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By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
.......The all-night card party at the rooms of Narumov, a cavalry officer, ends with dinner and champagne near dawn. Narumov asks Surin how he fared.
.......“I have no luck," Surin laments: "I play cautiously, never get excited, never lose my head, and yet I go on losing!”
.......Another player calls attention to Hermann, an officer in the
engineers, saying he always comes to watch but never plays. Hermann explains, “I am not in the position to sacrifice the necessary in the hope of winning the superfluous.”
.......Prince Paul Tomsky, also an officer, observes that Hermann is simply being prudent.
The person who really puzzles him, Tomsky says, is his eighty-seven-year-old grandmother, Countess Anna Fedotovna, because she never bets against the banker in card games. Then he tells a little story about her that he heard from his uncle, Count Ivan Ilyitch, the countess's son.
.......In Paris sixty years before, when her beauty dazzled
society, she lost an enormous sum at court to the Duke of Orleans in a game of faro. After returning to her residence, she directed her husband to pay the debt. The normally compliant man refused to do so, pointing out that she had spent 500,000 francs in just six months. In desperation, she wrote a letter to old Count St. Germain, famous for the stories told about him–that he claimed to have
discovered the elixir of life and to have found a way to turn base metals into gold. In his memoirs, Casanova said he was a spy. Whatever was true or untrue about him, he was always in demand at social gatherings, and the countess had fond memories of him, the most important of which was that he had money.
.......The count immediately went to her and told her a secret card strategy that would enable her to win back her money. That night at Versailles at the jeu de la reine (Queen Marie-Antoinette's own gaming table), she again played against the Duke of Orleans after telling him a little tale about why she had not yet paid him
his money. Upon employing the secret strategy, she immediately recouped her losses.
.......Afterward, the countess guarded the card secret from others. She even refused to reveal it to her four sons, including Tomsky’s father. However, after taking pity on
an acquaintance named Chaplitzky, who had lost 300,000 rubles, she told him the secret, designating three cards he should bet on. She also made him promise that after the game he would never play cards again.
.......When he used the secret, he won
immediately. Before the game ended, he had covered his losses–and won a little extra. Oddly, though, Chaplitzky died in poverty.
.......The narrator flashes back several days to a scene that takes place a few days before Narumov’s card party.
.......In her home, Countess Fedotovna primps before a mirror while three maids attend her. Lizaveta Ivanovna, her ward, sits by a window embroidering. Her grandson, Tomsky, enters and asks permission to introduce a friend to her at a Friday ball. After she grants it, she and Paul discuss a woman he admires–a Miss
Yeletsky. The countess criticizes her, then asks about the young lady’s grandmother, Princess Daria Petrovna. When Paul reminds the countess that the princess has been dead seven years, Lizaveta furtively signals Paul with a cautionary gesture. He well knows its meaning: Never should anyone inform the countess of the death of one of her contemporaries.
.......After the old woman goes behind a screen with her maids to finish dressing, Lizaveta inquires about the friend Paul plans to introduce. He tells her that the man is a soldier named Narumov.
.......“Is he in the engineers?”
.......“No, in the cavalry,” Paul replies. “What made you think that he was in the engineers?”
.......Lizaveta smiles but says nothing. From behind the screen, Paul’s grandmother asks him to send her a novel. He then leaves. Moments later, the countess emerges and tells Lizaveta to order a carriage so they can go for a drive. After delivering the message, the young lady returns just as a servant brings books selected by Paul.
Lizaveta excuses herself so she can dress for the drive, but the countess makes her read from one of the books.
.......“What a lot of nonsense!” she says after Lizaveta reads two pages, then scolds the girl for not being dressed for the drive.
.......Lizaveta goes off and dresses. When she returns wearing her hat and cloak, the countess tells her she is overdressed for the occasion, then tells a valet to open a window.
.......“Windy and bitterly cold,” the old woman says. “Unharness the horses.” The drive is off.
.......Lizaveta Ivanovna thinks, “What a life is mine!”
.......Indeed. Although the countess has a good heart, she is egotistical, eccentric, and avaricious. She attends all the great balls and holds her own grand social gatherings but now has trouble remembering the faces of her guests. Her servants take advantage of her and help
themselves to whatever is available around them.
