The Queen of Spades (Pikovaia Dama) by Aleksandr Pushkin, 1834

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THE QUEEN OF SPADES (Pikovaia dama)
by Aleksandr Pushkin, 1834

The poet Aleksandr Pushkin first turned to prose fiction in 1830 with his Tales of Belkin. At the time Russian prose writing was still in its infancy, and, indeed, The Queen of Spades (Pikovaia dama) was the first major Russian prose work. To write it, Pushkin had to invent a new literary language. Hitherto the language of popular prose writers such as Bestuzhen-Marlinskii had been elaborately flowery, with a surfeit of adjectives, similes, and metaphors. Pushkin opted for a clipped, pared-down style, akin almost to telegraphese, with a minimum of subordinate clauses and an almost total absence of everything but the most basic adjectives and figures of speech.

The basic plot of the story would have been familiar to readers of the pulp fiction of the day. P. Mashkov's Three Crosses (1833) was just one of a long line of card-playing stories, usually involving a foolproof winning formula of supernatural origin, a love intrigue, and a twist at the end. Pushkin's radical reworking of this tired formula involves Hermann, a half German officer in the engineering corps, and an 87-year-old countess, reputedly the guardian of a secret winning formula, and her ward Liza. By pretending to pay court to Liza, Hermann gains access to the countess's room, with the intention of eliciting the formula from her. The shock is too great for the old woman, who dies before she reveals her secret. She subsequently appears to Hermann, apparently as a ghost, and reveals her secret—ace, three, seven. Armed with this formula, Hermann, an extremely cautious man who has never gambled in his life, takes on the formidable gambler Chekalinskii at faro. The three and the seven win for him, and he stakes all of his winnings on the ace. Thinking that he has won again, he turns the card over only to discover that it is the queen of spades, which bears an uncanny likeness to the old countess. Hermann goes mad and is confined to a lunatic asylum.

Although The Queen of Spades is ostensibly a tale of the supernatural, Pushkin tantalizes the reader by suggesting rational explanations for the events. The ghost, for example, may be explained as the effect of alcohol on Hermann's brain, while the apparently magical substitution of the queen of spades for the ace may simply be a case of "misdrawing" a card from the pack, an event common enough in the game of faro to merit its own technical term. Pushkin, who was known to the secret police more as an obsessive cardplayer than as a political subversive, was well aware of such mishaps, and, indeed, he litters his story with professional jargon.

The apparent simplicity of the story, however, is highly deceptive. As the poet and Pushkin scholar Anna Akhmatova remarked, "How complex it is: layer upon layer." Among the layers is the character of Hermann himself, the self-made man of will with "the profile of Napoleon and the soul of Mephistopheles" who is a precursor both of Lermontov's Pechorin and of a whole range of Dostoevskii's heroes, from the underground man to Ivan Karamazov. Others have seen the story as an essay in numerology, a subject that fascinated Pushkin. Certainly the numbers one, three, and seven recur throughout the story to the point at which, at the very end, Hermann is incarcerated in room 17. Still others have detected a consistent pattern of Masonic symbolism and point to Pushkin's active involvement in the movement. There are autobiographical elements and a highly complex narrative technique, with the fabula (what actually happens) and sujet (how the reader learns about it) widely separated. The complexity of the narrative technique stems not only from Pushkin's desire to elaborate an existing genre but also from his desire to underline the theme of time, youth, and age. This is one of the dominant themes in Pushkin's work as a whole and is seen nowhere more clearly than in the portrait of the countess.

Above all The Queen of Spades is a work of parody. The dashing hero of traditional romantic fiction is replaced by the calculating Hermann, whose means do not permit him to "risk the necessary in the hope of acquiring the superfluous." Liza, cast in the role traditionally reserved for the heroine-victim in the mold of Karamzin's "Poor Liza" (1792), is conventional, dull, and ultimately happy, while the countess, far from being a traditional villain, displays even in extreme old age both style and spirit. There are many elements of parody, from the spoof epigraphs, all of them of Pushkin's own invention, to the celebrated scene in which the concealed Hermann witnesses the undressing of the old countess by her maids after the ball.

The story has been made into a play (by Aleksandr Shakhovskii), several films, and, most notably, an opera (by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky).

—Michael Pursglove

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The Queen of Spades (Pikovaia Dama) by Aleksandr Pushkin, 1834

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