Examine Pushkin’s Use of the Supernatural in ‘Pikovaia Dama’
Examine Pushkin’s use of the supernatural in ‘Pikovaia dama’ (‘The Queen of Spades’). To what extent could this text be described as a ‘ghost story’? The first setting is a card party hosted by Narumov of the Horse Guards. Hermann the young engineer was always watching the others play until the early hours of the morning but had never actually partaken in the card game himself.
Tomsky starts to talk about his grandmother, Countess Anna Fedotovna. All the others listen eagerly while he tells a story about his grandmother’s gambling sixty years ago in Paris.
She had lost a large sum playing the card game Faro.When her husband refused to pay off her debts, which she could not do so herself she has to look elsewhere for the money. Tomsky goes on to tell of his grandmother’s acquaintance with a man named Count de Saint-Germain, “the subject of so many weird and wonderful tales”. One of those tales mentioned in the novella is that he was the inventor of the elixir of life. A potion which could be used to bring eternal life to whoever drank it. This is the first sign of the supernatural in the story. Pushkin by no means shows any feeling of the tales of Count de Saint-Germain to be true.
It is actually quite the contrary as Tomsky starts off by saying “You know he passed himself off as the… ” indicating that he was trying to convince people he was but in actual fact very few believed him. Also the use of “and so forth” indicates he is getting bored of listing these ‘wonderful’ tales about the Count. He then goes on to say that people used to ridicule him. For all the Count’s mysteriousness he was though a very wealthy man.
The Countess requested to meet with him in the hope that he would pay off her debts out of the kindness of his heart.After all, that kind of money would not even make a small dent in the Count’s wallet. After pondering her proposal he said “I can accommodate you as far as the sum of money goes, but I know you would be at ease until you had repaid me, and I would not wish to encumber you with fresh worries”. Instead he wanted to give her a secret which would allow her to win all her money back. By now all the guests at the card party were listening intently. The countess turned up at a card game the same evening the Count had given her the secret.Playing Faro, the same game they themselves were playing at the part, the Countess selected three cards.
All three cards won, coming up one after another and she had recouped all of her losses. There was a very sceptical reaction to the story. One said “Pure luck! ” and Hermann remarked “A tall story”. Tomsky also tell of his grandmother passing down the secret once to a young man she took pity on. He also won with all three cards. Without calculating the odds it is fair to say that Pushkin is not expecting us to believe that these sequences have occurred twice out of pure luck.Therefore it is up to the reader to decide in this situation if the tale of the magical secret should be believed.
It is not being told from the narrator’s point of view but instead from Tomsky’s. It could be perceived as being no more than a drunken story made up in a bar to impress a few friends and acquaintances. The next time Pushkin presents with something of the supernatural is much later on in the story in chapter five. Since the time that Tomsky had told the story of his ageing grandmother’s secret, the young engineer, Hermann, had become obsessed with the notion.In trying to obtain the secret from the Countess he had accidentally killed her. Three days after that night he had decided to attend the funeral at a local monastery. After the oration at a full church the relatives were first to go up and take leave of the body.
Then it was the turn of all other guests wanting to pay their respects. After many had gone it came to the turn of Hermann who was feeling no real remorse for killing the old lady. “He bowed to the ground and lay for several moments on the cold floor, strewn with fir-twigs.At length he rose, pale as the corpse itself, ascended the steps of the catafalque and bent down. …
At that moment it seemed to him that the deceased gave him a mocking glance and winked an eye. Hermann in hastily recoiling missed his footing and crashed faced upwards to the ground. He was helped to his feet”. The way Pushkin says in this paragraph “it seemed to him” almost implies that it did not actually happen at all and that it was only in Hermann’s imagination. This could be a as a result of guilt Hermann may feel for killing the old lady or could even be a sign that Hermann is going mad.Later that evening Hermann went to an inn and drank a fair amount of wine, which was very uncharacteristic for him. On arriving home he jumped straight into bed fully clothed and fell sound asleep.
In the middle of the night he woke up because of the moonlight flooding his room. “At that moment someone peeped in at his window from the Street and immediately walked away. Hermann did not pay the slightest attention to this. A minute later he heard the door of the next room being opened. Hermann thought that it was his orderly, drunk as usual, coming home from a night walk.But he heard an unfamiliar footstep: someone was softly shuffling along in slippers. The door opened: a woman in a white dress came in.
Hermann took her for his old nurse and wondered what could have brought her at such an hour. But gliding across the floor the white woman suddenly stood before him—and Hermann recognized the Countess! ” “I have come to you against my will,’ she said in a clear voice, ‘ but I am commanded to grant your request. Three, seven, and ace will win for you in succession, provided that you stake only one card each day and never in your life play again.I forgive you my death, on condition that you marry my ward, Lizaveta Ivanovna. . . .
” Hermann was the only one to see this, his orderly remain asleep throughout the whole episode. Once again the element of supernatural is only witnessed by Hermann. On top of this he has been drinking heavily which Pushkin could have pointed out to lead us to believe that is was all in Hermann’s mind. With the three cards Hermann believed the Countess told him engraved in his mind he made his way to a card game in Petersburg. Hermann placed an extremely high stake on the first card, higher than the table had ever seen before.The dealer dealt and a three turned up on the left, a win for Hermann. The next evening he was back and placed even higher stakes on the seven card, another win.
The next evening Hermann was back once again and everybody was gathered around the table in excitement. Hermann of course choosing ace as the Countess had told him. Tchekalinsky began dealing; his hands trembled. A queen fell on the right, an ace on the left. ‘The ace has won! ‘ Hermann said, and showed his card. ‘Your queen has lost,’ Tchekalinsky said kindly. Hermann shuddered; in fact, instead of an ace there lay before him a Queen of Spades.
He could not believe his eyes or think how he could have made a mistake. At that moment it seemed to him that the Queen of Spades screwed up her eyes and gave a meaning smile. He was struck by the extraordinary likeness. . . .’The old woman! ‘ he cried in terror.
On this occasion we can be sure that it’s all in Hermann’s mind as all the other players and spectators clearly see a different card to the one that Hermann is seeing. It also adds to the theory that Hermann was slowly losing his mind throughout the story with him finally being admitted to a mental hospital in the novella’s conclusion.In my opinion I think it would definitely be possible to label The Queen of Spades as a ghost story on the premise that the main character, Hermann, believes he sees a ghost. At the same time Pushkin seems to go out of his way to give us a logical reason for all of the supernatural occurrences in the story, whether it be alcohol, dreams, guilt or just simply hallucinations. There are also so many different layers to the story that labelling it a ghost story would omit so many other possible labels. Garry Evans