queen of Spades, regretting that earlier studies have not “admitted the possibility of a serious attitude on Puškin's part toward the irrational.”

  2. This aspect of the Onegin-Tat'jana relationship received provocative treatment by Sergej Bočarov in a paper prepared for—but not delivered at—the Kennan Institute's Conference on Russian Classic Literature, “Puškin: The Shorter Prose Works” (January 20-21, 1986, Washington, D.C.). Bočarov points out that Onegin's first reference to Tat'jana is already provisional and twice displaced, “not from himself nor for himself” (“I would have chosen the other / If I were a poet like you”). The fact that he is not a poet but a sceptic effectively bars him from satisfying any of the definitions Tat'jana craves; for most of the novel he represents openness, potential, whereas Tat'jana is forever the symbol of resoluteness and irreversible decision. The tension between the hero and heroine, Bočarov suggests, is the tension between “dal' svobodnogo romana” (distance of a free novel) (which Onegin represents) and the more teleological variant of that line in the notebooks, “plan svobodnogo romana” (plan of a free novel), which is the realm of Tat'jana's equilibrium and quest for answers. See Bočarov 1986.

  3. From Puškin's review of the second volume of Polevoj's Istorija russkogo naroda (History of the Russian People, 1830), in PSS XI: 127.

  4. Interestingly enough, this subtext of real gambling—which Puškin so cunningly hides from Germann himself—is revealed to the hero in Čajkovskij's much-maligned operatic version of the tale. In the main, of course, Čajkovskij sentimentalizes the plot, creating a banal love story between Liza and Germann and stripping away Puškin's cool irony as surely as he strips it from his operatic Onegin. But on close inspection, Čajkovskij's Germann is a surprisingly self-conscious character. Perhaps because he must sing arias about himself, he has perspective on his dilemma—which Puškin's hero does not.

    Consider, for example, Germann's ruminations at the beginning of Act II, scene 4, as he enters the old Countess's bedroom and vows to extract her secret. “A esli tajny net?” (And if there is no secret?) he suddenly sings. “I èto vse pustoj liš' bred moej bol'noj duši!” (And it is all merely the empty delirium of my sick soul!). Even more telling is the nervous song Germann performs at the gaming tables (Act III, scene 7) while he is still in his winning phase, that is, before he draws the fatal queen of spades. Surrounded by stunned friends and watched maliciously by Prince Eleckij—the injured ex-fiancé, from whom Germann had stolen Liza—Germann calls for wine and “giggles hysterically.” He then sings: “Čto žizn' naša? Igra! Dobro i zlo—odni mečty! Trud, čestnost'—skazki dlja bab'ja! Kto prav, kto sčastliv zdes', druz'ja? Segodnja ty a zavtra ja!” (And what is our life? A game! Good and evil—both are only dreams! Labor, honor—old wives' tales! Who is right, who is happy here, friends? Today it's you, tomorrow it's I!).

    Both Puškin's and Čajkovskij's heroes are close to being obsessive paranoids, to be sure. But only the operatic Germann is granted the right to question and mock his own pathology. He has clearly glimpsed by the end of the opera what real gambling requires, and the realization kills him.

Gary Rosenshield (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Rosenshield, Gary. “Choosing the Right Card: Madness, Gambling, and the Imagination in Pushkin's ‘The Queen of Spades.’” PMLA 109, no. 5 (1994): 995-1008.

[In the following essay, Rosenshield explains the role of madness in Pushkin's novella.]

M. L. Gofman writes that Aleksandr Pushkin's formulation of the problem of madness is the most successful in Russian literature, indeed that all Russian literature may be said to derive from it (62). Though this statement is polemical—a challenge to the often quoted apocryphal saying, attributed to Dostoevsky, that all Russian literature came out of Gogol's “Overcoat”—it points to a significant lacuna in the study of Pushkin: the representation of madness. Pushkin's remarkable lyric “God Grant That I Not Lose My Mind” (“He daj mni Bоg sоjti s uma”; 3: 322-23) has received only scant attention.1 Even more surprising, madness has never been argued as central to the understanding of The Queen of Spades (“Piкоvay dama”; 8: 227-52), his finest work in prose, though the story culminates in the hero's insanity.2

This avoidance of the issue of madness may be more than an oversight. For Russians, Pushkin has represented the Apollonian ideal of clarity, balance, harmony, order—and sanity—a poetic refuge against the disorder and dysfunctions of Russian life (Gofman 61-62). As the narrator of Andrey Bitov's Pushkin House (Pusкinsкij dоm) says, Pushkin was “the first and only bearer of Reason in Russia” ‘pirvyj i idinstvinnyj nоsitils Razuma v Rоssii’ (239).3 To suggest that disorder and insanity lurk behind the polished surfaces of some of Pushkin's most highly regarded works may be to liken him to his opposite, the Dionysian Dostoevsky, for whom chaos and madness are native territory.4

There is a great temptation to impose a monolithic interpretation on the problem of madness in The Queen of Spades, as on other aspects of the work. One should be guided by Dostoevsky's observation that the perfection of the story derives directly from Pushkin's ability to present mutually exclusive ideas convincingly:

The fantastic should come so close to the real that you must almost believe it. Pushkin, who has given us all our artistic models, achieved in The Queen of Spades the acme of the art of the fantastic. For you really believe that Germann actually saw a ghost, and you believe precisely the view of reality commensurate with such a vision; yet at the end of the story—that is, after having read it—you do not know how to interpret it: did Germann's vision arise from Germann's nature, or was he actually one of those who came in contact with another world, a world of evil and hostile spirits (i.e., spiritism and its teachings). Now, that is art!

Фantasticisкоi dоlznо dо tоgо sоpriкasatssy s rialsnym, ctо Vy dоlzny nоctц pоvirits imu. Pusкin, davsij nam pоcti vsi фоrmy isкusstva, napisal «Piкоvuy damu»—virk isкusstva фantasticisкоgо. I vy viriti, ctо Girmann dijstvitilsnо imil vidinii, i iminnо sооbraznоi s igо mirоvоzzriniim, a mizdu tim, v коnцi pоvisti, tо ists prоcty ii, Vy ni znaiti, кaк risits: vyslо li etо vidinii iz prirоly Girmanna, ili dijstvitilsnо оn оdin iz tik, коtоryi sоpriкоsnuliss s drugim mirоm, zlyk i vrazdibnyk cilоvicistvu dukоv. (NV. Spiritizm i uciniy igо.) Vоt etо isкusstvо!

(30.1: 192)5

Caryl Emerson takes this idea further, proposing that in The Queen of Spades, one of the earliest and most brilliant examples of authorial deception in Russian narrative prose, Pushkin not only encourages different interpretations but withholds sufficient proof for any interpretation by including only fragmentary codes:

I would suggest that the codes we get in this story, wonderfully crafted as they are, were designed by Pushkin not to build any single unified structure, not to solve any single puzzle. … Pushkin provides us not with a code, and not with chaos, but precisely with the fragments of codes, codes that tantalize but do not quite add up. He teases the reader with partial keys. …


Pushkin's use of fragmentary codes supports diametrically opposed psychological and supernatural interpretations of the plot. Germann, the hero, overhears a tale about an eighty-seven-year-old countess who possesses a secret formula for winning vast sums at faro. His attempt to wangle the secret from her by threatening her with a gun fails when she dies of fright. The next day Germann is visited by the countess's ghost, who reveals to him the secret, involving three cards. When he tries the secret, it works for the first two cards, and though it enables him to determine that he should take the ace as the third, he inexplicably chooses the queen, the wrong card.6 Believing that the countess (in the form of the queen) has wreaked revenge on him, Germann goes insane. He sits in a mental hospital continually muttering, “Three, seven, ace! Three, seven, queen!” ‘Trоjкa, simirкa, tuz! Trоjкa, simirкa, dama!’ (8: 252). It is easy enough to interpret everything in this story psychologically, including the countess's ghost—as has often been done (Burgin; N. Rosen; Schwartz and Schwartz; Lotman; Williams). But Germann seems to be lucid when the dead countess visits him. Moreover, the secret he receives works, despite his choice of the wrong card. The psychological code turns out to be fragmentary; it can never prove that Germann did not see a ghost. Once the door is open to the fantastic, however, it becomes possible to reinterpret all the data from a supernatural point of view, with the understanding that the supernatural is an even more fragmentary code than the psychological.

Likewise, The Queen of Spades gives contradictory presentations of madness. There seems to be no compensatory wisdom or vision in Germann's clinical insanity; his final condition appears a fate worse than death. However, Germann's mistake—the choice of the queen over the ace—challenges this deromanticized, devalorized picture of madness (revealing it to be only a fragmentary code) and contains a key to a more romantic notion of madness as an imaginative achievement—even a breakthrough. (Nevertheless, there has to be more evidence for the devalorized interpretation than for the romantic one because the revelation of the true value of madness can come only at the end; the epiphany must be a shock not only to Germann but to the reader as well.) In part 1 of this essay, I outline Pushkin's gradual turn away from a romantic view of madness, a turn that is reflected in this period in both German literature (Hoffmann) and Russian (Gogol and Dostoevsky). In part 2, I detail how Germann's materialistic ideal and the various failures of his imagination deflate madness. Using much the same evidence as in part 2, I show in part 3, in contrast to previous interpretations, that Germann chooses the right card not the wrong one, and that this choice constitutes for the hero not only a validation of madness but also a victory of the imagination and thus of life over death. My aim is not to refute one interpretation by the other but to bring out what Dostoevsky considered the supreme artistic quality of the story, the simultaneous validity of mutually exclusive interpretations—to place the devalorized interpretation of madness in perspective and provide the case for the romantic alternative. Finally, I discuss the legacy of Pushkin's presentation of madness, showing its influence on Dostoevsky's conception of Ivan Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov, often considered the seminal work of modern Russian literature.


It has been generally held that Pushkin's work from 1833 and later contains few if any traces of a romantic view of madness. Some Soviet critics (Levkovich, for example) concede that Pushkin may have regarded the subject—especially the relation between poetry and madness—romantically in the 1820s but maintain that he overcame this poetic phase by the early 1830s, when realism triumphed over romanticism, reason over madness, and clarity over confusion. Indeed, his early poetry closely ties madness—as well as other extreme states—and the poetic process. Pushkin describes poetry as a “passionate illness,” “fiery ecstasy,” “the violence of a whirlwind,” “confusion,” “fever,” even “sacred delirium.”7 But “God Grant That I Not Lose My Mind”—attributed to 1833, the year when Pushkin composed his other two major works on madness, The Queen of Spades and The Bronze Horseman (“Midnyj vsadniк”; 5: 131-50)—seems to confirm a turn toward a decidedly antiromantic position. In the beginning of “God Grant,” the persona finds his situation so trying that he gladly entertains the idea of parting with his reason to secure his peace and freedom, but visualizing the social and personal consequences of madness, he is compelled to reject it as a solution to his problems. In the end, madness is likened not only to a fatal illness afflicting an individual but also to a plague (cuma) threatening a population; society perceives the madman as a threat to the well-being of the state.8

Pushkin's devalorization of madness seems to run counter to the romanticism of this period in Russian literature, typified by the works of Prince Vladimir Odoevsky (1803-69), a writer influenced by German literature and philosophy and close in spirit to E. T. A. Hoffmann. An opponent of rationalism and utilitarianism, Odoevsky wrote repeatedly about the superiority of humankind's mystical and irrational inner world and about the inextricable relation between madness and genius—particularly madness and poetry.9 The hero of “The Sylph” (“Silsфida,” 1837), a story reminiscent of Hoffmann's “The Golden Flowerpot” (“Der goldne Topf,” 1814), settles on his estate in the provinces and, about to reconcile himself to the philistinism of everyday life—including marriage to his neighbor's daughter—starts reading cabalistic and esoteric treatises. They lead him, through insanity, into a higher, spiritual world that reveals to him the true meaning of existence and releases him from all mundane concerns and ties. The hero is eventually “saved” by his friends, who cure his madness, but at the expense of his spiritual life. His greatest regret in life remains his cure, a view with which the author sympathizes.

The most important writers of the time, however, including Gogol, the young Dostoevsky, and Pushkin, treat German romantic and Hoffmannian prose forms and thematics, especially the representation of madness, ironically and often parodically.10 German literature made this ironic turn earlier, perhaps taking its cue from Hoffmann himself, who often wrote in an ironic vein and even seemed to parody his own writings devoted to the marvelous and the fantastic (in the late “The King's Betrothed” [“Die Königsbraut,” 1821], for example).11 To be sure, Gogol and Dostoevsky could hardly have influenced Pushkin's representation of madness in The Queen of Spades, nor is it likely that Pushkin's story had a significant influence on the depiction of madness in their early works, which differ dramatically from his in style and content. Rather, Gogol's and Dostoevsky's early works show that Pushkin's parodic, antiromantic treatment of madness, though untypical for Russian literature, was not idiosyncratic; it in fact reflected German literary trends.

Gogol presents madness ironically in two of his most famous stories, “The Nose” (“Hoc,” 1836; 3: 45-75) and “Notes of a Madman” (“Zapisкi sumassidsigо,” 1835; 3: 191-214). The hero of “The Nose,” Kovalev, wakes one morning to find that his nose is gone and leading an independent existence disguised as an official whose rank is much higher than Kovalev's. The story parodies the theme of the doppelgänger, frequently used by Hoffmann to represent spiritual and mental disturbance, for Gogol's characters are too superficial to have minds or spirits in which a true double could manifest itself. The hero is a typical Gogolian pоslyк, the epitome of self-satisfied vulgarity and mediocrity. The hero of “Notes of a Madman,” a petty clerk with neither intellect nor spirit (and perhaps even without soul), goes mad not because of a desire for a higher, spiritual realm but because he is not taken seriously by his superior's daughter. His madness is presented as ridiculous and petty. The tragic side of the story is more social than personal, issuing from the brutal treatment of the hero in an insane asylum. Similarly, in The Double (Dvоjniк, 1846; 1: 109-229) Dostoevsky depoeticizes, deromanticizes, and devalues madness in his hero, Golyadkin, and the hero's double. The opposite of a higher self, this double does not provide Golyadkin with any vision of a higher—or lower—realm. Emptied of all that is vital and elevating, it is as prosaic as Golyadkin himself. “Goljadkin's folly,” Victor Terras writes, “is a travesty of madness for, really, there is nothing … at all to go mad from” (Young Dostoevsky 256).

According to Roberta Reeder, who makes an excellent case for The Queen of Spades as a parody of a Hoffmannian Kunstmärchen, Pushkin empties Germann of all that is romantically elevating:

Like many of Hoffmann's heroes, Germann is provided with choice, but prefers to blame his interest in the demonic on outside forces. His goal is not to be a great poet like Anselmus, but to gain great wealth out of sheer greed. … Like the Philistines in Hoffmann's tales, when Germann turns to the spiritual, he achieves only the demonic and never attains the heights of the realm of the good and the beautiful.


Pushkin thus seems not only to portray Germann's madness as a spiritual death but also, through parody, to cut off all the paths that may lead it to be valorized as a conduit to a higher world or truth. In contrast to Anselmus, the hero of “The Golden Flowerpot,” who must lose his sanity so as not to become a prisoner of the world of avarice, and to Odoevsky's hero, who is cured of madness against his will, Germann appears to go mad only because his performance is inadequate to his greed—that is, unromantically.


Madness in The Queen of Spades, as in Hoffmann, is precipitated and aggravated not by the absence of imagination but by imaginative failure. Almost every time Germann meets story and art, he attempts to appropriate them as means of satisfying his desire for great wealth. The work opens with a tale told by the countess's grandson, Tomsky, about his grandmother's secret of three cards. At first, Germann disbelieves the story, but it soon begins to work on his imagination and, as he appropriates it, to take on more grotesque forms than it had in all its history.12 Because of his materialism, Germann's imagination cannot lead him to a higher truth; he can only obsessively transform life into images grotesquely reflecting his desire. Outside the old countess's house, after hearing the story,

Germann began to tremble. The amazing story of the three cards again appeared before his imagination. He began to walk up and down near the house thinking of its owner and her marvelous gift. He returned late to his humble lodging, but he could not sleep for a long time; and when at last sleep overcame him, he dreamed of cards, a green table, piles of banknotes, and heaps of gold coins. He played card after card, decisively turning down the corners of his cards, and he won continually, raking in the gold and putting the notes into his pocket. After waking up quite late, he sighed over the loss of his fantastic wealth; then he again set out to wander around the city, and he again found himself in front of the countess's house.

Girmann zatripital. Udivitilsnyj aniкdоt snоva pridstavilsy igо vооbraziniy. On stal kоdits окоlо dоma, dumay оb igо kоzyjкi i о cudnоj ii spоsоbnоsti. Pоzdnо vоrоtilsy оn v smirinnyj svоj ugоlок; dоlgо оn ni mоg zasnuts, i, коgda sоn im оvladil, imu prigriziliss кarty, zilinyj stоl, кipy assignaцij i grudy cirvоnцiv.

(8: 236)

Soon Germann absorbs everything and everyone that he encounters into his monomaniacal plot. For example, Pushkin sets Liza, the countess's ward, as a romantic object for his hero. On the first fateful night of decision, Germann can choose either a door on his left, to Liza's room (where she has arranged a tryst with him), or a door on his right, to the countess's. But Germann does not intend to sacrifice fortune for love. He must give up a heroine to attain his terrible ambition. In a tale like “The Golden Flowerpot,” the bourgeois heroine is presented as an ideological reason for the hero to escape into the world of his imagination, but for Germann, Liza is little more than a part of his plan to wrench the secret from the aged countess. Earlier, to win Liza's heart, Germann composes letters by copying passages out of German novels. Later he does without this aid; his letters are written “under the inspiration of passion, spoken in his own language, and they bore full testimony to the inflexibility of his desire and the disordered condition of his uncontrollable imagination” ‘ik pisal, vdоknоvinnyj strasgiy, i gоvоril yzyкоm, imu svоjstvinnym: v nik vyrazaliss i nipriкlоnnоsts igо zilanij, i bispоrydок niоbuzdannоgо vооbraziniy’ (8: 238). The passion that inspires Germann is nothing but the desire for wealth, security, and independence. His language in the letters is a hodgepodge of clichés from second-rate sentimental and romantic literature. The narrator notes that these clichés were perfectly expressive of Germann's desire and imagination; his words present not profound symbolism but his inflexible desire made trite by his disordered and uncontrolled fancy.

Numerous studies attempt to discover the meaning of Germann's transformations of the three cards,13 but what may be most important about these transformations for a devalorized view of The Queen of Spades is their prosaicness. Germann sees all stout men—often associated in Russian literature with high status and success—as aces and regards flowers as threes. His response to people on the street who ask him for the time indicates how close he is to the madness of the epilogue. Regardless of the time of day, he answers, in a way worthy of the comic genius of Gogol, “Five minutes to the seven” ‘biz pyti minut simirкa’ (8: 249). The narrator concludes this passage with another deflationary stroke. The mad hero should after all go back to Paris, the origin of the story—but a Paris transformed by his imagination—and take on fortune herself in the great gambling houses of the city. But just as the countess comes back after her death to reveal her secret to Germann when he has lost all hope, so Germann is spared a heroic challenge or quest. Chance not only saves him, it hardly inconveniences him.

The scene that most deflates Germann's imagination—and thus his madness—is his confrontation with the countess. Germann steals into her chambers and waits for her to return from a ball. Although he takes with him an unloaded pistol to threaten her if she proves unaccommodating, he plans to win her over the same way he won Liza, despite the seventy-year difference in the women's ages. Germann's speech to the countess provides the first and most detailed access to the linguistic contents of his imagination. It also suggests the contents of his letters to Liza and anticipates the countess's speech to him from beyond the grave. When Germann confronts the countess in her boudoir, she responds by saying that the story was a joke. In no joking mood, he falls on his knees before the decrepit eighty-seven-year-old woman and reveals why he must have her secret:

“If your heart ever knew the feeling of love,” he said, “if you remember its rapture, if you have even once smiled at the cry of a newborn son, if anything human ever beat in your breast, then I implore you by the feelings of a wife, a lover, a mother, by all that is sacred in life, not to reject my plea. Reveal to me your secret. Of what use is it to you? … Maybe it is connected with a horrible sin, with the loss of eternal bliss, with a pact with the devil. … Consider: you are old; you do not have long to live—I am ready to take your sins upon my soul. Only reveal to me your secret. Remember that the happiness of a man rests in your hands, that not only I but my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will bless your memory and honor it as sacred. …”

—Isli коgda-nibuds,—sкazal оn,—sirdцi vasi znalо cuvstvо lybvi, isli vy pоmniti ii vоstоrgi, isli vy raz ulybnuliss pri ilaci nоvоrоzdinnоgо syna, isli ctо-nibuds cilоvicisкоi bilоss коgda-nibuds v grudi vasij, tо umоlyy vas cuvstvami suprugi, lybоvniцy, matiri,—vsim, ctо ni ists svytоgо v zizni—ni оtкaziti mni v mоij prоssbi!—оtкrоjti mni vasu tajnu!—ctо vam v nij? … Mоzit byts, оna sоpryzina s uzasnym grikоm, s pagubоy vicnоgо blazinstva, s dsyvоlssкim dоgоvоrоm … Pоdumajti: vy stary; zits vam uzi nidоlgо,—y gоtоv vzyts grik vas na svоy dusu. Otкrоjti mni tоlsко vasu tajnu. Pоdumajti, ctо scastii cilоviкa nakоditsy v vasik ruкak; ctо ni tоlsко y, nо diti mоi, vnuкi i pravnuкi blagоslоvyt vasu pamyts i budut ii ctits кaк svytyny …

(8: 241-42)

This product of Germann's disordered and uncontrolled imagination will hardly persuade the countess to reveal her secret—assuming that she has one. Aside from triteness, this speech is characterized by ridiculous nonsequiturs regarding the satanic, the sacred, sin, and happiness. Germann entreats the countess by all this is sacred not to reject his plea, but he immediately remarks that the secret may be related to some horrible sin, to the loss of eternal bliss, or to a pact with the devil. He is even willing to make his own pact with the devil and take all her sins on himself. But how can his happiness—and especially his children's—be assured if it is based on a satanic pact?

In a more traditionally romantic work—Gogol's “Portrait” (“Pоrtrit,” 1835; 3: 401-45), for example—the imagination can be corrupted, serving the devil (comfort) as well as true art or religion. But Germann is not an artist, and though he has a most lively imagination, every manifestation of it appears as the epitome of Nabokovian pоslоsts ‘banality.’14 Thus Germann's madness not only is not romantically conceived—that is, tied to a higher truth—but is specifically linked to the second-rate, the vulgar, the unimaginative, and even the ridiculous. From this point of view, any connection between Germann and the demonic—such as the countess's spirit—is as doubtful as one between him and the higher, spiritual world.

Though Germann may be “punished” in the end for using others to achieve crass, materialistic goals, Nabokov, for one, might have argued that Germann's crimes are also against the imagination. Art, Nabokov writes,

is a game, because it remains art only as long as we are allowed to remember that, after all, it is all make-believe, that the people on the stage, for instance, are not actually murdered, in other words, only as long as our feelings of horror or of disgust do not obscure our realization that we are, as readers or spectators, participating in an elaborate and enchanting game: the moment this balance is upset we get, on the stage, ridiculous melodrama, and in a book just a lurid description of, say, a murder which should belong in a newspaper instead.


(Lectures 106)

Germann upsets the balance between art and life by reducing one to the other. By doing so, he kills the story and destroys himself. It is perhaps poetic justice that in contrast to Anselmus, who is redeemed by a creative madness, Germann goes vulgarly mad. For Anselmus madness is a means to a higher end; for Germann it is the result of imaginative failure.

Yet it might be argued that what leads Germann to madness is not so much the coarseness of his imagination as the reductiveness. He tries, in effect, to reduce life to a formula. At the beginning, Germann needs imagination to acquire the secret of the three cards. He is preoccupied with choosing among alternatives. He has to gain entry to the countess's house, and once there he needs a strategy to make the countess reveal her secret. When she dies, he cannot stop thinking creatively, for he still lacks the secret. Once the three cards are revealed to him, however, he becomes more obsessive and his world more constricted. No ingenious plans are now necessary. Three, seven, and ace make up Germann's entire existence; everything in the outside world is transformed into the new code:

Two fixed ideas cannot exist together in the moral world just as two bodies cannot occupy one and the same place in the physical world. Three, seven, ace began to eclipse in Germann's imagination the image of the dead old woman. Three, seven, ace didn't leave him for a moment and played continually on his lips. If he saw a young girl, he would say, “How slender she is! A real three of hearts.” If anyone asked him the time, he would answer, “Five minutes to the seven.” Every pot-bellied man he saw reminded him of the ace. Three, seven, ace haunted him in his sleep, assuming all possible forms: the three blossomed before him in the form of a magnificent flower; the seven appeared as a Gothic portal and the ace an enormous spider. All his thoughts fused into one: to make use of the secret that had cost him so dearly. He thought of retirement and of traveling. He wanted to compel fortune to yield up her treasure to him in the public gambling houses of Paris. Chance saved him all these troubles.

