Pushkin “The Queen of Spades”
Reading Comprehension Quiz:
- What is our
hero Hermann up to when we first meet him?
- From whom
did the Countess learn the secret of winning at faro?
- Describe the
peculiarity of the Countess's style of dress.
- Describe the
situation of our tale's Cinderella, Lizaveta
- What does Lizaveta believe is going on
when she repeatedly sees Hermann outside her window.
- What is
really going on? What is Hermann's plan once he gains Lizaveta's confidence?
- What happens
at midnight on the night of the ball in this fractured fairytale?
- What happens
when Hermann threatens the Countess?
- How does
Hermann escape the house?
- What happens
when Hermann looks into the coffin?
- What does
the ghost tell him to do that night?
- What happens
at the faro game the third night?
- Does Lizaveta live happily ever after?
Pushkin takes a hackneyed, sentimental Western fairytale, the
Cinderella story, and
re-casts it with real Russian types. The result is a weird, unsettling
allegory- a vision of Russia’s future meeting with her past. The story
is funny, ironic and disturbing. The Russian imagination (sad,
skeptical, ironic) takes
Western story forms and breathes a strange spirit into them. Pushkin’s
telling social criticism was too sophisticated for the Tsar himself to
detect, but not you, the intelligent reader!
- The Countess
X: the aging aristocracy whose ironclad hold on power lasts
on even after her death. A living anachronism.
trapped in the wrong story. Her Prince Charming turns out to be a
ruthless, manipulative schemer who could not care less about her. All
he wanted was the floor plan of the Countess’ house and the appropriate
time to confront her.
- Hermann: Prince Charming? No! He is a creature of
will power, obsession, ambitious dreams, and visionary
strategies. He is absolutely ruthless and intent on sharing
the Countess’ secret at any cost. Morality is hardly a constraint on
his lust for power. He represents the destiny of Russia- the future
- A magical
formula guaranteeing entrance to the highest levels of society, to
wealth and power. The secret to the ruling class’ hold on power
What is the message of Pushkin’s fractured fairytale? To find it one
must pay close attention to all the weird details thrown in. Every
detail helps disclose not only a realistic setting but also they are
full of symbolic resonance.
- Tomsky’s story: (2)
Develops an aura of power, mystery and decadence around the figure of
the Princess. His story is set in Paris in 1773, the time of Richelieu,
Louis XVI and his court at Versailles. It was also the time of the
great Enlightenment philosophes (Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau) whose ideas would
inspire the French Revolution.
- In Paris the Countess X discovers the secret to continuing her grip
on power, but she will not share it with her four sons, only Tchaplitsky.
- Pushkin plays with the reader’s expectations from having read other
popular gothic stories. What would typically happen to the witch in a
fairytale? We expect the Countess to pay some horrible price for her
Faustian bargain with the Count Saint-Germain
to obtain the secret of winning at faro. Yet she doesn’t change a
- Narrative perspective: Pushkin assumes we know the
intricacies of the card game Faro. We are addressed as members of his set: the
high society to which Hermann wants so desperately to belong. Faro is a banking game in which players place bets on a special
layout as to which cards will be winners or losers as they are drawn
one at a time from a dealing box.
- The Countess’
true nature (3) is revealed to us at her toilette. She
adheres to the way of life of the ancien
regime with all the tenacity of unconscious conviction. The
fashions of 1770 are preserved in St. Petersburg of 1830. The style is
Parisian, not Russian.
- The Countess
(5) remains “some hideous but indispensable ornament of
the ballroom” (5) to whom guests must pay homage as if they are “carrying
out an old established rite.” This is Pushkin’s depiction of the ruling
aristocracy in 1830! How did he get it past the censors? Why, he is
merely writing an innocent fairytale! How doddering, decrepit and out
to lunch is this old witch?
- Why does Tomsky come to visit? Why is Lizaveta disappointed
when she finds out that his friend is a memeber of the elite Horse
Guard regiment? Pushkin is very funny. Notice how he lampoons the
current state of
Russian fiction by depicting the Countess’ taste in novels.
Still, she mentions, “Are there
any Russian novels?”
- What is it like for Lizaveta to live with the Countess? (5) How do we unpack the allegorical significance of her
character? She is a poor orphan of modest means who has
been adopted by the Countess but only serves her capricious ill
humor. Lizaveta can
attend all the glittering social events, but she does not have the
money to dress appropriately and, therefore, attract an
eligible bachelor more intent upon snaring a rich heiress! ('And this is
my life!' ) (5) Lizaveta
lives in limbo. Which
class does she represent? Poor Cinderella! What is supposed
to happen to her in the story? Where is Prince Charming?
