|Pushkin, “The Queen of Spades” (1833)
|“Two idées fixes cannot exist in the moral
world any more than two physical bodies can occupy one
and the same space.” (179)
Pushkin takes a hackneyed, sentimental Western fairytale 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
- 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
- Hermann: an ambitious member of the Engineers,
not the socially elite Horse Guard regiment. German, not
an ethnic Russian. A creature of will power, obsession,
dream, a visionary strategist who is absolutely
ruthless, intent on learning the Countess’ secret at any
cost. Morality is hardly a constraint on his lust for
power. He represents the destiny of Russia- the future
|- a magical formula guaranteeing entrance to the
highest levels of society, to wealth and power. What is
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.
| - (2) (154) To whom is this story being told? (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
- (2) (154) Where is Tomsky’s story set? His story is
set in Paris in 1773, 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
- (3) (155) What happens in it? Pushkin develops an aura
of power, mystery and decadence around the figure of the
Princess. In Paris the Countess X, la venus Muscovite,
loses a large sum at faro to the Duke of Orleans, and
her husband refuses to pay the debt. She goes to the
legendary Count Saint-Germaine and throws herself on his
mercy. He reveals to her the secret of wealth (like the
elixir of perpetual youth), and in one night the
Countess recovers all that she lost.
- If you read Pushkin’s fable as political allegory, on
what basis does the aristocracy hold its place? What is
- What is Hermann’s response when he hears the story? “A
fairy tale!” (156) But then the story begins to work on
- What should happen in this fairytale? Pushkin plays
with the reader’s expectations from having read other
gothic stories popular in the West. We expect Prince
Charming to overcome obstacles in his pursuit of
happiness. He should face some moral test of his
character. Cinderella should have the opportunity to
prove her inherent value despite her low origins. And we
expect the evil step-mother to pay some horrible price
for her Faustian bargain with the Count Saint-Germain to
obtain the secret of winning at faro. But what happens?
Pushkin surprises us at every turn.
How does Pushkin characterize:
The Countess X (the ruling elite)
| - We jump back to the present, in 1833, sixty years
later. How old does that make the Countess?
- Over the years, what kind of person has the Countess
become? (translation: What is the state of the tsar’s
- (4) (157) Her nature is revealed to us at her toilette
(dressing table). 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.
She dresses like she is in her twenties, not her
(158) How does she treat her relatives and servants? She
is oblivious to the world, doesn’t remember which of her
friends is alive or dead, tells the same old stories
over and over again; she’s fussy, capricious and
insufferable and yet she demands absolute obedience from
everyone around her, particularly her long suffering
ward, Lizaveta Ivanovna. “And this is my life.” (160)
- (7-8) (160-61) What does the Countess’s public role
involve? She remains “a mis-shapened but indispensable
ornament of the ballroom” to whom guests must pay homage
“as though in accordance with an old established rite.”
- How doddering, decrepit and out to lunch is this old
witch? This is Pushkin’s depiction of the ruling
aristocracy in 1833! How did he get it past the censors?
Why, he is merely writing an innocent fairytale!
(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
Lizaveta (the poor gentry)
|- (6-7-8) (161) What is it like for Lizaveta to live
with this woman? Exactly what is her relationship to the
Countess? How do we unpack the allegorical significance
of her character?
- “the household martyr” (161) Lizaveta is the poor
orphan of modest means who has been adopted by the
Countess and serves her whims and capricious ill humor.
- (8) (161) Lizaveta can attend all the glittering
social events, but she does not have the money to dress
appropriately and, therefore, 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? “She was sensitive and felt her position
keenly, and looked about impatiently for a deliverer to
come.” (161) 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?
What is Pushkin’s comment about the gentry in Lizaveta’s
- How has Pushkin 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.
Hermann (the rising class)
| - (8) (161) One morning… Prince Charming comes to
the rescue? Or is it, one day Prince Charming came
stalking? What does Lizaveta make of his mysterious,
silent courtship? Who is this guy?
- At the center of the story is Hermann, a member of the
Engineers, not the Horse Guards. What class does Hermann
- Hermann represents a new type in literature, one who
would inspire a whole legion of disaffected, alienated
and ambitious young men in nineteenth century Russian
literature: the Russian version of the Napoleonic hero,
the new man of action, a creature of will power,
obsession, dream, superstition, destiny. He is the
future of Russia personified.