Dvi prоtivоpоlоzinnyi idii ni mоgut vmisti susistvоvats v nravstvinnоj prirоdi, taк zi, кaк dva tida ni mоgut v фizijisкоm miri zanimats оdnо i tо zi mistо. Trоjкa, simirкa, tuz—sкоrо zaslоnili v vооbrazinii Girmanna оbraz mirtvоj staruki. Trоjкa, simirкa, tuz—ni vykоdili iz igо gоlоvy i sivililiss na igо gubak. Uvidiv mоlоduy divusкu, on gоvоril:—Kaк оna strоjna! … Nastоysay trоjкa cirvоnnay. U nigо sprasivali: коtоrsj cas, оn оtvical:—biz pyti minut simirкa.—Vsyкij puzastyj muzcina napоminal imu tuza. Trоjкa, simirкa, tuz—prislidоvali igо vо sni, prinimay vsi vоzmоznyi vidy: trоjкa цvila pirid nim v оbrazi pysnоgо grandiфlоra, simirкa pridstavlylass gоticisкimi vоrоtami, tuz оgrоmnym pauкоm. Vsi mysli igо sliliss v оdnu,—vоspоlszоvatssy tajnоj, коtоray dоrоgо imu stоila. On stal dumats оb оtstavкi i о putisistvii. On kоtil v оtкrytyk igriцкik dоmak Pariza vynudits кlad u оcarоvannоj фоrtuny. Slucaj izbavil igо оt klоpоt.

(8: 249)

The third and last stage of this imaginative reduction is represented in the insane asylum. All thought has vanished; all connection to the outside world has been severed. Two phrases, four words (“Three, seven, ace,” “Three, seven, queen”), constitute the only sign that a human being once lived in his body. Germann is reduced to the names of the cards, signifiers now of nothing. His imagination has revealed nothing to him; instead, it has converted the tale told at the beginning (and permuted through hundreds of variations) to a simple formula for eliminating risk, chance, and change. (It should be noted that Germann, at least consciously, never thinks of himself as gambling when he uses the secret.) His imagination has stopped interpretation and reinterpretation. Germann becomes an exemplum of madness as imaginative failure.


Although The Queen of Spades underscores the vulgarity of Germann's imagination, the story is not a monolithic devalorization of madness. Like the psychological interpretations of the story, the devalorization does not constitute a complete code. Evidence for a more positive interpretation of Germann's madness is encoded in the brief, seemingly matter-of-fact epilogue, which sums up the fates of the major characters.

Germann went out of his mind. He is a patient in room 17 in Obukhov Hospital. He doesn't answer any questions but mutters with unusual rapidity, “Three, seven, ace! Three, seven, queen!”

Lizaveta Ivanovna married a very amiable young man. He works in some government department and has a considerable fortune; he is the son of a former steward of the old countess. Lizaveta Ivanovna is bringing up a poor relative.

Tomsky has been promoted to captain and is marrying Princess Polina.

Girmann sоsil s uma. On sidit v Obukоvsкоj bоlsniцi v 17 numiri, ni оtvicait ni na кaкii vоprоsy, i bоrmоcit niоbyкnоvinnо sкоrо:—Trоjкa, simirкa, tuz! Trоjкa, simirкa, dama! …

Lizavita Ivanоvna vysla zamuz za оcins lybiznоgо cilоviкa; оn gdi-tо sluzit i imiit pоrydоcnоi sоstоynii: оn syn byvsigо upravitily u starоj graфini. U Lizavity Ivanоvny vоspityvaitsy bidnay rоdstvinniцa.

Tоmsкij prоizvidin v rоtmistry i zinitsy na кnyzni Pоlini.

(8: 252)

When compared with Liza's and Tomsky's fates, Germann's outcome appears in a more positive light.15 Liza seems to follow the example of the countess, her former tormentor; the young woman now is in a position to visit on her own ward the injuries that she suffered as a ward. But, more important, she has in a sense played the same game as Germann. He starts off with a small fortune (malinsкij кapital; 8: 235) and loses everything; she starts with nothing and through an undertaking rather less risky than his—marriage—achieves his ideal: a considerable fortune (pоrydоcnоi sоstоynii; 8: 252). Liza's husband received his fortune from his father, just as Germann did, but her father-in-law amassed the money by stealing from the countess when he was her steward. Tomsky also enters into a marriage of convenience, with a princess, thus attaining the same tainted goal that Liza achieves and in the same manner. The last word Germann speaks is “queen.” He may be tied to the countess forever, but Liza pays a higher price morally for her apparent freedom.

But is there anything positive to Germann's madness besides the contrast with other characters? Liza and Tomsky succeed in their world precisely because they lack imagination; Liza repeats the countess's bad example, and Tomsky takes the most beaten of all paths. Germann ultimately does the opposite of his prudent, fortune-amassing father and even does what probably no one associated with the tale of the three cards has done, especially if most of the absurdities that Germann hears at the beginning are discounted. Germann starts out with a small capital, risks everything, and loses everything. To assume only that he believes in the secret and thus thinks he is not taking a risk, not really gambling, is to make him a one-dimensional character—a figure completely coinciding with his conscious self—in a story that is above all ambiguous and complex.16

Given a Nabokovian view of pоsdоst, it may seem better to have no imagination at all than the one Pushkin deals Germann, but the story, I hope to show, reveals otherwise. The narrator says not only that Germann has a lively imagination but that he is a gambler at heart. Critics have paid much more attention to the first quality than to the second, but each is prophetic, realizing itself and combining with the other to seal Germann's fate. In the end, Germann gambles; he plays not so much to win as to risk, to dare, to stake his life—that is, to live.

That Germann is a gambler at heart is indicated in the first passages of the text as well as in the last. At the beginning, he sits on the sidelines, a passionate and imaginative observer—Pushkin stresses his strong passions (silsnyi strasti)—but he is able to restrain his desire:17 “And yet he would sit night after night at the card tables, following with feverish excitement the various turns of the game” ‘а mizdu tim, цilyi nоci prоsizival za кartоcnymi stоlami, i slidоval s likоradоcnym tripitоm za razlicnymi оbоrоtami igry’ (8: 235). Both his restraint and his passion are present before he hears the tale (sкazкa) of the three cards. The tale does not transform Germann; it pushes him over the edge.

Pushkin abandons Germann on the first page and does not take him up again until the middle of the next chapter, providing a span of reading time that suggests the psychological time Germann requires for the sкazкa to invade his imagination. Despite the depreciative account I give of Germann's imagination in the previous part, the narrator describes it as active and fiery (оgninnоi; 8: 235). Germann does not passively accept the sкazкa but transforms it into his own creation, and so it reflects, as any creation must, the mind and passions of its creator. Germann knows that the story of the secret is just a fairy tale, but only this story, which represents the imaginative transformation of many generations, can affect him. A creature of the imagination, he finds the play less tempting than the story into which the play is metamorphosed.

Soon after the idea of the three cards implants itself in Germann's mind, he attempts to exert active control over the sкazкa. A plot begins to emerge in his imagination that charges all the events and characters of the tale. First Liza is emplotted, then the countess, both before and after her death. Of course, Germann places himself at the center of events, the quester after the great secret. However, his madness, while exacerbated by his desire to reduce the story to the names of the secret cards, can be just as easily seen as a concentration of his imaginative powers to some higher end, of which he is barely conscious.

The most important of Germann's imaginative acts involving the dead countess are the first, by which he thinks his fortune is made, and the two last, by which his doom is sealed. The first act, his imagining of the ghost of the countess (for argument's sake, I do not treat the apparition as supernatural), is not so much a self-serving device of his as a creative interpretation:

“I have come to you against my will,” she said in a firm voice, “but I have been ordered to fulfill your request. Three, seven, ace in succession will win for you, but only provided that you do not play more than one card a day and that you never play again for the rest of your life. I forgive you my death, provided that you marry my ward, Lizaveta Ivanovna.”

(8: 247)

This utterance is in some ways as trite as Germann's speeches. Germann's conception that the countess comes against her will to grant his request and forgive him seems psychologically obvious if not commonplace. Further, he has been thinking about threes, sevens, and aces ever since he encountered the anecdote. The night after hearing it, Germann names the cards and affirms their power even as he appears to reject them: “No! Prudence, moderation, and hard work: those are my three sure cards; that is what will increase my capital threefold, sevenfold, and provide me with peace and independence” ‘Nit! rascit, umirinnоsts i trudоlybii: vоt mоi tri virnyi кarty, vоt ctо utrоit, usimirit mоj кapital, i dоstavit mni pокоj i nizavisimоsts!’ (8: 235).18 And yet he curiously varies the story from the way it has been repeated in the past (perhaps to make it more convincing to himself), introducing the requirement that the cards be played on successive days. For perhaps the first time, instead of reducing the tale, Germann begins to draw it out. This expansion may reflect his unconscious desire not to win at once but to prolong the game, to continue to play for the sake of playing.

Pushkin makes explicit Germann's role as interpreter:

For a long time Germann could not come to his senses. He went into the other room. His orderly was asleep on the floor; Germann was hardly able to wake him. The orderly was drunk as usual, and it was impossible to get any sense from him. The street door was locked. Germann returned to his room, lit a candle, and wrote down his vision.

Girmann dоlgо ni mоg оpоmnitssy. On vysil v druguy коmnatu. Dinsiк igо spal na pоlu; Girmann nasilu igо dоbudilsy. Dinsiк byl psyn pо оbyкnоviniy: оt nigо nilszy bylо dоbitssy niкaкоgо tоlкu. Dvirs v sini byla zapirta. Girmann vоzvratilsy v svоy коmnatu, zasvitil svicкu, i zapisal svоi vidinii.

(8: 248)

Whatever Germann writes is an interpretation, in no way less fanciful than the interpretations of numerous critics who after reading The Queen of Spades, and especially the vision episode, sat down, like Germann, to write. In this episode and others as well, scholars—and artists like Dostoevsky—have thought that there was more to Germann's imagination than the clichés with which his speeches are riddled.

On the night of the countess's death, Germann faces a choice on the left, Liza's apartment, and one on the right, the countess's study. He chooses the door on the right, seemingly the wrong door—ambition wins out over love. On the night of the last card game, it is the card on the left, the ace, that will bring him fame and fortune, the card on the right that leads to madness. He chooses the card on the right. But this final mad act, the playing of the last card, must be viewed not as the most reductive deed of a vulgar madman but as Germann's most inspired and imaginative act in his own creation. For his choice of the wrong card—and who but a madman could choose the wrong card while knowing the right one?—is a choice against his ideals of peace and comfort (pокоj) and of independence (nizavisimоsts), a rebellious blow against a final resolution. The mad act that drives Germann permanently insane thus may be his highest act of sanity: a choice against reduction, a choice for the first time for chance, play, and life. Given Germann's extreme personality, only an act of madness can free him from his vain ideal of undisturbed self-sufficiency and permit him for one moment to experience, in the most intense form imaginable, the feeling of being a true, though reckless, gambler, a man who can stake his life on a card. To win would, of course, have been to lose; it would have been never to gamble—to live—at all.19

This conclusion is as unexpected as the queen of spades is for the conscious Germann. Almost all critics hold that Germann chooses the wrong card and that Pushkin punishes him by making him do so, but in fact the calculating Germann dies for chance because of an unconscious choice that elevates Germann's unhappy role in the tale. Thus, at the last possible moment, a romantic notion of madness flashes into view and sheds a different light on the preceding events. Before going insane, the hero experiences a momentary vision of the truth of his life and character, much as Dostoevsky's Myshkin does in his epileptic aura.20 At last Germann understands the emptiness of his ideal of peace and independence and sees clearly—and recognizes the price of—the only possibility that remains for redeeming his past. For this romantic moment, as in Pushkin's “Egyptian Nights” (“Igipitsкii nоci,” 1835), one must be willing to sacrifice one's life. The tragedy of Germann, a sharply polarized personality, is that there can be no compromise, no healthy gambling. His choice in the end is the one that he created for himself. It was he who brought the countess back from the dead. It was he who invented the cards, the secret. It was also he who plotted his final moments, giving himself no middle ground. It is either the ace or the queen. By choosing the queen, Germann rejects the ordinary fate of Liza and Tomsky; he makes a leap of the imagination that elevates him above his fellows and transforms him into a figure that has exerted a tremendous power on the Russian literary imagination to this day. But just as important, by choosing the queen, Germann also chooses to keep the story alive—open to interpretation—and to make himself part, perhaps the most intriguing part, of the next redaction of the tale, a warning to all proponents of closure.

Pushkin's ambiguous and ambivalent representation of madness in The Queen of Spades—as simultaneously a romantic epiphany and the epitome of pоslоsts—is probably not what Gofman had in mind when he speculated about Pushkin's legacy for Russian literature. But this strange idea of madness perhaps constituted Pushkin's principal legacy for the mature Dostoevsky. In The Gambler (Igrок, 1867), Dostoevsky wrote his own version of The Queen of Spades, and Raskolnikov, in Crime and Punishment (Pristuplinii i naкazanii, 1866), is an updated Germann. But it is in the representation of Ivan Karamazov that the implications of Pushkin's treatment of madness are taken to their logical conclusions.

Toward the end of The Brothers Karamazov (Bratsy Karamazоvy, 1880; 14: 5-508, 15: 5-197), in a passage that echoes Germann's encounter with the dead countess, Ivan Karamazov confronts a ghost, a creature of his imagination. A doctor from Moscow has just diagnosed Ivan as “having something perhaps even like a brain disorder” ‘vrоdi dazi кaк by rasstrоjstva v mоzgu’ in which “hallucinations … are quite possible” ‘gallyцinaцii … оcins vоzmоzny.’

And so he was sitting there now, almost conscious himself of being delirious, and, as I have said already, staring persistently at some object on the sofa against the opposite wall. Someone suddenly appeared sitting there, though God knows how he walked in, because he had not been in the room when Ivan Fyodorovich entered the room on his way back from his visit to Smerdyakov.

(15: 70; pt. 4, bk. 11, ch. 9)

Ivan senses something mean and seedy in his devil. Ivan may curse him and call him a lie, an illness, a ghost, an embodiment of only one side of himself, a reflection of Ivan's most loathsome and stupid thoughts and feelings, but what disturbs Ivan most of all is the visitor's banality, pоslоsts. The devil says archly that his dream is “to become incarnate … in some fat, 250-pound merchant's wife and believe everything she believes in” ‘vоplоtitssy … v кaкuynibuds tоlstuy simipudоvuy кupciku i vsimu pоvirits, vо ctо оna virit,’ and he claims that it is not artists who have extraordinary hallucinations but “the most ordinary people, officials, journalists, priests” ‘sоvsim samyi zaurydnyi lydi, cinоvniкi, фilsitоnisty, pоpy’ (15: 73-74). The devil, however, deftly counters Ivan's characterization of him as banal: “How could such a banal devil come to such a great man?” ‘Kaк, disкats, к taкоmu viliкоmu cilоviкu mоg vоjti taкоj pоslyj cirt?’ (15: 81). Banality, brilliance, and hallucination are inseparably bound in Ivan's madness.

This unusual sort of madness brings Ivan, as it does Germann, face to face with the choice that will determine his fate, a choice between opposite worlds. Though Ivan's choice differs from Germann's, Dostoevsky like Pushkin focuses simultaneously on the banal and the romantic aspects of his hero's madness. More important, however, Dostoevsky intimates something larger than a dual, or ambiguous, interpretation of madness, as pоslоsts or revelation. He posits a different kind of madness, maybe a particularly Russian form, not a madness that leads now to false salvation (the ace) and now to transfiguration (the queen) but one that both threatens damnation and promises transfiguration at the same time—perhaps a madness without closure. Through Dostoevsky's transformation, Pushkin's concept of madness may have become, to Nabokov's consternation, one of the most dynamic of Pushkin's legacies to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian literature and culture. Nabokov seemingly attempts to have the final word in Despair (Otcaynii: Rоman), in which the main character, Hermann (Girman), a mad writer prone to hallucinations and obsessed with a double, is punished for imaginative failure: “Hell shall never parole Hermann” (xiii). But it is not in Nabokov's power to end the story by dealing Hermann/Girman the wrong cards; whatever end he chooses for his hero, Nabokov is fated, somewhat like Pushkin's Germann, to become still another intriguing link in the self-renewing legacy of The Queen of Spades.


  1. There are only a few brief discussions of the poem in the critical literature: Taborisskaja 73-75, Geršenzon 25-26, and Ètkind 66-68. The poem also makes a brief appearance in Bitov's novel Pushkin House (Pusкinsкij dоm; 238-39). See also Rosenshield.

  2. Even Gofman devotes only four pages to The Queen of Spades, which he sees as the culmination of Pushkin's work on the theme (82-86). See also the discussions of madness in the story by Williams; Taborisskaja 81-87; and Makogonenko 249-55. For a review of the Russian reception of the story, see Lerner 141-42.

  3. All translations of Russian quotations are my own.

  4. Geršenzon was one of the first to celebrate “the chaotic perfection” ‘kaоticisкоi sоvirsinstvо’ in Pushkin (24-32).

  5. Many agree with Dostoevsky's praise for Pushkin's ability to efface the line between the realistic and the fantastic. For one of the earliest and most convincing demonstrations of this technique, see Slonimskij.

  6. In this version of faro, players choose whatever card they want from the deck.

  7. “[P]laminnyj nidug,” “plaminnyi vоstоrg,” “vikоrs bujnyj” (“Conversation of a Bookseller and the Poet” [“Razgоvоr кnigоprоdavцa s pоetоm”], 1824; 2: 325); “smytinsi” (“The Poet” [“Pоet”], 1827; 3: 65); “gоrycкa,” “svysinnyj brid” (Eugene Onegin [Ivginij Onigin], 1832; 6: 29; 1.58).

  8. But it would be incorrect to conclude that madness is a concern of Pushkin's only in his poetry. As Blagoj shows, madness is perhaps Pushkin's most frequent metaphor for describing, individually and collectively, all things socially and politically unsound, destabilizing, and dangerous (311-28). For a discussion of the views of madness in Germany during the late Enlightenment, in both literary and nonliterary texts, see Ziolkowski 144-80. For similar analyses of unreason in the Age of Reason, see Byrd; Feder 147-202; Foucault; Osinski; Reuchlein; and G. Rosen 151-71. See also Vol'pert's comparison of Pushkin and Stendhal. For works in Pushkin's library indicating his familiarity with the contemporary literature on madness, see Modzalevskij 53, 246, 273, 346. Vol'pert notes in relation to The Queen of Spades that Pushkin had cut from François Leuret's Fragments psychologiques sur la folie the pages devoted to various types of hallucinations (54).

    Pushkin was personally acquainted with a “mad” poet, Konstantin Batyushkov, who stopped writing poetry after going insane at thirty-three—Pushkin's age when he wrote The Queen of Spades, The Bronze Horseman, and perhaps “God Grant.” Pushkin was reported to have been greatly shaken by a visit to the mad Batyushkov when everyone thought that Batyushkov was dying (he recovered). Still, Batyushkov hardly resembles the madman of the last stanzas of “God Grant.” For the most detailed discussions of Batyushkov's life and madness, see Alekseev 369-71, Košelev 276-340, and Majkov 222-40.

  9. One of the artist heroes in Russian Nights (Russкii nоci), Odoevsky's most famous work, says, “Doesn't the state of a madman resemble the state of a poet? … Isn't the exalted state of a poet … closer to what is called insanity than insanity is to an ordinary animal-like stupidity?” ‘Sоstоynii sumassidsigо ni imiit li skоdstva s sоstоyniim pоzta? … Ni blizi li nakоditsy vоstоrzinnоi sоstоynii pоeta … к tоmu, ctо nazyvayt bizumiim, nizili bizumii к оbyкnоvinnоj zivоtnоj glupоsti?’ (25-26).

  10. The generally nonironic works patterned after Hoffmann by Gogol (“The Portrait” [“Pоrtrit”]) and by the young Dostoevsky (“The Landlady” [“Kоzyjкa”]) are not their most successful endeavors.

  11. As Tymms shows, parodies on Hoffmannian doubles were written before Hoffmann's death in 1822: “So the romantic tale ends by parodying itself; with the self-destructive irony of the whole movement, the German Romantic, having, over a period of a decade or two, elaborately hoisted up a bizarre image of his own self-division, now turns upon his Janus bifrons, and bowls over the puppet he had himself glorified into ‘super-reality’” (71).

  12. Pushkin emphasizes Germann's imagination throughout. He calls attention to the story's effect on it three times in the narrator's formal introduction alone. German “had strong passions and a fervent imagination” ‘imil silsnyi strasti i оgninnоi vооbrazinii’; the anecdote about the three cards “had exerted a strong influence on his imagination” ‘silsnо pоdijstvоval na igо vооbrazinii’; and a little while later the amazing anecdote “again appeared before his imagination” ‘snоva pridstavilsy igо vооbraziniy’ (8: 235-36).

  13. See, for example, Leighton, “Gematria” and “Numbers”; Weber; and Davydov.

  14. See Nabokov's essay “Philistines and Philistinism” (Lectures 309-14).

  15. For less than positive assessments of Liza's actions and fate, see Leatherbarrow 13-14 and especially Shaw.

  16. Psychoanalytic interpretations presuppose latent desires but, in contrast to romantic psychology, often do not admit the possibility of an individual with multiple selves. For psychoanalytic approaches to the story, see Schwartz and Schwartz; N. Rosen; and Burgin.

  17. This detail may be Pushkin's code for indicating Germann's complexity. Comparing Shakespeare's characters with Molière's, Pushkin writes: “The characters created by Shakespeare are not, as in Molière, basically types of such and such a passion, such and such a vice, but living beings filled with many passions, many vices; circumstances develop their varied and many-sided personalities before the viewer. In Molière, the miser is miserly—and that's all; in Shakespeare, Shylock is miserly, acute, vindictive, philoprogenitive, witty” (Proffer 240).

  18. Shaw shows that when tuz ‘ace’ is not mentioned after a reference to three and seven, a phrase that suggests the missing term often appears instead (119). In the series I quote here, the ace is “provided” by the expression “peace and independence” (for tuz can also signify a portly man or a man of rank and wealth).

  19. Sinjavskij, if I understand him correctly, argues that for Pushkin chance and risk are perhaps one's only guarantee of attaining something eternal (39). Sinjavskij has in mind the famous line from “The Feast in Time of the Plague” (“Pir vо vrimy numy,” 1830; 7: 173-84): “The guarantee, perhaps, of immortality” ‘Bissmirtsy, mоzit byts, zalоg’ (180).

  20. The author-narrator of The Bronze Horseman not only sympathizes with Evgeny, the mad hero (whose ideals are closer to Pushkin's than are Germann's), but ultimately ascribes a special form of clairvoyance, even prophecy, to Evgeny's madness.

Works Cited

Alekseev, M. P. “Nisкоlко nоvyk dannyk о Pusкini i Batysкоvi” [Some New Findings about Pushkin and Batyushkov]. Izvistiy акadimii nauк CCCP. Otdilinii litiratury i yzyкa [Proceedings of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Division of Literature and Language] 8 (1949): 369-72.

Bitov, Andrej. Pusкinsкij dоm [Pushkin House]. Moscow: Sovremennik, 1989.

Blagoj, D. Sоцiоlоgiy tvоrcistva Pusкina: Etydy [The Sociology of Pushkin's Works: Studies]. Moscow: Federaciija, 1929.

Burgin, Diana Lewis. “The Mystery of ‘Pikovaia dama.’” Mnemozina: Studia litteraria russica in honorem Vsevolod Setchkarev. Ed. Joachim T. Baer and Norman W. Ingham. Munich: Fink, 1974. 46-56.

Byrd, Max. Visits to Bedlam: Madness and Literature in the Eighteenth Century. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1974.

Davydov, Sergei. “The Ace in Pushkin's ‘The Queen of Spades.’” Forthcoming.

Dostoevskij, F. M. Pоlnоi sоbranii sоcininij [Complete Works]. Ed. V. G. Bazanov et al 30 vols. Leningrad: Nauka, 1972-90.

Emerson, Caryl. “‘The Queen of Spades’ and the Open End.” Puškin Today. Ed. David Bethea. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1992. 31-37.

Ètkind, E. Simmitrccisкii коmpоziцii u Pusкina [Pushkin's Symmetrical Compositions]. Paris: Institut d'Etudes Slaves, 1988.

Feder, Lillian. Madness in Literature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Random, 1965.

Geršenzon, M. Mudrоsts Pusкina [The Wisdom of Pushkin]. Moscow: Pisateli v Moskve, 1919.

Gofman, M. L. “Prоblima sumassistviy v tvоrcistvi Pusкina” [The Problem of Madness in Pushkin's Works]. Nоvyj zurnal [New Journal] 51 (1957): 61-86.

Gogol', N. V. Pоlnоi sоbranii sоcininij [Complete Works]. 14 vols. Moscow: AN SSSR, 1937-52.

Košelev, Vjačeslav. Kоnstantin Batysкоv: Stranstviy i strasti [Konstantin Batyushkov: Wanderings and Passions]. Moscow: Sovremennik, 1987.

Leatherbarrow, W. J. “‘The Queen of Spades.’” The Voice of a Giant: Essays on Seven Russian Prose Classics. Ed. Roger Cockrell and David Richards. Exeter: U of Exeter, 1985. 1-14.

Leighton, Lauren. “Gematria in ‘The Queen of Spades’: A Decembrist Puzzle.” Slavic and East European Journal 21 (1977): 455-69.

———. “Numbers and Numerology in ‘The Queen of Spades.’” Canadian Slavonic Papers 19 (1977): 417-43.

Lerner, N. O. Rassкazy о Pusкini [Stories about Pushkin]. Leningrad: Priboj, 1929.

Levkovič, Ja. L. “Stikоtvоrinii Pupкina ‘Ni daj mni Bоg sоjti s uma’” [Pushkin's Lyric “God Grant That I Not Lose My Mind”]. Pusкin: Isslidоvaniy i matirialy [Pushkin: Research Papers and Materials]. Vol. 10. Leningrad: AN SSSR, 1982. 176-92.

Lotman, Ju. M. “Tima кart i кartоciоj igry v russкоj litiraturi nacala XIX viкa” [The Theme of Cards and Card Playing in Russian Literature of the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century]. Trudy pо znaкоvym sistimam [Studies on Semiotic Systems] 7 (1975): 122-42.

