The Queen of Spades stands at the peak of Pushkin’s achievement in prose writing. The story was popular with the general reading public at the time, particularly for its striking plot. The story opens with a number of young officers conversing after a card game. One of them, Narumov, wonders why his grandmother, who possesses the secret of winning at the game of faro, never plays. It is revealed that she was once an avid gambler and was given the secret of the game on the promise of using it only once to save her from poverty.
Hermann, a German engineering officer who usually never gambles, becomes obsessed with discovering the secret from the countess. He begins a correspondence with the countess’s young companion, Lizaveta, who hopes that Hermann will deliver her from her poor position. They arrange to meet, but once inside the house, he confronts the old countess. When she refuses to reveal the secret, he pulls out a gun, and she dies of fright. During the countess’s funeral, it seems as if the corpse winks at Hermann, and that night her ghost visits him and gives him the secret of winning. Hermann places the bets over three consecutive days. On the third day, he loses on the last card, the queen of spades. Having lost all of his money, he goes mad.
The story is a society tale, and part of its appeal, particularly at that time, was its depiction of the cold glamour that characterized fashionable society. Pushkin achieved the ultimate concision of detail, using adjectives and other sorts of description sparingly. Most of these details are doubled. If a theme or image is mentioned once, it is repeated later in the story. One example of this doubling are the roses that adorn the countess’s hair, which echoes an earlier image of the roses in her hair in the portrait.
It is often assumed that the plot of the story is based on fantastic events, but, on closer examination, these supernatural occurrences are based on Hermann’s developing monomania. Pushkin notes that “it seemed to Hermann” that the corpse of the countess winked. The queen that appears in the cards at the end is easily explained by the rules of the card game. The countess’s posthumous visit to Hermann’s room is actually a dream.
Pushkin’s characterization of Hermann is one of his most successful to this point in his career. He is one of the first characters in Russian literature who seems three dimensional. One of the salient features of his character is his dualism. His German side is cautious, calculating, and thrifty—yet another side to his character is developed as the plot progresses. It is revealed that he is also proud and superstitious. Psychological states are suggested by a compact description of physical reactions.
Card games have been seen traditionally as metaphors for life, where fate decides the outcome. In Pushkin’s story, the symbolic and realistic levels are intertwined, so that, in the end, Hermann loses at cards and at life. According to fortune-telling books at the time, the queen of spades signified an old, evil woman. The countess and Hermann, then, are joined by means of cards and the theme of the incomprehensibility of their characters.
Pushkin’s tone in the story, and particularly in his attitude toward the characters, is ironic. Pushkin forces the reader to see the humor in these situations and to see them seriously. The irony is pervasive but not destructive. It enables him to parody certain literary types and situations while still communicating humankind’s powerlessness against fate.
As the story opens, a group of young military officers are playing cards into the early morning. One officer remarks that Hermann, an officer in the Engineer Corps, likes to watch the others play, but he himself does not play. The prudent and industrious Hermann replies that he is attempting to...
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- Critical Essays