25 pages • 50 minutes readAlexander Pushkin
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“The Queen of Spades” is a short story by Russian author Alexander Pushkin, first published in 1834. Many scholars consider Pushkin to be one of the greatest Russian writers and the founder of modern Russian literature. In the story, a young army officer becomes obsessed with learning a trick to win vast sums of money at cards. The story has been adapted into films, radio broadcasts, and operas. This guide uses the Alma Classics translation by Paul Debreczeny, published in 2011.
Chapter 1 Summary
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Narumov, an officer in the Russian Army, hosts a card party at his house. A soldier named Hermann sits and drinks with the men but does not play. He claims to be interested in the game, but he is “not in a position to sacrifice the necessary in the hope of gaining the superfluous” (7).
Another guest, Tomsky, tells a story about his 80-year-old grandmother, Countess Anna Fedotovna. While staying at the French court, Countess Anna lost a large sum of money to the Duke of Orleans. Her typically timid husband was furious at the loss and refused to pay the debt, much to Anna’s surprise. Anna goes to her friend, Count Saint-Germain, who teaches her a supernatural trick to win at the card game faro. Using the trick, she wins back “everything she had lost” (9).
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While the other guests claim that Tomsky’s story is a “fairy tale” (10), he believes that it may be true. However, Anna has refused to tell him the secret to her success. Moreover, her four sons—including Tomsky’s father—are all desperate gamblers who also have failed to learn her secret. She once took pity on a young man named Chaplitsky and revealed the trick to him, helping him to win back lost money as she had. Tomsky finishes the story, and the men end their party.
Chapter 2 Summary
Countess Anna Fedotovna sits in front of a mirror while her servants attend her. Her young ward, Lizaveta Ivanovna, sits near her. Tomsky enters and discusses the local social scene. He asks permission to introduce Narumov to her at the next ball. Anna accepts, and Tomsky leaves. The elderly countess fusses about novels, carriages, and the availability of her servants.
Lizaveta must endure the old countess’s capricious, mean personality. The countess, now a diminished force in high society, focuses her anger at the world on Lizaveta. As a result, Lizaveta is sidelined and ignored at social events by both men and women. In the previous week, Lizaveta had caught sight of a young officer through her window. She glimpsed him on the street in the following days and, at first, felt intimidated. Eventually, her fear turned to curiosity, and she began to stare back at him when he passed in front of her window. When Tomsky asked to bring Narumov to the ball, Lizaveta had hoped that it might be the same man. She does not know that the young officer she has been watching is Hermann.
Hermann is the son of a Russified German. He lives a frugal life, spending only a portion of his salary and denying himself “even the slightest extravagance” (16). He is fascinated by gambling even though he does not play cards. After hearing Tomsky’s story, he cannot stop thinking about the countess’s trick. He plots ways to become close to the countess so she might teach him her secret. In his dreams, he gambles and wins fortunes. His obsession leads him to the countess’s house as if drawn by “a mysterious force” (17). When he spots the countess’s young ward through the window, he watches her carefully.
Chapter 3 Summary
Countess Anna and Lizaveta take a carriage ride. As they enter the carriage, Lizaveta comes face-to-face with Hermann for the first time. He slips a letter into her hand, and she spends the carriage ride thinking about its contents. When she finally returns home, she rushes to her room and reads the “tender, respectful” love letter (18). For all of her nervous excitement, she is unsure how to reply. Eventually, she thanks him for his letter but insists that it “is not the way to begin an acquaintance” (19).
The next day, Lizaveta sees Hermann again passing the window and throws the letter back to him. Over the coming days, he sends her more notes and love letters. At first, she rips them up but soon decides to keep them. Eventually, she gives Hermann instructions how to enter her room. She tells him to wait for her while she attends a ball with the countess.
Hermann follows the instructions. Rather than enter Lizaveta’s bedroom, however, he waits in the countess’s study. When the countess returns, she undresses and prepares for bed, eventually sitting alone with a lamp beside her. Hermann steps out from the darkness and demands to learn the card trick. The countess dismisses the story as a joke. Hermann presses her, but she remains silent. When he draws a pistol, she becomes “visibly perturbed” (24). Hermann again asks about the card trick but, as he brandishes his weapon, he realizes the countess is dead.
Chapter 4 Summary
Lizaveta sits alone in her room thinking about how she arrived in this situation so quickly. That same evening, Tomsky had made several pointed remarks about engineering officers which “were so well aimed” (25) that she suspected he knew about her relationship with Hermann. While Tomsky seemed to forget about the matter, the conversation “had sunk deep” into Lizaveta’s thoughts (26). As she begins to feel relieved that she has avoided a man with Hermann’s dubious reputation, he enters her bedroom.
Hermann tells Lizaveta that the countess is dead. As he reveals the full story, Lizaveta listens “in horror” (27), not because her benefactress is dead but because she now understands that Hermann’s love letters were a hollow attempt to get closer to the countess and learn her secret. She weeps, and although Hermann pities her, he is also disappointed that he will never know the countess’s card trick. As dawn approaches, Lizaveta tells Hermann how to leave via a secret staircase.
Chapter 5 Summary
Three days later, Hermann attends the countess’s funeral. Although he does not feel guilty, a small part of his conscience tells him that he is “the old lady’s murderer” (29). He decided to attend her funeral to ask for forgiveness and to avoid any supernatural punishment.
The church is full. He pushes his way through the crowd to the coffin and listens to the sermon of the young priest. Family, friends, and servants pay their respects to the dead woman. Hermann kneels before the coffin and, as he stands, he is convinced that the countess casts “a mocking glance at him” (30). He falls, and Lizaveta faints. A man in the church spreads a rumor that Hermann is “the dead woman’s illegitimate son” (30).
That evening, Hermann drinks too much. He wakes during the night and sees the countess in his room in a white dress. The countess tells Hermann the secret of how to win at cards but only on the condition that he should use the trick only once and “never play again” (31). She then tells him that she will only forgive him only if he marries Lizaveta. The countess leaves.
Chapter 6 Summary
Hermann obsesses over the secret passed to him by the countess’s ghost. The numbers of the cards haunt him, and he sees them everywhere, including in his dreams. Narumov takes Hermann to a card game organized by the infamous gambler Chekalinsky. Hermann surprises his friend by gambling almost everything he has. Chekalinsky accepts the large wager. Hermann wins, collects his winnings, and returns home.
The next evening, he returns to Chekalinsky’s card table. He wins another large sum of money and, again, leaves immediately. By the third evening, his presence is expected. Hermann places a large bet but, when he is convinced he has won, Chekalinsky points to a Queen of Spades, which causes him to lose the game. Hermann is convinced he sees the queen on the card wink at him. In that moment, she looks exactly like the countess. Hermann leaves and Chekalinsky begins to deal again.
The incident at the card table causes Hermann to lose his mind. He is placed in a mental health hospital, where he sits alone and mutters card numbers to himself. Lizaveta marries a “very pleasant young man” (35) and takes on a ward of her own. Tomsky is promoted and marries a young princess.
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