«The Queen of Spades»: A Seriously Intended Joke

J. Douglas Clayton


     It is a commonplace to begin any discussion of The Queen of Spades by remarking on the richness of the secondary literature. Analyses of the tale can for the most part be placed in two categories. For many scholars, the problem is to unravel the mystery of the three cards and the strange denouement when Germann by mistake pulls out the queen instead of the ace; such studies include the many discussions of numbers, the symbolism of various details in the work and psychoanalysis of Germann’s madness.[1] A second type of approach might be called the search for “sources” as a form of empirical study that eschews deeper analysis. Scholars have long recognized the importance of intertextuality in The Queen of Spades, something that Pushkin actually draws attention to by the extensive use of epigraphs. Paul Debreczeny, for example, pointed out a large number of intertextual references—from Stendhal to La Motte Fouqué—without, unfortunately, explaining how they might function in the aesthetic system of the tale.[2] Daria Solodkaia gets nearer to the heart of the matter in her discussion of a key sentence in the work, namely the countess’s remark “That was a joke.”[3] It is precisely this sentence that points to a third line of interpretation, namely the metapoetic or, as Wolf Schmid has called it in what is probably the most enlightening study of the tale, the meta­textual.[4] Schmid is careful to avoid the trap into which many have fallen of focusing on just one of the plethora of motifs and literary references that Pushkin has strewn throughout the work, preferring instead to ana­lyze the totality of the work as an aesthetic system. It is this approach that I intend to adopt in what follows, without pretending to emulate Schmid’s exhaustiveness.

     Sometimes the uninitiated reader can have insights into works that scholars can miss. The following comment in an e-mail I received from Emily McHugh, an undergraduate student, is a splendid example of a per­ceptive first-time reader seeing the blindingly obvious: “I think Pushkin’s story is in large part a meditation on the nature of stories, and storytelling itself.” The insight, which in a simple way echoes Schmid’s work, is a shrewd one. McHugh goes on to enumerate several examples where the focus is on “stories.” Indeed, throughout the tale we find a paradigm of what I call “metapoetic moments” when unreliable narrators purvey “stor­ies,” or fantastic tales, which all prove far-fetched, to others who want to believe them, and by doing so highlight the question of the genre of the events in which they find themselves. The first narrator is Tomsky, who declares that he finds the attitude of his grandmother the countess “in­comprehensible” (neponiaten), thus introducing the theme of mystery into the work. He then goes on to tell his fellow gamblers, plus Germann, the story of the “secret” supposedly told her by Saint-Germain. Of their reac­tions, the most significant is that of Germann: “A fairy-tale!” (Skazka!). His response is, as it were, the first attempt at a generic definition of the story in which he is to become a character. Having thus skeptically de­fined the fantastic nature of the anecdote, Germann is led to believe it when Tomsky passes on the story heard from a certain Ivan Il´ich, “which he swore to on his honor,” concerning Chaplitsky supposedly obtaining the “secret” of the cards from the countess. This second anecdote serves to re­inforce the effect of Tomsky’s account on Germann and suggests to him the procedure he might try to follow to obtain the secret, although on closer inspection the veracity of the account of Chaplitsky’s salvation through the three cards is undermined by the detail that he “died in pov­erty”—hardly the fate one would expect for someone possessing such a fabulous secret. Chaplitsky’s end suggestively points to the danger that awaits any who try to discover the “secret,” and foreshadows the outcome of the tale.

     A second “metapoetic moment” takes place when Tomsky discusses literary fashion with his grandmother. There are, he assures her, no nov­els in which the hero does not kill his father or his mother and there are no drowned bodies. When he asks if she would like a “Russian novel” (the second generic definition), she expresses disbelief that such things exist. Subsequent events could indeed be viewed as a Gothic horror novel (or at least, given its size, a povest´). True, the young Liza, unlike Karamzin’s heroine in Poor Liza, does not drown, but the hero Germann (who is later improbably described as the countess’s “illegitimate son”) will inadver­tently kill the old woman. That is to say, she dies the heroine of a minia­ture Russian Gothic novel, something she did not know existed.[5] A third metapoetic moment is the correspondence that Germann undertakes with Liza—at first cribbed from a German epistolary novel, but then freely composed by him, once he has assimilated the genre. Interestingly, Liza is seduced by the letters he bombards her with and responds to them, thus herself becoming the heroine not of a Gothic novel, but a sentimental epis­tolary one which she believes will have a happy outcome (a third generic definition): “Lizaveta Ivanovna no longer thought of sending them back; she became intoxicated by them; she began to reply to them,—and her notes became by the hour longer and more tender” (222). The effect of Ger­mann’s letters on Liza is to evoke belief in the reality of her correspon­dent’s passion and indeed it is real, although she is not the object. Ironi­cally, she manages to survive as the heroine of the sentimental novel to the end, retaining her virtue and making a good marriage, as such a hero­ine should.

