The Germann-Chekalinskii Duel in "The Queen of Spades"

Nathan Rosen[1]

 

Chekalinsky is the ever-smiling sixty-year-old banker in the gambling sa­lon where Germann[2] met his final catastrophe in The Queen of Spades. He has received little attention in the literature on gambling and The Queen of Spades. In this paper I wish to reintroduce him and to show his impor­tance in the larger picture of The Queen of Spades.

We are told that he had spent his whole life at the card table, pre­sumably as a gambler and banker, and “at one time amassed millions by accepting IOUs and by paying cold cash when he lost.”[3] How did he man­age to amass his millions? I think that by accepting IOUs instead of re­quiring cash he made it easy for punters to place bets far in excess of their ability to pay. On the other hand, he stood to lose a great deal of money if the debtors failed to pay their IOUs; one need only recall what the Countess in The Queen of Spades said to her husband: that debts of honor to fellow-aristocrats had to be paid, but not debts to coach-makers—a cate­gory of social inferiors which may have included Chekalinsky.[4]

We may guess that Chekalinsky made his millions earlier, at the end of the eighteenth century, by being a superb gambler with insight into human weaknesses that he could exploit. Now, however, as president of a society of wealthy gamblers, he plays a more cautious game than in the past: IOUs are no longer accepted. Moreover, “no one has staked more than 275 rubles on a single card,” says Chekalinsky. (The usual stake at that time was 50 to 100 rubles.[5]) Given these trivial stakes, Chekalinsky’s main job now seems to be to act as a congenial host and banker, and to see to it that the rules set by his organization are observed. 

This raises an important question: if no more than 275 rubles can be staked on one card play, how could Chekalinsky have permitted Germann to place bets ranging from 47,000 (the first evening) to 376,000 (the third evening)? These stakes were far above the limits observed in ordinary play. (To give some perspective, let us remember the gambling debt of 43,000 rubles that Nicholas Rostov ran up against the vengeful cardsharp Dolokhov in War and Peace. Rostov said that it was a “great deal of money”; his father said that it was difficult to obtain such a large amount.[6] Yet 43,000 rubles is much less than the stake of 376,000 rubles that Chekalinsky accepted on the third evening of play.)

In this connection I would like to make two points. First, by accepting such a fantastically high stake Chekalinsky is plainly violating the trust that his society of gamblers has placed in him. If he would have to pay out 376,000 rubles to a triumphant Germann on the third evening of play, in addition to the huge sums paid out in the first two evenings, the society most likely would become bankrupt. Second, the usually imperturbable Chekalinsky is well aware of this; on the third evening “Chekalinsky was pale, though still smiling.… [He] started dealing, his hands were shaking.”

What could drive Chekalinsky to accept such a fantastic series of bets? Here we can only speculate. Lauren Leighton suggests[7] that Chekalinsky, on the basis of his long experience at the gaming table and his true gam­bler’s intuition, could have sensed that Germann was a born loser. It was therefore safe to accept his enormous bets. However, it is doubtful that Chekalinsky would have dared to risk his firm’s financial security on a personal hunch.

Iurii Lotman has noted that Chekalinsky’s unchanging smile is noth­ing more than a constant, immobile mask, “a dead smile which conceals from view the true and vital movements of his heart.”[8] I would venture to suggest that the most important of the true and vital movements of his heart may be—consciously or unconsciously—the need to avenge the death of his mother. This is the thesis which I propose to develop.

First, Chekalinsky “was about sixty years old, of a highly respectable appearance.” If Chekalinsky was sixty years old, then he was born in 1770—just when the beautiful Countess pleaded for money from Saint-Germain in Paris to cover her gambling debts. Hence Chekalinsky could have been an illegitimate son of that union. Note too that both Saint-Germain and Chekalinsky are likened to one another: each one has a highly respectable appearance and excellent manners. If Chekalinsky is the son of the Countess, would he not feel called upon to avenge the death of his mother—that is, he must accept the challenge of those enormous stakes: “It was more like a duel,” says Pushkin, commenting on the gamb­ling scene. Violating the customary maximum bet of 275 rubles on a single card, Chekalinsky recklessly accepts Germann’s stakes.

The skeptical reader may wonder how Chekalinsky could have known that Germann (whom he had never met before) was responsible for the death of the Countess. Perhaps Chekalinsky got this information from the same source that compelled the ghost of the Countess to give—unwill­ingly—the secret of the winning cards to Germann: “I have come to you against my will,” she says, “but I am ordered to fulfill your request….”

A second and more specific explanation could be offered: there is the ambiguous and sinister pun with which Chekalinsky comments on Ger­mann’s last and fatal cardplay, when the queen of spades turns up instead of the expected ace: “Vasha dama ubita” says Chekalinsky. This is a tech­nical expression in faro signifying that the game is lost—the card is beaten or killed (ubita) by a stronger card. But it could also mean, more literally, “Your wife is killed.” In Pushkin’s time “dama” meant not only a figurative card but, according to the dictionary of Pushkin’s language, it could also mean “a woman from the privileged, cultured layers of society (generally married [preimushchestvenno zamuzhniaia[9]]).” And, as I have shown elsewhere, in the funeral scene of The Queen of Spades (chapter 5), Germann is derisively identified with Christ as the Midnight Bridegroom: he is married in a mock wedding ceremony to the dead Countess, who is dressed in white. So she becomes his wife, his dama.[10] When Chekalinsky says “Vasha dama ubita,” is he aware of this grim meaning or does he unconsciously act as a spokesman for Fate?

