Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
have no luck," Surin laments: "I play cautiously, never get excited, never
lose my head, and yet I go on losing!"
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
narrator flashes back several days to a scene that takes place a few days
before Narumov’s card party.
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.
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.
he in the engineers?"
in the cavalry," Paul replies. “What made you think that he was in the
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.
a lot of nonsense!" she says after Lizaveta reads two pages, then scolds
the girl for not being dressed for the drive.
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
and bitterly cold," the old woman says. “Unharness the horses." The drive
Ivanovna thinks, “What a life is mine!"
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
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.
narrator flashes back a week, to a moment when Lizaveta is embroidering
at the same window.
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.
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.
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.
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.
narrator flashes forward, returning to the scene in the countess’s room
at the time that she called off the drive in the carriage.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
have no intention of harming you," he says. “I have come only to ask a
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
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?
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.
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
are a monster!" she says.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 to watch.
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.
rakes in his winnings. For several minutes, Hermann remains silent and
motionless, then leaves.
Hermann loses his mind and is confined to Obukhov Hospital, where he spends
his time repeating, “Three, seven, ace. Three, seven, queen."
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
gambler against whom Hermann gambles.
Messenger from the Milliner:
Woman who delivers a letter from Hermann to Lizaveta.
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.
Young woman whom Prince Paul Tomsky marries.
of the countess.
Steward's Son: Man
whom Lizaveta Ivanovna marries.
Woman Jester: Mourner
at the countess's funeral.
Maids, Street Watchman
of Work and Year of Completion
Publishers frequently identify
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
Queen of Spades in 1834.
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 conclusion. .
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
"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
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 steward.
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
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
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
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
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 mental institution.
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).
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.
climax occurs when Hermann mistakes the queen of spades for the ace and
loses all his money.
Allusions, and Direct References
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."
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 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 up.
Fedotovna, Countess Anna:
Effete, old-fashioned Russia.
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 galvanic mechanism."
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.
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.
Paintings by 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).
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?' "
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
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
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
"Que voulez-vous, madame?
Elles sont plus fraîches."
–A Society Conversation.
It appears, Monsieur, that
you clearly prefer the maids.
Would you wish me otherwise,
Madame? They are much fresher.
–A Society Conversation.
mon ange, des lettres de quatre pages
Chapter 4 (Topic: Morality
plus vite que je ne puis
My angel, you write me four-page
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
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
“How dare you say ‘attendez’
“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
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
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,
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