The Queen of Spades

by Alexander Pushkin

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In "The Queen of Spades", which modernist element reflects a modern viewpoint in a specific instance?

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The feature of this story that seems peculiarly modernist is its ironic approach. Irony is a favourite mode in modernism, but it was not so in most literature in the earlier nineteenth century, where writing was often quite emotional, and even maudlin. For instance, in the hands of another nineteenth-century writer, the character of Lizaveta, the young girl duped in love, would probably been sentimentalized, but not so here.

The ironical approach in this story is signalled in the taut, economical prose used by Pushkin, quite different from the more expansive, often self-indulgent narrative style used by prose writers in Russia and elsewhere, in this period. Pushkin instead opts for a terse, quite detached tone. Things are described just as they are and there is no commentary offered on characters or events. This lack of authorial intrusion is quite striking as very often ninenteenth century writers tended to comment and moralize in their stories – for instance the two giants of nineteenth-century Russian literature, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Pushkin certainly does enter into the thoughts and emotions of his main character, Hermann, but the story refuses to moralise on his actions in any way. This  lack of a tendency to judge characters, keeping the focus on the stark depiction of a life, is nowhere more evident than at the very end, when we learn of Herman’s eventual fate:

Hermann went out of his mind, and is now confined in room Number 17 of the Obukhov Hospital. He never answers any questions, but he constantly mutters with unusual rapidity: "Three, seven, ace!" "Three, seven, queen!"

There are no sombre philosophical musings on the way things have turned out for Hermann; the outcome is simply presented matter-of-factly, and with a touch of that sardonic humour which often surfaces throughout the tale. This is quite in keeping with a modernist sensibility –as is the refusal to provide any kind of neat, rounded off conclusion and explication of the central strange event of the story: the apparition of the dead Countess. Did she really appear to Hermann or was it just a hallucination? It is left quite to the reader to decide.

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