Majkov, L. Batysкоv: Igо zizns i sоcininiy [Batyushkov: His Life and Works]. 2nd ed. Saint Petersburg: Marks, 1896.

Makogonenko, G. P. Tvоrcistvо A. C. Pusкina v 1830-e gоdy (1833-1836) [Pushkin's Works of the 1830s (1833-36)]. Leningrad: Xudožestvennaja Literatura, 1982.

Modzalevskij, B. L. Bibliоtiкa A. C. Pusкina [Pushkin's Library]. Saint Petersburg: Akademija Nauk, 1910.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Despair. New York: Vintage, 1965. Trans. of V. Sirin [Vladimir Nabokov]. Otcaynii: Rоman. Berlin: Petropolis, 1936.

———. Lectures on Russian Literature. Ed. Fredson Bowers. New York: Harcourt, 1981.

Odoevskij, Vladimir. Russкii nоci [Russian Nights]. Leningrad: Nauka, 1975.

———. “Silsфida” [The Sylph]. Pоvisti i rassкazy [Novellas and Short Stories]. Moscow: Xudožestvennaja Literatura, 1988. 173-94.

Osinski, Jutta. Über Vernunft und Wahnsinn: Studien zur literarischen Aufklärung in der Gegenwart und im 18. Jhdt. Bonn: Bouvier, 1983.

Proffer, Carl R., ed. The Critical Prose of Alexander Pushkin. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1969.

Puškin, A. S. Pоdnоi sоbranii sоcininij [Complete Works]. 17 vols. Moscow: AN SSSR, 1937-59.

Reeder, Roberta. “‘The Queen of Spades’: A Parody of the Hoffmann Tale.” New Perspectives on Nineteenth-Century Russian Prose. Ed. George J. Gutsche. Columbus: Slavica, 1982. 74-98.

Reuchlein, Georg. Bürgerliche Gesellschaft, Psychiatrie und Literatur: Zur Entwicklung der Wahnsinnsthematik in der deutschen Literatur des späten 18. und frühen 19. Jahrhunderts. Munich: Fink, 1986.

Rosen, George. Madness in Society: Chapters in the Historical Sociology of Mental Illness. New York: Harper, 1969.

Rosen, Nathan. “The Magic Cards in ‘The Queen of Spades.’” Slavic and East European Journal 19 (1975): 255-75.

Rosenshield, Gary. “The Poetics of Madness: Puškin's ‘God Grant That I Not Lose My Mind.’” Slavic and East European Journal 38 (1994): 120-47.

Schwartz, Murray M., and Albert Schwartz. “‘The Queen of Spades’: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 17 (1975): 275-88.

Shaw, Joseph T. “The ‘Conclusion’ of Pushkin's ‘Queen of Spades.’” Studies in Russian and Polish Literature in Honor of Waslaw Lednicki. Ed. Zbigniew Folejewski et al. The Hague: Mouton, 1962. 114-26.

Sinjavskij, Andrej [Avram Terts]. Prоgulкi s Pusкinym [Strolls with Pushkin]. London: Collins, 1975.

Slonimskij, A. L. “O коmpоziцii ‘Piкоvоj damy’” [On the Composition of “The Queen of Spades”]. Pusкinsкij sbоrniк pamyti Prофissоra C. A. Vingirоva [Collected Articles on Pushkin in Memory of Professor S. A. Vengerov]. Moscow: GIXL, 1923. 171-80.

Taborisskaja, E. M. “Svоiоbrazii risiniy timy bizumiy v prоizvidiniyk Pusкina 1883 gоda” [Pushkin's Original Resolution of the Theme of Madness in the Works of 1833]. Pusкinsкii ctiniy: Sbоrniк statij [Readings of Pushkin: Collected Articles]. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1990. 71-87.

Terras, Victor. The Young Dostoevsky: 1846-1849: A Critical Study. The Hague: Mouton, 1969.

Tymms, Ralph. The Double in Literary Psychology. Cambridge: Bowes, 1949.

Vol'pert, L. I. “Tima bizumiy v prоzi Pusкina i Stindaly: ‘Piкоvay dama’ i Krasnоi i cirnоi” [The Theme of Madness in the Prose of Pushkin and Stendhal: “The Queen of Spades” and The Red and the Black]. Pusкin i russкay litiratura: Sbоrniк naucnyk trudоv [Pushkin and Russian Literature: Collected Scholarly Articles]. Riga: Latvijskij Gosudarstvennyj Universitet Imeni P. Stučki, 1986. 46-58.

Weber, Harry B. “‘Pikovaia dama’: A Case for Freemasonry in Russian Literature.” Slavic and East European Journal 12 (1968): 435-47.

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Svetlana Grenier (essay date March-June 1996)

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SOURCE: Grenier, Svetlana. “‘Everyone Knew Her …’ or Did They?: Rereading Pushkin's Lizaveta Ivanovna (‘The Queen of Spades’).” Canadian Slavonic Papers 38, no. 1-2 (March-June 1996): 93-107.

[In the following essay, Grenier offers an interpretation of Lizaveta's fate in Pushkin's novella.]

The second paragraph of the “Conclusion” of The Queen of Spades reads

Lizaveta Ivanovna has married a very amiable young man; he is in the civil service and has a considerable fortune: he is the son of the old countess's former steward. Lizaveta Ivanovna is bringing up a daughter of a poor relation.1

Over the last thirty years or so it has become a commonplace of The Queen of Spades criticism to infer that this paragraph, and especially its last sentence, testify to Lizaveta Ivanovna's absolutely and tediously repeating her benefactress's path. She will take the old countess's place and will doom yet another ward to become the victim of a capricious benefactress. J. T. Shaw, for example, sums up his interpretation as follows: Lizaveta Ivanovna is “a martyr who seeks and finds a deliverer so that she may do as she has been done by.”2

I would like to dispute this “finalizing” approach to Pushkin's heroine. To put it in Bakhtinian terms, Lizaveta Ivanovna's fate and personality are just as radically “open-ended” as the rest of The Queen of Spades and, for that matter, the rest of Pushkin's mature work—as one Bakhtin scholar actually suggests.3

In his analysis of The Queen of Spades, Lotman allows for an open-ended interpretation of the work, demonstrating the simultaneous operation of at least two mutually exclusive “models,” one transpiring through the other.4 He himself, however, reads the “Conclusion” as a definitive closure on this contradiction of paradigms, a closure which allows Pushkin to dot all the i's, particularly where Lizaveta Ivanovna is concerned. In this [essay], I will argue that the “Conclusion” continues rather than terminates the pattern of mutually exclusive paradigms, thus leaving the heroine's fate literally open. This argument can be presented in Lotman's own words: it is precisely the incompatibility of the equally possible interpretations with each other that assures Pushkin's images of the “depth of unfinished-ness.”

Readers' responses to Lizaveta Ivanovna contradict each other enough to suggest that her image presented in the “Conclusion” is less finalizing than it seems to be. Alongside the recently popular interpretation of this heroine, which privileges the apparently cynical “Conclusion,” another interpretation is at least equally possible, one anchored in the apparently sympathetic view of her in the main body of the story.5 Yet, while the two readings are equally possible, they are also equally “impossible,” for each must “force” the text a little to accommodate it, each must fill too many gaps and contend with too many indeterminacies. Each, finally, imposes a definitive unity on a character, who, in this mysterious story, is designed to defy it.6 Lizaveta Ivanovna's image conforms to Caryl Emerson's overall assessment of the tale, in which the reader is programmed to try to discover the unified meaning of the story on his or her own: “Pushkin provides us not with a code, and not with chaos, but precisely with the fragments of codes, codes that tantalize but do not quite add up.”7 I maintain that, in order not to hinder this open-endedness, Pushkin deliberately leaves Lizaveta's case open, and, in the final analysis, he leaves it up to the readers' cynicism or idealism about human nature to choose the reading that suits them.8

One way for Pushkin to make Lizaveta Ivanovna an open-ended character, is to trace her lineage to several different genres. In presenting Lizaveta Ivanovna, Pushkin indeed activates several generic codes that create different plot expectations in the reader.9 At different moments he invokes the eighteenth-century epistolary novel and the Sentimental tale (à la Karamzin's Poor Liza); the archetypal Cinderella story; and the currently fashionable gotho-freneticist fiction, society tale, and physiological sketch. No sooner does Pushkin introduce one of these codes than he subverts it through introducing another one. This procedure results in an all-pervasive relativization of generic predictability.

Chapter II establishes this pattern of shifting generic codes. On the one hand, it is preceded by an epigraph reminiscent of the eighteenth-century novel, with its libertine heroes' cynical attitude toward women as nothing more than sexual objects. The epigraph sets up an expectation of a plot that will include an aristocrat's intrigue with a “suivante,” which presumably stands here for any lower-class woman:

—Il parait que monsieur est décidément pour les suivantes.
—Que voulez-vous, madame? Elles sont plus fraîches.

(Society conversation) (6:324).10

On the other hand, the introduction, at the beginning of the chapter, of a grotesquely old “madame” (Countess) seems to undermine this expectation. Yet the Countess's behavior does mimic that of the jealous (older) mistress of the epigraph: she spends hours in front of a mirror but won't allow her quasi-suivante, the young Lizaveta, to spend even a few minutes dressing. Also, as soon as the Countess suspects Liza of trying to attract the attentions of some “monsieur,” she uses her socially superior position to prevent her ward from succeeding. The reader next witnesses a “gentleman” (young officer) courting the young lady (“suivante”); moreover, when Germann's thoughts are revealed the reader learns that he had indeed considered starting an affair with the “hideous” (6:339) “madame”—all of which seems to confirm the original expectation of a “triangle” between the monsieur, madame, and her suivante and of the monsieur eventually preferring the suivante.

This triangle, however, exists on a completely different plane from the triangle of the epigraph and of the libertine novel. In the epigraph, the “freshness” of the ladies' maids prompts the “gentleman” to choose between two women, two different objects of the same passion; the “freshness” of Lizaveta may potentially prompt Germann to choose between two different passions, love and greed.

In this context, the last sentence of Chapter II (“That moment decided his fate” [6:332]) appears highly ambiguous. On the one hand, it follows the sentence, “Germann saw a fresh young face and dark eyes” (6:332; my italics—S.G.), which refers the reader back to the epigraph, reinforcing the original expectation of a “libertine” plot. On the other hand, it sounds like a Romantic (or perhaps Sentimental) cliché denoting love at first sight. Indeed, this sentence is just the last one in a series of “fragments” of a Romantic code in its Byronic or gotho-freneticist version.11 The narrator also mentions Germann's typically Romantic appearance as perceived by Lizaveta Ivanovna, who notices his “pale cheeks” and “dark eyes gleam[ing] from under his hat” (6:330)12; the heroine's mysterious, irrational fear when she sees him up close; and Germannn's “strong passions and fiery imagination” (6:331). These Romantic elements contradict the genre of the libertine novel. In the Sentimental and Romantic paradigm, love is the highest value, and woman is perceived as an exalted being, not simply as an object of sexual power games, as in the “libertine” novel.13 The clash of two styles and of the world views they represent—the “libertine” epigraph vs. the “Romantic” ending—produces a tension that should warn the reader against an automatic “romantic” interpretation of events (i. e., that Germannn is in love with Liza). The reader's prior knowledge of Germannn's thoughts also makes such an interpretation less than certain. Yet the Romantic elements undercut both the “libertine” and the “mercenary” interpretation. Invoking fate in such circumstances is too large a brush stroke for depicting Germann's allegedly purely mercenary motives.14 Chapter II, thus, ends on a note of still unresolved uncertainty as to the possible plot development.15

The unpredictable nature of the plot, with its shifting genres, is not the only question the reader has to contend with; other questions associated with the heroine serve to compound it further. The conflicting expectations for the heroine's role that depend on the reader's perception of Germann's intentions are superimposed over characterization, direct and indirect, of Lizaveta Ivanovna in Chapter II.

First of all, the reader must somehow define Lizaveta in terms of social status. After the epigraph, which juxtaposes and contrasts the “madame” with the “suivantes,” the chapter introduces two women, “the old Countess” and “a young lady, her ward.” While the former corresponds, in status, to the “madame” of the epigraph, the latter does not fit precisely into either category. She is contrasted with the “three maids” (devushki), i. e., suivantes, as a “young lady” (baryshnia); at the same time, her status is subordinate to that of the Countess and defined in relation to her (“her ward”). In sum, she clearly occupies some vague, in-between social niche.

The paragraph introducing the two women graphically translates their contrasting social positions into the spatial terms of “center” and “margin.” The old countess sits at the mirror surrounded by three maids; she is literally the center of attention. The ward's peripheral position in the room (“by the window”) signals her social marginality. The mention of the window suggests also her liminal status: she is both inside and, in a certain sense, outside of the countess's house and, by extension, of the exclusive social circle it represents (“[Lizaveta Ivanovna] was required to dress like everyone, that is, like only a very few” [6:329]). The ward's marginality and liminality is further formally expressed through the amount of text used to introduce her (one short sentence, in contrast to the whole paragraph for the countess) and the position of that introduction (at the end, i.e., on the border of the paragraph).

In the opening scene as well as in the narrator's comments that follow, Pushkin puts three codes in motion: the fairy-tale, the Sentimental, and the Realist. On the one hand, Liza's situation is transparently presented as that of Cinderella. The three maids' physical proximity to the countess—as in the stepmother's daughters' case—suggests a much greater affinity between her and them than between either her or them, on the one hand, and Liza, on the other, stressing Liza's “outsider” status in this world.16 The scene that follows demonstrates the ward's humiliatingly ambiguous status of being both “lady” and “maid” (“suivante”) at the same time; the dramatic presentation of the Countess's interactions with Liza seems to call for the readers' sympathy. So does the narrator's commentary:

In truth, Lizaveta Ivanovna was a most unfortunate creature. Bitter is the alien bread, says Dante, and heavy are the steps of the alien porch—and who would know better the bitter taste of dependency than a poor ward of an aristocratic old lady? … Lizaveta Ivanovna was the household martyr …


The archetypal fairy-tale code is reinforced by a more recent Sentimental one. Certain details suggest Lizaveta Ivanovna's kinship with her namesake, Karamzin's Poor Liza: aside from sharing the same name, the two heroines share the epithet “poor” (here “poor ward,” “poor girl”). Furthermore, Pushkin's Lizaveta attends to her benefactress in much the same way Karamzin's Liza attends to her mother's needs. Finally, Lizaveta Ivanovna evinces certain topoi of feminine behavior typical of the Sentimental heroine: for example, the first time the reader witnesses her spotting Germann on the street, she blushes and lowers her eyes—the way Poor Liza does upon meeting Erast for the first time.17

In both the fairy-tale and the Sentimental system the heroine is defined as a creature “beautiful in body and soul” and at the same time socially and sexually vulnerable.18 Lizaveta's outwardly quiet submissiveness to the Countess's ever-changing whims initially points the reader in the direction of perceiving her personality as Cinderella- and Poor-Liza-like in goodness. On the other hand, the proliferation of concrete realistic details of the ward's life in the narrator's comments anchors that life firmly in the social reality of the time:

She served tea and was blamed for wasting sugar; she read novels aloud to the countess and was guilty of the author's every mistake; … A salary was appointed her that was never paid in full, while she was required to dress like everyone, that is, like only a very few. … [A]t balls she would dance only when there was a lack of partners, and ladies took her hand every time they had to go to the dressing room to fix something in their attire.


This introduction of the elements of the newly-fashionable genre of “physiologie19 into the description of a Cinderella-like heroine results in a tension that works to undermine the fairy-tale, Sentimental, and Romantic codes invoked. So does the summary of her somewhat un-Cinderella-like reaction to the situation: “She was proud [samoliubiva], felt her position keenly and looked around, waiting impatiently for a deliverer” (6:329). This statement denies Lizaveta Ivanovna Cinderella's good-natured submissiveness. It also introduces a decidedly un-heroinic (from the perspective of the earlier forms of writing) note of restless impatience and activeness into her (properly heroinic) waiting.20 This sentence, however, is followed immediately by more “fragments” of the “Cinderella code” (“Lizaveta Ivanovna was a hundred times sweeter [milee] than the brazen and cold-hearted debutantes …”; “How often … she would go cry in her shabby room … !” [6:329]), clearly designed to evoke the reader's sympathy for the heroine.

The above sequence is just one example of the constant switching of codes used to present Lizaveta Ivanovna in Chapter II. Eventually the reader must realize that the essence of this new, socially marginal and liminal character lies somewhere beyond or in-between the familiar codes. Continual recourse to the well-worn clichés of earlier plots and character types in the depiction of Germann's interactions with Lizaveta Ivanovna serves, first and foremost, to foreground the novelty of the hero and his plot (through juxtaposition and contrast of love and greed). As a result of this on-and-off switching of different codes, however, a no-less-novel type of heroine emerges to complement the generically-ambiguous hero.

Chapter III, through several similar reversals, continues the pattern established in Chapter II. The reader is again faced with the uncertainty of Germann's motives; the ambivalence introduced in Lizaveta Ivanovna's “static” characterization is now dramatized in her actions.

In the depiction of Lizaveta Ivanovna in chapter III, the obviously active codes of the eighteenth-century epistolary novel are at first subverted for the reader by the heroine's behavior, which is unconventional in this (or any “romantic”) system. Her first letter, unlike those of Pushkin's Tatiana or of Rousseau's Julie, does not contain a confession of love. She acts, rather, like a rational, level-headed person, who is excited by a new experience (a man paying attention to her)—and yet is acutely aware of the attendant danger. Lizaveta, like any reader of Pushkin's time, knows full well that taking up her pen is the crucial first step towards a potential abyss.21 Her vacillations between the various courses she could take, her “weighing the pros and cons of an uncertain situation,”22 in other words, her attempt to control the situation, is rational—and absolutely unconventional for a heroine in the Sentimental or Romantic system. Rational behavior aimed at self-preservation is un-heroine-like; it is unfeminine—and it earns this character the condemnation of the critics. Quoting the narrator's statement about Lizaveta's “waiting for a deliverer,” Paul Debreczeny interprets her fear of Germann as

simply the fear that he will not, after all, turn out to be her ‘deliverer.’ Granting him an assignation, she risks her reputation in the hope of acquiring a husband; her ‘gamble,’ as one critic [J. T. Shaw] put it, is no purer in motivation than Hermann's.23

Such critics rely on the primacy and ultimate authority of the realist code and, without explaining the purpose of the other codes, accept it as the key to understanding this character.24 Yet, the realist code does not supersede the other codes: they are all invoked intermittently throughout the presentation, creating a complex and, at times, “doubling” image of this new character type. For example, an element of calculation (i.e., a hope that Germann will “turn out to be her ‘deliverer’”) may well be present at the moment of writing her first letter. It would explain why Lizaveta Ivanovna, although she is not head-over-heels in love with Germann, decides to pursue the relationship by responding to his letter. And yet, it seems reductive to dismiss all of her actions as necessarily “mercenary” in motivation. Other motives are also implicitly suggested by the narrator. Clearly, Liza has unfulfilled emotional needs. The thrilling new status of a young woman looked at and sought out, after the utter loneliness (“she had neither a friend nor a mentor” [6:334]) and total social invisibility (“everyone knew her, no one took any notice of her” [6:329]), she had previously experienced; the hope of “becoming a heroine” (to use Rachel Brownstein's apt title)25—all of this for the first time gives meaning to her tedious life: “She walked away [from the window] tormented by curiosity and agitated by a feeling completely novel for her” (6:330; my italics—S.G.).

The fact that Lizaveta Ivanovna does not right away fall in love with Germann the way Tatiana does with Onegin testifies to her more rational and less “romantic” nature, which, at first glance, appears to disqualify her from heroinic status in the Sentimental-Romantic paradigm. Liza's rationality has a limited scope, however. The promise of a romance proves too enticing for the “young dreamer” to resist. Soon enough, she is swept away:

Lizaveta Ivanovna received letters from him every day, … No longer were they translated from the German. Germann wrote them inspired by passion and spoke in the language all his own: both the unbending strength of his desires and the disorder of his unbridled imagination found expression in them. Lizaveta Ivanovna did not even think of sending them back any more: she revelled in them; she started responding, and her notes were becoming longer and more tender by the hour.


This passage suggests an interesting function to the “fragments” of the epistolary genre: both parties' letters seem to cause their possible love, rather than being prompted by it. Furthermore, these words suggest that no ulterior motive underlies Liza's action of granting Germann an assignation. Indeed, she cannot be acting on the basis of calculation, unless she is exceedingly foolish,26 because Germann's actions, his impudence [derzost'], and the image she has made of him27 do not indicate an intention on his part to “deliver” her in any matrimonial sense of the word. They indicate rather the opposite. She is acting foolishly—not out of miscalculation, but because, as the text implies, “[e]lle était fille, elle était amoureuse.28 Lizaveta Ivanovna, by virtue of her overall social and emotional vulnerability, is an ideal victim for a would-be seducer. By the middle of Chapter III, when Liza invites Germann to a nocturnal rendez-vous, the Sentimental-Romantic code has been reinstated. In an already familiar pattern, however, Liza's letter again partially subverts this code: it does not mention her feelings and sounds almost businesslike.

Chapter IV of The Queen of Spades perpetuates the ambiguity of Lizaveta Ivanovna's image through Pushkin's intertextual self-references to Eugene Onegin, which simultaneously activate and subvert what might be called a “Tatiana code.” This chapter, containing an anti-climactic rendez-vous manqué between Germann and Liza similar to that in Chapter IV of Eugene Onegin, brings to the surface certain structural and textual parallels between the two plots and between the presentations of the two heroines, Liza and Tatiana.

The scene in Chapter IV of The Queen of Spades recapitulates and condenses the motifs of Chapters Three through Seven of Eugene Onegin. Tatiana's initial literary infatuation with Onegin, combining attraction and fear, finds a parallel in Liza's imagination being “frightened and captivated” by the image she has created of Germann, “due to the influence of the recent novels” (6:344). The meeting in the garden, scene of Onegin's “confession” (4:XII) that crushes Tatiana's hopes, corresponds to Germann's meeting with Liza when she learns that his courtship had not been motivated by love. Tatiana's dream vision of Onegin as a demonic murderer surrounded by monsters is echoed by the following exchange in The Queen of Spades: “‘You are a monster,’ she said.—‘I did not want her death: my gun is not loaded’” (6:345). Tatiana's gradual recognition of Onegin's “Napoleonic” nature is paralleled by the description of Germann's Napoleonic posture (6:345) reminiscent of the bronze Napoleon figure in Onegin's study. Tatiana's recognition, “solving the enigma” (7:XXV) of Onegin leads to the shedding of her previous romantic notions of life and eventually to her marriage. The scene between Liza and Germann in chapter IV presumably has a similar effect on Liza.

As we see, Lizaveta Ivanovna undergoes an evolution rather similar to Tatiana's. She starts out as a romantically-minded young lady whose imagination is fed by her reading. She encounters a man whom she sees as a hero of a novel; takes the daring step of corresponding with him; and finally meets him face to face—only to witness her hopes and her romantic world view destroyed. In the epilogue she, like Tatiana, is “realistically” married to some “amiable young man” (6:356).

At the same time, this parallelism highlights points of difference between the two heroines. In one parallel, Lizaveta, like Tatiana, “trembles” anticipating her encounter with the hero (6:342; 3:XL), who at once represents her fate, her own conscience, and society's potential judgment of her improper step in writing to him. Unlike Tatiana, Lizaveta is not truly in love with the hero. Her mixed feelings of fear and attraction crystallize into “hoping to find Germann [in her room] and wishing not to find him” (6:342). She has not thrown herself uncompromisingly into this “affair”—she has been “drawn” into it by “circumstances” (6:342). For her, this quasi-relationship has been not the whole-hearted commitment that Tatiana's love was, but a thrilling, fascinating, dangerous game, motivated, in the final analysis, by the desire for recognition of her human and feminine significance. In the end, she is disappointed most of all because she turns out not to be a person with the power to “quench [Germann's] passion and make him happy” (6:345).

These differences between Liza and Tatiana surface at the beginning of Chapter Four; the many parallels between them are concentrated in the scene of Liza's encounter with Germann in the second half of the chapter. This order suggests that Pushkin intends here to switch the “Tatiana code” back on so as to promote a sympathetic view of Lizaveta and (since this is her last dramatic appearance in the story) to leave that view with the reader.

Turning to the “Conclusion,” and comparing it with Chapter VIII of Eugene Onegin, we see that the parallel evolution of the two heroines leads each into ostensibly following in her mother's (if we consider the old countess a mother figure) footsteps. Tatiana, although she repeats her mother's path of marrying someone other than the object of her affections and although she appears entrenched and content in her new role (as her mother was), is, in the end, a very different person from her mother and from what she outwardly appears to be. As it turns out, she is not happy as a successful grande dame: she would rather be in the country, and she still keeps her love for Onegin.

Lizaveta Ivanovna ostensibly repeats the Countess's path. She is married to a wealthy husband, the son of the Countess's steward (cf. “My late grandfather [the Countess's husband] … was something akin to Grandmother's butler” [6:321]) and, of course, she is bringing up a ward.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, several critics read this last detail as providing more or less conclusive evidence of Lizaveta Ivanovna's complete transformation into a powerful and oppressive benefactress. Such a transformation would invoke a motif that fits into two subsets, popular in the 1830s and 1840s, of the nascent realist literary code: “society tale” and “Natural School” tale.29 Considering that Pushkin has consistently subverted every generic code he used to present Lizaveta Ivanovna and her story, thereby creating an ambiguous figure, it seems reasonable to suspect that the apparently cynical “Conclusion” is one more in the series of statements intended by the author to be false leads for the gullible reader. If the overarching principle in the design of this character has been the undermining of the various generic codes, then the last line should also be potentially underminable, thereby preserving the unfinalized openness of Lizaveta Ivanovna's image.