     A fourth metapoetic moment occurs when the countess responds to Germann’s demands to tell him the secret: “That was a joke.” Below I shall argue that this is the crucial generic statement.[6] A fifth metapoetic moment takes place when the dead countess visits Germann; after she has left, Germann “returned to his room, lit a candle, and wrote down his vi­sion” (233; my italics). He has, at this point, literally become the author of the fantastic Gothic tale in which he has started to believe, as pointed out by Sergei Bocharov:

Germann’s imagination is contradictory; its distinctive dominant characteristic is mentioned constantly: he is a poet, the creator of the plot. His imagination is set on fire by Tomskii’s tale and cre­ates a whole plot out of his own material, out of an anecdote, out of nothing. In turn Tomskii’s tale is in itself based on others’ ac­counts and rumours…[7]

All the metapoetic moments thus focus on two aspects of literature: belief versus disbelief (which can also be viewed as the reliability of the narra­tor) and the metapoetic determination of the genre of the work, in the events of which the characters find themselves trapped. The narrative could indeed in another age have borne the title “In search of a genre”: anecdote, fairy tale, Gothic novel and sentimental epistolary novel.[8] In none of them does anyone tell the truth: all is vran´ë (inspired invention). Tomsky speculates on a mystery; Germann feigns being in love with Liza; Liza is carried away by her reading of novels and her desire for a husband to respond to Germann’s advances. Moreover, Germann becomes both pro­tagonist and author, carried away by Tomsky’s anecdote to fabricate an entire plot.

     There is, however, one initial impulse for this generic muddle: the countess and her “secret.” Without the “secret” nothing would have oc­curred. In this regard an important work has so far been overlooked by scholars, despite the apparently exhaustive search for “sources” for The Queen of Spades. The missing link is a satirical novel by Denis Diderot. Pushkin was clearly familiar with Diderot’s work from an early age, as he was with other eighteenth-century French writers such as Voltaire and Rousseau. Yet Pushkinists have generally discounted the possibility of textual echoes of Diderot in Pushkin, probably following Tomashevsky, who limits the mentions of the French philosophe to a few instances: his presence in a draft of the list of authors represented in Onegin’s library; Pushkin’s (unrealized) plan to introduce a portrait of Diderot in St. Peters­burg into the text of The Captain’s Daughter; and Pushkin’s characteriza­tion of “the fiery Diderot” (pylkogo Didro) as “Voltaire’s most zealous apostle.”[9] An exception to this general neglect is the poem “Tsar Nikita i sorok ego docherei” (1822), where, for the first time, scholars have recently perceived echoes of Diderot’s Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748).[10]Les Bijoux (known in Russian as Neskromnye sokrovishcha) is a satirical novel, a racy mixture of the libertine tales of Crébillon and Swiftian satire. In it a cer­tain African sultan by the name of Mangogul acquires a magic ring, which, when pointed at a woman, causes her genitalia, her “jewel,” to speak. Though set in a fantastic African world, the description of Mango­gul and his consort Mirzoza was to contemporaries a transparent carica­ture of Louis XV and his favorite Mme. de Pompadour. The work is thus a hilarious but biting portrait of the French court and the manners and morals of French society, for each time a “bijou” speaks, it reveals alarm­ing secrets about its mistress’s adventures and misdemeanors in the bedroom.

     In Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades there are striking echoes of Les Bijoux indiscrets: these amount to a key element in the artistic structure of the work, a blatant hint on the author’s part to the initiated reader. Diderot’s novel reflects precisely the world of eighteenth-century French society in which the old countess in Pushkin’s story spent her youth. This world of gambling and sexual intrigue, excesses and adultery, is inhabited by such figures as the Duc de Richelieu (in Diderot’s roman à clé disguised as “Sélim”) and the Queen of France, Maria Leszczynska, whom Diderot code-names “Manimonbanda.” The essential element that Pushkin derives from Diderot is the use of sex for the payment of gambling debts. This plot motif enters Diderot’s novel in Chapter XII, which is specifically devoted to the addiction of many noblewomen to gambling:

The majority of the women in Manimonbanda’s circle gambled furiously and it did not take the wisdom of Mangogul to notice it. The passion of the gaming table is one of the most difficult to dis­simulate: it manifests itself whether in gain or loss by some strik­ing symptoms. “But where do they get this passion?” he said to himself. “How can they bring themselves to spend nights at the faro table, trembling in expectation of an ace or a seven? This frenzy undermines their health and their beauty, when they have any, not to mention the mischief into which I am sure it precipi­tates them.”[11]

