Academic journal article Pushkin Review

The Mystery of Germann's Failure in the Queen of Spades: Cracking Pushkin's Personal Code

Academic journal article Pushkin Review

The Mystery of Germann's Failure in the Queen of Spades: Cracking Pushkin's Personal Code

Article excerpt

"My 'Queen of Spades' is in great vogue," wrote Pushkin in his diary in April 1834. For almost two centuries the story has been celebrated by readers, with this difference: in Pushkin's time it stirred the blood of card players, whereas nowadays it heats the imagination of literary scholars. Regardless of the approach chosen for analysis, most critics attempt to crack the mystery of the three cards, returning again and again to the story's finale. Why does Germann lose the game? Why does the queen appear in the ace's place? What is the meaning of three, seven, and ace? Interpretations are legion; nevertheless, "something in the text is always missing [...] It is either the elusive ace, or the absence of resolution in the debate over realistic versus supernatural motivation, or the lack of a single literary prototype that the heroes [...] might be parodying." (1) In this essay I will argue that in Pushkin's text---constructed in accordance with his idea of a prose work as precise and brief--nothing is missing: Germann's fatal confusion is predetermined by his movement into and around the countess's house, and his final loss is a replica of the strategy he himself chooses in order to win. As I will suggest, the appearance of the queen does not represent Germann pulling the wrong card, as is commonly presumed, but means quite the opposite. Therefore, however audacious it may seem, I will propose another possible reading, which will look at Germann's failure through the prism of Pushkin's own attitude towards the value of money and marriage in relation to happiness at the time of his work on The Queen of Spades.

Let us first recall the rules of faro, the game of chance that Germann plays in the hope of quickly winning a large sum. (2) Each player has a deck of cards. One player, called the punter, chooses a card and announces his bet. The banker shuffles the cards, turns the deck face up, and moves the top card to his right so that the second card from the top can be seen as well. The side each card is on is crucial: if the card to the banker's right matches in rank the punter's card, the banker wins; if the card to the banker's left matches the punter's card, the punter wins. If neither matches, the two cards are put aside, and the game continues in the same manner until a match occurs. If the banker's two cards are of the same rank and match the punter's card, the banker wins. (3) Deprived of any possibility to strategize, the punter therefore gambles not with an equal rival but with chance, or, in Iurii Lotman's words, with "Unknown Factors" in whose hands the banker becomes "a sort of dummy." (4) As Lotman further maintains, the faro model becomes relevant beyond the card table and, in particular, triggers the plot of The Queen of Spades: while Germann thinks he is playing a game of his own devising, he in fact is being played with.

In light of this double nature of gambling, the old countess--the keeper of the secret of the three winning cards--acquires both realistic and supernatural features. The first time the latter come to the fore is found in the scene after the ball when, hidden in the next room, Germann witnesses the countess's toilette:

   Like most old people, the Countess suffered from insomnia. Having
   undressed, she sat in the Voltairean armchair by the window and
   dismissed her chambermaids [...] The Countess sat, all yellow,
   mumbling with her flabby lips and swaying right and left [...]
   looking at her, one might assume that the swaying of this
   horrifying old woman was caused, not by her own will, but by the
   action of a hidden galvanism. (5)


Pushkin introduces the countess's participation in the realm of irrational forces carefully and unobtrusively, starting from a general and quite realistic statement about the countess's insomnia, continuing by mentioning a number of ordinary actions on her and her servants' part, and then giving just a slight hint of the possibility of regarding the old woman's swaying as something strange. …

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