.......It is Lizaveta who must see closely to all the countess’s needs–making her tea, reading to her, going for rides with her, attending balls with her. And the countess is quick to criticize her, holding
her accountable even for bad weather. At balls, everyone ignores Lizaveta even though she is prettier than the marriageable young ladies whom the men pay homage.
.......The narrator flashes back a week, to a moment when Lizaveta is embroidering at the same window.
.......Glancing out the window, Lizavetta catches sight of a young soldier staring up at her. She does not know him, but the reader becomes aware that it is Hermann, the engineer.
.......Out of modesty, she looks away but returns her gaze to the street five minutes later. He is still there. He continues to return to the window over the next few days until, on one occasion, she smiles at him.
.......It was this soldier that
Lizaveta thought Paul was referring to when he asked the countess whether he could introduce a friend. But her heart sank when she heard it was a cavalryman. Now she worries that the unpredictable Paul knows that she may be interested in the engineer.
.......However, it is not Lizaveta that Hermann wants to meet. It is the countess. He wants to use Lizaveta to gain access to the old woman so that he can wheedle the card secret out of her. He found out her residence after making an inquiry on the street.
.......The narrator flashes forward, returning to the scene in the countess’s room at the time that she called off the drive in the carriage.
.......Shortly after the countess cancelled the carriage drive with Lizaveta, she changes her mind and again orders a carriage. When she and Lizaveta enter the carriage, the engineer approaches her, places a letter in her hand, and leaves. The countess questions her about the man, but Lizaveta answers vaguely. After the
drive, Lizaveta goes immediately to her room and opens the letter. It declares Hermann’s love for her in polite, respectful language. Lizaveta is unaware that he had copied the words from a German novel. She is delighted at first, then uneasy about starting a secret relationship. It would be improper. Should she cease sitting at the window? Should see send the letter back?
.......She decides to return the letter with a new one. In it,she tells the young man that they should not become acquainted in such a furtive manner. The next day, when he comes by, she drops the letter into the street. When Hermann reads it, he is not surprised by her
response. Three days later, he sends another letter, via a girl from a milliner shop. Recognizing the handwriting, Lizaveta refuses to accept the letter, but the girl insists that she take. When Lizaveta reads it, she is offended to learn that he dares to ask for an interview with her. She rips it up and tells the girl to tell Hermann that he ought to be ashamed.
.......But Hermann continues to send letters, each expressing his passionate love. After they have their calculated and cumulative effect, she writes him a letter telling him that she and her grandmother will attend a ball that evening, Friday, at the embassy. After they leave
for the embassy, he is to enter the countess’s house and go to Lizaveta’s room, accessible by one of two doors behind the screen in the countess’s room. The door on the right opens into a private study. The one on the left opens into a corridor leading to a winding staircase at the top of which is Lizaveta’s room. The servants will be out, and the maids will be in another room.
.......Late that evening, after the countess and Lizaveta pull away in the carriage, Hermann goes directly to the countess’s room–not Lizaveta’s–and waits. When the countess returns, he will ask her to reveal the card secret. A golden lamp burns before a shrine. A portrait of a
stout man of about forty and one of a young beauty hang on the walls, along with Chinese silk. Stuffed chairs and divans stand “in melancholy symmetry around the room.”
.......The hours pass slowly. After a clock strikes two, Hermann hears the carriage pull up.
Moments later, the house comes alive with the noise of servants bustling about. When maids enter the room with the countess, Hermann is in the closet behind the right door. After she puts on her nightcap and dressing gown, Hermann emerges, frightening her.
.......“I have no intention of harming you,” he says. “I have come only to ask a favor.”
.......When he asks her to tell him the secret, she replies that it is a joke. There is nothing to it. When he tells her that he knows she once disclosed the
secret to a man named Chaplitzky, she takes him more seriously. However, she does not reveal the secret. Hermann pleads with her. Still she holds her tongue.
.......Even if knowing the secret of the cards brings a terrible curse on him, Hermann says, he still
wishes to know it. The countess remains silent. Frustrated, he draws a pistol and commands her to disclose the secret. She falls backward and lies motionless. Is she dead?
.......Lizaveta, meanwhile, is waiting for Hermann in her room. When he
does not appear, she seems relieved. She did not really know him, after all, and never heard his voice. Then she muses over events of the evening. Prince Paul had actually danced a mazurka with her. All the while, he teased her about “the engineer,” and the nature of his comments led her believe that he knew about her fascination with the man, whom he identifies by name. Hermann, he said, was a
devilish man who had committed three crimes and who had designs on Lizaveta.