Just as Tatiana is not what she seems to be in high society, so Liza is not necessarily what she seems to be to the “finalizing,” non-Romantic narrator of the “Conclusion.” After all, this narrator sums up the hero's story with a sober statement that “Germann has gone mad” (6:355). This “fact” does not, however, resolve the mystery of the plot. It does not, for example, unequivocally answer the question whether Germann had seen a “real” ghost or a hallucination. As Dostoevsky's Svidrigailov would later say, the fact that “ghosts appear only to the sick … only proves that ghosts can appear to no one but sick people—and not that there are no ghosts per se” (Dostoevsky, 6:221).30 Thus, like the mad Germann himself, the “Conclusion” “does not answer any questions” (6:355)—about Germann or Lizaveta Ivanovna. The latter is as free to repeat the Countess's path as she is free to alter the very meaning of the terms “ward” and “benefactress.”

At the end of the story Germann goes mad, the card game goes on, and Lizaveta Ivanovna takes in a poor relative. The “Conclusion,” which pretends to tie up all the “loose ends” in the story, is too blatantly formulaic to suggest that it can—or intends to—actually finalize the unfinalizable elements within the plot. Does the fact that the story has this formal conclusion imply that everything mysterious and Romantic in it can be dismissed? Lizaveta is decidedly cynical only if nothing supernatural has happened to Germann, and if nothing of the sort had happened to “the late Chaplitskii” (6:323), and if the “realistic” interpretation of the story is, from the beginning, the only one possible. None of the story's readers seem to agree on all of these points.


  1. A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v desiati tomakh. 2nd ed. Vol. 6 (Moscow, 1956-1958): 356. All further references to “The Queen of Spades” will include the volume and page number from this edition. All translations are mine. References to Eugene Onegin will be identified with an Arabic numeral for the chapter number and a Roman numeral for the stanza number.

  2. Joseph T. Shaw, “The ‘Conclusion’ of Pushkin's Queen of Spades,” in Studies in Russian and Polish Literature in Honor of Wacław Lednicki, eds. Zbigniew Folejewski et al. Slavistic Printings and Reprintings 27 (The Hague: Mouton, 1962) 126. For similar views, see Paul Debreczeny, The Other Pushkin: A Study of Alexander Pushkin's Prose Fiction (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1983) 217-18, 228; Gleb Žekulin, “And in Conclusion, Who Is Tomsky? (Rereading ‘The Queen of Spades’), Transactions of the Association of Russian-American Scholars in the USA 20 (1987): 77; Rita Poddubnaia, “O poètike Pikovoi damy A.S. Pushkina: Zakony zhanrovoi struktury,” in O poetyce Aleksandra Puszkina (Materialy z sesii naukowej UAM 6 i 7 XII 1974, ed. Bohdan Galster, Seria Filologia Rosyjska 7 (Poznań, 1975): 56-57; L. S. Sidiakov, Khudozhestvennaia proza A.S. Pushkina (Riga, 1973) 123; M. Falchikov, “The Outsider and the Number Game (Some observations on Pikovaya dama),” Essays in Poetics 2.2 (1977): 101, 104; Gary Rosenshield, “Choosing the Right Card: Madness, Gambling, and the Imagination in Pushkin's ‘The Queen of Spades’,” PMLA 109.5 (1994): 1002.

  3. See Caryl Emerson's cogent discussion in “‘The Queen of Spades’ and the Open End” in Puškin Today, ed. David Bethea (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993). On Bakhtin's concept of unfinalizability, see Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990) 36-38.

  4. Discussing the triangular “semantic paradigm” of history in Pushkin's works of the 1830s (revolt of the elements-statue-man), Lotman himself insists on the “possibility of not just different but complementary,” i. e., “equally adequate, and at the same time mutually exclusive” readings of such works. Iu. M. Lotman, “Tipologicheskaia kharakteristika realizma pozdnego Pushkina,” V shkole poèticheskogo slova (Moscow, 1988) 127. While, as Lotman maintains, interpretation of one element of the paradigm determines the interpretation of the whole series, each member of the series, nonetheless, can be interpreted in several different ways. These interpretations form this member's own “microparadigm.” Although a particular interpretation of one element of the triangular paradigm may be stressed in a particular text, “not a single one of these [possible interpretations] ever functions as the only one. The paradigm is given in all of its potential manifestations” (Lotman, “Tipologicheskia kharakteristika” 130.)

  5. See, for example, Nathan Rosen, “The Magic Cards in ‘The Queen of Spades’,” Slavic and East European Journal 19 (1975): 274 (Note 31). I would also include here the interpretation of Lizaveta Ivanovna in Chaikovskii's opera and rewritings of the “ward's text” by Dostoevsky and other nineteenth-century Russian authors (see chapters II-V of my dissertation: Svetlana Slavskaya Grenier, “‘Everyone Knew Her, No One Noticed Her’: The Fate of the Vospitannitsa (Female Ward) in Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature,” unpub. diss, Columbia University, 1991). M. S. Altman, deriving his interpretation from Dostoevsky's use of Pushkin's plot, explains Liza's adoption of a ward by her desire to “pacify her alarmed conscience.” M. S. Al'tman, “Videnie Germana. (Pushkin i Dostoevskii),” Slavia 9 (1932): 796.

  6. Cf. Vinogradov's cautious approach to Lizaveta: “One has a sense of a deliberate unfinished-ness (nedokonchennost'), a certain ‘openness’ (nezamknutost') of this character.” V. V. Vinogradov, Stil' Pushkina (Moscow, 1941) 606.

  7. Emerson 30. In an excellent article, which I read while preparing the final version of this manuscript, Gary Rosenshield, referring to Caryl Emerson's statement, demonstrates exactly how “Pushkin's use of fragmentary codes supports diametrically opposed psychological and supernatural interpretations of the plot” (996)—where Germann is concerned. He reiterates the “cynical” view of Liza, however, albeit with some caution: “Liza seems to follow the example of the countess, her former tormentor; the young woman now is in a position to visit on her own ward the injuries that she suffered as a ward” (1002).

  8. Emerson 36. In my dissertation, I argue that this open-endedness has produced a tradition of literary wards—some meek, some cunning, some only seemingly meek or cunning.

  9. I am using the term “code” in its basic structuralist and semiotic meaning, as developed by Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson, and Iurii Lotman. See “Code” in Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory: Approaches, Scholars, Terms, ed. Irena R. Makaryk (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993): 525; Cf. “When a writer chooses a certain genre, style or artistic school, he is also choosing the language [code] in which he intends to address the reader. This language enters into the complex hierarchy of the artistic languages of a given epoch, a given culture, a given people, or a given humanity.” Jurij Lotman, The Structure of the Artistic Text, trans. Gail Lenhoff and Ronald Vroon, Michigan Slavic Contributions 7 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977): 18. Compare Lotman's discussion of artistic codes on pp. 12-25. See also, “The code is a perspective of quotations, a mirage of structures; … the units which have resulted from it (those we inventory) are themselves, always, ventures out of the text, the mark, the sign of a virtual digression to the remainder of a catalogue … ; they are so many fragments of something that has always been already read, seen, done, experienced; the code is the wake of that already.” Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 22nd printing, 1995; first American ed., 1974): 20.

  10. This conversation indeed invokes a typical plot pattern of the period (see, for example, Richardson's Pamela or Karamzin's Poor Liza); this pattern is recapitulated in the nineteenth century in David Copperfield (Steerforth and Little Em'ly), George Sand's Indiana (Raymond and Noun), etc.

  11. On Pushkin's use of the gotho-freneticist code, see R. L. Busch, “Pushkin and the Gotho-freneticist Tradition,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 29.2 (1987).

  12. On typical appearance of the hero in Russian Romanticism, see Iu.V. Mann, Poètika russkogo romantizma (Moscow, 1976) 32, 34; cf. also Busch on the gotho-freneticist features in the characterization of Germann (181).

  13. On the place of love in Romanticism see Mann, Poètika 38-39.

  14. Compare Feliks Raskolnikov's discussion of Germann as a Romantic hero: F. Raskolnikoff, “Irratsional'noe v Pikovoi dame,Revue des études slaves 59.1-2 (1987): 254-55. Raskolnikov analyzes a similar example of the use of Romantic/poetic style: “Den'gi,—vot chego alkala ego dusha!” (“Money was what his heart thirsted for!”) (6:345). He does not mention, however, that this sentence occurs amid what is clearly Lizaveta Ivanovna's thoughts (not distinguished from the narrator's speech in any graphic way). This example suggests that Liza's—or Liza-like—voice and consciousness may be responsible also for other instances of irruption of the Romantic code into the narrative. This Romantic voice and point of view compete with the narrator's other—cynical and “realistic”—voice. M. Falchikov also proposes the idea of multiple narrators one of whom might be Liza (Falchikov 99-100).

  15. This clash of styles is just one example of the stylistic tensions generated throughout the story by the simultaneous operation of mutually exclusive paradigms. Sergei Bocharov speaks of the narrative “realizing … Germann's dual nature and the dual motivation of his behavior: the prosaic ‘German’ calculation, base acquisitiveness and ‘fiery imagination,’ the passion of a gambler. Both these motives operate and mix together in Germann simultaneously …” S. G. Bocharov, Poètika Pushkina. Ocherki (Moscow, 1974) 187. Maxim Shrayer makes a similar point about the reader's uncertainty as to Germann's motives at this point and until Chapter IV Maxim D. Shrayer, “Rethinking Romantic Irony: Puškin, Byron, Schlegel and The Queen of Spades,Slavic and East European Journal 36.4 (1992): 401-402. He persuasively explains Pushkin's use of various mutually exclusive paradigms by his “romantic-ironic design” (408).

  16. I am indebted to Olga Meerson for pointing out to me this visual aspect of Pushkin's use of the “Cinderella code.” I would also like to thank her for directing my attention to the relevance of Svidrigailov's ideas on ghosts to my discussion (see below, note 29).

  17. N. M. Karamzin, Izbrannye sochineniia v dvukh tomakh vol. 1 (Moscow-Leningrad, 1964) 608.

  18. Karamzin 620. As Nancy Kipnis Miller demonstrates, the 18th-century literary (gender) ideology “codes femininity in paradigms of sexual vulnerability.” Nancy K. Miller, The Heroine's Text. Readings in the French and English Novel, 1722-82 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980) xi.

  19. On the development of the physiological sketch in Russia, see A. G. Tseitlin, Stanovlenie realizma v russkoi literature (Russkii fiziologicheskii ocherk) (Moscow, 1965) and Iu. V. Mann, “Filosofiia i poètika ‘natural'noi shkoly,’” in Problemy tipologii russkogo realizma, eds. N. L. Stepanov and U. R. Fokht (Moscow, 1969).

  20. This note, however, is soon cancelled, to a certain extent, in the description of her first sighting of Germann: she “accidentally glanced” at the street; she was not “used to flirting with the officers passing by” (6:329).

  21. Miller x.

  22. Debreczeny 217.

  23. Debreczeny 217, Shaw 124.

  24. Debreczeny, for example, notes that “Although the narrator bursts into a pathetic tirade about the plight of the poor demoiselles de compagnie in the middle of Chapter Two, he soon descends to a level of realism, explaining that ‘she was proud; …’” (Debrezceny 217).

  25. “The marriage plot most novels depend on is about finding validation of one's uniqueness and importance by being singled out among all other women by a man. … Her quest is to be recognized in all her significance, to have her worth made real by being approved. When, at the end, this is done, she is transformed: … she is a bride, the very image of a heroine. … To want to become a heroine, to have a sense of the possibility of being one, is to develop the beginnings of what feminists call a ‘raised’ consciousness: it liberates a woman from feeling (and therefore perhaps from being) a victim or dependent or a drudge, someone of no account.” Rachel M. Brownstein, Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels (New York: Viking, 1982) xv, xix.

  26. This is the view Shaw takes: “Her efforts to free herself are a compound of ignorance and desperate desire for a man who will give her independence.” Shaw 124.

  27. Her image of Germann was “rather like” (6:344) Tomskii's characterization of him: “He has the profile of Napoleon and the soul of Mephistopheles. I think he has at least three crimes on his conscience” (6:343).

  28. Pushkin's epigraph (from Malfilâtre) to Chapter Three of Eugene Onegin.

  29. According to Elizabeth Shepard, the society tale, as a genre, “inclines … to a demonstration of high society's power either to destroy the individual's happiness (or chance of happiness) or to reduce him or her to its own level.” Elizabeth C. Shepard, “The Society Tale and the Innovative Argument in Russian Prose Fiction of the 1830s, Russian Literature 10 (1981): 131. Iurii Mann demonstrates that the idea of the power of society (“the age”) to destroy the individual's idealism informs the motif of “transformation,” one of the primary structural motifs in the works of the “Natural School.” Mann, “Filosofiia i poètika” 251-57.

  30. F. M. Dostoevskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh, vol. 6 (Leningrad, 1972-90) 221. Svidrigailov's words seem to spring directly from Dostoevsky's own impressions from The Queen of Spades. (Cf. Dostoevsky's famous remarks in the letter to Iu. F. Abaza of 15 June 1880, where he calls Pushkin's story an exemplar of the “fantastic art” [Dostoevskii, vol. 30(1):192]). In fact, the conversation that precedes Svidrigailov's statement echoes several of Pushkin's motifs: Svidrigailov's late wife Marfa Petrovna (who plays the role of a jealous benefactress vis-à-vis Dunia Raskolnikov) appears to him three times; they had been married for seven years; when she visits him she speaks about “the most insignificant trifles”—just like the “late Baronness” who allegedly visits Swedenborg in the epigraph to chapter V; during her second visit, Marfa Petrovna has a pack of cards in her hands and offers to tell Svidrigailov's fortunes; during her third appearance, they talk about his matrimonial plans. Al'tman discusses some of these and other parallels and correctly concludes that the fact that Svidrigailov experiences Germann's “vision” confirms both Svidrigailov's function as Raskolnikov's “double” and Raskolnikov's origins in Germann. Al'tman does not, however, point out that the whole Germann-Countess-Lizaveta triangle is reduplicated as both Raskolnikov-Pawnbroker-Lizaveta/Sonia and, on another level, Svidrigailov-Marfa Petrovna-Dunia, proving even further Dostoevsky's great fascination with Pushkin's novella—and not just with its hero but with all its aspects. Notice that in neither case does Dostoevsky read Liza as a calculating pragmatist. For other examples of Dostoevsky's use of The Queen of Spades see Altman, A. L. Bem, “Pikovaia dama v tvorchestve Dostoevskogo,” in O Dostoevskom, vol. 3 U istokov tvorchestva Dostoevskogo (Prague: Petropolis, 1929-1936 [Reprint ed., Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1963]) and Grenier (ch. 5)

* I would like to thank Olga Meerson and Marcia A. Morris for carefully reading the penultimate version of this article and offering many helpful comments and suggestions.

Gary Rosenshield (essay date spring 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12568

SOURCE: Rosenshield, Gary. “Freud, Lacan, and Romantic Psychoanalysis: Three Psychoanalytic Approaches to Madness in Pushkin's The Queen of Spades.Slavic and East European Journal 4, no. 1 (spring 1996): 1-26.

[In the following essay, Rosenshield provides a psychoanalytical perspective on The Queen of Spades, focusing on the nature and significance of the protagonist's madness.]


Scholars and critics have offered more ingenious and diverse interpretations of The Queen of Spades than of any other work in Russian literature of the nineteenth century. But they have curiously paid relatively little attention to the nature and significance of the hero's madness—certainly the most dramatic event in the tale.1 This critical lacuna is understandable: in contrast to the heroes of King Lear or Dostoevskii's The Double, Germann, the hero of The Queen of Spades, goes clinically mad only at the very end of the story, in the brief epilogue. That is, until the epilogue, Germann, just like his direct descendent, Raskol'nikov, must take responsibility for all his actions. But if The Queen of Spades does not tell a tale about full-blown madness, it certainly tells a tale about going mad, a theme of far greater interest and critical import than clinical insanity, and one furthermore which, in contrast to clinical insanity, Pushkin sets in motion on the first page.

I have chosen a psychoanalytical approach because it offers perhaps the best means of unraveling the dynamics and meaning of Germann's madness in The Queen of Spades. Since different psychoanalytical models of personality diverge dramatically in their understanding of the role of the ego in mental health and disorder, they will lead, in literature as in life, to different interpretations and evaluative assessments of madness. But assuming, paraphrasing Dostoevskii,2 that even seemingly contradictory psychoanalytical interpretations need not cancel each other out and may even shed equal, but different, light on the same phenomenon, I have utilized and adapted Freudian, romantic, and Lacanian personality models in the hope of illuminating some of the most problematic sections of the story. I first analyze Germann's madness using a traditional Freudian personality model based on American ego-psychology. I hope to show that this model accounts, more satisfactorily than previous interpretations, for Germann's rapid transition from remarkable self-control to ultimate risk and finally insanity. I then turn to a contrasting, ego-devalorized model of personality based on Lacan's mirror-stage, a model which illuminates Germann's ego-ideal (the construct of the superego) and his preoccupation with the ace of spades, the tuz. Lacan's devaluation of the ego-ideal does not, however, open the door to a romantic validation of untrammeled desire and an embracing of Germann's madness. I show in detail how such an embracing of madness (the queen), though quite consistent with Romantic psychoanalysis (that of Deleuze and Guitari or Laing, for example), is almost as antithetical to a Lacanian “ideal,” because of its rejection of the Symbolic Order, as Germann's obsession with the ego-ideal (the ace). In the last section, I deal with the relation between Germann and his creator (the implied and historical author) in an attempt to understand more fully Germann's place in the Symbolic Order. Is Germann, whom Dostoevskii without irony called “a colossal figure,” condemned irrevocably to the ultimate Lacanian punishment of linguistic idiocy or does he “escape” his creator's prison?3

I intend the following psychoanalytic interpretations not to be strictly Freudian or Lacanian, but rather theories of personality suggested by Freudian, Romantic, and Lacanian models of the ego and the unconscious in their widest senses, and adapted as interpretative strategies for understanding literary texts. These models, being both prescriptive and descriptive, not only describe the role the ego and unconscious play in the life of civilized men and women, but also suggest the role they should play.4 Further, I am not presenting Freud and Lacan as psychoanalytical antitheses. Lacan understood his own work not as a replacement but as a recovery, a rediscovery, of Freud, a means of exposing the misunderstanding and distortions of the ego-psychologists, Freud's, mostly American, followers and “heirs.” Lacan capsulizes his own approach in his interpretation of Freud's famous statement on the ego and the id in his New Introductory Lectures (wo es war, soll Ich werden) not as an authoritative pronouncement, but as a metaphor inviting multiple interpretations, one of which informs the interpretations offered here. At times I take the same liberty with Lacan as Lacan takes with Freud, stretching his model, in places, to accommodate Pushkin's text.5 I have not taken liberty with Pushkin's texts by applying psychoanalytical methods, for the interpretations I propose here do not violate the spirit of Pushkin's story, nor do they exceed in extravagance or fancy the numerous numerological, masonic, and cabalistic interpretations that the story has generated for over 160 years.6


In the last decades of his life, Freud worked continually on a tripartite model of personality centered around the ego and its attempt to mediate between the instinctual drives emanating from the id and the internalized constraints on those drives imposed by the superego. Freud never meant these concepts to be understood as static, reified entities but rather as dynamic functions and relationships; and he himself continued to rework and refine them to his death. (I use these concepts in my discussion of Freud, Lacan, and others as a form of metaphoric shorthand, not as reifications of psychological processes.) The followers of Lacan refer to Freud's later psychological theories, somewhat disparagingly as ego-psychology because these theories emphasize the positive role of the ego. For Freud the ego should be the hero of the narrative of personality since the mental health of the individual depends directly on the ego's ability to mediate the opposing demands of its two merciless masters, the superego and the id. The more successfully the ego keeps the unrealistic strictures of the superego and the libidinous demands of the id in check and/or satisfied, the more energy, the more psychic space, it can appropriate from the id for its own realistic, rational purposes—for the personality, for the self. Progress in the personality is essentially marked by the increase in the domain of the ego at the expense of the id and superego. At the end of the third of his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud writes:

Nevertheless it may be admitted that the therapeutic efforts of psycho-analysis have chosen a similar line of approach. Its intention is, indeed, to strengthen the ego, to make it more independent of the super-ego, to widen its field of perception and enlarge its organization, so that it can appropriate fresh portions of the id. Where id was, there ego shall be (“wo es war, soll Ich werden”). It is a work of culture—not unlike the draining of the Zuider Zee.


Thus in ego-psychology, madness represents the direst of all imaginable fates for Germann, for it signifies the death-in-life of the mind and thus, the self. Germann's plot embodies the antithesis of Freud's wish for a stronger, more independent, and enlarged ego, since throughout the story his ego undergoes a progressive deterioration, ending in complete failure. At the beginning, Germann's concern for his patrimony (his inheritance in all its senses, from his father) and his desire for gambling (even for its own sake) coexist in a state of tense and fragile equilibrium. Germann greatly values his ego-ideal (that is, the ideal of the superego) of position, wealth, and progeny, but he takes little joy in it, for it demands prudence, moderation, and hard work (raschet, umerennost', and trudoliubie), those three reliable cards of the superego, which represent values that Freud describes as essential to civilization but also responsible for its discontents (Civilization 39-41). As E. M. Forster writes in Howard's End: “those who prepare for all the emergencies of life beforehand may equip themselves at the expense of joy.” These values represent the distortions of desire; they are desired because they are desired by others.

However, the demands of the id rival those of the superego. Germann is not, as many have argued, interested in cards solely as a way of increasing his fortune without risk (Emerson 45; Boucher 12). As the narrator says, Germann is “a gambler at heart” (v dushe igrok, 8:235); gambling constitutes the very core of his desire, of his irrational self. Is it really imperative, in following in one's father's footsteps, to increase one's patrimony three and seven times? When Germann says that he is not in a position to sacrifice what is necessary to obtain the superfluous, he means that his father's idea (perhaps the German idea in contrast to the Russian one) requires only the preservation of (and addition to) the family fortune, not its geometric increase. Thus Germann's dream of sudden immense fortune represents less a desire to preserve and add to his father's patrimony than a displacement of his desire to gamble. It is often argued that Germann derives the three magic cards from his desire to increase his capital, as he says, threefold, sevenfold (Vinogradov, Slonimskii 175-176), and to become independent, a tuz (an ace).7 But in fact it is the desire to gamble that transforms the various combinations in faro into a plan for self-aggrandizement—the cards become merely the signifiers of Germann's libidinous desire, not a means to fortune.8

Since Germann is really more passionate (Dostoevskii would call him a “colossal figure”) than cool and calculating, he seems bound, sooner or later, to take matters to their extreme conclusions.9 On one hand, Germann's passion for gambling clashes with the superego's demand for raschet, umerennost', and trudoliubie. On the other hand, the superego, always ready to exact punishment, in guilt, for the ego's concessions to libidinal satisfaction, for even courting desire, will not easily countenance giving in to passion. For the superego, according to Freud, does not distinguish between desire and satisfaction—that is, thoughts and deeds: “The distinction … between doing something bad and wishing to do it disappears entirely, since nothing can be hidden from the superego, not even thoughts” (Civilization 72).

Germann has long haunted the gaming tables. He would sit whole nights, following with feverish excitement the various changes in the course of play. He also openly admits that gambling fascinates him (igra zanimaet menia sil'no, 8:227). Soon after he hears Tomskii's tales about his grandmother's success at cards, all the libidinal forces that have been held in check by the ego seek expression in the desire to gamble, not so much for the sake of fortune, but for the sake of gambling itself; that is, for the sake of risk, chance, and danger. He needs to exchange the three sure cards of the superego, no matter what the sacrifice, for those magic cards that will attain for him “the superfluous”: the greatest desire of the id. Horrified at the possible abandonment of the ego-ideal, the superego marshals its forces, resorting to its own three cards of prudence, moderation, and hard work. But neither “side” can gain complete ascendancy, for gambling is unacceptable to the superego and a life of continued moderation is no longer acceptable to the id.

Previously, the ego had been able to hold these contending passions in check, in effect, to negotiate a compromise. Before hearing the story (skazka) at the Narumovs', Germann has done well in society, working his way through the military ranks. After he hears the story, however, the old compromises and restraints no longer work. Germann disguises his passion for gambling as a higher form of prudence: that is, as a way of fulfilling his obligation of adding to his patrimony and establishing his own line, “the paternal order of genealogy,” as Kristeva describes it (152). Although a paradox, it seems like an ideal compromise—a scheme of gambling without risk. We can see the imaginative shape of the compromise in the account of the countess's visit to Germann. Ostensibly, the countess comes to Germann to give him the secret cards, assuring him of victory (the desire of the id). But it is a victory with strictures: he is not to forget his goal of settling down and starting a family; he must marry the countess's ward, Liza; he must not forget the legacy of his father; he must never gamble again (the demands of the superego).

This attempt simultaneously to placate both the id and superego, to realize the paradox, is doomed to failure. Germann's ego is not weak; it is simply unable, after his imagination has been inflamed, to contend with the increasingly powerful and uncompromising demands of both id and superego. Since there can be no rational, “ego-engendered,” solution to Germann's situation, no resolution of the conflict between the superego and the id, the ego increasingly leaves the field to its irreconcilable and more powerful masters.