Who does he turn out to be? What is Pushkin’s comment about girls in Lizaveta's situation who hope for some gallant to rescue them?
- How has Pushkin taken the characters and situations of sentimental
melodrama and invested them with humanity and realism? The language of
the novel of sentiment is transposed into a story of ambition and
intrigue. Pushkin taught a generation of writers that reality is
weirder and more fascinating than fiction. Dostoevsky and
Gogol would learn this lesson well.
Charming (1) (5-6) comes to the rescue: at the center of the
story is Hermann, a new type in Russian literature, a young man on the make, disaffected but ambitious. Lizaveta first glimpses him outside her window. Later she sees him again. After a week of daily visits, she smiles.
- Hermann is the son of a German who has settled in
Russia. Hermann has worked to earn a place as an officer in the
Engineers’ battalion. Through discipline, hard work, and determination
he has risen to a respectable rank. Even so, the corridors of power are denied him. He is not a member
of the elite Horse Guard regiment, the aristocrats who belong to the
best society, and therefore are the most eligible bachelors. Hermann will do anything to get ahead. He is the Russian version of the Romantic Napoleonic hero, the man of
action, will power, obsession, dream, superstition, destiny. He is the future of
- Hermann bides his time on the outskirts of these parties, carefully
watching, avoiding drink, and never gambling. “[I am not in] a position
to sacrifice the essential in the hope of acquiring the superfluous.” (6)
What does he dream of? He waits for the perfect moment to
act! When does that moment come? (6)
- How does he appear to Tomsky?
What are Lizaveta’s
first reactions to his advances? (5-6) (7) What does Hermann want from
her? (He even considers becoming the Countess’ lover to obtain her
- Part Three presents the central action of the story. Hermann
deliberately, patiently draws Lizaveta
into a romance. First, he stands outside her window in the street,
gazing up at her with a look of passion and despair. Then, he begins
squeezing love notes into her hand. (Who wrote them? (8))
- He sends her letters every day, pleading for the chance to meet with
her alone. He even starts composing them himself (in a style reflecting
‘the intensity of his desires and the disorder of an unbridled
- Gradually, Lizavetta
succumbs to Hermann’s seduction, and finally agrees to a late night
rendezvous! She sends him a
note describing the ground plan of the Countess’ apartment
and sets the date! (8) Hermann’s whole flirtation with Lizavetta was designed to obtain
this information. He now has the opportunity to confront the Princess
in her boudoir and wrest the secret from her.
- What happens in this climactic scene? Look at the way Pushkin describes the
Countess’ bedroom. (8) It is Pushkin’s depiction of the
contents in the mind of the aging Russian ruling class. What reality of
Russia’s ruling class is revealed to Hermann as he peeps in upon ‘the
hideous mysteries of her toilette'. (9)
- After all of Hermann’s pleading fails, what does the Countess do when
he finally threatens her, demanding the secret? (10)
- Meanwhile we return to poor Lizaveta
whose fantasies about Hermann have reached the peak of their intensity.
(10) What did Tomsky say about Herman at the ball? (11) What form does he now take in her
mind? “the figure made
commonplace by modern fiction” (11) (the Romantic hero based
on Byron and Napoleon: a man who relies on his imagination to serve his
ambition, who is unrestrained by simple morality, and who possesses the
decisiveness to o’er leap the class and achieve power.)
does Lizavetta respond
when she learns the truth about Hermann? How do you judge his
- Yet she helps him escape.
- How does the Countess’ family respond to her passing? (12) (How will
Russia mourn the passing of the Tsar’s regime?)
happens when Hermann kneels at the Countess’ coffin and looks
happens to him that night? (13) Was it a dream?
deal does the Countess’ ghost strike with him? (the three, the seven,
and the ace)
- Describe the celebrated Tchekalinsky,
the wealthy Moscow gambler whom Hermann marks as the target of his
gambling sting. (14)
happens when Hermann springs his long planned plot? (15)
- Does anyone live happily ever after? (15)
- What is the moral of Pushkin’s story?
- What will be the result for Russia of her flirtation with the West’s
secret formula for wealth and social success?
- What plan for life should Hermann have held to?