      At this Mangogul decides to visit a society lady named Manille, “the worst of the gambling noblewomen,” for the fifth test of the ring and to make her bijou talk in order to “send a message to those imbeciles of hus­bands who allow their wives to risk the honor and fortune of their house on a card or a roll of the dice” (72). When he begins his experiment, “immediately her jewel cried out in pain: ‘For this round I am cleaned out and hog-tied [repic et capot].’ The sultan smiled to discover that at Manille’s everyone talked gambling, even her jewel.” We read on:

[T]he jewel cited the extraordinary games it had witnessed and the resourcefulness of its mistress in her reversals of fortune. “Without me,” it said, “Manille would have been ruined twenty times over. All the treasures of the sultan could not have acquitted the debts I have paid. In one session of brelan she lost more than ten thousand ducats to a financier and an abbé: all she had left was her jewellery, but her husband had redeemed them too recently for her to risk losing them. She had, however, accepted the cards and received one of those seductive hands that fortune sends when she is on the point of skinning you alive. The other players prevailed upon her to make her call. Manille looked at her cards, put her hand in her purse, from which she was quite certain to produce nothing, returned to her hand, looked at it again, and couldn’t decide. ‘So is madam in?’ said the financier.
     ‘Yes,’ said she, ‘I’m in for my jewel.’
     ‘At what price?’ replied Turcares.
     ‘For a hundred ducats,’ said Manille.
     The abbé pulled out: the jewel seemed too expensive to him. Turcares accepted the deal. Manille lost and paid.” (74)

Manille’s jewel goes on to recount all the other occasions when it paid her debts for her: “she lost me other times too, and as we know gambling debts are the only debts in the world that one pays.” Despite the fact that she runs an excellent household and is affectionate with her Great Dane and her husband, “thirty times a month [!] she risks these happy circum­stances and her money on an ace of spades” (elle hasarde trente fois par mois ces heureuses dispositions et son argent sur un as de pique). The jewel concludes: “God knows how many more times I will be wagered” (76).

     The numerous resonances between Diderot’s work and Pushkin’s are clearly not the product of chance, for example, the wagering of money and happiness on the ace of spades. The above passage needs to be mapped onto Tomsky’s description in Pikovaia dama of his grandmother’s exploits in Paris: “You should know that sixty years ago my grandmother went to Paris and was the height of fashion there. The common folk chased after her to catch a glimpse of la Vénus muscovite; Richelieu[12] courted her, and my grandmother declares that he almost shot himself because of her cru­elty.” Here the vagueness and dubious veracity of Tomsky’s story first be­comes noticeable: history records that the third Duc de Richelieu was an inveterate womanizer even into old age—at the approximate time of the countess’s sojourn in Paris he would have been in his late sixties. Does the “almost” suggest that she relented in her cruelty towards him? Tomsky continues:

At that time the ladies played faro. Once she lost against her word some large sum to the Duke of Orléans. Returning home, my grandmother, removing the beauty spots from her face and un­tying her farthingales, informed my grandfather of her loss and ordered him to pay. My late grandfather, as far as I remember, was a sort of major-domo to my grandmother. He feared her like fire; however, upon hearing of such a terrible loss, he was beside himself, bringing the accounts, and showing her that in half a year they had spent half a million, that in the vicinity of Paris they had no village like those near Moscow or Saratov, and absolutely re­fused to pay. My grandmother slapped his face and went to bed alone to signal her disgust. The next day she ordered that her hus­band be called, hoping that this domestic punishment might have had its effect upon him, but found him unwavering. For the first time in her life she resorted to reasoning and explanations with him; she thought to appeal to his conscience, pointing out conde­scendingly that there are different kinds of debt, and that there is a difference between a prince and a coachman.[13]

The last statement is a simple paraphrase of Diderot’s “gambling debts are the only debts in the world that one pays” quoted above.

     Consequently, the countess turns to Saint-Germain who, as we learn, “could lay his hands on large sums of money.” Here again it is important to recall that Tomsky’s tale of his grandmother derives from her own ac­count of the affair, and hence is doubly unreliable. Had his grandmother sold her bijou to Saint-Germain to settle her debt, she would hardly have admitted it. Regarding Saint-Germain, it is interesting to note that “Grandmother to this day loves him out of mind and is angry, if he is spoken about disrespectfully.” When the countess resorts to Saint-Germain, Tomsky reports him as saying: “I can let you have this sum, but I know that you will not rest until you have paid me back, and I would not like to lead you into new troubles. There is another means: you can win it back.” When Tomsky’s grandmother retorts that she and her husband have absolutely no money, he responds: “‘For this money is not neces­sary…’ He then revealed a secret to her” (“otkryl ei tainu”—an expression perhaps not fortuitously reminiscent of Gabriel’s “ia ei otkryl” in Gavriili­ada).[14] The dénouement of Tomsky’s tale takes place, as does that of Diderot, at the table de la reine—the gambling circle that had gathered around Louis XV’s Polish queen.