This struggle within Germann reaches its terrible conclusion at the gambling tables, where only play can decide the issue. On the last day, the day of the third card, Germann, to be sure, is veering on the edge of madness; however, he is still sane. He is still sane for he has not yet really gambled; he cannot know that he has really risked anything, since his first two cards have won as predicted; they have proved reliable. But the makeshift compromise of the ego is now rejected in favor of libidinal desire. Germann now must really play, gamble, risk. He must show himself that he has not been given three sure cards, for those three cards are nothing but the formula of calculation, the absence of risk, the ego-ideal. He must now lose in order to win; he must lose to prove that he has really played. He must choose the wrong card, which is the right card. He must choose the queen (desire) and not the ace (the ideal of the father).10 But the loss of everything, of his entire patrimony, brings upon Germann the punishment of the father—the embodiment of the superego—whose prescriptions he flagrantly violated in pursuit of forbidden libidinal desires, the personification of which is the queen of spades, the queen mother, the ultimate object of forbidden desire, transformed, in the story, by the superego into a temptress, witch, and destroyer. The symbolically realized desire for the mother must always entail the loss of patrimony, for patrimony is the prime compensation of the child for renouncing the rights to the mother.11 Thus, we see that Germann never really had a choice at all; the ace and the queen, each in its own way, are both the wrong card—each leads to a life completely unacceptable to the other. The final scene merely works out the fate, the madness, latent in Germann's character from the very beginning, from the moment when he first heard the tale of the three cards.

The ego's compromise of gambling without gambling is destroyed on contact with the real world. In contrast to the draining of Zuider Zee, Freud's metaphor for the aggrandizement of the ego at the expense of the superego and the id, in The Queen of Spades we have a bursting of the dikes; the power of the ego is nullified. In the end, neither desire nor civilization survives. The personality suffers a complete disintegration, Germann goes hopelessly insane.


Whereas the Freudian model suggests an unfortunate, perhaps even tragic Germann, the “victim” of powerful forces he cannot control, it does not cast the desires of the id or the constraints of the superego as villains. Had the ego proven stronger or the demands of the id and superego weaker, a viable, though not necessarily happy, compromise could have emerged. The Lacanian model adopts a pejorative attitude toward the whole process of mediation and stasis that is the hallmark of ego-psychology. It does not see at all the failure of the ego as central to Germann's dismal fate.

The Lacanian view of personality, despite its Freudian base, differs radically from the late Freudian model both in its conception and evaluation of the ego and its role in adult life. For Lacan, the ego does not represent the ideal, the real self, the part of the personality whose control over, and growth at the expense of, the unconscious constitutes the sine qua non of healthy adult psychological development.12 Rather it is one of the earliest aspects of the personality to be formed, occurring in the prelinguistic, pre-oedipal stage of human development (the imaginary stage), and it remains for the entire life of a person an obstacle to overcome, almost a prison from which one must seek liberation. Lacan describes the ego as an alienating identity and repeatedly ascribes to it, in varying degrees, paranoia, narcissism, aggression, and méconnaissance (“false knowledge”). The ego evolves in what Lacan calls the mirror (or imaginary) stage, when the child first sees himself in the mirror—his mirror image—and gains a false, idealized image of himself, as a whole, unified, integral self. The ego's quest of wholeness, autonomy, and mastery of its environment involves a futile exercise reflecting the most superficial ends of the personality. Worse still, it stands in the way of the truth of the unconscious.

For Lacan, the ego always misreads the truth that comes from the unconscious, for the truth of the unconscious can be glimpsed only through its metaphoric condensations and metonymic displacements when the individual enters the Symbolic Order, which is based on, and mediated by, language. Only by entering the Symbolic Order can the individual overcome the demands of the ego for unity, wholeness, and fixity and open himself up to the linguistically mediated manifestations of the unconscious. The mature subject has access to the repressed because the mature subject lives in the world of language (the Symbolic); whereas the ego—which derives from a presymbolic, pre-oedipal phase of development, in which identity (the mirror), not difference (the Symbolic) is the dominant—struggles against the very notion of a shifting, indeterminate, and linguistically mediated truth.

Ego-psychology equates the collapse of Germann's ego with spiritual and mental death. For Lacanian psychology, on the other hand, Germann's main problem rests in the ego itself: Germann resembles an adult arrested in the mirror stage of development. He has devoted his whole life before the skazka to a rational, closed, infallible plan of existence. Unwilling to sacrifice the necessary for the superfluous, he seems to desire most of all “peace and independence” (pokoi i nezavisimost', 8:235) the false ego-ideal of stasis, wholeness, autonomy, and mastery of the future. At the beginning of the story he has resisted all temptation to diverge from his plan; in fact, he must steel himself against the promptings of the unconscious, and the responsibilities of a subject, precisely because he senses that he is a gambler at heart.

Germann's rational side, however, is not merely a manifestation of a strong paternal superego, for his “patrimony” is not the Father (the Law of the Father of the Symbolic Order), but a mirror image of his materialistic ego-ideal. Germann does not pass precipitately from a small fortune and sanity to ruin and madness, for, from a Lacanian point of view, he has reached the nadir of his psychological “fortune” at the very beginning, as he controls the forces raging within, as he continues to stand by, refusing to take part in the life that seethes around him. As we have seen, Germann is already on the make; he has a position in the Engineers, and, given the experience of those of German origin in the tsarist state and military bureaucracies, he seems destined to eventual prestige and an even larger fortune. He has preserved his patrimony intact and will be soon adding to it, just, as we must presume, his father did before him.

However, once Germann hears about the countess's secret of the three cards, his commitment to his ego-ideal becomes overwhelming, enlisting both his passion and fantasy. Germann's dreams, in which the unconscious, in its various disguises, should most reveal itself, do not seem to reflect unconscious content or conflict at all; they contain no ingenious displacements and compensations that point to a truth that can transform his life. For example, immediately after hearing the countess's story, Germann spends a restless night thinking of nothing but the three cards. “The anecdote about the three cards had a powerful effect on his imagination; all night he could not stop thinking about it” (Anekdot o trekh kartakh sil'no podeistvoval na ego voobrazhenie, i tseluiu noch' ne vykhodil iz ego golovy, 8:235). The content of his dreams is almost identical to his conscious thoughts and therefore requires little interpretation.

He returned late to his humble lodging, but he could not sleep for a long time; and when at last sleep overcame him, he dreamed of cards, a green table, piles of banknotes and heaps of gold coins. He played card after card, decisively turning down the corners of his cards, and he won continually, raking in the gold and putting the notes into his pocket. After waking up quite late, he sighed over the loss of his fantastic wealth.


The same transparent wish fulfillment reveals itself in many of Germann's other daydreams, hallucinations, and nightmares. The above dream is repeated in a more dramatic form in the fifth chapter. Here Germann again returns from the countess, this time from the dead countess, who has, he imagines, just winked at him from her coffin. He throws himself on his bed fully clothed and falls into a deep sleep. The Countess then visits him from beyond the grave, revealing her secret to him and stipulating perfectly acceptable conditions. He must play on three successive days: the bank probably does not have enough money to cover three successive wins in one day. He must not play ever again in his life: why should he play again once he has attained his fortune? He must marry Liza: if he is going to be a wealthy man he will need a wife, and Liza is extremely pretty, charming, and undemanding.

When Germann wakes up the following day to play his first card, he is obsessed with the names of the cards he has learned from the countess. The narrator's description of Germann's thoughts and dreams show clearly Germann's incipient schizophrenia and again the lack of a significant distinction between Germann's conscious thoughts and his dreams.

Three, seven, ace began to eclipse in Germann's imagination the image of the dead old woman. Three, seven, ace didn't leave him for a moment and played continually on his lips. If he saw a young girl, he would say: “How slender she is! A real trey of hearts.” If anyone asked him the time, he would answer: “Five minutes to the seven.” Every pot-bellied man he saw reminded him of the ace. Three, seven, ace haunted him in his sleep, assuming all possible forms.


The merging of Germann's waking and dream life, indicating the erasure in Germann's mind between himself and the real world, of course prefigures final schizophrenic breakdown. But even more important, again we see that, as the narrator says, “All his thoughts fused into one: to make use of the secret which had cost him so dearly” (8:249). The three cards of Germann's obsession do not seem to harbor any special unconscious code: they are merely the cards that Germann must choose to attain his ego-ideal of peace and independence—that is, identification—characteristic of the mirror stage. “He thought of retirement and of traveling. He wanted to compel fortune to yield up her treasure to him in the public gambling houses of Paris” (8:249).

Pushkin sets up the card game at the end in such fashion as to present the possibility of Germann's achieving his ego-ideal: an achievement of absolute mirror identity. Germann will become exactly what he dreamed of becoming. Further, on three successive days he will exactly match his three winning cards. On the last day he will achieve the ultimate identity and union with, of course, the ace. But when the opportunity arrives, when the ego-ideal is virtually in his grasp, Germann makes a mistake, he chooses the wrong card. More important, he chooses the wrong card unconsciously. For the first time in the story, the conscious and unconscious content of Germann's mind fail to coincide; in fact, they radically diverge. At long last, the unconscious reveals itself in all its power and truth—in difference; it reveals to him, and to us, the illusory nature of the dream of independence, peace, and unity, the insufficiency of the ego-ideal. At the moment of what seems to be the achievement of ultimate unity, the story seems to declare itself for ultimate separation, disunity, and disruption; the unconscious has spoken. The story speaks the truth of the unconscious, at last. It seems to end on a note of the highest possible truth.

For Freud the draining of Zuider Zee was at best a hope, for he was essentially pessimistic about human happiness and survival. The cultural institutions essential for preserving the human race also prevented the satisfaction of elemental sexual and aggressive desires: happiness. Germann's madness suggests the fate potentially lurking for all of us just beyond the juggling act of the ego. For Lacan, whose psychology seems at times a never-ending attempt to deconstruct the metaphor of Freud's Zuider Zee, the psychological forces are, as we have seen, differently distributed: the ego, rather than being man's greatest hope, is at best an obstacle to truth. Lacan interprets Freud's, “Wo es war, soll Ich werden,” not as “the ego must dislodge the id” (Lacan, Four 44) but rather that the ego must be at home where the id (or rather the true subject, “the unconscious … itself” was [Lacan, Écrits 314]): that is, “in the field of the dream” where the voice of the gods is heard, where the subject “must come into existence” (Lacan, Four 45). I must be somewhere other than where I am now.13 From a Lacanian point of view, madness in The Queen of Spades seems not so much the paradigmatic failure of a great Freudian compromise, but the price we sometimes must pay for the existential experience of truth.

But does this Lacanian interpretation of Germann's mistake really valorize Germann's madness? Does it even mean that he has chosen the right card? To answer this question we need to see Lacan's view of desire against the background of romantic psychoanalysis, which takes the valorization of madness to its extreme conclusion.


In an earlier article on The Queen of Spades (“Choosing the Right Card”), arguing for a more romantic interpretation of the story, I concluded that Germann's choice of the queen was disastrous both morally and spiritually, but it was nevertheless the right choice. The queen was an unconscious decision taken against the shallow ideal of bourgeois comfort and security or, in Lacanian terms, against the mirror stage ideal of autonomy, stasis, and identity. Yet a Lacanian interpretation, however much it privileges the unconscious over the ego, cannot take the romantic jump from ace to queen that some of the more romantic or revolutionary psychoanalytic writers (Laing, Deleuze, Guitarri) might suggest or even advocate.

From a more romantic point of view, the real Germann seeks not security and autonomy, the most superficial side of his self, but adventure and risk. The real Germann, unbeknownst to himself, has taken a journey to the other side in exploration of his true being, the being associated with unconscious desire.14 Whereas at the beginning of the story Germann's passionate nature and the desire of the unconscious are effectively repressed—Germann having not once deviated from his ideal of prudence, moderation, and hard work—at the end, the irrational and the unconscious take over almost completely. There are traces of the old ego-ideal: stout men remind him naturally of aces, but he also sees them transformed into spiders, a displacement that reveals his unconscious revulsion toward his former ego-ideal, an ideal which had caught him and imprisoned him in its fatal web, sucking the life juices from him. As has been previously noted (Rosen 260-270), sexual imagery abounds: young girls turn into threes and threes into flowers; sevens become Gothic portals. Germann seems less a man who possesses the secret of the three cards than a gambler possessed by one great desire: to play, nothing more. Whether he wins or not must now be irrelevant. Dostoevskii saw the very same thing in Raskol'nikov, who really planned a robbery to commit a murder, not a murder to commit a robbery. Germann must test whether he can dare to place everything on a card, to find out not whether he is a man or a mouse, as Raskol'nikov conceived of his deed, but whether he is a creature of imitation and identification, an automaton in the mold of his father, or whether he is a man, a creature of desire for the sake of desire, who can stake his whole existence on a game of pure chance.

Pushkin presents the last three days of Germann's sanity with the utmost concision. We learn little about Germann's state on the first two days. We know that after the first day of play Germann drank a glass of lemonade and went home. There is nothing more to tell for everything rests on the third day. The Queen of Spades begins with Germann silently watching others play; now he silently plays himself. The skazka has become a reality—for him. The irrational has taken up residence in the light of day.

The playing of the three cards on successive days seems at first curious (Rosen 257-258). But perhaps Pushkin is giving Germann time to experience for a few short days the life of desire: on the second day to experience the repetition, which in psychoanalytic theory is essential for the validation of experience, and to peak, of his own volition, only on the last day. Life happens in the gaps, the breaks, the ruptures, not in the everyday. “Life can happen to us only in an instant, like a flash of lightning, and only on condition that we be open to it and move toward it” (Cixous 112). Ordinary life has been sacrificed for life lived on an entirely different plane, in which the self is in direct contact with its essence, its unconscious desire. To be sure, the rebellion against the father (Germann's father) and the mother (the countess) cannot long go unpunished. Germann inflicts the punishment, as we have seen, on himself. But it is, in a way, a triumphant destruction, a destruction that he unconsciously brings down upon himself, for in the end only by losing could he have really played, risked the necessary in order to obtain the superfluous. For as Cixous says, “risk is the other word for life … We can say that being is without shelter (sans abri), without protection, but salvation is precisely in risk” (113).

The story presents Germann's madness, his pathetic reduction to a body without a mind, not as an incontestable mark of perdition and damnation, but as a sort of triumph in disaster. Given his ego-ideal at the beginning of the story, Germann progresses from a blind, illusory sanity to a few moments, if not a few days, of truth in madness, in mad abandonment, in the sacrifice of “the necessary” for the “superfluous,” that is, in fact, the “sacrifice” of the superfluous for the necessary. Germann's madness is the price he has to pay to find himself. It is, at least, a human being who goes mad. Madness, for Germann, for a man imprisoned by a repressive ego-ideal, marks the end of the path to liberation and a higher form of sanity. Germann's madness not only culminates the process that began after he heard Tomskii's skazka, it also validates that process.

Germann's madness, to be sure, lacks the traditional heroic stature. He fails to achieve that insight, compassion, and wisdom sometimes vouchsafed to the mad tragic hero, like Lear, or to the mad artist, genius, or religious seer, like Dostoevskii's Prince Myshkin. He treats Liza unconscionably. But romantically conceived, The Queen of Spades presents not so much a tale about man in his relation to the social world as a tale about the perdition and salvation of the individual soul in terms of the individual's relation to himself.

The price of the truth for Germann was, and perhaps could not have been anything other than, insanity. R. D. Laing, who sees the journey to the other side as essential to all spiritual rebirth, concedes that “not everyone comes back us to again” (138). Yet “we have to blast our way through the solid wall, even if at the risk of chaos, madness, and death. For from this side of the wall, this is the risk. There are no assurances, no guarantees” (143). Certainly Germann would not have ranked higher had he achieved his ideal of security and autonomy, the “negative” ideal of Kalinovich and Chichikov, an estate of a thousand souls.15 Was not his embracing—at last—of the irrational a victory of the individual, of the personality in its attempt to overcome the stultifying imprisonment of the ego-ideal?

Achilles was given the choice of an undistinguished long life or a short illustrious one. He chose glory over old age. Perhaps what he really chose was a life lived at a fever pitch over one of uneventful security. Soon after Germann heard the story of the three cards he chose the madness of the irrational over the sanity of the ego-ideal. For a few weeks he lived at an intensity that he had never even dreamed of, such was the force of his repressive ego-ideal. He burnt out quickly, but for the first time in his life he did not calculate, but lived. On this day, more than ever before, it is no longer possible for Germann to win at cards, that is, to attain his father's desire, to gain “a thousand souls,” and not at the same time completely to lose his own soul: to cut himself off even more completely from himself and the truth of desire—from life, from his sense of being alive. “Far from having lost who knows what contact with life, the schizophrenic is closest to the beating heart of reality, to an intense point identical with the production of the real” (Deleuze 87). Seen from this point of view, Germann's fate in The Queen of Spades embodies the essence of literary and psychoanalytical romanticism.16


But no Lacanian interpretation can really countenance a victory, if it is characterized by the hero's retreat into an autistic shell, muttering incessantly nothing but “Three, seven, ace. Three seven, queen,” the ultimate linguistic reduction: the nullification of semantic difference. Might not the choice of the queen be almost as flawed a choice as the ace? In fact, from a Lacanian perspective, may the queen, just like the ace—until the unconscious breakthrough at the very end—correspond not to the highest truth, the truth of unconscious desire, but to a form of imaginary desire, a “lower” form of desire associated, like Germann's desire for fortune and stasis, primarily with the ego?17 Although the desire associated with the queen exists in opposition to, even in conflict with, the desire associated with the ace, it, too, is a form of imaginary desire.

The traces of imaginary desire associated with the queen can be inferred, however, not from Germann's dreams—which, as we have seen, offer little material for deciphering—but from Tomskii's skazka. All readers, like Germann, have assumed that when Germann heard Tomsky's tale he became obsessed with the desire to make his fortune without risk, simply by learning the countess's secret. It seems perfectly consistent, albeit irrational, that a superstitious man, obsessed with fortune, would pursue a secret bound to make him fabulously rich without risk. This is only one of the vectors (plots) of imaginary desire—the achievement of Germann's ego-ideal, the replication of his father's identity. There is another very different plot of imaginary desire associated with Saint Germain, the hero of the countess's tale about pleasure, not fortune.

The secret of this other desire resides not in the cards themselves—they are, despite Germann's wishes, signifiers not signifieds—but in the relationships they call into play in Tomskii's tale. Germann secretly yearns not for a specific person, but for an entire age called up by the tale. In the present age, the ego-ideal has displaced pleasure; everyone is seeking, in one way or another, his fortune.18 The epilogue shows the heroine, the declassé, once dependent Liza and the high-society aristocrat Tomskii seeking their fortunes no less deviously and assiduously than Germann. They, in fact, turn out to be the real “Germanns” in the story. In Russian society of the 1830s marriage was increasingly becoming a financial transaction. Tomskii's tale takes Germann back to what seems to him (we are obviously not speaking of facts) an age when desire reigned supreme, a completely frivolous time, preoccupied with gambling, magic, and love, an age whose dominant figures know nothing of prudence, moderation, and hard work. The countess, la Vénus moscovite, plays without any regard for her losses, and her secret friend Saint Germain can solve her monetary problems without recourse to anything so prosaic as a loan. With no money at all, she presents herself at the gambling salon to bet on three cards in succession and “wins back everything” (8:229). She does not win a fortune—for what purpose?—only enough to repay her debt and return, unimpeded, to her frivolous life in the French capital: that is, to a life of pleasure.

For Germann, the young countess is not so much a particular beauty but the other, the object of desire itself. “You should know that about sixty years ago my grandmother used to travel to Paris, where she created a sensation. People would run after her, just to catch a glimpse of la Vénus moscovite. Richelieu paid court to her, and grandmother insists that he almost shot himself from her cruelty” (8:228). Thus, not even Richelieu was able to attain her! Pushkin devotes a great deal of time to the description, through Germann's eyes, of the countess's bedroom/boudoir. It is certainly faded, just as the countess, but it also has definite reminders of the age which catered to the frivolous desires of fashionable women. “In all the corners, he could see porcelain shepherdesses, table clocks made by the famed Leroy, little boxes, roulettes, fans and playthings for ladies, invented at the end of the last century together with Mongolfier's balloon and Mesmer's magnetism” (8:240). Just as Germann stood transfixed before the countess's house, he now seems “mesmerized” by the playthings associated with the countess's youth—an attachment to partial objects characteristic of all fetishists.

But Germann is equally, if not more attracted, to his namesake, but antithesis, the “remarkable” Saint Germain, the Lacanian object of the (m)other's desire. The identity of the real Saint Germain is irrelevant; the only important Saint Germain is the one who speaks to Germann. Tomskii says “You've heard of Count Saint Germain, about whom they tell so many marvelous stories. You know he passed himself off as the Wandering Jew, the inventor of the elixir of life and of the philosopher's stone, and so forth. He was laughed at as a charlatan, and Casanova in his memoirs says that he was a spy; however, Saint Germain, despite his mysteriousness, was a man of very respectable appearance, who knew how to behave in society” (8:228).

Tomskii's tale is hardly credible, he even seems purposely to tell the tale in a way that undermines it.19 But for Germann, the figures of the tale are as real as the secret that the countess supposedly possesses. Saint Germain belongs to that society of desire; he has a respectable appearance and knows how to behave in society; on the other hand, he is not bound by and to it, he is not identical with it. Affable, presentable, carefree, eccentric, generous, accommodating, he is a man who can easily say that for the resolution of life's problems “money is not necessary” (229). To Germann, he stands on the outside, as spy, necromancer, Wandering Jew, and alchemist, a seeker after life's greatest secrets; he is someone who has had access to the countess, the epitome of desire for an age obsessed with desire; he is the father who has enjoyed the desire (jouissance) forbidden to the child. As Lacan says: “Nowhere does it appear more clearly that man's desire finds its meaning in the desire of the other, not so much because the other holds the key to the object desired, as because the first object [goal, GR] of desire is to be recognized by the other” (58). In other words, Germann seeks the countess because he wishes to be recognized, acknowledged by Saint Germain—as his son?—who as other defines his being, his position as a subject.

If Germann seeks only the secret of the cards, the countess must be seen, like Liza, as a means to an end. But if the skazka opens up the more passionate, imaginative, irrational sides of Germann, it must open him up far more to the pursuit of desire, however imaginary, than to the pursuit of the prosaic ideal of comfort and independence.20 Germann, thus, seeks out the countess less to learn the secret of the three cards than to confront the countess—not the countess herself, but the countess that has come in his mind to represent an age of desire, a world, moreover, that exists locked up within his own psyche.21 From this point of view, Germann needs the cards to get to the countess, not the countess to get to the cards. The need to learn the secret is a pretext for other ends.

When we first meet Germann after Tomskii tells the tale, Germann is already obsessed by the tale and the possibility of fabulous fortune. He is already thinking of persuading the countess to reveal her secret to him. Dismissing the absurdity of the tale and idea, Germann says to himself: “Can one really believe it? No! Prudence, moderation, and hard work; these are my three reliable cards. They are what will increase my capital threefold and sevenfold, and bring me peace and independence.” Since, as Shaw has pointed out, one of the meanings of ace (tuz) in Russian is a wealthy man of comfort and independence, the three cards three/seven/ace are given to Germann from the very beginning. Or rather while dismissing the tale as unsubstantiated nonsense, Germann invents (imagines) the three cards for himself. No sooner does he invent the cards—that is, in the very next sentence—than he finds himself in front of the countess's house. The cards lead to the countess, not the other way round.

Pondering these matters, he suddenly found himself on one of the main streets of Petersburg, in front of a house of old-fashioned architecture …

“Whose house is this?” he asked a policeman.

“The countess N.'s,” answered the policeman.

Germann began to tremble. The amazing story of the three cards again appeared before his imagination.


The magic of the three cards works; it has led him, without consciously knowing, to his real destination. The narrator writes that Germann began to tremble (zatrepetal). But the Russian verb trepetat' also means to experience a thrill, a palpitation of the heart. Germann experiences a thrill of horror, but even more tellingly, perhaps even a secret thrill of delight (jouissance). His imagination is immediately set aflame again and he begins to circle the countess's house. On returning home, he cannot fall asleep; when he does, he dreams of nothing but gambling. He wakes up and the process begins again—the psychoanalytical repetition-compulsion—again he wanders aimlessly about the city, but he winds up (once more the same Russian verb, ochutilsia is repeated) in front of the countess's house—the first time was obviously no accident.22 He interprets the coincidence as an unknown force drawing him to the house.

To be sure, it is an unknown force, but it is an internal, not an external one. Germann returns to the house—home—precisely to find out what this force is, this force which has existed in him all the time, but only now is claiming its due. Freud describes uncanny experiences like Germann's, including his own, in terms of repetition-compulsion (“The ‘Uncanny,’” 2:389-391). He defines the uncanny (unheimlich) as that which is most intimate (heimisch—because associated with home—but which is repressed). “In this case, too, the unheimlich is what was once heimisch, home-like, familiar; the prefix ‘un’ is a token of repression” (2:399). The repetition compulsion is a sign of an almost demonic unconscious desire, the unconscious repressed striving for expression, or in Lacanian terms, insisting to be heard.

When Germann finally enters her boudoir, he finds, of course, in addition to the accouterments of the eighteenth century, the century of desire, a decrepit old woman, hardly la Vénus moscovite. But there is also something demonic and witchlike about the old woman. She cannot satisfy Germann's desire, but she can assist him in discovering the hidden: the repressed within himself.

