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!

Central Characters:

- 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: 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 personified.

The secret:

- 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.

Chapter One:

 - (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 belong.)
- (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 Revolution.
- (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 Pushkin suggesting?
- What is Hermann’s response when he hears the story? “A fairy tale!” (156) But then the story begins to work on his imagination!!
- 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.

Chapter Two:

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 regime?)
- (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 eighties.
(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) (translation?)
- (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 novels?” (158))

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 situation?
- 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 represent?
- 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 moment come?
What chance does he have of achieving noble status using ‘moral’ tactics?
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!)

Chapter Three

 - 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).
- (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 Russian fiction)
- 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?

 Chapter Four

- (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 power.):
- (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.)

Chapter Five

- (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)

Chapter Six

 - 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 plot? (24-26)
- 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 success?
- What plan for life should Hermann have held to?