.......Lizaveta’s musing is interrupted when Hermann enters her room. He tells her that the countess is dead and that he caused her demise. Then he recounts everything that
.......“You are a monster!” she says.
.......After he tells her that he had no ill intentions toward the countess and
that the pistol was not even loaded, they sit in silence until dawn. She then instructs him how to exit the house via a secret staircase. After following her instructions, he reaches the street unseen.
Three days later, the church is full on the day of the countess’s 9 a.m. funeral. Lizaveta
is, of course, among the mourners. So is Hermann. He wants to show goodwill so that the dead countess will not work a curse against him. After the elaborate rites, Hermann kneels at her coffin to pay his respects. At that moment, he sees the dead woman dart a mocking look at him and wink.
.......Hermann steps back and, losing his footing, falls. At that very moment, Lizaveta faints. Whispers pass between other mourners, and a relative of the countess, a kammerherr (chamberlain), tells an Englishman that Hermann was the illegitimate son of the countess.
.......After dining at a restaurant and drinking too much wine, Hermann goes home and falls asleep. When he awakens in the middle of the night, a woman in white enters his room–the dead countess! She tells Hermann that she has been commanded to reveal the secret. Then she identifies three cards guaranteed to win--the three, the seven,
and the ace--and tells him how to play them. There is a condition: After he wins, he must never again play cards for the rest of his life.
.......Before disappearing, the countess says she will forgive Hermann if he marries Lizaveta. From that moment
forward, all he can think about are the cards: three, seven, and ace.
.......It so happens that a famous Moscow card player, Chekalinsky, is in St. Petersburg, and many gamesters young and old are seizing the opportunity to bet against him. Hermann goes with
Narumov to get in on the action. After passing through Chekalinsky’s splendid suite of rooms, they find him in the drawing room at a long table with about twenty other players. He is keeping the bank. He is a dignified, silver-haired man of about sixty.
.......After the current game ends, Hermann begins playing. When he bets 47,000 rubles, everyone stops to stare at him. Chekalinsky warns him that his wager is extremely high. In fact, no one in the room has bet more than 275 rubles. After Chekalinsky tells Hermann he must place his wager on his card, Hermann lays down a bank note for the sum.
.......On the next deal, the right cards appear, and Hermann jubilantly declares, “I have won.” There are murmurs of astonishment. Immediately, Chekalinsky pays off Hermann, who then goes home. Narumov has a hard time believing what he saw.
.......The following evening, Hermann returns to the game, lays down his bet, and wins 97,000 rubles. He takes the money and leaves, then returns the next evening. All the others in the room–generals, young officers, privy counsellors–suspend their own games and gather around
.......When he sees the right cards appear again, Hermann declares victory. But Chekalinsky tells him his queen has lost. Hermann checks his cards. What he thought was an ace is the queen of spades, whose face resembles that of the old countess.
The face smiles and winks at him.
.......Chekalinsky rakes in his winnings. For several minutes, Hermann remains silent and motionless, then leaves.
.......Eventually, Hermann loses his mind and is confined to Obukhov Hospital, where he spends his time repeating, “Three, seven, ace. Three, seven, queen.”
.......Lizaveta, meanwhile, has married the son of the late countess’s
former steward, a nice young man who works for the state and receives good pay. Lizaveta supports a poor relative. Tomsky has received a promotion to captain and has married a princess.
The action takes place in winter in the early 1830s in St. Petersburg, Russia, a port city on the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea. St. Petersburg was Russia's capital from 1712 to 1918. Between 1914 and 1924, it was known as Petrograd. Between 1924 and 1991, it was known as Leningrad. In 1991, the Russian government restored its original name.
Flashbacks involving Countess Anna Fedotovna takes place in two French locales, Paris and Versailles, in the 1770s.
Hermann: Russian military officer (an engineer) who is the son of a German immigrant. He refuses to gamble at cards for fear of jeopardizing the inheritance from his father. However, after learning that Countess Anna Fedotovna possesses a card secret that guarantees victory, he abandons all caution and dedicates himself to extracting the
secret from the countess. Hermann's character, then, has a prudent German side and a daring Russian side.