After frightening the countess to death, Germann comes to her funeral. He must somehow revive her. He wishes her back. He steps up to the coffin, bends over, and thinks that the countess winks at him. He steps backwards, misses his step, and falls flat on his back. He is mistaken for the countess's “natural son” (pobochnyi syn): that is, the countess is mistaken for his mother, of course, the ultimate object of desire.23 The countess beckons him: that is, he beckons her. In the evening, Germann prepares for the return visit about which she has given a sign. It cannot be to give him the secret of the cards; he already has that. The cards are again a pretext, a rationale for the countess's visit. She tells him what he wants to hear. He must play, he must come to terms with his desire. She says this under the cover, the manifest content, of the secret that will gain him a fortune; but we must remember, from the point of view of pleasure/desire associated with the countess, fortune is nothing but death, his ego-ideal. But the truth of desire, of the unconscious, can only be listened to under the guise of the acceptable. Now Germann is ready for the final confrontation, the agon, between his ego-ideal symbolized by the ace and his desire, symbolized by the countess, the old lady, the witch. Germann makes a terrible “mistake” at the end; but only in terms of the manifest content of the story, for when Germann unconsciously chooses the queen, he is only following his desire to the very end. When he chooses the queen, he calls her back, just as he did in his dream. In the end, he seems to renounce his dream of fortune, his ego-ideal and gives himself up to desire: at last. Now he is wedded to the countess forever.

But can the unconscious choice of the queen really be equated with the truth of the unconscious that Lacan describes in terms of discovery and surprise? Does Germann's choice take to its conclusion what Lacan has said about the truth of the unconscious?

What occurs, what is produced, in this gap, is presented as the discovery. … The discovery is, at the same time, a solution—not necessarily a complete one, but, however incomplete it may be, it has that indefinable something that touches us … namely surprise, that by which the subject is overcome, by which he finds both more and less than he expected—but, in any case, it is, in relation to what he expected, of exceptional value.

(Lacan, Four 25)

To be sure, it is not too difficult to understand why Germann goes insane after sacrificing fortune for desire. He realizes that his mistake has cost him everything—what he once possessed and what he had dreamed of possessing (his ego-ideal). In terms of the superego, he is punished both for abandoning his ego-ideal and for desiring the prohibited. But why must he go insane so autistically? Why must he be condemned to repeat over and over again “Three, seven, ace. Three seven queen,” as though he had not already made the choice and paid the highest price? Why is he reduced to signifiers now bereft of all reference? How can a man who ventured so close to the truth of the unconscious—which is structured like a language—be condemned to repeat the same signifiers now completely bereft of meaning? What happened to the cards in relation to Germann?24

Lacan, to be sure, writes disparagingly about the ego-ideal and presents the idea of madness as essential to human freedom and to our definition as subjects. “Not only can man's being not be understood without madness, it would not be man's being if it did not bear madness within itself as the limit of his freedom” (Lacan, Écrits, 215). He does not, however, promote the madman or schizophrenic as an ideal, as do anti-psychiatrists such as R. D. Laing and material psychiatrists (or schizoanalists) such as Deleuze and Guattari. Germann is neither a schizophrenic of genius nor a traveler to the other side who has hope of coming back with a new truth. In the epilogue, his absence of true speech underlines Germann's complete destruction; he has retreated into another world, the Real Order, cutting the ties of language to which the individual owes his existence as a human subject.25 For Lacan there can be no true existence without the language of the Other, especially not true unconscious life, since the unconscious is related to the desire of the Other, and thus to the language of the Other. From a Lacanian perspective, we cannot see Germann's choice of the queen, though far superior to that of the ace (the ego-ideal, the wish for autonomy and security), as ultimate truth—even for Germann. Either card represents a serious mistake.

Lacan has argued that the difference between the psychotic and neurotic personality can be explained by a defect attributable to what he calls the foreclosure of the paternal metaphor and its substitution, in the imaginary sphere, by a delusional metaphor in which the signifier and signified are stabilized (Écrits, 214). “It is an accident in this register and in what takes place in it, namely, the foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father in the place of the Other, and in the failure of the paternal metaphor, that I designate the defect that gives psychosis its essential condition, and the structure that separates it from neurosis” (Écrits, 215). The human being becomes a subject by taking his/her place in the Symbolic Order, by accepting the symbolic father as author-of-the-Law (Écrits, 199)—Freud's totem that binds the brothers of the clan—and living by its attendant socio-linguistic proscriptions and empowerments. The choice of either card constituted a refusal to enter fully into the Symbolic Order, to accept the Law based on difference and lack.

To understand Germann's refusal to enter into the symbolic by choosing the queen, we need to examine more closely how Germann incorporates the skazka into his life, and how he pursues the countess and Saint Germain, the symbols of pleasure/desire. We have equated Germann's obsession with the ace with his desire for identity and stasis, since the ace signifies the elimination of all difference between demand and need—that is, desire. To be sure, Germann is closer to the truth of the unconscious, and his personality, when he pursues the countess and his alter-ego/antithesis Saint Germain, but his desire for the countess and Saint Germain also represents the desire to retreat to, or bring back, an already dead past. The ego (the ace) aims to freeze the present, not to enter the next stage, the precarious realm of the symbolic; Germann's desire to assume the role of Saint Germain constitutes a desire to live in the past, to reject (foreclose) not only the present but the future as well, for the future emblemizes the domain of the infinitely postponing and deferring signifying chain of the Symbolic Order. The story shows not only the futility of attaining the ego-ideal but of pursuing desire without the mediation of language, outside of the symbolic.

The incredibility of the skazka would seem to undercut Germann's pursuit of desire, but dreams, daydreams, and fairy-tales do not have to be great artistic creations to be psychologically relevant; they need only strike the appropriate chord. Germann can no more become the son of Saint Germain and the illegitimate son of the countess than he can bring back the age of desire which they represent for him. Nor can he displace Saint Germain and gain possession of the countess for himself. The countess makes fun of Germann's attempts to become Saint Germain—the desire of the mother—winking at him both at her funeral and at the final game of faro. Thus while Germann's unconscious efforts to transcend his ego-ideal are presented positively in the story, his desire to possess the mother, to become Saint Germain, represents his desire to foreclose the paternal metaphor. (But Germann finds it no easier to take the place of the father when he is no longer there or possess the mother when she is eighty-seven years old.) For the father is most there, symbolically, as the name-of-the-father, as Law, when he is no longer physically present. To enter into the Symbolic Order, Germann must repress the desire to replace the father and possess the mother, he must forego the desire of the primary process, and live in the mediated world of language and difference, in which the signifier continually slides over the signified. Germann uses language, the names of the cards, to achieve identification and unity, whether it be to achieve, is ego-ideal (the ace) or to become undifferentiated from his desire (the queen). To choose either the ace or the queen must mean to lose, for the cards—the queen and the ace—represent not the Symbolic Order, the end as well as the process of adult life, but solely the means of a reactive and reactionary agenda: wealth and the satisfaction of pleasure/desire. We see this when Germann passes Liza by for fortune and the countess. To love Liza is to accept the law of the father, to renounce the mother, and to enter the Symbolic Order. Germann's punishment in the end is absolutely appropriate. Since the Symbolic Order is characterized by the dominance of language, of desire mediated and defined by language, when Germann loses language he is reduced to mumbling two, now meaningless, phrases, the phrases that brought about his ruin. He becomes a true infant: he who does not speak; and a true idiot, a completely private person.

Indeed, Germann withdraws more and more into himself as the story progresses. At the beginning, he is among company, but even then he stands aside from the play. Everyone gambles except Germann. All the countess's sons were gamblers; only the “natural” son never gambles. When at the end, he finally plays, it is only as one against all. If he wins, he has promised never to play again, completely to withdraw from society. Since in the story, playing/gambling becomes a symbol of life, of the chance and risk that are necessary for human freedom, Germann's promise never to play again constitutes a foreclosure of the paternal metaphor. To play is continually to live in the world of difference, to keep open possibilities, to refuse reduction, to accept that there never can be a perfect coincidence between demand and need, and that there is no coincidence between the ace and fortune and between the queen and desire.


But is there something even more latent in the Lacanian paradigm, relating to Germann's inability to enter the Symbolic Order, that demands further explication, or must we rest with still another explanation, however different, of Germann's dismal fate? Here I would like to address more directly the relationship of the author (both putative and historical) to his character. The author of The Queen of Spades abhors Germann's materialistic ideal and his scorn of feminine charms (Germann uses Liza and then passes her by for the countess); he shows Germann's imagination to be limited and clichéd; and he presents the rumor that Germann has three crimes on his conscience and that he has the soul of a Mephistopheles as ridiculous. Germann seems to have the profile of Napoleon—even Liza thinks so—but this could easily be a studied pose, as clichéd as the letters he writes to Liza.26 But Pushkin not only limns, in places, a disparaging portrait of his hero; he also, as it were, “punishes” him severely. Worse than killing him off, he strips him forever of his sexual and linguistic powers, in other words, the powers that meant most to Pushkin himself. It is a fate worse than death—in fact, a death-in-life that Pushkin, one might say, had already imagined for himself in his famous lyric of 1833 “God Grant That I Go Not Mad” (Rosenshield, “Poetics”). But, as I hope to have shown, something other than this reduced Germann also comes across in Pushkin's portrait, something, for whatever reason, that impressed Dostoevskii enough to call him a “colossal type.” Pushkin deromanticizes his hero, but something of the romantic escapes in Germann's choice of the queen. He shows him to be a philistine, but also a gambler willing to stake everything on a card. He reduces him to a driveling idiot with no issue, incapable of ever taking his place in society (the Symbolic Order). But again something of the Symbolic, and the threat of the Symbolic, remains—even prevails.

What is this threat? Why does Pushkin prevent Germann from entering the Symbolic? Scholars have closely examined and analyzed Pushkin's apprehensions regarding the social transformations threatening Russian society and its class structure.27 Pushkin must have seen, if not Germann, then the forces that he represents, as a direct threat to everything he valued. Like many of his contemporaries, Pushkin both abhorred and feared the materialistic culture that he saw arising in Europe and Russia, a culture whose idea he distilled in Germann's monomaniacal pursuit of gain. He attempts to take away Germann's power, but he cannot; Pushkin is too consummate an artist to do so. Passionate, rash, and determined, Germann is potentially a dangerous rebel against the established order.28 Dostoevskii saw him as the epitome of Petersburg, because he obviously recognized in him a prophetic type—the potential revolutionary—a raznochinets, who would soon enough abandon his desire for gold (the ace) and the lost other/mother (the queen) and invest elsewhere his passion, determination, monomania, and—yes—the willingness to gamble for the ultimate stakes. He will eventually take his place in the Symbolic Order and radically transform it in his own image.

Lacanian psychoanalysis effectively erases the traditional Cartesian separation of the external social world and the autonomous self, of the political and the private spheres, since the subject comes into being by virtue of adopting the social rules and strictures of the symbolic world of language. Though Lacan represents the truth of the unconscious—which is available, and only available, through language—as socially derived, as formed in interaction with the other, he also views this truth as inherently subversive, as something that continually challenges institutions, order, and convention. After all, that is why it is repressed. For Lacan, the captive “self” lives entirely in the Imaginary, imprisoned by a false image of identity and autonomy, whereas the true subject—though he may not be completely autonomous, though he may even be “decentered”—by virtue of living in the Symbolic Order gains access to the creative power and freedom of “the words that will make him faithful or a renegade” (Écrits 68). The subversiveness, the challenge, of Germann, is that his desire is not entirely personal, it is also social and political, and it is precisely the social and political ramifications of Germann that Pushkin attempts to repress.29

Pushkin, like Dostoevskii, wishes Germann would go away, but such a wish—wishful thinking—represents a relatively manifest content of The Queen of Spades. The realization and fear that Germann is really Russia's future, not her past, constitutes a deeper, more latent, level of the text, a level which reveals the author's unconscious desire to keep Germann down, to deal him all the wrong cards. The greatness of the story is that it resists the attempts of its author. It, not he, speaks the truth of the Lacanian unconscious. For better or worse, Germann is the true legacy of Peter the Great, and as Pushkin should have known from the flood in The Bronze Horseman, Germann can be denied only temporarily. As he enters the Symbolic Order, he will hold all the cards, he will reshuffle them, and he will give all the signifiers new meaning. The secret, of course, is that the cards as signifiers can have no meaning in themselves. It may be small consolation, but we also know that the Germanns will hold these cards only temporarily, for they will inevitably be passed on to and redefined by others who have also waited their time before the house of the ancient countess.

Though all the psychoanalytical approaches to Germann's madness take us different places, they each reveal something important about the story. A Freudian interpretation sees Germann's fate as a metaphor—taken to its logical conclusion—for the tragic situation of man in civilization. Romantic psychoanalysis, in valorizing Germann's mad choice of the queen, emphasizes the risks that the individual may need to take to escape from an alienating environment given over to conformity and material aggrandizement. Finally, Lacanian psychology, perhaps more in the spirit of Pushkin, while leaving room for the participation of unconscious desire in Germann's choice of the queen, exposes at the same time the failings of two different kinds of imaginary desire, associated, respectively, with the queen and the ace. Failure is written into each of them. But, in the end, like most approaches to this baffling story, none of the psychoanalytic approaches—and this is entirely consistent with the Lacanian model we have used—can “report” to us the real unconscious content of The Queen of Spades; they can give us only intimations of it. Whatever may be the story's unconscious truth—that truth about which the story does not speak directly—it is something that fascinates readers today no less than it did Dostoevskii when his “raw youth,” Arkadii Dolgorukii, dreamed again Germann's dream of power and fortune. Germann, as symbol, has never really lost the power of speech; he continues, like Dostoevskii's Underground Man, to speak to us subversively even today.


  1. See the discussion of madness in the story by Gofman 82-86; Williams 383-396; Taborisskaia 81-87; Makogonenko 249-255; Rosenshield, “Choosing the Right Card,” 995-1008. For a review of the Russian reception of the story in general, see Lerner 141-142.

  2. Dostoevskii 30.1:192. For one of the earliest and most convincing demonstrations of Pushkin's technique of combining the realistic and the fantastic, see Slonimskii 171-80.

  3. The narrator of A Raw Youth speaks of Pushkin's Germann as “a colossal figure, an unusual, completely Petersburg type—a type from the Petersburg period” (13:113).

  4. Most of the previous psychological and psychoanalytical interpretations of the story are based on variations of the Oedipal triangle, with Germann either coveting the countess and/or being punished for rebelling against his father. See, for example, Burgin 46-56; Rosen 255-275; Schwartz 275-288; Lotman 122-142; Williams 383-396. My approach does not at all deny the importance of Oedipal factors (I will later make use of them myself), but, as will be evident, I treat them for analytical purposes as the imaginative correlatives of more primal personality structures.

  5. There are widely diverging interpretations of Lacanian psychoanalysis, partly because Lacan intended his psychoanalysis to be more of an exploration of unconscious truth than a body of information or doctrines. He has said “I don't have a conception of the world. I have a style” (Quoted in Turkle 232). Turkle argues that Lacanian theory gives us a “compelling cast of inner agents and games to play with … of possibilities … for concrete manipulation” (xviii). For the best discussion of the developments of Lacanian psychoanalysis in France, see Turkle's Psychoanalytical Politics.

  6. Several works in the last few decades have dwelt at length on the ubiquitousness of the numbers three, seven, one and their various combinations and permutations. See, for example, Slonimskii 174-77; Vinogradov 87-91; Weber 435-447: Kodjak 91-92; Leighton, “Numbers and Numerology”; Leighton, “Gematria”; Debreczeny 219-22.

  7. See Shaw (119) for the implications of tuz.

  8. For a discussion of the occurrence of three and seven as bets in faro, see Nabokov 2:261, Rosen 255-257. See also Debreczeny's (199, 325) discussion of Tomashevskii's observations on this point.

  9. Of course, we—and Germann—learn about Germann's passionate nature only through the course of the story, only when he attempts to realize the object of his obsession.

  10. For Kristeva (154), woman represents the desire which is repressed, both in women and men, in patriarchal culture. “Woman is a specialist in the unconscious, a witch, a bacchanalian, taking her jouissance in an anti-Apollonian, Dionystic orgy.”

  11. Since Germann is often seen as a rebel, it is not surprising that his gambling is viewed as an unconscious rebellion against his father, the superego (Debreczeny 110-112). But the most common psychological explanation of Germann's choice of the wrong card is that of self-punishment for the guilt he experiences for the death of the countess (Rosen 265-270).

  12. Disparaging remarks about American ego-psychology are common in Lacan: “The academic restoration of this ‘autonomous ego’ justified my view that a misunderstanding was involved in any attempt to strengthen the ego in a type of analysis that took as its criterion of ‘success’ a successful adaption to society—a phenomenon of mental abdication that was bound up with the aging of the psychoanalytic group in the diaspora of the war, and the reduction of a distinguished practice to a label suitable to the ‘American way of life’” (Lacan, Écrits, 306-307).

  13. See also Lacan, Écrits 128-129, 171, 299-300, 313-314, 164-165.

  14. As we shall see, in contrast to Lacan, antipsychiatrists, such as Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari, Cixous, and Laing, seek liberation in the idealization of desire associated with the pre-symbolic (sometimes called the semiotic or pre-Oedipal) stage of development—Lacan's imaginary stage. Kristeva, as a feminist, sees the phallocentric, symbolic order as the antithesis of truth. Representation itself, since it is part of the Word, the symbolic order, tends to undermine unconscious truth, which is “an unrepresentable form beyond true and false, and beyond present-past-future” (155).

  15. Masing-Delič and King argue that General Epanchin in The Idiot is Dostoevskii's deromanticized projection of a successful Germann, a man who slowly gains his fortune.

  16. There is some evidence that the choice that Germann makes was one that—again unconsciously—he had decided on quite a bit earlier. When leaning over the countess's body at her funeral, Germann imagines that she winks at him. While moving backward, he stumbles (ostupilsia) and takes a very bad fall, landing flat on his back. Is this not the same type of “accident” that he later has when he chooses the wrong card and sees the countess, again, winking at him? Alan Sheridan (Lacan, Écrits x) describes the real in Lacan as “that over which the symbolic stumbles, that which is refractory, resistant, … [that] which is lacking in the symbolic order, the ineliminable residue of all articulation, the foreclosed element, which may be approached, but never grasped: the umbilical cord of the symbolic.”

  17. Lacan contrasts, in his L-Schema, the symbolic relationship (S-O), based on unconscious communication, which exists between the subject (S) and object/Other (O) with the imaginary relationship (o-o') that exists between the ego (o) and its object/other (o') (Lacan, Écrits 193-94).

  18. Lacan distinguishes pleasure (plaisir), an imaginary desire, from jouissance, a more symbolic desire. Since Germann's obsession with the queen seems to oscillate between these two forms of desire, I have sometimes used the word pleasure and sometimes desire, depending on context. Lacan, Écrits 319-24.

  19. For example, through his description of the unbelievable relationship—in all respects—between Saint Germain and his grandmother.

  20. That is, imaginary desire, however flawed, seems to be far more in touch with unconscious desire than Germann's ego-ideal. Further, its greater association with unconscious desire may even prepare the reader for the unconscious “mistake” at the end against the ego-ideal.

  21. Williams has written interestingly about Germann's equal fascination for the countess and the secret of the cards. He presents Germann's attraction, however, as a perversion. As German watches the countess undress, Williams states that Germann already “may be considered to be insane” (391). Only in the last sentence (394) does he seem to realize that it is not the countess herself but the age that she symbolizes that so attracts Germann and becomes the object of his desire. Germann “looks back with nostalgia to the financially non-competitive, almost feudal society of the last years before the revolution, in his hopeless love for the image of the countess …” (394). See also Slonimskii 179.

  22. “What is repeated, in fact, is always something that occurs … as if by chance” (Lacan, Four 54).

  23. It seems probable that Germann's mother is Russian (not untypical for the time) and that he derives his passionate side from her. Saint Germain, his alter-ego, shows him the possibility of overcoming the “German” side of himself, the side of control and indefinitely delayed gratification. The terms “German” and “Russian” are meant in the story only as conveniences of thought; they refer to universal characteristics within us all. Tom Shaw has speculated that Germann may be the point of departure for Goncharov's Shtolts in Oblomov. Goncharov explicitly states that Shtolts derives his more “feeling” side from his Russian mother, his more practical and rational side from his German father.

  24. Psychotics were interesting to Lacan, especially because of the way they used language. But Germann's madness results in the virtual loss of all language.

  25. “The psychoanalytic experience has rediscovered in man the imperative of the Word as the law that has formed him in its image. … May that experience enable you to understand at last that it is in the gift of speech that all the reality of its effects resides; for it is by way of this gift that all reality has come to man and it is by his continued act that he maintains it” (Lacan, Écrits 106). The Real Order exists outside of the Symbolic Order and therefore can never be reached by language.

  26. See my “Choosing the Right Card” (998-1001) for a discussion of Pushkin's deflation of Germann's imagination throughout the story.

  27. Since the early 1930s, Soviet critics have fairly consistently seen Germann as a representative of a new class, the money- and power-hungry bourgeoisie, fated to displace the older and weaker nobility as embodied by the decrepit countess. See, for example, Iakubovich, 69-70; Gukovskii, 340-353, 364-365; Tomashevskii, 198-99; Stepanov, 76-79.

  28. For others who have seen Germann as a Faust, a romantic rebel, or a challenger of the social order, see Weber, 435-447; Schwartz; Kodjak, 87-118; Falchikov, 96-106; Esipov, 193-205.

  29. Turkle's Psychoanalytical Politics ascribes the politically radical direction of psychoanalysis in France in the 1960s and 1970s to Lacan's erasure of the division between the personal and social in the definition of the subject. Once the personal and the social could be seen as two sides of the same coin, a political psychoanalysis became possible.

Works Cited

Boucher, Anthony. “Of Fortune and Faro.” Opera News 30.11 (1966): 8-12.

Burgin, Diana Lewis. “The Mystery of “Pikovaia dama.” Mnemozina: Studia litteraria russica in Honorem Vsevolod Setchkarev. Ed. Joachim T. Baer and Norman W. Ingham. Munich: Fink, 1974. 46-56.

Cixous, Hélène. Readings: The Poetics of Blanchot, Joyce, Kafka, Kleist, Lispector, and Tsvetayeva. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1991.

Debreczeny, Paul. The Other Pushkin: A Study of Alexander Pushkin's Prose Fiction. Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 1983.

Deleuze, Giles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Dostoevskii, F. M. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. Ed. V. G. Bazanov et al. 30 vols. Leningrad: Nauka, 1972-90.

Emerson, Caryl. “‘The Queen of Spades’ and the Open End.” Puškin Today. Ed. David Bethea. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana UP, 1992. 31-37.

Esipov. V. “Istoricheskii podteskt v povesti Pushkina ‘Pikovaia dama.’” Voprosy literatury 4 (1989): 193-205.

Falchikov, F. “The Outsider and the Number Game: Some Observations on ‘Pikovaia Dama.’” Essays in Poetics 2.1 (1977): 96-106.

Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.’” Collected Papers. 5 vols. New York: Basic, 1959. 4: 368-408.

———. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1961.

———. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1965.

Gofman, M. L. “Problema sumaschestviia v tvorchestve Pushkina.” Novyi zhurnal 51 (1957): 61-86.

Gukovskii, A. G. Pushkin i problemy realisticheskogo stilia. Moscow: GIKhL, 1957.

Iakubovich, D. P. “‘Pikovaia Dama’: Stat'ia i kommentarii,” A. S. Pushkin: Pikovaia dama. Leningrad: GIKhL, 1963.

Kodjak, Andrej. “‘The Queen of Spades’ in the Context of the Faust Legend.” Alexander Pushkin: A Symposium on the 175th Anniversary of His Birth. New York: New York UP, 1976. 87-118.

Kristeva, Julia. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

———. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton, 1977.

Laing, R. D. The Politics of Experience. New York: Ballantine, 1967.

Leighton, Lauren. “Numbers and Numerology in ‘The Queen of Spades.’” Canadian Slavonic Papers 19 (1977): 417-443.

———. “Gematria in ‘The Queen of Spades’: A Decembrist Puzzle.” Slavic and East European Journal 21 (1977): 455-469.

Lerner, N. O. “Istoriia ‘Pikovoi damy.’” Rasskazy o Pushkine. Leningrad: Priboi, 1929. 132-163.

Lotman, Iu. M. “Tema kart i kartochnoi igry v russkoi literature nachala XIX veka.” Trudy po znakovym sistemam 7 (1975): 122-142.

Makogonenko, G. P. Tvorchestvo A. S. Pushkina v 1830-e gody. Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1982.

Masing-Delič, I., and Pandora King. “General Epanchin as Germann: A Travesty on Pushkin's ‘Queen of Spades’ in Dostoevsky's The Idiot.Dostoevsky Studies 9 (1989): 171-91.

Nabokov, Vladimir, trans. Eugene Onegin. A. S. Pushkin 2 vols. New York: Random, 1964.

Pushkin, A. S. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. 17 vols. Moscow, Leningrad: AN SSSR, 1937-59.

Rosen, Nathan. “The Magic Cards in ‘The Queen of Spades.’” Slavic and East European Journal 19 (1975): 255-275.

Rosenshield, Gary. “Choosing the Right Card: Madness, Gambling and Imagination in Pushkin's ‘The Queen of Spades.’” PMLA 109 (1994): 995-1008.

———. “The Poetics of Madness: Pushkin's ‘God Grant That I Go Not Mad.’” Slavic and East European Journal 38.1 (1994): 120-47.

Schwartz, Murray M. and Albert Schwartz. “‘The Queen of Spades’: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 17 (1975): 275-288.

Shaw, Joseph T. “The ‘Conclusion’ of Pushkin's ‘Queen of Spades.’” Studies in Russian and Polish Literature in Honor of Waclaw Lednicki. Ed. Zbigniew Folejewski. ‘S-Gravenhage: Mouton, 1962. 114-126.

Slonimskii, A. L. “O kompozitsii ‘Pikovoi damy.’” Pushkinskii sbornik pamiati Professora S. A. Vengerova. Moscow: GIKhL, 1923. 171-80.

Stepanov, N. L. Proza Pushkina. Moscow: AN SSSR, 1962.

Taborisskaia, E. M. “Svoebrazie resheniia temy bezumiia v proizvedeniiakh Pushkina 1833 goda.” Pushkinskie chteniia: Sbornik statei. Tallinn: Eesti Raamat, 1990. 71-87.

