Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Ghosts, Guns, Guilt & Gambling in “The Queen of Spades”

Alexander Pushkin's novelette, "The Queen of Spades," reads like a modern story which is one of the many surprises in this nearly 200-year-old work.

His storytelling is sharp and to the point and packs a wallop at the end.

It goes like this:

A group of young Russian army officers are playing cards when one of them tells how his grandmother – a countess – was a heavy gambler and when she was young lost a small fortune at the tables. She struck a sort of bargain with a creepy old dude – a noble himself – and he taught her the secret to winning at faro.

A quick aside here: I have only the vaguest idea of how the card game faro is played. The only other place I have heard it mentioned is in books and movies about the Old West. Readers do not have to master the fine points to enjoy “The Queen of Spades.”

Back to the story: One of the young officers at the card game hears the tale and plots to get the secret for himself. He convinces a young woman who lives in the old countess’ mansion that he is in love with her. One night she arranges to let him into the house to visit her. But the officer goes straight to the old lady’s bedroom and begs her to tell him the secret. She refuses, he demands, and finally he threatens her with a gun. The old lady dies of fright.

The officer feels kind of guilty. He attends her funeral and while looking into the casket, the old lady smiles at him. That night the countess appears to him and tells him the secret. The greedy young officer heads for the nearest casino. There he plays to win using the secret and there he gets his comeuppance thanks to the old countess.

The story has the kind of pace and surprise ending of an O. Henry short story, or one by de Maupassant. Somerset Maugham wrote a few like this, too.

The end leaves more questions than answers. Did the old countess cause the calamity at the end? Or was it the young officer’s own obsessive greed? Did the spirit actually visit the officer? Or was it a dream?

I will let someone else answer those questions. For me, “The Queen of Spades” was a ripping good story.

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) was a Russian poet, playwright, novelist and short story writer. He is considered the founder of modern Russian literature. “The Queen of Spades” was first published in Moscow in 1834. My copy of the story (from Kindle for 99 cents) does not list a translator, but I believe it was done by Margaret Sutherland Edwards. She was the wife of a British journalist who wrote about Russia. Her translation of the Pushkin story was published in 1901 and it is a must read.

(For more posts on books, see Todd Mason’s blog.)

(And take a look at my book, Lyme Depot, too. Thanks.)


  1. There's Tchaikovsky's justly famous opera and Thorold Dickinson made a fine film of the story in 1949 which was lost for many years but widely praised when it as rediscovered.

  2. Elgin, this sounds like a fascinating story with supernatural overtones. I want to know more about the part where the old lady smiles from her casket and see what happens then. That said, I have never read Pushkin.