     The parallels and resonances between the twelfth chapter of Les Bi­joux and Tomsky’s account of his grandmother’s exploits in Paris would be self-evident to that small coterie of his readers who had grown up on a diet of eighteenth-century French literature, as had Pushkin. It can be viewed as an “in-joke” for the most perceptive of Pushkin’s “paradigm of narra­tees.” The inference is clear, but not explicit: perhaps the countess in­vented her “secret” to cover her “payment” à la Manille to Saint-Germain: a désordre, to use Diderot’s term. The countess is “piqued” when her hus­band refuses to pay the debt, and takes her revenge on her husband, not only by banishing him from the bedroom, but also by selling her bijou. The business of the three cards was a story told to her “imbecile of a husband” to disguise the truth. Here is perhaps the meaning of her assertion that “that was a joke”: a joke at her husband’s expense. The countess might thus be the ultimate unreliable narrator, and her désordre the source of all that follows. It is Diderot’s thesis that women lie all the time to hide their peccadilloes, and that it is only their bijoux that know the truth, if only they could be induced to reveal it. That is to say, the work is not so much about sex as about women’s “telling stories.” At the same time, the echoes of Diderot, however obvious and suggestive, are not confirmed, but simply another layer of mystery. We cannot be sure that the countess lied to her husband, but may only infer it. Nevertheless, Diderot’s text serves as the reference point for the interplay of passion for the table and sexual favors that becomes a central theme in the tale (we recall that Germann is ready to become the old woman’s lover in order to discover her “secret”). Diderot shows that, ironically, if men are interested in the passions of the bedroom (but only of others’ wives), women are interested above all in the passions of the table: sex is an instrument they use to achieve their objective. Pushkin brilliantly incorporates this perception in his story by having Germann feigning passion for Liza when in fact his obsession is for cards. Germann is a pervert who prefers gambling to women, and is even willing to sell his sex to the old crone to learn the secret (in a parodic inversion of situation described by Diderot, where it is the wives who sell their sex).[15] Alternatively, Pushkin could be interpreted as commenting on the triviality of sex compared to the temptation of winning at cards: which of the two is really important?

     There is a further resemblance to be noted between Diderot’s text and that of Pushkin. In the former Mangogul has to insinuate himself into Manille’s boudoir at seven in the morning in order to subject her to the power of his ring and make her bijou speak. The description of the scene reads as follows:

Her servant-women were going to put her to bed. He [Mangogul] judged, from the sadness that reigned on her face, that she had had bad luck: she was coming and going, stopping, raising her eyes to heaven, stamping her foot, pressing her fists against her eyes and muttering between her teeth something that the sultan could not hear. Her women who were undressing her followed trembling all her movements and if they managed to get her to bed, it was not without having to endure harsh words and even worse. So there was Manille in bed, having said for her evening prayer only some curses at a damned ace that had lost seven times in a row. (73)

     This scene has two parallels in The Queen of Spades: first, the descrip­tion already quoted of the young countess returning home after her heavy loss, and second, the scene viewed by Germann of the old countess return­ing from the ball. Both the impatience and irritation of Diderot’s heroine are reflected in the countess’s behavior. The fact that Germann assumes the role of voyeuristic intruder played by the sultan in Diderot’s text is a source of comic play, for where Mangogul has a device to learn a woman’s innermost thoughts (or rather, those of her bijou), Germann is frustrated at the silence of the old countess; for want of a magic ring, he pulls out a pistol, but this proves a poor instrument for learning secrets. (We might even speculate here on the contrast of the phallic symbol of the gun versus the ring in Les Bijoux—with Pushkin, as with Diderot, it is hard to know how far to take these inferences.) In the silence of the countess we can imagine her thoughts as a white lie she had told her husband sixty years ago to cover up a peccadillo comes back to haunt her in the possessed fig­ure of the artillery officer. Her description of the legend of the three cards as a shutka, a joke, is an important new addition to the paradigm of gen­res in the tale. Through the power of gossip and repetition, a joke has become an anecdote, which became a fairy tale, which has turned into a Germann’s Gothic novel and Liza’s sentimental epistolary romance. In the countess’s joke Germann is not the author, but the dupe.

     As we see, the intertextual references to Diderot’s Les Bijoux serve a specific function. They constitute an in-joke for readers familiar with the French text and offer a possible explanation for the mystery surrounding the “secret” at the centre of Pushkin’s tale, implying that the young coun­tess, in order to pay back a gambling debt to the Duc d’Orléans, paid Saint-Germain with her “jewel,” thus undermining the credibility of Tom­sky’s account of the mysterious three cards. It is, after all, exactly this kind of “mischief” (désordres) that Diderot describes in his novel as being endemic. That is to say, by referring to Diderot Pushkin is inviting us to speculate that the countess’s secret is not the three, the seven and the ace at all—although interestingly the ace and the seven are both mentioned in Diderot. Those three cards, as Bocharov points out, are apparently the product of Germann’s over-fevered imagination. Of course, it could be ob­jected that this would leave unexplained the fact that the combination is a winning one (in the case of Germann: Chaplitsky’s success is left unex­plained), but faro is after all a game of chance: it is improbable, but far from impossible that the three cards might win. Alternatively, the combi­nation of the three winning cards can be viewed as a chudo, an interven­tion of the miraculous into life. Various scholars have pointed to the theme of the miracle in Pushkin: an inscrutable and phenomenal event that could be the result of pure chance—or of the intervention of a divine force that might be demonic or providential.