- (9-10) (162-63) How does Hermann represent Western
values? He is the young man on the make, a Westernizer:
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. How did the idea enter Russia that hard work
and personal initiative would lead to success? Peter the
Great’s Table of Ranks
- Even so, the corridors of power are denied to Hermann.
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.
- What is his first reaction to Tomsky’s story of the
Countess’ secret? “A fairy tale” “No, economy,
moderation and hard work are my three cards. With them I
can treble my capital- increase it sevenfold and obtain
for myself leisure and independence.” (163) Hermann
bides his time on the outskirts of society, carefully
watching, avoiding drink, and never gambling. “[I am not
in] a position to sacrifice the essential in the hope of
acquiring the superfluous.” (10) (163)
- Yet the the story of the Countess’ secret works on his
imagination. What is Hermann’s dream? (10) (164) He
waits for the perfect moment to act! When will that
What chance does he have of achieving noble status using
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. How does Hermann court Lizaveta? 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. (11) (165) Who
actually wrote the love notes? They came from a German
novel.) (11) (165)
- He sends her letters everyday, pleading for the chance
to meet with her alone. He even starts composing them
himself (in a style reflecting ‘both his inexorable
desire and the disorder of an unbridled imagination.’
- (13) (167-68) How does Lizaveta respond to these
advances? 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!
- What has Hermann wanted all along? Hermann’s whole
flirtation with Lizavetta was designed to obtain this
information. He now has the opportunity to confront the
Princess in her budoir and wrest the secret from her.
“Hermann waited for the appointed hour like a tiger
trembling for ite prey.” (168)
- What happens in this climactic scene? (14-15)
(168-171) (This is maybe the most influential scene in
- Look at the way Pushkin describes the Countess’
bedroom. What is Pushkin up to? (168-169) Ancient icons,
fading armchairs, walls hung with Chinese wallpaper,
family portraits by the famous Enlightenment artist
Elizabeth Lebrun, expensive knick-knacks and
bric-a-brac. It is Pushkin’s depiction of the mental
contents of the aging Russian ruling class.
- What reality of Russia’s ruling class is revealed to
Hermann at midnight as he peeps in upon ‘the hideous
mysteries of [the Countess’] toilette’?
- (16-17) (169-70) Hermann, hidden in the closet,
watches as the Countess disrobes. All of the secrets of
her true physical condition: her grey, close-cropped
hair, her puffy feet, her flabby lips twitching, and her
body swaying to “some secret galvanic mechanism”. After
all of Hermann’s pleading fails, he finally threatens
her, demanding the secret. What does the Countess do?
|- (18) (172-73) Meanwhile we return to poor Lizaveta
whose fantasies about Hermann have reached the peak of
their intensity. What form does Hermann now take in her
mind? What did Tomsky say about Herman at the ball?
“This Hermann is a truly Romantic figure: he has the
profile of a Napoleon and the soul of a Mephitopheles. I
think there must be at least three crimes on his
conscience.” “the figure made commonplace by modern
fiction both terrified and fascinated her” (173)
- (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
- (19) (174) How does Lizavetta respond when she learns
the truth about Hermann? She weeps bitterly and calls
him a monster yet notices how as he stands in the
moonlight by the window that his resemblance to Napoleon
is remarkable. She helps him escape. (20)
- (175) How do you judge his actions? How does he judge
his own? (As Hermann is leaving by the secret staircase,
he thinks of how years before another suitor had stolen
up these stairs to a secret liaison with the Countess.)
|- (21) (176) How does the Countess’ family respond
to her passing? How will Russia mourn the passing of the
Tsar’s regime? “No one wept… her family had long since
ceased to think of her as one of the living.” One old
retainer seems genuinely upset.
- (177) What happens when Hermann kneels at the
Countess’ coffin and looks in? (21)
- (177-78) What happens that night? (22) Was it a dream?
What deal does the Countess’ ghost strike with him? (the
three, the seven, and the ace)
| - Describe the celebrated Tchekalinsky, the wealthy
Moscow gambler whom Hermann marks as the target of his
gambling sting. (23)
- What happens when Hermann springs his long planned
- Does anyone live happily ever after?
| - 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
- What plan for life should Hermann have held to?