Countess Anna Fedotovna: Eighty-seven-old aristocrat who knows a card secret that never fails. However, the secret works only for a limited time. The countess once used it to
recoup huge gambling losses from the Duke of Orleans, then reposed on her winnings. The countess is somewhat dotty, forgetting faces of acquaintances and confusing the past with the present. She is also bossy and egotistical. She represents the old, dying Russia of the aristocrats. Pushkin is said to have used a real-life person, Princess Natalia Petrovna Golitsyna (1741-1837?), as the model for
the countess. Princess Natalia, who came from a distinguished family, lived at 10 Malaya Morskaya in central St. Petersburg. Her husband was Vladimir Borisovich Golitsyn (1731-1798).
Lizaveta Ivanovna: Very pretty young lady who is the ward of the countess. In her dealings with
Hermann, she vacillates between restraining her emotions and giving in to them.
Prince Paul Tomsky: Grandson of the countess. He tells his friends the remarkable story of how his grandmother used a secret card strategy to recoup her gambling losses. In presenting his story,
Tomsky repeats what his uncle, Count Ivan Ilyitch, had earlier told him.
Count Ivan Ilyitch: Uncle of Tomsky and son of the countess.
Narumov: Cavalry officer
who hosts a card game. He asks Tomsky to introduce him to the countess.
Surin: Losing player at Narumov's card game.
Count St. Germain: An old friend of the countess who
reveals to her the card secret. Pushkin based this character on a real-life person with the same name. St. Germain (1710-1784) was a mysterious adventurer said to be gifted with extrasensory perception and other amazing powers, including the ability to pass through walls. He spoke many languages, exhibited a mastery of history and chemistry, composed music, and claimed to know how to turn base
metals into gold. One story about him maintains that he was the founder of freemasonry. Scholars have not documented his national and ethnic origins, but reports during his time maintained that he was a Jew born in Portugal. He lived in various countries, including Germany and Russia, and is said to have served as a spy in England and France. Five years after his death in 1784, he was reportedly
seen in Paris.
Duke of Orleans: Card player at Versailles in the 1770s. In a faro game, he won a huge sum from the countess. After she used the card secret against him, she won back her money.
Chaplitzky: Acquaintance of Countess Anna Fedotovna. After he goes into debt, the countess reveals to him the card secret. He uses it to win huge sums at the card table. The narrator points out, however, that he died in poverty.
Moscow gambler against whom Hermann gambles.
Messenger from the Milliner: Woman who delivers a letter from Hermann to Lizaveta.
Bishop: Clergyman who eulogizes the countess
at her funeral.
Man in Uniform of Kammerherr (Chamberlain): At the countess's funeral, this man whispers to an Englishman that Hermann is the illegitimate son of the countess.
Englishman: Man to whom the Kammerherr whispers his secret.
Princess Pauline: Young woman whom Prince Paul Tomsky marries.
Steward: Servant of the
Steward's Son: Man whom Lizaveta Ivanovna marries.
Woman Jester: Mourner at the countess's funeral.
Footmen, Porter,Servants, Maids, Street Watchman
Type of Work and Year of Completion
Publishers frequently identify The Queen of Spades as a short story. However, the term novella seems more appropriate inasmuch as the work is not only longer than the typical short story but also more structurally complex, featuring subplots and flashbacks as well as epigraphs (quotations) that precede each of the six short chapters of
the work. Each epigraph calls attention to a theme in the chapter it introduces. The novella may be read as a tale of the supernatural, a psychological study, or a parody of the Gothic romance. It may also be read as a combination of these genres. Pushkin completed The Queen of Spades in 1834.
Narration and Structure
Pushkin tells The Queen of Spades in third-person omniscient point of view with cold objectivity that admits no room for melodrama. The narration freely flashes backward and forward as the story unfolds during a winter month. There are six chapters, each preceded by an epigraph relating to the theme of the chapter, and a
After hearing Tomsky’s tale, Hermann becomes obsessed with uncovering the card secret and winning a fortune. Thinking about the secret keeps him awake at night. And when he does fall asleep, he dreams “of nothing but cards, green tables, piles of banknotes, and heaps of ducats.” So obsessed is he with the secret that he pretends to be in love with
the countess’s ward in order to gain access to the old woman’s house. He even considers romancing the decrepit countess herself:
"If," he thought to himself the following evening, as he walked along the streets of St. Petersburg, "if the old Countess would but reveal her secret to me! if she would only tell me the names of the three winning cards. Why should I not try my fortune? I must get introduced to her and win her favour–become her lover. But all that will take
time, and she is eighty-seven years old: she might be dead in a week, in a couple of days even!–"After he learns the secret and wins 47,000 rubles, the passion to win more consumes him. He doubles his winnings, the loses everything–including his mind–after he mistakes a queen for an ace. After being confined to a mental hospital, his obsession continues as continually repeats, “Three, seven, ace. Three, seven, queen.”
