|Pushkin “The Queen of Spades” (1833)
Reading Comprehension Quiz:
- What is our hero Hermann up to when we first meet him?
- From whom did the Countess learn the secret of winning at
- Describe the peculiarity of the Countess's style of dress.
- Describe the situation of our tale's Cinderella, Lizaveta
- What does Lizaveta believe is going on when she repeatedly
sees Hermann outside her window.
- What is really going on? What is Hermann's plan once he
gains Lizaveta's confidence?
- What happens at midnight on the night of the ball in this
- What happens when Hermann threatens the Countess?
- How does Hermann escape the house?
- What happens when Hermann looks into the coffin?
- What does the ghost tell him to do that night?
- What happens at the faro game the third night?
- Does Lizaveta live happily ever after?
Pushkin takes a hackneyed, sentimental Western fairytale, the Cinderella
story, and re-casts it with real Russian types. The result is a weird, unsettling allegory- a vision of Russia’s future meeting with her past. The story is funny, ironic and disturbing. The Russian imagination (sad, skeptical, ironic) takes Western story forms and breathes a strange spirit into them. Pushkin’s telling social criticism was too sophisticated for the Tsar himself to detect, but not you, the intelligent reader!
|- The Countess X: the aging aristocracy whose ironclad hold on power lasts on even after her death. A living anachronism.
- Lizaveta Ivanovna: Cinderella trapped in the wrong story. Her Prince Charming turns out to be a ruthless, manipulative schemer who could not care less about her. All he wanted was the floor plan of the Countess’ house and the appropriate time to confront her.
- Hermann: Prince Charming? No! He is a creature of will power, obsession,
ambitious dreams, and visionary strategies. He is absolutely
ruthless and intent on sharing the Countess’ secret at any cost. Morality is hardly a constraint on his lust for power. He represents the destiny of Russia- the future personified.
The secret: a magical formula guaranteeing entrance to the highest levels of society, to wealth and power. The secret to the ruling class’ hold on power (Analogy?)
What is the message of Pushkin’s fractured fairytale? To find it one must pay close attention to all the weird details thrown in. Every detail helps disclose not only a realistic setting but also they are full of symbolic resonance.
|- Tomsky’s story: Develops an aura of power, mystery and decadence around the figure of the Princess. His story is set in Paris in 1773, the time of
Richelieu, Louis XVI and his court at Versailles. It was also the time of the great Enlightenment philosophes (Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau) whose ideas would inspire the French Revolution.
- In Paris the Countess X discovers the secret to continuing her grip on power.
- Pushkin plays with the reader’s expectations from having read other popular gothic stories. What would typically happen to the witch in a fairytale? We expect the Countess to pay some horrible price for her Faustian bargain with the Count Saint-Germain to obtain the secret of winning at faro. Yet she doesn’t change a bit.
- (Faro is a banking game in which players place bets on a special layout as to which cards will be winners or losers as they are drawn one at a time from a dealing box. Pushkin assumes we know the intricacies of the game. We are addressed as members of his set: the high society to which Hermann wants so desperately to belong.)
|- The Countess’ true nature is revealed to us at her toilette. She adheres to the way of life of the
ancien regime with all the tenacity of unconscious conviction. The fashions of 1770 are preserved in St. Petersburg of 1830. The style is Parisian, not Russian.
- The Countess remains “some hideous but indispensable ornament of the ballroom” to whom guests must pay homage as if they are “carrying out an old established rite.” This is Pushkin’s depiction of the ruling aristocracy in 1830! How did he get it past the censors? Why, he is merely writing an innocent fairytale! How doddering, decrepit and out to lunch is this old witch?
- Pushkin is very funny. Notice how he lampoons the current state of Russian fiction by depicting the Countess’ taste in novels. “Are there any Russian novels?”
- What is it like for Lizaveta to live with her? How do we unpack the allegorical significance of her character?
She is the poor orphan of modest means who has been adopted by the Countess and serves her whims and capricious ill humor.
Lizaveta can attend all the glittering social events, but she does not have the money to dress appropriately and, therefore, she is ignored by the eligible bachelors intent upon snaring a rich heiress! Lizaveta lives in limbo. Which class does she represent?
Poor Cinderella! What is supposed to happen to her in the story? What does Prince Charming turn out to be like? What is Pushkin’s comment about girls in her situation who wait around for some gallant to save them?
- How has he taken the characters and situations of sentimental melodrama and invested them with humanity and realism? The language of the novel of sentiment is transposed into a story of ambition and intrigue. Pushkin taught a generation of writers that reality is weirder and more deserving of attention than fiction. Dostoevsky and Gogol would learn this lesson well.
- Prince Charming comes to the rescue: at the center of the story is Hermann, a new type in literature, one who would inspire a whole legion of disaffected, alienated and ambitious young men in nineteenth century literature.
- Hermann is the Russian version of the Napoleonic hero, the man of action, a creature of will power, obsession, dream, superstition, destiny. He is the future of Russia personified.
- He is the young man on the make, the son of a German who settled in Russia. Hermann has worked to earn a place as an officer in the Engineers’ battalion. Through discipline, hard work, and determination he has risen to a respectable place in the military.
- Even so, the corridors of power are denied to him. He is not a member of the elite Horse Guard regiment, the aristocrats who belong to the best society, and therefore the most eligible bachelors.
- Hermann bides his time on the outskirts of these parties, carefully watching, avoiding drink, and never gambling. “[I am not in] a position to sacrifice the essential in the hope of acquiring the superfluous.”
What does he dream of? He waits for the perfect moment to act! When does that moment come?
- How does he appear to Tomsky? What are Lizaveta’s first reactions to his advances? What does Hermann want from her? (He even considers becoming the Countess’ lover to obtain her secret!)
|- Part Three presents the central action of the story. Hermann deliberately, patiently draws Lizavetta into a romance. First, he stands outside her window in the street, gazing up at her with a look of passion and despair. Then, he begins squeezing love notes into her hand.
(Who wrote them?)
- He sends her letters everyday, pleading for the chance to meet with her alone. He even starts composing them himself (in a style reflecting ‘the intensity of his desires and the disorder of an unbridled imagination.’
- Gradually, Lizavetta succumbs to Hermann’s seduction, and finally agrees to a late night rendezvous!
She sends him a note describing the ground plan of the Countess’ apartment and sets the date! Hermann’s whole flirtation with Lizavetta was designed to obtain this information. He now has the opportunity to confront the Princess in her
boudoir and wrest the secret from her.
- What happens in this climactic scene?
- Look at the way Pushkin describes the Countess’
bedroom. It is Pushkin’s depiction of the contents in the mind of the aging Russian ruling class. What reality of Russia’s ruling class is revealed to Hermann as he peeps in upon
‘the hideous mysteries of her toilette.’
- After all of Hermann’s pleading fails, what does the Countess do when he finally threatens her, demanding the secret?
|- Meanwhile we return to poor Lizaveta whose fantasies about Hermann have reached the peak of their intensity. What did Tomsky say about Herman at the ball?
What form does he now take in her mind? “the figure made commonplace by modern fiction”
(the Romantic hero based on Byron and Napoleon: a man who relies on his imagination to serve his ambition, who is unrestrained by simple morality, and who possesses the decisiveness to o’er leap the class and achieve power.):
- How does Lizavetta respond when she learns the truth about Hermann?
How do you judge his actions?
- Yet she helps him escape.
|- What is the moral of Pushkin’s story?
- What will be the result for Russia of her flirtation with the West’s secret formula for wealth and social success?
- What plan for life should Hermann have held to?