The Queen of Spades

by Alexander Pushkin

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What problems are highlighted in "The Queen of Spades"?

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If we are to approach this question by discussing societal problems, an obvious one is gambling addiction, though the central character, Herman ("Gherman" in Russian), begins to gamble only after he hears the tale about the Countess and the "three cards." Until then, he had been content merely to watch others at the gaming table. But if by the "problems" of the story we are referring to questions about its interpretation and the "message" Pushkin intended, then the following, in my view, would be the most interesting problems to discuss:

First, as with other Gothic tales of the general period—including the slightly earlier ones of E. T. A. Hoffmann and, a bit later, those of the American writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe—much of The Queen of Spades occupies a kind of borderland between illusion and reality. When Herman first goes to the Countess to extract the secret of the winning cards, she tells him that the story about them was a joke. She dies having revealed nothing to him. But after the funeral, the ghost of the Countess appears to him and states that if he plays the three, seven, and ace cards in succession at the gaming table, he will win each time.

We might ask if the visit by the ghost is real or if Herman hallucinates it. One would think that the Countess really has appeared to him, given that the three, seven, and ace do turn out to be a winning sequence of cards when Herman plays. Or are we to believe that Herman himself is telepathic? (This raises the question of which is more believable: ghosts or telepathy!) Or is it all a matter of chance? For Herman, the problem is that on the third night, he inexplicably puts his money on the wrong card—the queen of spades, instead of the ace. He loses, and he then goes mad, raising the question of whether his own sense of guilt has caused him unconsciously to bet on the wrong card or whether the Countess's spirit, seeking revenge, has telepathically manipulated him into making this fatal error. The mocking image of the Queen of Spades is, to Herman, the Countess herself.

All of these problems of interpretation give a richness to the story and its moral, which they might not otherwise have had. Herman is punished for his greed, his ruthlessness in threatening the Countess and thus probably being the cause of her death, and his heartlessness in using the Countess's ward Lizaveta to gain access to the Countess. Pushkin's message is a serious one, though the story comes across as ironic and even lighthearted in tone (or at least appears that way in translation).

A final problem to consider is whether The Queen of Spades is a critique of upper-class Russian society, though Herman himself is an outsider. Herman is a German and therefore the Other, but Pushkin gives him little, if any, claim on our sympathy. One might ask also if Pushkin's main point is that Herman's fate, in the scheme of things, is just a bizarre, inconsequential episode, of no more significance than, as we are told at the conclusion, the fact that Tomsky (the Countess's grandson) has married Princess Pauline.

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