“The Queen of Spades” may well be the most widely read work by Pushkin in the English-speaking world. It has spurred an exceptionally wide range of criticism: as Neil Cornwell (himself the editor of a recent critical study of the work) has said, critics have “subjected [it] … to seemingly endless analysis.” Caryl Emerson classifies these endless analyses into four main groups: a) “socio-literary studies that focus on the mechanics and ideology behind gambling”; b) “psychological-generational treatments”; c) “linguistic and syntactic studies”; d) “numerological approaches.” And to these one must also add a number of studies devoted to comparisons of the story with any one of a variety of contemporary western European literary texts. In the essay that follows, I will not propose a radical change in approach to “The Queen of Spades.” Rather, I would like to revisit some points that have been made by scholars who have focused on analysis types (a) and (b), while paying close attention to one line in Pushkin’s text whose importance has not, in my view, been sufficiently recognized.
“Whatever my mode of thinking, never have I shared with anyone whatsoever the democratic hatred towards the nobility. It has always seemed to me an indispensable and natural estate in a great educated people.”
We know that being an aristocrat was important to Pushkin. The Russian term, of course, is dvorianin or member of the landed gentry. Pushkin was proud of his 600-year-old family tree, proof that the Pushkins had played their part in the history of the nation. It will be my argument that Pushkin’s aristocratic heritage formed a particular mentality in him as he defined himself vis-à-vis the society he lived in, that of the insider-outsider. It made available to him a position of opposition from within, and this, I think, is one of the keys to the story of his last years. Above all, the way he chose to live out his aristocratic identity at that time was not mere snobbery or the futile pursuit of an obsolete ideal. It made perfect sense in the social conditions of the world he lived in, a world which I will shortly define in the special sociological terms of Norbert Elias as a Russian “court society.”
Remarkably enough, even as we celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Russia’s greatest Russian, as many things are said in praise of Alexander Pushkin, one may still ask whether we give him sufficient credit. A case in point is the underappreciated boldness, defiance, and audacity he displayed in writing Boris Godunov while he was a political prisoner subjected to surveillance and harassment by tsarist officials. Many readers have, of course, observed the formal daring of Pushkin’s “historical tragedy.” Although the young poet had never put his hand to drama before, let alone a large scale one on an issue of great national interest, he undertook radical innovations in dramatic form, language and versification, in his handling of the narod (the common people), and in his inquiry into the nature of history. Yet Pushkin’s play also entailed very real political risk. The potential danger of his undertaking may explain why Pushkin cited Boris Godunov as his favorite work, which in turn would help us understand why he exposed himself to professional and personal danger in so many respects while writing it (11: 40).