Hermann’s pathological preoccupation with learning the card secret is born of his desire to eliminate risk at the gaming table. Knowing the secret card formula will enable him to transcend the laws of chance and probability and become fabulously wealthy without putting a single ruble in jeopardy. Ironically, however, Hermann must take great
risks–falsely wooing Lizaveta, stealing into a strange house, and confronting the old countess at 2 a.m.–in order to neutralize risk. In life, it seems, it is impossible to suppress risk entirely. Even after he learns the foolproof card strategy and uses it against Chekalinsky, risk sits at his elbow in the form of his own volatile emotions. Will he be able to control them? Lizavetta also
struggles with risk. After establishing communications with Hermann, she wonders whether she should risk her reputation by becoming further involved with him. And the countess? In her youth, she gambled prodigally, continually placing her and her husband’s money at risk. After learning the secret card trick and winning back her losses, she quits gambling.
The Unpredictability of Life
Like a game of chance, life itself is unpredictable. (This theme is related to the previous one.) However, because unpredictability scares Hermann, he does not fully participate in life. Rather, he observes it from a distance. His only goal is to conserve his inheritance. However, when he sees an opportunity to eliminate unpredictability, he becomes
active. After he learns the card secret and uses it in the climactic competition against Chekalinsky, he wins big, then loses everything–ironically, to unpredictability. To underscore this theme, Pushkin wrote unpredictable sequences and outcomes into The Queen of Spades. For example, he flashes back and forth in time at sometimes unexpected moments. In addition, he suggests plot outcomes
that never materialize. To wit: When Pushkin presents beautiful Lizaveta looking out the window at the uniformed officer in the street, the reader believes that a princely rescuer has arrived to take her away from her oppressive life as bondwoman to the countess. But nothing of the sort happens. Lizaveta's rescuer goes insane, and she marries the son of the countess's
All men and women carry secrets, some as trivial as cake recipes and others as momentous as war strategies. In The Queen of Spades, Pushkin builds his story on several secrets, the most prominent of which is a foolproof strategy for winning at cards. The mysterious Count St. Germain passes the card secret on to Countess Anna Fedetovna,
enabling her to liquidate a huge gambling debt. She then divulges the secret to an acquaintance desperate to recoup 300,000 rubles he lost at cards. Sixty years later, the grandson of the countess, Prince Paul Tomsky, tells his gambling friends how his grandmother restored herself to financial health with the secret strategy. In response to Tomsky’s story, told after an all-night card party, his
friend Narumov–the host of the party–replies,
What! You have a grandmother who knows how to hit upon three lucky cards in succession, and you have never yet succeeded in getting the secret of it out of her?Tomsky says,
That's the deuce of it! She had four sons, one of whom was my father; all four were determined gamblers, and yet not to one of them did she ever reveal her secret, although it would not have been a bad thing either for them or for me.The reader learns later in the story that Narumov has asked Tomsky to introduce him to the countess. The narrator does not disclose the reason for Narumov’s request, but it seems clear that he wants to prod the countess for the secret. So does another guest at the card party, Hermann, the son of a German immigrant to Russia. Hermann–who attends card
parties as an observer, not a participant, in order to conserve his inheritance–loses all sense of caution after hearing about the secret and dedicates himself to learning it at all costs. Lizaveta guards a secret of a different kind: her infatuation with Hermann. When she begins communicating with him via letters, she feels “exceedingly uneasy,” the narrator says, for fear of discovery.
Through a slip of her tongue, Prince Paul Tomsky learns that she may be interested in an engineer. When Tomsky dances with Lizaveta at the ball, he keeps teasing her about her partiality for engineer. When he tells her that he knows more about her than she imagines, “Lizaveta becomes alarmed that her secret is known to him."
