Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’

In 1833, during the famous ‘Boldino Autumn’, Alexandr Pushkin wrote The Queen of Spades, a wonderfully ingenious and mysterious story.

Pushkin’s famous quote that “two fixed ideas can no more exist in one mind than, in the physical sense, two bodies can occupy one and the same place” pertains to the protagonist of The Queen of Spades, Germann, who is obsessed with a secret that an old countess has been keeping for sixty years: three cards that will guarantee you to win. He is prepared to do anything to find out this secret, he even considers becoming her lover. 

Motivation

Germann’s father was a Russified German who left him a small fortune. Enough to live moderately.  Germann is frugal and lives only of his officer’s income. When asked why he never joins the others when they play cards, but watches them play instead, he always answers that he is ‘not in the position to sacrifice the essentials of life in the hope of acquiring the luxuries’. Although his initial reaction to the anecdote was that it’s only a fairytale, he quickly becomes obsessed with it and starts to see the three cards as a key to a successful life and the acceptance of his fellow officers. 

Faro

The card game that is played here is called Faro. In the most simple form there are two players, a banker and a punter. The punter chooses a specific card from his own deck of cards, puts it on the table and places a bet on it. The banker has a separate deck from which he takes two cards in each turn. He places one card on the left and one on the right side of the punter’s card, until the card that was betted on turns up. If this card falls on the left, the punter wins and if it falls on the right, the banker wins.

Plot

Germann has inherited 47000 rubles and expects to increase that amount to 376000 rubles with the three winning cards. With the help of the countess’s ward Liza, whom he misleads, he gains access to the bedroom of the old woman. But she refuses to tell him the secret and desperately Germann threatens her with a pistol. The 87 year-old  woman is literally scared to death. Germann manages to get away unseen and it is assumed that the countess died of old age. Three nights later she appears in his bedroom as a ghost and tells him the three winning cards: three, seven and ace. He can bet on only one card per 24 hours. As soon as a suitable opportunity arises, Germann tries his ‘luck’. He puts all 47000 rubles on a three and wins. The second night he wins on the seven. The third night, however, a queen falls on the right and an ace on the left. Excitedly Germann cries “the ace wins”, but when he turns over his card he discovers that instead of an ace, the queen of spades lies in front of him and he has lost everything. The other players are satisfied, “famously punted!” they exclaim. But Germann does not hear it. He loses his mind and spends the rest of his life mumbling “Three, seven, ace. Three, seven, queen.” 

Irony

The irony of Pushkin’s story is that Germann finally gains the respect he wants so much the moment he loses all his money, but he doesn’t realise this and goes crazy. Unlike Nikolay in War and Peace* he cannot deal with his stupidity and move on. 

Interpretations

Pushkin leaves room for several interpretations. The most likely scenario is that Germann already lost his mind and merely dreamt that the dead countess came to visit him. There are several clues that Germann started to go crazy before he lost. He is described as someone who never plays himself but watches others play with ‘feverish anxiety’. He also already appears to ‘know’ the three cards already before the ghostly apparition: “no! Economy, moderation and industry: these are my three winning cards, these will treble my capital, increase it sevenfold, and earn for my ease and independence!” And the ace? Well, they didn’t call Pushkin a genius for nothing; it is hidden in the Russian original: “Нет! Расчёт, умеренность и трудолюбие: вот мои три верные карты, вот что утроит, усемерит мой капитал и доставит мне покой и независимость.” The Russian word for triples end with a ’T’ and the next word, to increase sevenfold, starts with ‘US’, together forming the word ‘tus’, meaning ‘ace’. Besides, this statement is not even logical; when betting on cards Germann will double and hopefully ‘octuple’ his money, and if something doesn’t make sense at first sight, you can trust Pushkin to make it make sense in another way. Also in Faro the player basically bets that a certain card will fall on the left instead of on the right; there is no logic or strategy in such a bet, something which a normal thinking person would have realised. The source of the anecdote, Tomsky, the grandson of the countess and Germann’s fellow officer, is also not  very reliable. He repeatedly teases his grandmother and Liza, and it is not unimaginable that he fabricated the whole anecdote. 