     The references to Diderot’s libertine novel give Pushkin’s tale of gam­bling its risqué undertone with suggestions of sexuality that scholars have frequently commented on.[16] At the same time Pushkin gave the work a strong metapoetic underlay through the presence of the paradigm of nar­rators or storytellers: for Germann it is a Gothic or fantastic tale ending in the obligatory madness. He ignores the condition imposed by the phantom countess in return for learning the “secret,” namely that he marry her pro­tégée Liza, which would crown their epistolary novel with the conven­tional happy end. There is no sign in the final chapter that he even thinks of Liza, except perhaps in the mention of the “slender girl” whom he asso­ciates with the three of hearts. Germann the author is carried away by belief in his own fantasy to choose the wrong ending. He is not in the gam­ing rooms of Paris, where he plans to go, but in Russia, and his muse ought not to be the Vénus muscovite, but Liza. If he were to stop when his three wins and marry Liza, then all would be well. For Liza the plot re­mains, miraculously and ironically (that is to say, through the interven­tion of the author), that of a sentimental epistolary novel, in which she escapes the clutches of the evil antihero and comes out a winner, making a respectable middle-class marriage. For the countess, a “joke” or intrigue turns into a Gothic horror tale in which she is frightened to death. I would argue, however, that the definition of the tale as a “joke” is ultimately that of the author too. In other words, when the countess tells Germann that the story of the three cards was a joke, Pushkin is telling us how to read his tale. In an elegant metaphor, Shmid describes the effect of the inter­play of genres or, as he calls them, “discourses,” in the work: “The dis­courses employed remain in play to the end like the possible winning cards in the semantic faro of the text.”[17] Such a metaphor invokes the image of the omniscient narrator as the banker, impassively supervising the flow of the cards; in fact, there are reasons to distrust the very nar­rator as the purveyor of any semblance of reality: in the narration no one tells the truth.

     A final ironic, metapoetic moment occurs when, during the countess’s funeral service, Germann slips and falls. A thin chamberlain whispers to the Englishman standing next to him that the young officer is her illegiti­mate son. Here the genre is again the anecdote or rumor. The English­man’s reaction: “Oh?” could be taken for a sign of disbelief on the part of the skeptical, straightforward Englishman that an ancient countess could have such a young son. This voice of common sense contrasts with the reaction of both Russian gamblers and Russian readers. In The Queen of Spades the poet is making fun of all those who, as he remarked in his diary for the 7th of April 1834, had cast common sense aside and were led by his tale to suspend their disbelief and gamble on the three cards, and, we might add, all those critics who have sought to find in the three cards a secret code. (At the same time, Pushkin himself was an inveterate gam­bler, so that the joke is at least partially on him too.) The literary joke or anecdote was an eighteenth-century genre: here the link with Diderot is paramount, for his Bijoux indiscrets is one long joke at the expense of Louis XV, his paramour, and his court.