Normal vs Paranormal
Is the card strategy an invention of an otherworldly force? Does Hermann really see the ghost of the old countess? Pushkin leaves these questions open to speculation, providing enough evidence to argue for or against the occurrence of paranormal phenomena in the story. One may accept Tomsky's story as entirely true, making the strange events that
follow plausible. One may also argue that Tomsky's story about his grandmother's gaming experiences is a either a complete fabrication or an account that had been exaggerated and embellished over the years. What of the ghost and the winking queen of spades? Hermann saw the wraith after undergoing great stress and drinking heavily. His vision could have been a hallucination, or it could have
resulted from wishful thinking or mental debility. Mistaking the queen of spades for the ace may have been a simple oversight or, again, the result of fevered thinking.
Hermann attempts to become rich at the expense of others. First, he deceives Lizaveta. Then he causes the death of the countess. But he feels no remorse for his action, as the narrator points out when Hermann meets with Lizaveta in her room:
Hermann gazed at her in silence: his heart, too, was a prey to violent emotion, but neither the tears of the poor girl, nor the wonderful charm of her beauty, enhanced by her grief, could produce any impression upon his hardened soul. He felt no pricking of conscience at the thought of the dead old woman. One thing only grieved him: the
irreparable loss of the secret from which he had expected to obtain great wealth.Finally, after learning the card secret, Hermann greedily cheats others out of vast sums at the gaming table.
The Death of an Era and Revenge Against Napoleon
Europe was at the height of its aristocratic glory in the 1770s, when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were the king and queen of France and Catherine the Great was empress of Russia. This was the Europe in which the fictional Countess Anna Fedetovna thrived as an extraordinary beauty who played at the gaming tables of Versailles. And then came the
French Revolution and later, Napoleon. The old order was overthrown; a new age had dawned. However, beginning in Chapter 2 of The Queen of Spades, the narrator presents the countess as continuing to live in the pre-revolutionary past. She has even decorated her boudoir with Eighteenth Century relics:
On one side of the room hung two portraits painted in Paris by Madame Lebrun. One of these represented a stout, red-faced man of about forty years of age in a bright-green uniform and with a star upon his breast; the other--a beautiful young woman, with an aquiline nose, forehead curls and a rose in her powdered hair. In the corners stood
porcelain shepherds and shepherdesses, dining-room clocks from the workshop of the celebrated Lefroy, bandboxes, roulettes, fans and the various playthings for the amusement of ladies that were in vogue at the end of the last century, when Montgolfier's balloons and Mesmer's magnetism were the rage. However, there is a new Napoleon in her midst: Hermann. Tomsky describes him as a man "with the profile of a Napoleon, and the soul of Mephistopheles" (one of the archangels cast out of heaven to become a servant of Satan). When he visits Lizaveta's room and sits near a window "with his arms crossed and with a fierce frown upon his forehead . . . he
bore a striking resemblance to the portrait of Napoleon." After learning the card secret from his vision of the countess, he uses it to run roughshod over opposing card players just as Napoleon ran roughshod over the old Europe. Consequently, the old older, represented by the countess and the queen of spades, gets its revenge, causing the new Napoleon to lose everything and exiling him to a
In The Queen of Spades, Pushkin excised all fat from his prose, leaving only the lean. Elaborate metaphors and florid prose--replete with a surfeit of adjectives and bombast--had no place in the story. Pushkin's spare style was in part a parody of the highfalutin prose of other writers of his day and in part an effort to prove Shakespeare's
axiom: "Brevity is the soul of wit" (Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2).
The Story as a Parody
In The Queen of Spades, Pushkin uses unconventional plot developments and humor to ridicule the sentimental romance writing of his day. For example, after he leads the reader to believe that Lizaveta and Hermann will fall in love and marry, he reveals that Hermann is merely using Lizaveta to gain access to the countess and her card secret.
Hermann will do almost anything to learn the secret, even woo the old woman: "I must get introduced to her," he says to himself, "and win her favour--become her lover... But all that will take time, and she is eighty-seven years old: she might be dead in a week, in a couple of days even." When Hermann confronts her in her room, he decides to threaten her, not romance her, and draws a pistol. She
then drops dead. At her funeral, the bishop eulogizing her says, "The angel of death found her vigilant in pious thoughts, awaiting the midnight bridegroom." Lizaveta, whom the narrator describes as extraordinarily beautiful, ends up marrying the countess's former steward.
