The Queen of Spades

Themes

Reality vs. the supernatural

According to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Pushkin’s tale represents “the pinnacle of the art of the fantastic.”[9] While readers may think that the vision of the Countess that appears to Hermann was merely an apparition, at the end of the story, Pushkin has still given no definitive answer. Readers must decide whether the countess appeared only to Hermann in his mind, a realistic solution, or whether Hermann has entered the world of the supernatural. Critics have attempted to answer this question using a variety of cryptographic clues within the text. These critics focus on three elements: the origin of the three, seven and ace; whether Hermann could have identified the cards without the ghost’s intervention, and possible explanations for Hermann’s mistake with the last card.[5]

Different critics have presented contradicting supernatural or rational views of Hermann’s final mistake. The critic Gary Rosenshield claims that, by making the wrong choice of cards, Hermann actually did the right thing: as a man obsessed with gambling, having won the money would have meant that he could never gamble again, and therefore would have never again lived.[10]

Other critics with rational explanations, such as Nathan Rosen and Viktor Vonogradov, claim that Hermann may have simply seen a likeness between the Countess who gave him the secret and the Queen card, leading him to make a mistake.[11][12] This explanation focuses on Pushkin’s quote in the story that “Two fixed ideas can no more exist together in the moral world than two bodies can occupy one and the same place in the physical world.” Here, Hermann cannot separate the actual cards from the Countess who reveals them to him, leading him to accidentally choose the queen instead of an ace.

In contrast to these rational explanations, other critics claim that Hermann entered the world of the supernatural and that the card actually changed after Hermann had picked it. These explanations argue that the Countess sought revenge on Hermann for her death. Critic Sergei Davydov argues that, since the Countess doubted that Hermann would indeed marry Lizavyeta—a concession he had made to acquire the secret—her ghost caused a magical transformation of the cards that led to Hermann’s downfall.[5]

Storytelling

Pushkin's tale is considered to be a work about "telling stories". Hermann, who is an author within the context of the story, in a way attempts to author his own fate by setting up a gambling situation in which he is guaranteed to win. Hermann's motivations to set up the scenario also come primarily from gossip, or word of mouth from his acquaintances. It is as if he is set within a story told by others, and feels inspired to write his own.[13]

A reading of The Queen of Spades holds that the story reveals the Russian stereotype of the German, one who is cold and calculating person bent on accumulating wealth.[14]

Avarice

Rosenshield describes Pushkin’s Queen of Spades as an “eternal tale of gambling and avarice.”[15] In the story, Hermann becomes obsessed by gambling, even before the Countess grants him her secret to the cards. According to critic Nathan Rosen, Hermann’s fatal mistake at the end of the story constitutes an act of self-punishment: Hermann punishes himself for the avarice of his corrupted soul.[16] Beyond this greed in the form of his gambling obsession, Hermann’s avarice manifests itself in his dealings with Lizavyeta and the Countess. From the moment when he first sets eye on her, Hermann manipulates Lizaveta and her “injured innocence” to gain access to the Countess and the gambling secrets she holds; however, Hermann’s “depravity becomes fully manifest in the climactic bedroom scene” when he trespasses into the Countess’ room and causes her death.[17]


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