     If Pushkin’s tale is indeed an elaborate literary joke, a shutka, does the question rest there, with the determination of the genre? In other words, what is the meaning of the tale? The answer, I would argue, lies in the fact that it is about “telling stories”: it is self-referential. Germann, as has been pointed out, is an author manqué, and an author, in turn, is a kind of samozvanets (pretender). In this context the comparison of the story with Boris Godunov is instructive. Like Grishka Otrep′ev’s, Ger­mann’s “story” is the creation of a plot in which he will be a winner; lurking behind both is the historical example of Napoleon, who arose from nothing to be the creator of a vast empire. It is a strange impulse that drives a protagonist of humble background to wish to become a tuz, a “big-shot.”[18] The erotic content of the tale is not there by chance: in Pushkin’s understanding of the impulse that drives the creative personality there is a profoundly erotic element. That is to say, the “double discourse” in the descriptions of Germann’s “passion” is not merely a source of comedy or another red herring. The erotic impulse is what drives Germann to pursue his mad project: first the idea that he might follow the same path as (perhaps) Saint-Germain and Chaplitsky in pursuing the Vénus musco­vite, then the vision of Lizaveta in the window as a possible object of desire release the pent-up erotic forces in this obsessive bachelor. Both the count­ess and Lizaveta compete to be Germann’s “Marina Mniszech,” to be, in short, his muse, but, as the narrator tells us, “two immovable ideas cannot coexist in the moral world, just as in the physical world two bodies cannot occupy the same space.” Thus the Vénus muscovite wins in the duel with her protégée as the object of Germann’s desire. In a sense, Germann’s fatal mistake in pulling the wrong card is an act of necrophilia: for Ger­mann the climax of winning with the ace and becoming an “ace” instead turns into the horror of finding that the object of his desire is dead; indeed, it is he who has killed her. In a way this reflection on the erotic forces that drive individuals to desire power (encoded in the word tuz—the card he in­tends rather than the queen of spades he actually pulls) and sexual fulfillment is a deeply personal one for Pushkin. Germann’s path, like that of Grishka Otrep′ev and indeed that of Napoleon, with whom both Grishka and Germann are compared, leads to disaster. For Pushkin, who eschewed military or political success in favor of the lonely path of the poet, these are the roads not taken: two immovable ideas—to be an ace and find erotic fulfillment and to be an author, a composer of “stories,” cannot coexist in the moral world. A second, related meaning for Pushkin lies in the theme of rumors. Germann is led by rumors, gossip, and hearsay to construct the fantastic plot that will destroy him. (Similarly Grishka Otrep´ev is led by rumors concerning the murdered tsarevich to invent the myth that he is the dead Dimitry, and Boris has people’s tongues cut out so that they will not spread rumors.) All is rumor and anecdote; in this sense everyone is an author. The narrator’s unreliability is thus a deeply metapoetic posi­tion: “do not take anything I am saying as the truth,” he is telling the reader. The problem is that people believe rumors, and rumors beget mi­raculous events (chudesa): the rise of Napoleon, the miracle of the dead Dimitry risen and come at the head of an army, the miracle of the three winning cards. Are miracles from providence or from demonic forces? For Pushkin they are inscrutable.[19] What is certain is that they lead to de­struction. Germann’s destruction derives ultimately from his gullibility: he believes Tomsky’s gossip and acts upon it.

     Part of the humor of The Queen of Spades lies in the “nationality ques­tion”: Germann is a German who lives by rational principles of economy; it is when he hears the tale of the countess’s secret he decides to seek to apparently act irrationally, like a Russian (although he believes he is onto a sure thing). In an ingenious article Vladimir Gol′shtein argues that the mention of the “midnight bridegroom” in the allocution of the young bishop is an allusion to the three parables in the gospel according to Mat­thew 25: the parable of the wise and the foolish virgins awaiting the bride­groom; the parable of the talents; and the parable of the judgment of God.[20] He argues that these parables correspond to the “three crimes” sup­posedly on Germann’s conscience. It is difficult, however, to agree with Gol´shtein’s criticism of Mariia Virolainen, who called the mention of the “midnight bridegroom” ironic. First, the “midnight bridegroom” who visited the countess was Germann, so that here he appears rather as an inverted Christ figure, especially since, as Gol´shtein points out, the para­bles are the last passage in Matthew before the events leading to the cru­cifixion. Gol′shtein compares Germann to a “foolish maiden” who is not prepared at the right time and therefore inappropriately chooses the countess, while Liza is a wise maiden who is ready for her bridegroom. The problem with Gol′shtein’s reading is that it appears overly “serious,” in the sense that it ignores the ironic tension that everywhere pervades the text. There is, for example, an implicit irony in the epilogue, when we learn that Liza has married, as J. Thomas Shaw suggests, a German bu­reaucrat, the bourgeois happy ending that is always in Pushkin sur­rounded by an aureole of irony. Gol′shtein links the parable of the wise and foolish maidens to the numerous references in Pushkin’s poetry on doing everything at the appropriate time (“Blazhen, kto c molodu byl molod…”), not recognizing in that insistence the underlying autobiograph­ical irony that the Russian poet did not live by his own precepts. In other words, even the reference to the midnight bridegroom might be read as self-referential.

     If the tale is a joke, then it is a very serious one, to use Goethe’s term.[21] The German poet had begun in the 1820s to use the term “sehr ernste Scherze” to describe his Faust II.[22] Whether or not Pushkin knew this is open to speculation, but it is significant that Germann is described as having the profile of Mephistopheles; and indeed, scholars have pointed out the Faustian nature of Germann’s pact with the devil.[23] Moreover the idea of the hero playing the queen and the ace is present already in Push­kin’s “Nabroski k zamyslu o Fauste” (1825), especially the third part (“Segodnia bal u Satany”):

Я дамой... – Крой! – Я бью тузом...
Позвольте, козырь. – Ну пойдём...[24]