The climax occurs when Hermann mistakes the queen of spades for the ace and loses all his money.
Symbols, Allusions, and Direct References
Alighieri, Dante: author of The Divine Comedy. The narrator of The Queen of Spades quotes from Canto 27 of "Paradiso," the third part of The Divine Comedy: "The bread of the stranger is bitter, and his staircase hard to climb."
Casanova: Giovanni Giacamo Casanova (1725-1798), the famous writer, spy, soldier, and womanizer.
Doors Behind the Screen: The choices one faces in life. In The Queen of Spades, one door opens into a hallway leading to Lizaveta's room. The
other door opens into an unoccupied study. Passing up an opportunity to reject his obsession with the card secret and embrace Lizaveta as his future, Hermann enters the study.
Empress: Catherine the Great (Catherine II), empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796. (Countess Anna Fedotovna
mentions that she and an acquaintance had been "presented to the empress.")
Faro, a Card Game: Life itself, which requires "players" to take risks to advance or to realize their goals. Faro is a game in which players bet against the banker (house) on cards to be turned
Fedotovna, Countess Anna: Effete, old-fashioned Russia.
Galvanic: Allusion to Italian physicist and physician Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), who investigated the effect of
electricity on nerves and muscles. The narrator alludes to him in this passage: "The Countess sat there looking quite yellow, mumbling with her flaccid lips and swaying to and fro. Her dull eyes expressed complete vacancy of mind, and, looking at her, one would have thought that the rocking of her body was not a voluntary action of her own, but was produced by the action of some concealed
Hermann as an Engineer: Cunning, manipulative person.
Jeu de la reine: Game of the queen. In the 1770s, Countess Anna
Fedotovna played faro, a favorite game of Marie-Antoinette, at the queen's gaming table.
Mesmer's Magnetism: Reaction of a fluid in the body to magnetic influence. Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), a German physician, first theorized that gravitation from the planets affected an invisible
fluid in human beings. He later altered his theory to say that this fluid reacted to magnetism generated by any object. Illness resulted from the adverse effects of magnetism. He developed a therapy that required induction of a trance state, or hypnosis, in a patient.
Lebrun: Old Europe, before the French Revolution. Élisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) was a highly popular portrait painter before and after the French Revolution. Among her subjects was the queen of France, Marie-Antoinette.
Queen of Spades: In a statement before the story
begins, the author says it means "secret hostility." One may also interpret the queen of spades as a symbol for retribution or revenge.
St. Germain, Count: The occult; mystery, secrecy.
Venus: Goddess of love in ancient Roman mythology. Her Greek name was Aphrodite.
Richelieu: A member of a famous French family. In
Chapter 1, Tomsky says of Countess Anna Fedotovna, "People used to run after her to catch a glimpse of the 'Muscovite Venus.' Richelieu made love to her, and my grandmother maintains that he almost blew out his brains in consequence of her cruelty." Here, Richelieu appears to refer to Louis-François-Armand du Pless Richelieu (1696-1788), a celebrated marshal of France and grand-nephew of the
famous French statesman, Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642).
Swedenborg: Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), Swedish theologian, philosopher, and scientist and founder of the Church of the New Jerusalem. His followers became known as Swedenborgians. Swedenborg claimed
to have had a vision of Christ. Swedenborg held that evil spirits seek to take away man's ability to discern truth from lies and good from evil. Before Chapter 5 begins, the narrator of The Queen of Spades presents an epigraph that he pretends was written by Swedenborg: "That night the dead Baroness von W. appeared to me. She was all in white and said: ' How do you do, Mr. Councillor?'
Narrator's Epigraphs and Statements
An epigraph is a quotation that appears at the beginning of a body of text to establish a mood or underscore a theme. Epigraphs and other statements appear in The Queen of Spades, one before each of the six chapters. Preceding the first epigraph is a statement on the significance of the queen of spades as a playing card.
Chapter 1 (Topic: Gambling)
The Queen of Spades denotes secret ill-will. Chapter 2 (Topic: A Conversation)
(From the latest Fortune-Teller.)