Tomashevskii, B. V. “Istorizm Pushkina.” Pushkin: kniga vtoraia, Materialy k monografii (1824-1837). Moscow: AN SSSR, 1961.

Turkle, Sherry. Psychoanalytical Politics: Jacques Lacan and Freud's French Revolution. 2nd ed. New York: Guilford, 1992.

Vinogradov, V. V. “Stil' ‘Pikovoi damy.’” Pushkin: Vremennik Pushkinskoi komissii, 2 (1936): 75-104.

Weber, Harry B. “‘Pikovaia dama’: A Case for Freemasonry in Russian Literature.” Slavic and East European Journal 12 (1968): 435-447.

Williams, Gareth. “The Obsessions of Madness of Germann in ‘Pikovaja dama.’” Russian Literature 14.4 (1983): 383-396.

Sergei Davydov (essay date summer 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8462

SOURCE: Davydov, Sergei. “The Ace in ‘The Queen of Spades.’” Slavic Review 58, no. 2 (summer 1999): 309-28.

[In the following essay, Davydov traces various critical perspectives on Pushkin's novella, focusing on rational and supernatural explanations for the protagonist's obsession with the three, seven, and ace cards.]

I pоstipinnо v usyplinsi
I cuvstv i sum vpadait оn,
а pirid nim vооbrazinsi
Svоj pistryj micit фaraоn.

—A. S. Pushkin, Evgenii Onegin, 8:37

(And slowly, as his mind and feeling / descend into a languid dream, / Imagination takes up dealing / her motley Faro game to him.)

At a card table at the beginning of Pikovaia dama (The Queen of Spades), Tomskii recounts a tale about his flamboyant grandmother, an avid Faro player. In her youth the Countess once lost a large sum to the Duke of Orleans au jeu de la Reine at Versailles. When her husband refused to pay off her debt, the Countess turned to the adventurer and wonderman Count Saint-Germain for help. Instead of lending her money, the old eccentric revealed to her three secret cards with which she won back everything she had lost. Tomskii's bizarre tale provokes three responses among the Petersburg gamblers:

“Mere chance!” said one of the guests.
“A fairy tale!” remarked Germann.
“Perhaps they were powdered [doctored] cards,” joined in a third.
“I don't think so,” Tomskii replied in a serious tone.(1)

Tomskii, the narrator of this remarkable episode, rejects all three rational explanations and insists on the validity of the supernatural event. Which response is correct? Those who explain the mystery in natural, realistic terms (chance, lie, trickery), or Tomskii, who insists on the intrusion of the supernatural? Fedor Dostoevskii addressed this question in a letter to Iu. F. Abaza:

Pushkin, who has given us almost all artistic forms, wrote The Queen of Spades—the pinnacle of the art of the fantastic. One believes that Germann actually saw an apparition, and precisely in accordance with his worldview, and yet, having finished the tale, one does not know how to decide: did this vision emerge from Germann's own nature [realistic solution], or is he actually one of those who have come into contact with another world, a world of spirits, evil and hostile to man [supernatural solution] […] Now this is what I call art! [Vot éto iskusstvo!]2

In his book on the fantastic, Tzvetan Todorov maintains that the reader's vacillation between the natural and supernatural cause of an uncanny phenomenon is the chief precondition for the genre of the fantastic.3 An exclusive decision for or against the intrusion of the supernatural would destroy the foremost virtue of Pushkin's tale, the “seamless fusion of the fantastic with the realistic” that both invites and frustrates logical decoding.4

As skeptical as the Petersburg gamblers, the literary critics remain unconvinced by Tomskii's insistence on the supernatural nature of the triggering event. In pursuit of rational solutions, three questions are usually raised: (1) What is the origin of the magic trey, seven, and ace? (2) Could Germann (or the reader) have identified the three cards without the ghost's intervention? (3) How does one explain Germann's fatal blunder of confusing the ace with the queen in his last game?


Few today share Mikhail Gershenzon's opinion that “it really does not matter whether Germann in his hallucination fancied these particular cards rather than some other three cards.”5 In searching for the origin of the three, seven, and one (one being the numerical value of the ace), critics have turned to literary sources with which Pushkin was or might have been familiar. The first link to Pushkin's triplet was found in the two lines from Fedor Glinka's 1828 poem “Brachnyi pir Toviia” (Tobias's wedding feast), which contain two of the three cards: “Malo l' platy? / Utroit' syn! usemerit'” (Not enough pay? Triple it, septuple it, my son!).6 Viktor Vinogradov suggested another likely source, Karl Heun's novella Der holländische Jude in which the hero bets on the magic trey and seven and wins a fortune.7 Again this subtext leaves out the ace. In fact, no single literary source can account for all three cards of Pushkin's triplet.8

Boris Tomashevskii and Vladimir Nabokov suggested an extraliterary source that might sensibly have motivated Pushkin's choice. Both scholars argued that the numbers 1-3-7 are derived from the sequence of three straight wins in the game of Faro, if the stakes are doubled each time. If the initial stake (le va) is one, then the first win equals une et le va; the second, trois et le va; the third, sept et le va; and so on.9 Pushkin himself mentions this lucky series—sonica, paroli, paroli-paix—in the beginning of his tale. The sequence 1-3-7 would have been known to Germann who never plays himself but “would sit by the card table whole nights and follow with feverish trembling the different turns of the game.” Though Tomashevskii's and Nabokov's answer offers the most likely explanation so far for the identity of the three cards, it is marred by one flaw: it fails to indicate the correct sequence in which the cards had to be played in order to win. Because the ace is in the wrong position, this theory, too, is not entirely satisfactory.

It was essential for Pushkin that a pervasive sense of the occult be sustained throughout the tale. References to the elixir of life and lapis philosophorum, the secret galvanism, Joseph-Michel Montgolfier's balloon and Friedrich Anton Mesmer's magnetism, the obscure epigraph from the mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and the ominous quote from a Fortune-Teller are all indispensable ingredients of Pushkin's arcane brew. Stimulated by its potency, but impervious to the irony of Pushkin's tale, critics have availed themselves of a number of occult tools in order to extract the three cards from various numerological motifs.10 One shortcoming of this approach is that the tale contains a profusion of numbers and dates (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 17, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, 80, 87, 100, 275, 47,000, 50,000, 94,000, 300,000) from which any card can be produced. When the focus is on a smaller textual segment, such as “Vot chto utroit, usemerit moi kapital” (This is what will triple, septuple my capital), one card, usually the ace, is missing from the triplet. Even when all three cards can be obtained from a given passage, the sequence is incorrect.11

The same problem that mars the numerological approach also applies to gematria, that is, the anagrammatic method of extracting the cards from the sound texture of the tale. Lauren Leighton ingeniously discovered many card logogriphs in the famous passage describing the Countess's boudoir:

pirid кivоtоm, napоlninnym sTaRInnymi” [3] оbRаZami [1], tiplilass zоlоtay lampada. Pоlinylyi stофnyi кrisla i DiVаny [2] s pukоvymi pоdusкami, s sоsidsij pоzоlоtоy, stоyli v picalsnоj SiMmITRIi [7, 3] окоlо stin, оbityk кitajsкimi оbоymi. Na stini visili dva [2] pоrtrita, pisannyi v Parizi mme Lebrun [Q]. Odin [1] iz nik izоbrazal muzcцnu lit sоrокa, rumynnоgо i pоlnоgо, v svitlоzilinоm mundiri i sо zvizdоj [1]; drugоj [2]—mоlоduy кrasavццu s оrlinym nоsоm, s zacisannymi visкami i s rоzоy v pudrinnyk vоlоsak [Q]. Pо vSIM [7] uglam tоrcali фarфоrоvyi pastusкi, stоlоvyi casy rabоty slavnоgо Leroy [K], коrоbоcкi, rulitкi, viira i RаZnyi [1] damsкii [Q] igrusкi, izоbritinnyi v коndi minuvsigо stоlitiy vMISti [7] s Mоngоlsфsirоvym sarоm i MISmirOVym [7, 8] magnitizmоm.

(A gold sanctuary lamp burned in front of an icon-case filled with ancient icons. Armchairs with faded damask upholstery and down-cushioned sofas, their gilt coating worn, stood in melancholy symmetry along the walls, which were covered with Chinese silk. Two portraits, painted in Paris by Mme. Lebrun, hung on the wall. One of them showed a man about forty years old, red-faced and portly, wearing a light green coat with a star; the other a beautiful young woman with an aquiline nose, with her hair combed back over her temples, and with a rose in her powdered locks. Every nook and corner was crowded with china shepherdesses, table clocks made by the famous Leroy, little boxes, bandalores, fans, and diverse other ladies' toys invented at the end of the last century, along with Montgolfier's balloon and Mesmer's magnetism.)12

No doubt the description of the Countess's remarkable boudoir, which Gershenzon inexplicably characterized as Pushkin's “artistic blunder” (khudozhestvennyi promakh),13 is one of the most mesmerizing passages of the tale, rife with numerical allusions. The only problem is that in addition to the 3, 7, and 1, this passage generates a number of other cards, such as 2, 8, K, and Q, and it, too, fails to provide the proper order in which the cards should be played. When focusing on a smaller anagrammatic sample, as a rule, one card is missing:

… фоnari svitiliss TUSкlо; uliцy byli pUSTy. Izridкa tynulsy Vansкa na tоsij кlyci, vysmaTRIvay zapоzdalоgо sidокa. [1, 1, 3] … na igо MISti оn pоSTUpij by sоvSIM inaci [7, 1, 7] …—y pricnоy ii SMIRTI [7, 3] …—Я ni kоtil ii SMIRTI, [7, 3] … V etu minutu pокazalss imu, ctо mirtvay naSMIslivо vzglynla na nigо, prisurivay ODNIM glazоm. Girmann, pоspisnо pоdavsisv nazad, оSTUpijsy i navznics granulsy оb zims. [7, 1, 1]

([…] the lights shone dimly; the streets were deserted. Only occasionally did a cabdriver shamble by with his scrawny nag, on the lookout for a late passenger […] in his friend's place he would have acted entirely differently […] I caused her death […] I did not wish her death […] At that moment it seemed to him that the deceased cast a mocking glance at him, screwing up one of her eyes. He moved back hastily, missed his step, and crashed to the ground flat on his back.)14

No matter how intriguing, an exclusively numerological or gematric approach only multiplies the “codes that tantalize but do not quite add up.”15 On the other hand, a cryptographic reading that combines elements of both methods can yield, I suspect, a less illusory solution. Consider, for example, the following passage in which the three cards are disguised under the expressions of time, producing a curious chronogram:

ODNаZDY—etо slucilоss DVа DNЯ pоsli vicira, оpisannоgо v nacali etоj pоvisti, i za NIDIlY pirid tоj sцinоj, na коtоrоj my оstanоviliss,—ODNаZDY Lizavita Ivanоvna …

(One time—this happened two days after the party described at the beginning of our story and a week before the scene that we have just detailed—one time Lizaveta Ivanovna […])16

“Odnazhdy” stands for the ace (1), “nedelia” for the 7. In order to obtain the missing 3, we have to add to these two days that one “imperceptible night” which Pushkin described at the opening of the tale:

There was a card party at the house of Narumov, the officer of the Horse Guards. The long winter night passed imperceptibly; it was close to five in the morning when the company sat down to supper.17

Because this passage produces the three cards and points in the direction of the correct sequence: 1-3-7-1, it provides us with the needed key to enter the next chronogram, which Pushkin encrypted in the same code and which contains the three cards in the correct order:

Ni prоslо mrik nipils [3, 7] s tоj pоry, кaк оna v nirsyũ raz [1] uvidila v окоsко mоlоdоgо cilоviкa …

(Less than three weeks [3, 7] had passed since she had first [1] caught sight of the young man through the window […])18

Perhaps the most frequently quoted passage from which the critics have attempted to extract the magic cards is Germann's inner monologue in chapter 2:

“Da i samyj aniкdоt? … Mоznо li imu virits? … Nit! rascit, umirinnоsts i trudоlybii: vоt mоi tri virnyi кarty, vоt ctо umrоцm, usimirцm mоj кapital i dоstavit mni pокоl i nizavisimоsts.”

(“And what about the anecdote itself? … Can one put any faith in it? … No! Calculation, moderation, and industry; these are my three reliable cards. They will treble my capital, increase in sevenfold, and bring me ease and independence!”)19

Aleksandr Slonimskii, who was the first to comment on this passage, speaks of a “double motivation” for the first two cards: the natural (through Germann) and the supernatural (through the Countess).20 Andrei Kodjak agrees that Germann “has subconsciously determined two of the cards that the Countess would reveal to him. Here, however, the psychological theory breaks down; the third winning card—the ace—remains inexplicable.”21 Nathan Rosen, who also cites this passage, concludes: “The fact that the ace is not included in the passage […] suggests a flaw in this approach.”22

Having more trust in Pushkin than in the Pushkinists, I would like to insist on the flawlessness of the poet's cryptographic method, for Germann's words do contain all three cards, including the missing ace. Squeezed between the 3 and 7 hides the phonetically assimilated tuz [tus]:

vot chto utroiT, USemerit moi kapital.

Pushkin's sleight of hand may be counted on to uncover the right card at the exact time. The tale's maxim, according to which “two fixed ideas can no more coexist in the moral sphere than can two bodies occupy the same space in the physical world,” does not apply to the poetic time and space of Pushkin's anagrams.23

Moreover, the principle of covering up the middle card seems to be derived directly from Faro. The game is played with two decks of cards. Each punter selects a card of his choice from one deck, places it face down on the table and makes his stake on it. (Germann chooses the trey in his first game and bets 47,000 on it.) The banker then deals from a different deck, placing two cards face up to the left and to the right of the punter's card. The punter then uncovers his card. If it matches the card on his left, he wins, if it matches the card on his right, he loses. If no match occurs, no one wins and the game continues. The punters may select for the next round a different card or continue to bet on their old one. The actual suit is irrelevant in Faro.

Thus, if we apply the rules of the game to the phrase “utroit, usemerit,” the first reading of the phrase places the trey and the seven face up on the page, the second, cryptic reading uncovers the elusive ace: “utroi-TUS-emerit.” The fickle ace, a latecomer to this cryptogrammatic charade, was hidden in the blind spot, both in the middle (graphically) and at the end (perceptually).24 Most important, of course, is that this cryptogram, just like the previous chronogram, precedes the ghost's visit, and if the engineer Germann had marked his own words more shrewdly, he might have deduced the triplet and the correct sequence without the help of the ghost. Nevertheless, the fact that the 3-7-1 would actually win still remains rationally inexplicable.

There is, I believe, only one other passage prior to the ghost's visit that can produce all three cards in the proper sequence. But, since this passage is a rather complex cryptogram, involving numerology, gematria, and visual transformations, we should first examine Pushkin's method more closely. Let us recall that after the ghost reveals the secret to Germann, he begins to perceive the surrounding reality as an encrypted text displaying the most bizarre manifestations of the three cards. The following passage, which Pushkin partially decoded for the benefit of the reader, is a good illustration of this method and can serve as a key to other cryptic passages of the tale:

Trоjкa, simirкa, tuz—ni vykоdili iz igо gоlоvy i sivililiss na igо gubak. Uvidiv mоlоpuy pivusкu, оn gоvоril: “Kaк оna smrоũna! … Nastоysay mrоũкa cirvоnnay”. U nigо sprasivali: “Kоmоryũ cas”, оn оtvical: “biz pyti minut simirкa”. Vsyкjj nuzasmyũ muzscцna napоminal imu muza. Trоjкa, simirкa, tuz—prislidоvali igо vо sni, prinimay vsi vоzmоznyi vidy: mrоũкa цvila pirid nim v оbrazi pYsnоgо ζranpцфlоra, simirкa pridstavlylass ζоmцcisкцmц vоrоmamц, muz оgrоmnym nauкоm.

(Trey, seven, ace—the threesome haunted him and was perpetually on his lips. Seeing a young girl, he would say: “How shapely! … Just like a trey of hearts.” If anybody asked him what time it was, he would answer, “Five of the seven.” Every portly man reminded him of an ace. The trey, the seven, and the ace hounded him even in his dreams, taking on every imaginable form: the trey blossomed before him like a great luxuriant flower; the seven appeared as a Gothic gate; and the ace assumed the shape of an enormous spider.)25

Rosen imaginatively illustrated the visual and auditory transformations of the three cards into three diurnal and three nocturnal images. The diurnal transformations are self-explanatory. The “stroinaia devushka” is associated with the “troika chervonnaia” through the similarity of sound and shape.26 Just as the tale's chronology contained the three cards, Germann's second association turns time into a card: “Kotoryi chas”—“bez piati minut semerka.” The third transformation of a “puzastyi muzhchina” into a “tuz” is motivated by the similarity of sound and meaning: “tuz” is also a man of rank and wealth.27 Unlike Germann's diurnal associations, their nocturnal counterparts are encoded in a more elusive manner that involves “expansion and deformation.”28 Because the sound element is absent from the oneiric transformations, the reader must rely on visual clues alone. The trey with its three leaf-shaped spades or clubs on top of each other blossoms at night into a “luxurious flower” (pyshnyi grandiflor), perhaps a rosa grandiflora, which was also a Masonic Rose-Croix symbol.29 The seven appears in the guise of a gothic portal. This bizarre metamorphosis was deciphered by G. M. Koka, who convincingly related the shape of Fel'ten's gothic arch in Petersburg's Ekaterininskii Garden to the arrangement of the seven spades on this card. Pushkin's friend Anton Del'vig used an engraving of this portal as the frontispiece of his Severnye tsvety (1830).30 Rosen illustrated the next metamorphosis of the ace into a “gigantic spider” by linking the shape of the spade to an exotic triangular creature. The more common garden spider, pauk-krestovik, would be a more likely candidate, for the cross sign on its back strikingly mimics the club.

The diurnal and nocturnal associations seem to be meaningfully correlated: the analogy between the slender girl and the luxuriant flower (3), and between the potbellied man and the gigantic spider (1) is quite obvious. The link between “five minutes to seven” and the gothic portal remains elusive, however. Rosen suggested that “Gothic portals move time backward to the Middle Ages of the Gothic novel, hence the day and night associations of seven relate to time.”31 Kodjak offered an even more abstract link between the day and night associations of the trey, seven, and ace: “youth, passing time, old age = fertility, historical time, destruction or death.”32 If Pushkin's code is consistent, both metamorphoses of the seven should relate to time in a more direct, visual way. Perhaps the fireplace clock from Pushkin's Petersburg apartment, whose case is a perfect miniature replica of a gothic arch, is the missing iconic link. The fact that Pushkin used the passage of time to encode the three cards twice before in his chronograms would then attest to the consistency of his method.

Although Germann's spectacular associations occur only after the ghost's visit, these visual and auditory metamorphoses of the three cards provide the key to another encoded passage that precedes the visit. The paragraph that immediately follows the phrase “utroit, usemerit” seems to contain in an encrypted form all three cards in the correct order:

Rassuzday taкim оbrazоm, оcutilsy оn v оdnоj iz glavnyk uliц Pitirburga. Uliцa byla zastavlina eкilazami, кarimy оdna za drugоy кatiliss к оsvisinnоmu pоdhizdu. Iz кarim pоminutnо vytygivalass tо smrоũnay nоζa mоlоdоj кrasaviцy, tо cmrimucay noζa þоmфоrma, tо pоlоsatyj culок i punlоmamцcisкuũ þasmaк. Suþy i plasi milsкali mimо vilicavоgо svijцara. Girmann оstanоvilsy.

(Lost thus in thought, he found himself on one of the main streets of Petersburg, in front of an old-style house. The street was crowded with equipages; one carriage after another rolled up to the lighted entrance. Now a young beauty's shapely leg, now a rattling [spurred] riding boot, now a striped stocking and a diplomat's shoe emerged from the carriages. Fur coats and cloaks flitted by the stately doorman. Hermann stopped.)33

If we employ the already familiar cryptogrammatic clues, we may arrive at the following reading: The phrase “karety odna za drugoiu katilis'” anagrammatically announces the arrival of the cards (karety-karty). (Compare this with the analogous formulation in the next paragraph: “[Germann] stavil kartu za kartoi.”) Next, Pushkin pulls from his deck the three cards, disguised as the three pairs of feet stepping one after another from the arriving carriages. The first card he lays forth is the troika: “Iz karet pominutno vytiagivalas' to stroinaia noga molodoi krasavitsy.” The transformation of the trey into the “shapely foot of a young beauty” is a faithful alliterative and a visual replica of the previous cryptogram: “Uvidev moloduiu devushku, on govoril: ‘Kak ona stroina! … Nastoiashchaia troika chervonnaia.’” Next Pushkin sets down the seven in the guise of “gremuchaia botforta”; turned upside down, the “spurred boot” resembles a seven. There can be little doubt that a “striped stocking and a diplomat's shoe” adorn the foot of a big shot, a tuz. This last transformation anticipates both of Germann's later associations, which link the ace to a “potbellied man” and a “gigantic spider.” It is perhaps of interest to note that the legs of the garden spider are conspicuously striped, a detail that further tightens the web of correspondences between the various mutations of the ace.34

Thus, with (or without) a grain of salt, the “shapely foot,” the “spurred boot,” and the “diplomatic shoe,” stepping out from the carriages in the winning order before Germann's very eyes, are encoded images of the three magic cards. Had Germann been as keen an admirer of nozhki as was his author, he might have solved the mystery without causing the death of the Countess and, perhaps, he might have found solace at the “shapely feet of a young beauty” such as Liza. Instead, he becomes privy to the “repulsive mysteries” of the old lady's toilette, as he watches how “her yellow dress, embroidered with silver, fell to her swollen feet.”35


This last pair of feet brings us to the last card of this magic tale, to the beldam of the story, the queen of spades. The old Countess Anna Fedotovna, a truly extravagant relic of the eighteenth century, belongs among the most remarkable of Pushkin's creations. Her real life model was Princess Nataliia Petrovna Golitsyna, whom Pushkin knew personally. The princess served as a lady-in-waiting to five generations of Russian emperors and was ninety-two years old at the time Pushkin wrote his tale. She was an avid gambler, and because of her failing eyesight, a deck of large-format cards was kept for her at the court.36 Once, her grandson, S. G. Golitsyn, had lost a large sum at cards and came to his grandmother to beg for money. Instead of money, the princess told him of the three winning cards that Saint-Germain had once revealed to her in Paris. The grandson bet on them and regained his loss.37

Nabokov discovered a German subtext for the Russian Queen of Spades in a novel Pique-Dame: Berichte aus dem Irrenhause in Briefen (1826). The novel is a collection of letters from an insane asylum, addressed to a dead friend by a young gambler who ruined his life in a game of Faro when he bet for the tenth time on the queen of spades.38

Neither the Russian princess nor the Swedish Pique-Dame can explain the dénouement of Pushkin's Pikovaia dama, however. The most puzzling aspect of Pushkin's tale is not that the ghost reveals the three winning cards to Germann, but that he actually fails to win with them. There have been numerous attempts to explain the fatal displacement of the ace by the queen in realistic terms. Some of the solutions echo the responses of the gamblers at the beginning of the tale: “Mere chance!” “A fairy tale!” “Perhaps they were powdered cards.” Gershenzon maintained that Germann pulled out the queen of spades by “pure coincidence,” and that there was hardly any similarity between the card and the Countess.39 The Soviet scholar L. V. Chkhaidze offered a crudely materialistic explanation, claiming that in a new deck of cards “the printing tint was, of course, fresh, and the cards were slightly sticking to each other. […] Hence, everything is explained realistically; there is no ‘mysticism’ in the tale whatsoever.”40 Gary Rosenshield argued that by choosing the “wrong card” (the queen instead of the ace), Germann has actually chosen the “right card,” because to “win would, of course, have been to lose; it would have been never to gamble—to live—at all.”41 Vinogradov offered a more plausible explanation of the uncanny dénouement; he cast the mysterious intrusion of the queen of spades at the end of the tale as the materialization of Germann's repressed guilt for the death of the old lady.42

This psychological interpretation becomes even more valid if one takes into account the various visual assimilations of the Countess with the card. First Germann sees the Countess framed in a portrait by Mme Lebrun, depicting her as “a beautiful young woman, with an aquiline nose [and] a rose in her powdered hair.” The portrait is reminiscent of the queen of spades, shown in profile with a rose in her hand. Observing the Countess undressing, Germann sees her as an inverted double figure framed in the mirror. In the same scene he sees her sitting in a rectangular Voltaire chair and involuntarily “swaying from left to right” as if moved by “the action of a hidden galvanism.”43 In addition to the framing of the Countess as a card, her swaying resembles the mechanics of the Faro game, in which cards fall to the left and right of the punter's card.44 Twice Germann glimpses the Countess framed in his window, and twice she winks at him from other rectangular frames: from her open coffin and from the fatal card when Germann is finally struck by the “extraordinary likeness.”45

Having established the visual link between the Countess and the card, we may now look into the mechanics of the actual displacement of the ace by the queen. To begin with, there is no visual resemblance between the two cards that would account for Germann's error. The contrast between the ace, with its single suit in the center, and the queen, whose figure fills almost the entire card, defies confusion. More likely, Germann's inexplicable blunder was prepared through a chain of assimilations based on contiguity rather than similarity, whereby the unstable position of the ace plays a significant role. Throughout the tale the ace is the most elusive member of the triplet and is often absent from the series altogether. When the ace does appear, it is usually the best-camouflaged card of the three. Semantically dissimulated as “raz, odin, odnazhdy” (one, once) or hidden at the word boundary between the two other cards, “utroit, usemerit,” the ace is the least perspicuous component in the various cryptograms. Its weaker position within the triplet makes the ace an especially vulnerable target for displacement by the queen.