This is not a far-fetched question. As Lotman points out, faro is a game of pure chance; skill and strategy have nothing to do with it, either on the part of the banker or the punter. The banker does not know which card will turn up in his deck. Hence the banker is regarded as a “kind of figurehead under the control of the Unknown Factors which stand behind him.… The game of faro becomes a confrontation with a powerful and irrational force, frequently thought of as demonic.”[11] In Germann’s fevered imagination Chekalinsky looms as “the fantastic weapon of fate.”[12] If fate stands behind Chekalinsky as he turns the cards, then he is linked with the infernal forces behind the ghost of the Countess.

One of these infernal forces may be the spirit of Chaplitsky, that wild and reckless gambler whom the Countess loved passionately even at the age of 87. The most casual reader cannot fail to be struck by the fact that Chekalinsky and Chaplitsky have names that begin and end with the same consonants: CH—SKY. Pushkin offers just enough similarity to sug­gest a connection without emphasizing it… It may be that Chekalinsky and Chaplitsky merge with each other as individual incarnations of the vengeful, infernal force that destroys Germann. This would explain Che­kalinsky’s daring and uncharacteristic acceptance of Germann’s high stakes: he is inspired by the wild and reckless spirit of Chaplitsky raging through him.

 

§

 

Addendum
On Mistranslating Germann’s Name in The Queen of Spades

 In Russian the name of the main character in The Queen of Spades is Germann. The name is invariably translated into English—even in the best translations—as Herman. This is a mistake.

The mistake was first noticed by Andrei Anikin. He pointed out that Herman is a given name, whereas all the male names in the story—Surin, Narumov, Tomsky, Zorich, Chaplitsky, Chekalinsky—are family names.[13] Tomsky even identifies a friend of his to Lizaveta merely as Narumov. Germann is therefore a family name and not to be confused with the given name of Herman.

Anikin’s observation was buried in a footnote to an obscure article and was not noticed by anyone. In 1996 G. G. Krasukhin again raised the question of Germann’s name: “Was it a family name or a given name?”[14] He pointed out that the church calendar, which all parents consulted, listed the name of German as a Russian given name (with one “n”) but did not mention Germann at all (with two “n’s”). That is because Germann is a foreign name.

The etymology of “German” supports our argument. It derives from the Latin germanus. Both “German” and “germanus” have a single “n.”[15]

Finally, my university library contains three books written in German whose authors are Georg Germann, Martin Germann, and Wilhelm Ger­mann. The name “Germann” is therefore not a given name (like Herman) but a traditional family name in Germany, and that is how Pushkin used it. And it has the additional virtue of reminding the Russian reader of Germann’s relation to “Germaniia”—an association that is missing if Germann is mistranslated as Herman.

 

Professor Emeritus, University of Rochester

 


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Rosen, Nathan. "The Germann-Chekalinskii Duel in 'The Queen of Spades'." Pushkin Review 8-9 (2005-06): 135-39.

 


[1] I wish to thank Lauren Leighton and Savely Senderovich for their helpful comments to an earlier version of this article.

[2] In this paper I have used the exact transliteration of the surname Germann in­stead of Herman (or Hermann), as it often appears in English translations. See the addendum to this essay for my explanation of this choice.

[3] A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v desiati tomakh, vol. 6 (Moscow: AN SSSR, 1957), 234. All translations are my own.

[4] Ian Helfant notes that members of the gentry felt that debts to nobles had to be repaid, but they tried to ignore their debts to non-nobles. Loans often went unpaid for long periods or were never paid. See Helfant, The High Stakes of Identity: Gambling in the Life and Literature of Nineteenth-Century Russia (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2002), 15. Pushkin does not tell us whether Chekalinsky was or was not a nobleman. In any case, the question has no bearing on our argument.

[5] Helfant, High Stakes of Identity, 11.

[6] Although Nicholas Rostov’s gambling debt was incurred twenty years before Germann’s wagers, the ruble had the same value during those twenty years since inflation in the nineteenth century was negligible. See Andrew Wachtel, “Reread­ing ‘The Queen of Spades,’” Pushkin Review/Pushkinskii vestnik 3 (2000): 13–21; esp. 15. There is a good treatment of the value of Russian money in the 1820s in Andrei Anikin’s article “Money in Alexander Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades,’” in John Louis DiGaetani, ed., Money: Lure, Lore and Literature (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), 103–10.

[7] In personal correspondence.

[8] Lotman, “Theme and Plot: The Theme of Cards and the Card Game in Russian Literature of the Nineteenth-Century,” trans. C. R. Pike, PTL: A Journal for Descriptive Poetics and Theory of Literature 3 (1978): 455–92; esp. 402. Reprinted in Russian in Iurii M. Lotman, Besedy o russkoi kul´ture (St. Petersburg: Iskusstvo-SPB, 1994), 136–63.

[9]Slovar´ iazyka Pushkina v chetyrekh tomakh, 2nd ed. (Moscow: Institut russkogo iazyka im. V. V. Vinogradova, 2000), 1: 591.

[10] Nathan Rosen, “Up the Down Staircase in ‘The Queen of Spades,’” Slavic and East European Journal 46: 4 (2002): 711–26; esp. 719–22.

[11] Lotman, “Theme and Plot,” 468–69.

[12] V. V. Vinogradov, Stil´ Pushkina (Moscow: Nauka, 1999), 664.

[13] Anikin, “Money in Alexander Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades,’” 106n6. 

[14] G. G. Krasukhin, Chetyre Pushkinskikh shedevra (Moscow: Izd. Moskovskogo universiteta, 1996), 57.

[15] N. A. Petrovskii, Slovar´ russkikh lichnykh imen (Moscow: Sovetskaia Entsiklopediia, 1966), 86.