Other remarkable facts

The old woman’s secret pertains not only to the three cards, but also to three essental items in her toilet: rouge, hairpins and a bonnet; in her bedroom Germann witnesses the loathsome secrets of her toilet. Tomsky’s first name is ‘Pavel’ (Paul) and he marries a girl called ‘Polina’. Germann has caused the death of the countess and when he loses the game the banker tells him “your queen has lost’; in Russian the word ‘ubita’ (убита) is used, which does not only mean ‘was beaten’ but also ‘was murdered’. And before you know it you’ll see numbers everywhere, like Germann: the countess is an 87 year-old lady; in the number 8 you can see the number 3, making it three, seven, queen…

*in Tolstoy’s War and Peace Nikolay loses 43000 rubles playing Faro against Dolokhov, who cheats. 

The Queen of Spades by Alexandr Pushkin in a translation by Gillon Aitken

Rereading “The Queen of Spades” by Andrew Wachtel

The Ace in “The Queen of Spades” by Sergei Davydov

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020 (playing cards from Wikipedia)

The Portrait (and the devil) by Gogol

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Fame can give no pleasure to him who has stolen it, not won it.

The Portrait (1835) is said to be the least Gogolian of all of Gogol’s works. It follows a more traditional pattern. It’s almost a classic ghost story, in the tradition of Hoffman and Poe. It’s also more autobiographical than you would think.

A mysterious portrait

It’s the story of a young artist, Chartkov, who buys a mysterious portrait in a shop in Saint Petersburg. Curiously, the eyes of the portrait seem to be alive, they have an evil stare. That same night the portrait comes to life and the stranger steps out of the frame. He starts counting money on the terrified Chartkov’s bed. Lots of money. The next day the frame breaks accidentally and it turns out that there was a large amount of golden coins hidden in the frame.

Money and fame

In my previous post I wrote that Gogol’s characters are not subject to personal development. In this story they are. When we first meet Chartkov he is a penniless artist who only cares about his art en developing his artistic skills. But as soon as Chartkov has money, everything changes: before he dressed like someone so preoccupied with his work that he pays no attention to his dress and now he dresses in fine clothes. He rents the first fancy apartment on the Nevski Prospect that he sees, and his shabby assistent Nikita is never heard of again. He buys newspaper reviews to get clients. And he turns into an artist who only paints what his clients want him to paint so that he can make easy money.

Possessed by the devil

This change, Gogol suggests, is the effect of the mysterious portrait, that seems to be inhabited by the devil himself. Gogol was very religious, for him the devil was as real as his neighbour. The devil plays a (main) part in the majority of his work. In his work he tried to make the devil less important by making fun of him. Not in this story. He lived at times in a real fear that his work might be(come) possessed by the devil, and this is what The Portrait is about. By keeping the portrait and by taking the money, Chartkov makes a pact with the devil. Chartkov’s name even sounds like the word for ‘devil’ in Russian, ‘chort’.

Insight

Although it takes Chartkov many, many years, he does eventually come to an insight. This happens when he sees a painting by a fellow artist; the work has a device quality to it. Its beauty moves Chartkov to tears. He realises that he has been driven by financial gain instead of aiming for artistic development. He tries to paint again like before, but it’s already too late. Out of jealousy he starts to destroy the most beautiful paintings he can buy at auctions. Luckily for the art world he dies soon. Here is another parallel with Gogol’s own life; he used to burn his own work regularly, for fear of it not being good enough, or, indeed, possessed by the devil.

The painter of the portrait and the portrayed

In the second part of the story it is revealed that the portrait depicted an evil loanshark, the personification of the devil. Every person who loaned money from him changed dramatically for the worse. The portrait was so lifelike, that the evil spirit of the loanshark transferred into the portrait. Because the loanshark dies, the painter is stuck with the portrait and soon starts to feel its’ evil influence. He tries to destroy it, but a friend buys it from him instead. The painter then flees to a monastery to cleanse his soul. There he lives a reclusive life and finally manages to regain himself. He asks his son to find the painting and to destroy it. He has heard that the painting still exists and that people still get under its’ evil influence. The son does find it at an auction. But when he is about to buy it, it suddenly disappears and that’s the end of the story.

The devil in Saint Petersburg

In Gogol’s earlier Ukrainian works the devil is a tangible figure; in Saint Petersburg he is disincarnate, and all the more scarier for it! He now operates in a much less conspicuous manner. 

The Portrait is unmistakably from Gogol, and even if it’s not his most Gogolian work, it’s still a devilish good one!

°°°°°

By Authors Possessed: The Demonic Novel in Russia – Adam Weiner

Het Portret – Gogol (the by Gogol revised version from 1842), translated by Karel van het Reve

Text and photo collage © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61my/contents.html