If the queen of spades has its human counterpart in the Countess, then the ace could stand for her husband, the Count. After hearing Tomskii's story about his grandparents, Germann sees the two figures on the portraits hanging next to each other in the Countess's boudoir: “One of them showed a man about forty years old, red-faced and portly, wearing a light green coat with a star [Count—portly man—star = ace]; the other a beautiful young woman with an aquiline nose, with her hair combed back over her temples, and with a rose in her powdered locks [Countess—profile—rose = queen].” The contiguity of the two portraits might have contributed to Germann's confusion of the two cards. Furthermore, Tomskii's unflattering account of his grandfather underscores the Count's inferior position vis-à-vis the Countess: “My late grandfather, as far as I remember, played the part of a butler to my grandmother. He feared her like fire.” After he refused to pay off her debt, “Grandmother slapped him on the face and went to bed by herself as an indication of her displeasure.”46 The next day she pays a visit to Count Saint-Germain, who helps her in his own mysterious way. Thus, throughout the story, the “queen” clearly dominates over the vulnerable “ace.”

Another factor contributing to the assimilation and eventual displacement of the ace by the queen is the Countess's androgynous appearance. Once her feminine attributes such as the “cap, decorated with roses” and the “powdered wig” are removed, Germann faces a rather masculine “gray and closely cropped head.” In turn, the appearance of the Countess's real-life prototype also intensifies the gender confusion: because of her facial hair, Princess Golitsyna was called in Pushkin's circle “Princesse Moustache” (Usataia printsessa) or by the androgynous name “Princesse Woldemar.”47

Yet even this gender osmosis cannot satisfactorily explain Germann's fatal error of pulling the wrong card. After all, the 3-7-1 revealed to him by the ghost were the correct three cards, and nothing should have gone awry. Germann's repressed guilt or the assimilation of the two cards and of their gender offers only an auxiliary explanation of Germann's failure to distinguish between them. When he selected “his card” (Pushkin does not say ace, but “svoiu kartu”), the alleged ace must have been before Germann's very eyes. Yet, when he turned the card over, the “queen of spades screwed up her eyes and grinned.” All rational explanations again break down at this point, and we are compelled to resort to the last and most authoritative word on the issue.

The Recent Fortune-Teller informs us in the tale's epigraph that “The queen of spades signifies secret ill will.” Vinogradov explains: “Thus the queen of spades, that is, the dead Countess, penetrated the series of the three ‘reliable cards,’ replaced the ace, and, having destroyed Germann's plans, has fulfilled the will of destiny, ‘the secret ill will’ of fate.”48

One can hardly blame the Countess for acting as she did. After all, one dislikes being called “old witch” (staraia ved'ma) and being threatened with a pistol, just as much as one abhors dying, even at such an advanced age. One may conclude therefore, that the Countess assumed the form of the queen of spades and, acting as befits a lady of her suit, spited Germann, sygrala Germannu v piku, as the Russian expression goes.

This simple, if fantastic, explanation has one fundamental flaw, however. At one point Pushkin confides to the reader that “the Countess hard by no means a bad heart.” Trusting Pushkin, I would like to suggest that Germann was ruined not because of the Countess's ill will but rather in spite of her goodwill. During her nocturnal visit, the Countess made it clear that she came to Germann against her will (“ia prishla k tebe protiv svoei voli”). She also reveals the three cards to him against her will: “mne veleno ispolnit' tvoiu pros'bu.” In both cases the Countess seems to act on behalf of some other involved party. But then comes the unexpected move: “I will forgive you my death, under the condition that you marry my ward, Lizaveta Ivanovna.”49

Forgiveness and compassion are virtues not traditionally associated with the vengeful ghosts of gothic lore, yet the Countess forgives Germann of her own accord, because of her good heart. One can argue that her sudden, albeit posthumous concern for Liza's well-being is an attempt to atone for the ill-treatment of her poor ward, and in establishing this last condition, the Countess is arranging Liza's future. If Germann were to marry Liza, his fabulous win would come in lieu of her dowry and would also handsomely compensate for Liza's salary which, as Pushkin tells us, “was never paid in full.”50 Thus, if Pushkin's statement about the Countess's heart can be trusted, and if her concern for Liza's well-being is genuine, it is highly unlikely that the Countess would double-cross Germann, for the ruin of Liza's benefactor could not be in her interest.

Yet the Countess may have concluded from his behavior that he had no intention of marrying her ward. Germann's predicament would have been further exacerbated if Liza's chastity had been compromised during that night she spent, “bare-armed and open-chested,” alone with her “midnight bridegroom.”51 Because Germann has disregarded an important part of the contract with the dead Countess—for both love and magic are contracts—the “Vénus moscovite” intercedes and in the guise of the queen of spades ruins the knave.

But what if Germann had intended to marry Liza? In that case, his ruin must have been orchestrated by forces beyond the Countess's control. There remains only one character capable of this meddling. Germann was ruined through the diabolical intervention of the Wandering Jew, the discoverer of the elixir of life and of the philosopher's stone, the alchemist, spy, and founder of Freemasonry, Count Saint-Germain himself. The notorious master of the three cards, he prevents Germann from winning the “superfluous” and robs him even of the “necessary.” Germann's 47,000 rubles, the patrimony left to him by his thrifty German father, comes to the banker Chekalinskii, while Germann ends up in the insane asylum.

Diana Burgin offered the most intriguing argument for the necessity of this seemingly excessive punishment. Causing the old lady's death is only the most overt of Germann's transgressions. During his visit to the Countess, Germann inadvertently stumbles upon an arcane mystery that involves a “cabalistic, erotic, familial, and possibly incestuous” relationship among three generations of gamblers and lovers: Saint-Germain, the Countess, and Chaplitskii.52 It was Gershenzon who in 1919 deviously suggested that Saint-Germain may have helped the destitute “Vénus moscovite” in exchange for a small “romantic favor.”53 We know from Tomskii's tale that “to this day grandmother loves him with a passion and gets cross if she hears disrespectful talk about him.”54 Burgin suggested that Chaplitskii, to whom the Countess once revealed the three cards, might be their natural son. (It is rumored that Saint-Germain himself was the natural son of the Queen of Spain.) But, in order to qualify for Saint-Germain's inheritance, Chaplitskii had to become the Countess's lover. Gershenzon was the first to intimate that the Countess passed down the secret to the distressed young gambler for his “leniency toward her fading charms.”55 To complete this arcane genealogy, J. Thomas Shaw added to it the banker Chekalinskii who acts as “the card-playing agent of fate.” A man of about sixty, Chekalinskii is of “the right age to be the ‘son’ of the Countess and Chaplitskii.”56 It seems that Saint-Germain's incestual clan, spanning four generations of gamblers and lovers, is governed by strict laws of primogeniture (and paranomasia) according to which Chaplitskii and Chekalinskii, rather than Germann, are the legitimate heirs. Unlike the true members of Saint-Germain's cabal, Germann was averse to risk and to love, which further disqualifies him from the patrimony. Thus, it is only befitting that the banker Chekalinskii should dispossess the pretender.

Germann, of course, is unaware of this cabal, yet on several occasions he comes dangerously close to its taboo-ridden scenario. At one point he considers becoming a lover of the old Countess, mentions to her some “covenant with the devil,” and is willing to take her “terrible sin” upon his soul. Prying from the Countess her secret, Germann inadvertently evokes the “cry of a new-born son” and beseeches her by appealing to the “feelings of a wife, mistress, mother.” At first the Countess dismisses the whole affair as a joke: “Eto byla shutka.” But when Germann mentions Chaplitskii's name, she becomes “visibly uneasy” and, for the first time, shows a “profound stirring of her heart” (cherty ee izobrazili sil' noe dvizhenie dushi).57 The amorous innuendo lingers even after her death. As Germann leaves the house by the secret staircase, he imagines some eighteenth-century beau, “with hair combed à l'oiseau royal, pressing his three-cornered hat to his heart,”58 stealing into the Countess's boudoir. Was it the apparition of Chaplitskii, or of Saint-Germain himself, returning to claim the Countess's soul? Such musing would not be far off the historical mark: In 1762, when the Countess was in her thirties, Saint-Germain actually visited Petersburg and was involved in the conspiracy that ousted Peter III and brought Catherine II to the throne. While in Russia, Saint-Germain stayed at the house of Princess Mariia Golitsyna, a relative of Pushkin's prototype for the Countess.59 The amorous innuendo transpires also through the liturgical words of the bishop's funeral sermon: “The angel of death found her […] waiting for the midnight bridegroom.”60 And toward the end of the service Germann himself becomes implicated in the most risqué aspect of the cabal. A close relative of the deceased misidentifies him as the Countess's “illegitimate son.” Thus, because Germann inadvertently disturbed the privacy of Saint-Germain's clan and came within a hairsbreadth of its secret, the patriarch sends the ghost of his mistress to punish the intruder.

For those who dislike this magic scenario and would prefer to remain on this side of the supernatural, there is a simpler explanation for Germann's ruin. Pushkin punishes Germann out of Masonic loyalty to Count Saint-Germain—both men were members of the Ovid Lodge in Odessa. Simultaneously, in a gesture of chivalry, Pushkin intercedes on behalf of the two slighted ladies. By chastising Germann for his caddishness, Pushkin fulfills the old lady's last wish better than she had ever envisioned: he marries off her heartbroken and dowryless ward to the wealthy son of the Countess's former steward. With this offstage marriage, the matchmaker Pushkin transfers a substantial part of the Countess's fortune to poor Liza, for it was known that the “numerous domestics […] did what they pleased, robbing the moribund old woman left, right, and center.”61

Having meted out justice, Pushkin also settles his own poetic scores with Germann, who scoffed at Tomskii's story, calling it a “fairy tale.” What the German engineer berated as Dichtung, Pushkin stages as pure Wahrheit. The author surrounds his hero (and the reader) with uncanny events, teases him with tantalizing anagrams, chronograms, and cryptograms that the calculating engineer repeatedly fails to crack, and when he also fails to respond to the call of Liza's heart, Pushkin spites Germann with the fatal card, thus completing his path from the beldam to bedlam.

Dostoevskii called The Queen of Spades “the pinnacle of the art of the fantastic.”62 Its concealed galvanism and the seamless weaving of the fantastic with the realistic invites yet frustrates logical decoding, leaving reader and critic alike to perpetually sway between natural and supernatural explanations for the inexplicable. Pushkin's fantastic tale is a positive proof of Lord Byron's claim that “‘the Artist’ who has rendered the ‘game of cards poetical’ is by far greater” than one who describes a “Walk in a forest” badly.63 By the same token, Pushkin also fulfills Baron Brambeus's prophecy that The Queen of Spades will be read with the “same pleasure by a Countess and merchant alike.”64 We can only guess what Anna Fedotovna thought of it:

“Paul!” called the Countess from behind the screen. “Send me a new novel, will you, but please not the kind they write nowadays.”

“What do you mean, grand' maman?

“I mean a novel in which the hero does not strangle either his mother or his father […]”

“There are no such novels these days. Would you perhaps like some Russian ones?”

“You don't mean to say there are Russian novels? … Send some to me, my dear, send some by all means!”65


  1. A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 17 vols. (Moscow, 1937-1959), 8.1:228-29. All Russian quotations are from this volume (hereafter PSS, 17 vols.); all translations of The Queen of Spades are from Alexander Pushkin, Complete Prose Fiction, trans. and ed. Paul Debreczeny (Stanford, 1983; hereafter CPF). All other translations are mine.

  2. 15 June 1880; F. M. Dostoevskii, Pis'ma, ed. A. S. Dolinin (Moscow, 1959), 4:178.

  3. See Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Ithaca, 1975), 25-26.

  4. Caryl Emerson, “‘The Queen of Spades’ and the Open End,” in David Bethea, ed., Pushkin Today (Bloomington, 1993), 32.

  5. Mikhail Gershenzon, Mudrost' Pushkina (Moscow, 1919), 102.

  6. Pointed out by N. Kashin, “Po povodu ‘Pikovoi damy,’” Pushkin i ego sovremenniki, 1927, nos. 31-32:34.

  7. Viktor Vinogradov, “Stil' ‘Pikovoi damy,’” Vremennik Pushkinskoi komissii (1936): 87-88. Karl Heun wrote under the pseudonym Heinrich Clauren. His novella “Gollandskii kupets” was translated in Syn otechestva 101, no. 9 (1825): 3-51, and reprinted in 1832. See also I. Gribushin, “Iz nabliudenii nad tekstami Pushkina: Vyigrysh na troiku i semerku do ‘Pikovoi damy,’” Vremennik Pushkinskoi komissii (1973): 85-89.

  8. For other subtexts, see Paul Debreczeny, The Other Pushkin (Stanford, 1983), 204-9.

  9. See Boris Tomashevskii's letter to André Meynieux, in Pouchkine, Oeuvres complètes, ed. A. Meynieux, 3 vols. (Paris, 1953-58), 3:500n5; and Vladimir Nabokov, Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse by Aleksandr Pushkin, 4 vols. (Princeton, 1964), 2:261.

  10. See Aleksandr Slonimskii, “O kompozitsii ‘Pikovoi damy,’” Pushkinskii sbornik pamiati prof. S. A. Vengerova (Moscow, 1923), 171-80; Peter Bicilli, “Zametki o Pushkine,” Slavia 11 (1932): 557-60; Vinogradov, “Stil' ‘Pikovoi damy’”; J. Thomas Shaw, “The ‘Conclusion’ of Pushkin's ‘Queen of Spades,’” in Z. Folejewski, ed., Studies in Russian and Polish Literature in Honor of Waclaw Lednicki (The Hague, 1962), 114-26; Andrei Kodjak, “‘The Queen of Spades’ in the Context of the Faust Legend,” in Andrei Kodjak and Kirill Taranovsky, eds., Alexander Puškin: A Symposium on the 175th Anniversary of His Birth (New York, 1976), 87-118; Lauren G. Leighton, “Numbers and Numerology in ‘The Queen of Spades,’” Canadian Slavonic Papers 19, no. 4 (1977): 417-43.

  11. The importance of the sequence was pointed out by Diana Burgin, “The Mystery of ‘Pikovaia Dama’: A New Interpretation,” in Joachim T. Baer and Norman W. Ingham, eds., Mnemozina: Studia litteraria Russica in honorem Vsevolod Setchkarev (Munich, 1974), 46; and Nathan Rosen, “The Magic Cards in ‘The Queen of Spades,’” Slavic and East European Journal 19 (1975): 256.

  12. PSS, 17 vols., 8.1:239-40; CPF, 222-23. I have capitalized only the most direct allusions to cards found by Leighton and have added to them one ace and one seven. See Leighton, “Gematria in ‘The Queen of Spades’: A Decembrist Puzzle,” Slavic and East European Journal 21 (1976): 455-56.

  13. Gershenzon, Mudrost' Pushkina, 111-12.

  14. PSS, 17 vols., 8.1:239, 244, 245, 247, and CPF, 222, 226, 227, 229.

  15. Emerson, “‘The Queen of Spades’ and the Open End,” 6.

  16. PSS, 17 vols., 8.1:234, and CPF, 217 (emphasis mine).

  17. CPF, 217 (emphasis mine).

  18. PSS, 17 vols., 8.1:243, and CPF, 225 (emphasis mine).

  19. PSS, 17 vols., 8.1:235, and CPF, 219 (emphasis mine).

  20. Slonimskii, “O kompozitsii ‘Pikovoi damy,’” 176.

  21. Kodjak, “‘The Queen of Spades’ in the Context of the Faust Legend,” 89.

  22. Rosen, “The Magic Cards in ‘The Queen of Spades,’” 255.

  23. “For us, charades and logogriphs are child's play, but in Karamzin's time, when lexical detail and play with devices were in the foreground, such games were a literary genre.” Iurii Tynianov, “Literaturnyi fakt” (1924), in Poetika, istoriia literatury, kino (Moscow, 1977), 275. Similar anagrammatic jeux d'esprit were a favorite pastime among Pushkin's friends. The readers of their school journal, Litseiskii mudrets, readily solved A. Illichevskii's conundrums such as the following “charade-logogriph” (Illichevskii's own term): “Sadovniki v sadu sadiat menia, / Poety nad mogiloi. / Otkin' mne golovu,—i vot uzh vitiaz' ia, / Khotia po pravde khilyi. / Otkinesh' briukho mne, ia stanovlius' travoi, / Il' kushan'em pered toboi. / Slozhi mne briukho s golovoi—/ Ia stanu pred toboi s tovarom, / Ni slova ne skazal ia darom, / Poimi zh menia, chitatel' moi.” (The gardeners plant me in the garden, / the poets over the grave. / Cut off my head—I become a legendary warrior, / though, to tell the truth, a wimpy one. / Remove my belly—I turn into grass / or food before your very eyes. / Attach the belly to my head—/ I stand before you with my wares. / Not a word I said in vain; / understand me, my reader?). K. Ia. Grot, Pushkinskii litsei, 2d ed. (St. Petersburg, 1998), 333. The answer to the charade is “kiparis” (cypress); its components: “Paris, ris, kipa” (Paris, rice, stack). For Pushkin's use of anagrammatic riddles, see my articles “The Sound and Theme in the Prose of A. S. Pushkin: A Logo-Semantic Study of Paronomasia,” Slavic and East European Journal 27 (1983): 1-18; and “‘The Shot’ by Aleksandr Pushkin and Its Trajectories,” in J. Douglas Clayton, ed., Issues in Russian Literature before 1917: Selected Papers of the Third World Congress for Soviet and East European Studies (Columbus, Ohio, 1989), 62-74.

  24. The fact that the ace is discovered as the last card of the series is conclusive proof of the infallibility of Pushkin's 3-7-1 sequence and, by the same token, of the shortsightedness of the interpreters of this phrase. See Slonimskii, “O kompozitsii ‘Pikovoi damy,’” 176; Kashin, “Po povodu ‘Pikovoi damy,’” 33-34; V. V. Vinogradov, Stil' Pushkina (Moscow, 1941), 588; L. V. Chkhaidze, “O real'nom znachenii motiva trekh kart v ‘Pikovoi dame,’” Pushkin: Issledovaniia i materialy (Moscow-Leningrad, 1960), 3:458; Shaw, “The ‘Conclusion’ of Pushkin's ‘Queen of Spades,’” 119; L. S. Sidiakov, Khudozhestvennaia proza A. S. Pushkina (Riga, 1973), 117; S. G. Bocharov, Poetika Pushkina (Moscow, 1974), 187; Rosen, “The Magic Cards in ‘The Queen of Spades,’” 255; Kodjak, “‘The Queen of Spades’ in the Context of the Faust Legend,” 89; L. Leighton, “Numbers and Numerology in ‘The Queen of Spades,’” 427, and many others.

  25. PSS, 17 vols., 8.1:249, and CPF, 230 (emphasis mine).

  26. Rosen, “The Magic Cards in ‘The Queen of Spades,’” 262.

  27. Cf. A. Griboedov, “Chto za tuzy v Moskve zhivut i umiraiut” (Gore ot uma, act 2, scene 1). There is a secondary sound association between the puzastyi muzhchina and tuz: a chubby little fellow is also called butuz in Russian.

  28. Rosen, “The Magic Cards in ‘The Queen of Spades,’” 262.

  29. Harry B. Weber, “‘Pikovaia dama’: A Case for Freemasonry in Russian Literature,” Slavic and East European Journal 12 (1968): 443.

  30. “Khudozhestvennyi mir Pushkina,” in G. M. Koka, ed., Pushkin ob iskusstve (Moscow, 1962), 18. This arch is reproduced by Rosen, “The Magic Cards in ‘The Queen of Spades,’” 264.

  31. Rosen, “The Magic Cards in ‘The Queen of Spades,’” 263; suggested by Shaw, “The ‘Conclusion’ of Pushkin's ‘Queen of Spades,’” 120.

  32. Kodjak, “‘The Queen of Spades’ in the Context of the Faust Legend,” 97.

  33. PSS, 17 vols., 8.1:236, and CPF, 219 (emphasis mine).

  34. Those who might take my delicate leg twisting for leg pulling should find reassurance in Pushkin's words to Prince Viazemskii: “Aristocratic prejudices are suitable for you but not for me—I look at a finished poem of mine as a cobbler looks at a pair of his boots: I sell for profit. The shop foreman judges my jack-boots (botforty) as not up to the standard, he rips them up and ruins the piece of goods; I am the loser. I go and complain to the district policeman.” From a letter to Viazemskii, March 1823, in J. Thomas Shaw, trans. and ed., The Letters of Alexander Pushkin (Madison, 1967), 111. My incredulous arbiter may turn for additional solace to Pushkin's parable “Sapozhnik” (The cobbler, 1829): “A cobbler, staring at a painting, / Has found the footwear on it flawed. / The artist promptly fixed the failing, / But this is what the cobbler thought: / ‘It seems the face is slightly crooked … / Isn't that bosom rather nude?’ / Annoyed, Apelles interrupted: ‘Judge not, my friend, above the boot!’” (trans. Rosanne Shield, unpublished manuscript).

  35. CPF, 223.

  36. N. Rabkina, “Istoricheskii prototip ‘Pikovoi damy,’” Voprosy istorii 43, no. 1 (1968): 213-16. Pushkin acknowledged the link between the princess and the Countess in his diary entry of 7 April 1834.

  37. V. Grigorenko et al., eds., Pushkin v vospominaniiakh sovremennikov, 2 vols. (Moscow, 1977), 2:195.

  38. In his commentary to Eugene Onegin, Nabokov erroneously attributed this novel by the Swedish romantic writer Clas Johan Livijn to its German translator la Motte-Fouqué (Nabokov, Eugene Onegin, 3:97). The original title of Livijn's novel is Spader Dame, en Berättelse i Bref, Funne pa Danviken (1824). Pushkin could have been familiar with the novel in a French translation. Moreover, its Swedish title and a brief plot summary appeared in Moskovskii telegraf (1825). See D. M. Sharypkin, “Vokrug ‘Pikovoi damy,’” Vremennik Pushkinskoi komissii (1972): 128-31; and J. Douglas Clayton, “‘Spader Dame,’ ‘Pique-Dame,’ and ‘Pikovaia dama’: A German Source for Pushkin?” Germano-Slavica, 1974, no. 4:5-10.

  39. Gershenzon, Mudrost' Pushkina, 102-3.

  40. Chkhaidze, “O real'nom znachenii motiva trekh kart v ‘Pikovoi dame,’” 459.

  41. Gary Rosenshield, “Choosing the Right Card: Madness, Gambling, and the Imagination in Pushkin's ‘The Queen of Spades,’” PMLA 109 (1994): 1004. I have to admit that I fail to understand this argument. If gambling was what Germann really desired, as Rosenshield claims, why should selecting the ace and winning 367,000 rubles have prevented him from gambling again at some future point? The true gambler Chaplitskii continued to gamble after his fabulous bet on the three cards the Countess had revealed to him.

  42. Vinogradov, “Stil' ‘Pikovoi damy,’” 96-97.

  43. CPF, 223.

  44. Noted by Vinogradov, “Stil' ‘Pikovoi damy,’” 103.

  45. A number of these frames were also pointed out by Rosen.

  46. CPF, 212.

  47. See Nikolai Osipovich Lerner, Proza Pushkina, 2d ed. (Moscow, 1923), 47, and Shaw, trans. and ed., The Letters, 362, 394. The confusion of the ace with the queen and their gender could also have been facilitated by Germann's possible misunderstanding of the French phrase from Tomskii's tale: “au jeu de la Reine” (the queen's game—fem.), which Germann might have associated with au jeu de l'araignée (the spider's game—masc.). This pun was mentioned by Rosen, “The Magic Cards in ‘The Queen of Spades,’” 273n. The German engineer's French was probably not as good as that of his aristocratic friends.

  48. Vinogradov, “Stil' ‘Pikovoi damy,’” 97.

  49. PSS, 17 vols., 8.1:247; CPF, 230 (emphasis mine).

  50. Ibid., 217.

  51. Between 3:00 a.m. when Germann enters Liza's room and the moment he kisses her good-bye in the morning, another winter night, long and dark enough to accommodate a Dantesque pause, passes imperceptibly. We learn from the tale's epilogue that Liza has married and is bringing up a poor relative, perhaps “her own illegitimate daughter by Germann.” Suggested by Neil Cornwell, Pushkin's “The Queen of Spades,” Critical Studies in Russian Literature (London, 1993), 62-63.

  52. Burgin, “The Mystery of ‘Pikovaia Dama’: A New Interpretation,” 46-56.

  53. Gershenzon, Mudrost' Pushkina, 98.

  54. CPF, 213.

  55. Gershenzon, Mudrost' Pushkina, 98.

  56. Shaw, “The ‘Conclusion’ of Pushkin's ‘Queen of Spades,’” 125n23.

  57. PSS, 17 vols., 8.1:241, and CPF, 224.

  58. CPF, 228.

  59. See Cornwell, Pushkin's “The Queen of Spades,” 88-89.

  60. CPF, 228.

  61. CPF, 217. Noted by Shaw, “The ‘Conclusion’ of Pushkin's ‘Queen of Spades,’” 121.

  62. Dostoevskii, Pis'ma, 4:178.

  63. “Letter to John Murray Esq” (1821), in Andrew Nicholson, ed., The Complete Miscellaneous Prose (Oxford, 1991), 141. See Shaw, trans. and ed., The Letters, 281.

  64. PSS, 17 vols., 15:110, 322.

  65. CPF, 215.

The first portion of this article develops the argument I made in a note “Real'noe i fantasticheskoe v ‘Pikovoj dame,’” in Revue des études Slaves 59 (1987): 263-67. I would like to thank my anonymous referees for several felicitous formulations and the guest editor of this issue, Stephanie Sandler, for her inspiring suggestions.

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