"The Queen of Spades" (Russian: Пиковая дама; translit. Pikovaya dama) is a short story with supernatural elements by Alexander Pushkin about human avarice. Pushkin wrote the story in autumn 1833 in Boldino and it was first published in the literary magazine Biblioteka dlya chteniya in March 1834.
The story was the basis of the operas The Queen of Spades (1890) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, La dame de pique (1850) by Fromental Halévy and Pique Dame (1864) by Franz von Suppé (the overture to the Suppé work is all that remains in today's repertoire). It has been filmed various times.
Hermann, an ethnic German, is an officer of the engineers in the Imperial Russian Army. He constantly watches the other officers gamble, but never plays himself. One night, Tomsky tells a story about his grandmother, an elderly countess. Many years ago, in France, she lost a fortune at cards, and then won it back with the secret of the three winning cards, which she learned from the notorious Count of St. Germain. Hermann becomes obsessed with obtaining the secret.
The countess (who is now 87 years old) has a young ward, Lizavyeta Ivanovna. Hermann sends love letters to Lizavyeta, and persuades her to let him into the house. There Hermann accosts the countess, demanding the secret. She first tells him that story was a joke, but Hermann refuses to believe her. He repeats his demands, but she does not speak. He draws a pistol and threatens her, and the old lady dies of fright. Hermann then flees to the apartment of Lizavyeta in the same building. There he confesses to have killed the countess by fright with his pistol. He defends himself by saying that the pistol was not loaded. He escapes from the house with the aid of Lizavyeta, who is disgusted to learn that his professions of love were a mask for greed.
Hermann attends the funeral of the countess, and is terrified to see the countess open her eyes in the coffin and look at him. Later that night, the ghost of the countess appears. The ghost names the secret three cards (three, seven, ace), tells him he must play just once each night and then orders him to marry Lizavyeta. Hermann takes his entire savings to Chekalinsky's salon, where wealthy men gamble for high stakes. On the first night, he bets it all on the three and wins. On the second night, he wins on the seven. On the third night, he bets on the ace — but when cards are shown, he finds he has bet on the Queen of Spades, rather than the ace, and loses everything. When the Queen appears to wink at him, he is astonished by her remarkable resemblance to the old countess, and flees in terror. In a short conclusion, Pushkin writes that Lizavyeta marries the son of the Countess' former steward, a state official who makes a good salary. Hermann, however, goes mad and is committed to an asylum. He is installed in Room 17 at the Obukhov hospital; he answers no questions, but merely mutters with unusual rapidity: "Three, seven, ace! Three, seven, queen!"
The character of the old countess was inspired by Princess Natalya Petrovna Galitzine (Princesse Moustache) who served as the lady-in-waiting for 5 Russian emperors and was 92 at the time Pushkin wrote “The Queen of Spades”. According to legend, Golitsyna had been a successful gambler. When her grandson lost a considerable amount of money playing cards and came to her to beg her for money, Golitsyna instead revealed to him the secret three cards that Count Saint-Germain showed to her in Paris.
Critics have argued that the Count Saint-Germain holds historical importance in the story. Saint-Germain serves as the namesake for the story’s protagonist, Hermann. Beyond this, the historical Saint-Germain may represent a father figure for Hermann, the antithesis to Hermann’s character, or a former love interest of the countess who seeks revenge for her death by causing Hermann to pick the wrong cards.
The card game of Faro also plays an important role in Pushkin’s story. The game is played by having a player bet on a winning card. The dealer then begins turning over cards, burning the first (known as “soda”) to his left. The second card is placed face up to his right; this is the first winning card. The third card is placed face up in the left pile, as a losing card. The dealer continues turning over cards, alternating piles until the bet has been won or lost.
According to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Pushkin’s tale represents “the pinnacle of the art of the fantastic.” While readers may think that the vision of the Countess that appears to Hermann was merely an apparition, at the end of the story, Pushkin has still given no definitive answer. Readers must decide whether the countess appeared only to Hermann in his mind, a realistic solution, or whether Hermann has entered the world of the supernatural. Critics have attempted to answer this question using a variety of cryptographic clues within the text. These critics focus on three elements: the origin of the three, seven and ace; whether Hermann could have identified the cards without the ghost’s intervention, and possible explanations for Hermann’s mistake with the last card.
Different critics have presented contradicting supernatural or rational views of Hermann’s final mistake. The critic Gary Rosenshield claims that, by making the wrong choice of cards, Hermann actually did the right thing: as a man obsessed with gambling, having won the money would have meant that he could never gamble again, and therefore would have never again lived.
Other critics with rational explanations, such as Nathan Rosen and Viktor Vonogradov, claim that Hermann may have simply seen a likeness between the Countess who gave him the secret and the Queen card, leading him to make a mistake. This explanation focuses on Pushkin’s quote in the story that “Two fixed ideas can no more exist together in the moral world than two bodies can occupy one and the same place in the physical world.” Here, Hermann cannot separate the actual cards from the Countess who reveals them to him, leading him to accidentally choose the queen instead of an ace.
In contrast to these rational explanations, other critics claim that Hermann entered the world of the supernatural and that the card actually changed after Hermann had picked it. These explanations argue that the Countess sought revenge on Hermann for her death. Critic Sergei Davydov argues that, since the Countess doubted that Hermann would indeed marry Lizavyeta—a concession he had made to acquire the secret—her ghost caused a magical transformation of the cards that led to Hermann’s downfall.
Pushkin’s tale is considered to be a work about “telling stories.” Hermann, who is an author within the context of the story, in a way attempts to author his own fate by setting up a gambling situation in which he is guaranteed to win. Hermann’s motivations to set up the scenario also come primarily from gossip, or word of mouth from his acquaintances. It is as if he is set within a story told by others, and feels inspired to write his own.
Rosenshield describes Pushkin’s Queen of Spades as an “eternal tale of gambling and avarice.” In the story, Hermann becomes obsessed by gambling, even before the Countess grants him her secret to the cards. According to critic Nathan Rosen, Hermann’s fatal mistake at the end of the story constitutes an act of self-punishment: Hermann punishes himself for the avarice of his corrupted soul. Beyond this greed in the form of his gambling obsession, Hermann’s avarice manifests itself in his dealings with Lizavyeta and the Countess. From the moment when he first sets eye on her, Hermann manipulates Lizaveta and her “injured innocence” to gain access to the Countess and the gambling secrets she holds; however, Hermann’s “depravity becomes fully manifest in the climactic bedroom scene” when he trespasses into the Countess’ room and causes her death.
Pushkin uses metapoetic moments throughout the story to question the reliability of the narrator and to discern the genre of the work. These metapoetic moments refers to the story dealing with stories internally. One of the clearest example of this takes place after Hermann’s encounter with the countess’ ghostly form. After her departure, Hermann immediately writes down his vision, recording it on paper and writing a small story within the larger story of The Queen of Spades. A second example includes when Tomsky and his grandmother talk about traditional plot lines within a Russian novel, of which is grandmother denies the existence.
Pushkin's story has been adapted numerous times into multiple mediums. These include:An 1864 German operetta by Franz von Suppe
An 1890 opera by Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
A 1916 Russian silent film directed by Yakov Protazanov
A 1947 episode of the American radio program Mystery in the Air, starring Peter Lorre.
A 1949 British film directed by Thorold Dickinson, which received widespread critical acclaim and was nominated for the BAFTA award for Best British Film
A 1960 Soviet film directed by Roman Tikhomirov
A 1982 Soviet film by Igor Maslennikov