In this quotation, Faust and Satan are playing not faro, but whist, so that the sequence of cards is different. Faust plays with the queen, then Satan, evidently, plays the king; Faust then thinks he has won with the ace, only to be trumped by Satan. The final word expresses Faust’s resignation as he descends to the underworld.[25] Thus in The Queen of Spades Pushkin takes the joke, the genre of Diderot, and refashions it with elements of Faust, giving it a new and deeper meaning, both as regards his age and, equally importantly, for the poet’s situation in that age. Diderot was a writer of the ancien régime, an epoch now wholly lost. Germann, with his resemblance to Napoleon and his Faustian bargain with the devil, is the representative of the new, revolutionary era. What, under the ancien régime, was simply a joke has acquired a deadly earnest content. We may perhaps read his fate as a comment by Pushkin on where the fanaticism of revolution can lead. Perhaps also the portrait of the countess is tinged with a certain nostalgia for simpler times. We are reminded once again of Shklovsky’s description of Pushkin not as the progenitor of modern Rus­sian literature, but as concluding brilliantly the literature of the eight­eenth century, the final act in the show.


University of Ottawa


Download: Clayton, J. Douglas. "The Queen of Spades: A Seriously Intended Joke," Pushkin Review 12-13 (2009-10): 1-15.

[1] A recent example of this approach is the article by Daria Solodkaia, “The Mys­tery of Germann’s Failure,” Pushkin Review 11 (2008): 61–79. Other discussions along these lines include: Lauren G. Leighton, “Numbers and Numerology in The Queen of Spades,” Canadian Slavonic Papers 19: 4 (1977): 417–43; J. Thomas Shaw, “The ‘Conclusion’ of the ‘The Queen of Spades,’” in Pushkin, Poet and Man of Letters and His Prose, vol. 1 of Collected Works (Los Angeles: Charles Schlacks, Jr., 1995), 137–51; Sergei Davydov, “The Ace in ‘The Queen of Spades,’” Slavic Review 58: 2 (1999): 309–28; Nathan Rosen, “The Magic Cards in “The Queen of Spades,’” The Slavic and East European Journal 19: 3 (1975): 255–75; Rostislav Shul´ts, Otzvuki faustovskoi traditsii i tainopisi v tvorchestve Pushkina (St. Peters­burg: Filologicheskii fakul´tet Sankt-Peterburgskii gos. universitet, 2006); and Gary Rosenshield, Pushkin and the Genres of Madness: The Masterpieces of 1833 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 21–36.

[2] Other studies that focus on intertextuality include: Nina Petrunina, “Poetika filosofskoi povesti: ‘Pikovaia dama,’” in Proza Pushkina: Puti evoliutsii, ed. D. S. Likhachev(Leningrad: Nauka, 1987), 199–240;D. M. Sharypkin, “Vokrug ‘Pikovoi damy,’ Vremennik Pushkinskoi komissii 1972, vyp. 10(Leningrad: Nauka, 1974): 128–38;and D. P. Iakubovich, “Literaturnyi fon ‘Pikovoi damy,’”Literaturnyi sovremennik, no. 1 (1935).

[3] Throughout this article translations from the Russian and the French are mine.

[4] Vol′f Shmid [Wolf Schmid], “‘Pikovaia dama’ kak metatekstual′naia novella,” in Proza kak poeziia: Pushkin, Dostoevskii, Chekhov, avangard (St. Petersburg: Ina­press, 1998), 103–36.

[5] “In The Queen of Spades is hidden an extremely condensed novel.… The internal form of The Queen of Spades is in the spirit of a novel, but in its outward form the novel is unrealized.” A. V.Chicherin, quoted in S. G. Bocharov, “Sluchai ili skazka?” in Pushkin v XXI veke, ed. A. B. Kudelin et al. (Moscow: Institut mirovoi literatury im. A. M. Gor′kogo, 2006), 26.

[6] In this I concur with Caryl Emerson, who writes: “the key passage in the text has nothing to do with threes, sevens, numerology, or cryptography. It is, rather, the countess’s final words to Germann: ‘Eto byla šutka’ (it was a joke)—not, note, a riddle, which has an answer already implied in the asking” (Caryl Emerson, “‘The Queen of Spades’ and the Open End,” Puškin Today, ed. David Bethea[Blooming­ton: Indiana University Press, 1993]: 36).

[7] Bocharov, “Sluchai ili skazka?” 22.

[8] Unlike Shmid I distinguish the Gothic novel and the sentimental, epistolary one as two separate discourses or genres. Germann in my reading is the antihero who dominates in the former, while Liza is the chaste and pitiful heroine who forms the center of the latter. Encapsulated here we find the transition from one literary form to another that took place at the end of the eighteenth century: a “generic duel.” On the features of the anecdote, see Shmid, Proza kak poeziia, 118.

[9] B. V. Tomashevskii, Pushkin i Frantsiia (Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel´, 1960): 140, 142.