In the cold, rain, and sleet
They together would meet
Lord, forgive them their sin:
Gambling, late to win
They won and they lost,
And put down the cost
So on cold autumn days
They wasted no time
(K. Ryleev and A. Bestuzhev)
"II parait que monsieur est décidément pour les suivantes." Chapter 3 (Topic: Writing Letters)
"Que voulez-vous, madame? Elles sont plus fraîches."
It appears, Monsieur, that you clearly prefer the maids.
Would you wish me otherwise, Madame? They are much fresher.
Vous m'ecrivez, mon ange, des lettres de quatre pages Chapter 4 (Topic: Morality and Religion)
plus vite que je ne puis les lire.
My angel, you write me four-page letters
so fast that I am not able to read them.
Homme sans moeurs et sans religion. Chapter 5 (Topic: A Vision)
A man without morals or religion.
Comment: See Unscrupulous Behavior
That night the dead Baroness von W. appeared to me. She was all in white and said: ' How do you do, Mr. Councillor?' Chapter 6 (Topic: Angry Reaction)
Comment: This fabricated quotation appears at the beginning of the chapter in which Hermann has a vision of the old countess. For information about Swedenborg, click here.
“How dare you say ‘attendez’ to me?”
“Your excellency, I said ‘attendez, sir’ "
Comment: The reply of the important person appears to be one that Napoleon might have had made when addressed improperly by an underling. Hermann, of course, has become like Napoleon in his obsession to conquer the world of cards.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
- Write an essay arguing that Hermann imagines the seemingly supernatural events in The Queen of Spades. Keep in mind that if you accept this assignment, you will have to explain how Hermann learned the card secret. (He would have had no supernatural help.)
- Write an essay arguing that supernatural events really do take place in The Queen of Spades.
- If you could rewrite the ending of The Queen of Spades, would you change anything?
- Write a psychological profile of Hermann, Lizaveta, or the countess.
- To what extent does the story reflect Pushkin's own experiences?
The Queen of Spades enjoys a reputation as one of the greatest short stories ever written. From beginning to end, its admirers maintain, it is a nearly perfect piece of writing, exhibiting masterly use of the succinct phrase while presenting a suspenseful account of one man’s descent into lunacy. But what of the unanswered questions the story
leaves the reader? Do they increase the impact of the narrative by provoking intriguing insights and interpretations in the reader? Or do they merely lead the reader into blind alleys? Among the most tantalizing questions are the following:
- Why does the narrator vary the way he identifies characters? For example, in Chapter 1, he identifies the countess’s grandson only as Tomsky. In Chapter 2, however, he identifies the character by his full name: Prince Paul Alexandrovich Tomsky. Conversely, he identifies the countess as Anna Fedotovna in Chapter 1 but only as Countess X, or simply
as “the countess,” in succeeding chapters. The protagonist has only one name throughout the novel, Hermann (or Ghermann, depending on translators' transliteration of the name), as do these characters: Narumov, Surin, Chaplinsky, Zorich, and Chekalinsky. The narrator identifies the ward of the countess as Lizaveta Ivanovna, Lizaveta, Liza, and Lizanka; the girlfriend of Tomsky as Princess Pauline;
and the uncle of Tomsky as Count Ivan Ilyich. He identifies other characters by profession or dress.
- Is Hermann really the son of the countess? A mourner at her funeral identifies him as the illegitimate son of the deceased woman. Keep in mind here that throughout the story the narrator refers to Hermann as a young man. If “young” means that he is between twenty-five and thirty-five, the countess was between fifty-two and sixty-two when he was
born! However, if he is about twenty, the countess was forty-seven at his birth.
- If Hermann is the son of the countess, who fathered him? Was it the mysterious Count St. Germain (a character based on a real-life person of the same name who lived for a time in Germany, France, and Russia)? It is interesting to note here that the Russian pronunciation of Hermann's name is GAREmahn, suggesting that he could have been named
after St. Germain.
- What is the background of Lizaveta Ivanovna? Where did she come from? What is her parentage? In the Russian naming system, Ivanovna means daughter of Ivan? Is the reader to conclude that she is the daughter–legitimate or illegitimate–of Count Ivan Ilyich, Tomsky’s uncle?
- If the story is supposed to be about Hermann and his preoccupation with the card secret, why does the author devote so much attention to the countess’s ill treatment of Lizaveta?
- Before revealing her secret to Hermann, the ghost of the countess tells him, "I have come to you against my will . . . but I am commanded to grant your request." Who commands the ghost?