[10] On this subject, see J. Douglas Clayton and Natalia Vesselova, “Resexing Lit­erature: ‘Tsar Nikita and His Forty Daughters’” (forthcoming).

[11] Denis Diderot, Les Bijoux indiscrets (Paris: Gallimard, 1981), 72. Further page references are given in parentheses in the body of the article.

[12] Louis François Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, 3rd duc de Richelieu (1696–1788).

[13] Quotations are from A. S. Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v desiati tomakh (Leningrad: Nauka, 1978), 6: 310–237.

[14] Indeed, there seems to be an indecent undertone to the use of the word taina (secret) in connection with the countess. The word is used in all ten times in the tale: seven times concerning the countess, and three apropos of Liza. In the case of Liza the word simply refers to the secret of her interest in Germann, which she blurts out to Tomsky: “[О]на сожалела, что нескромным вопросом высказала свою тайну ветреному Томскому.” When the word refers to the countess’s secret, the verb chosen is not vyskazat´ but otkryt´, which can mean “to reveal,” but also “to open.” Tomsky uses the phrase twice: “Тут он [Saint-Germain] открыл ей тайну, за которую всякий из нас дорого бы дал…”; “у ней было четверо сыновей, в том числе и мой отец: все четыре отчаянные игроки, и ни одному не открыла она своей тайны.” Then the phrase is taken up obsessively by Germann: “что, если старая графиня откроет мне свою тайну! – или назначит мне эти три верные карты!” Here the presence of the conjunction ili (or) suggests that in Germann’s mind the three cards and the countess’s “secret” are no longer one and the same. His next use – “Для кого вам беречь вашу тайну?” although continuing the logical line of the countess’s refusal to divulge the secret to her sons, also sug­gests the argument of a lover: for whom are you keeping your chastity? The argument becomes even more insistent: “[У]моляю вас чувствами супруги, любов­ницы, матери, – всем, что ни есть святого в жизни, – не откажите мне в моей просьбе! – откройте мне вашу тайну! – что вам в ней?.. Может быть, она сопряжена с ужасным грехом, с пагубою вечного блаженства, с дьявольским договором... Подумайте: вы стары; жить вам уж недолго, – я готов взять грех ваш на свою душу. Откройте мне только вашу тайну.” (The emphasis in the above quotations is mine—J.D.C.)

[15] In the rumor about Chaplitsky scholars have read a hint that the countess gave him the secret in exchange for sexual favors, thus giving rise to Hermann’s specu­lation on the subject. See, for example, Shmid, Proza kak poeziia, 128.

[16] See, for example, Richard Gregg, “Germann the Confessor and the Stony, Seated Countess: Moral Subtext of Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades,’” Slavonic and East European Review 78: 4 (2000): 616–17.

[17] Shmid, Proza kak poeziia, 115.

[18] On the meaning of tuz, see J. Thomas Shaw, “The ‘Conclusion’ of Pushkin’s Queen of Spades,” in Pushkin: Poet and Man of Letters and His Prose, vol. 1 of Col­lected Works (Los Angeles: Charles Schlacks, Jr., 1995), 143.

[19] On the chudo, see V. M. Markovich, “Balladnyi mir Zhukovskogo i russkaia fan­tasticheskaia povest´ epokhi romantizma,” in Zhukovskii i russkaia kul´tura: Sbor­nik nauchnykh trudov, ed. R. A. Iezuitova (Leningrad: Nauka, 1987), 138–66; and Dzh. Daglas Kleiton [J. Douglas Clayton], Ten´ Dimitriia: Opyt prochteniia push­kinskogo “Borisa Godunova” (St. Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 2007), 115.

[20] Vladimir Gol´shtein, “Sekrety ‘Pikovoi Damy,’” Zapiski russkoi akademicheskoi gruppy v SShA/Transactions of the Association of Russian-American Scholars in the U.S.A. 30 (1999): 101–04.

[21] The work’s philosophical aspects—especially the concepts of chance and the miraculous—are best explored by Sergei Bocharov. For an ingenious application of the three parables from the Gospel according to Matthew, see Gol´shtein, “Sekrety ‘Pikovoi Damy,’” 97–123.

[22] On Goethe’s use of the phrase, see Ida H. Washington, “Mephistopheles as an Aristophanic Devil,” MLN 101: 3 (April 1986): 659–60.

[23] See, for example, A. Bem, “‘Faust v tvorchstve Pushkina,” Slavia 13 (1934–35): 378–99. See also Andrej Kodjak, “‘The Queen of Spades’ in the Context of the Faust Legend,” in Alexander Puškin: A Symposium on the 175th Anniversary of His Birth, ed. Andrej Kodjak and Kiril Taranovsky (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 87–118.

[24] Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii, 2: 275.

[25] See John Douglas Clayton, “Parody and Burlesque in the Work of A. S. Pushkin: A Critical Study” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1971), 205.